Is it time to mutate?

The recent award ceremony and ensuing conclave on confronting the challenge of corruption concluded two days ago. Most participants must have returned to their pursuits and for many life would go on as usual. Somehow that was not the case for me. The two days spent amongst people who are trying to make a difference and sharing their experiences and views has had a deep impact on me and has compelled me to stop and think about project why and its relevance if any. Please bear with me as I share some thoughts as they may bring about a real change in the work we have been doing for the past decade.

While debating on the disturbing issue of corruption what came to the fore was the fact that there was a complete erosion of values across the social spectrum. For every one, rich or poor, corruption had become a way of life, a belief system, something that one and all had accepted and stopped questioning. This was indeed a dangerous situation, one that needed to be addressed. Many ideas were mooted and debated, the main one being: how does one re-instill values in each and every strata of society?

The conclave ended but the disturbing questions raised had taken root in my mind. Something was not quite right. For the past 10 years we at project why had been trying to make a difference and yet at this moment it seemed that we had not really been able to do much. The perturbing why that had resulted in the setting of project why had been: why do so many children drop out of school? And for the past ten years that is the issue we had been addressing. Hence for the past ten years we at project why had been meticulously ensuring that no child drop out of school and I must admit we did a good job. Our benchmark had been numbers and we achieved tangible success as our numbers rose from 40 to 800! And in our desire to excel we perhaps forgot to look at other issues altogether. Or was it that we just sank into another comfort zone. Last week's conclave shook me out of that complacency.

Giving children the possibility to remain in school and hopefully complete their schooling is undoubtedly laudable, but is it sufficient? To bring about the change we all seek what is needed is agents of change at each and every level of society and an average or sadly often mediocre class XII certificate cannot do that. The issues that plague our society are far larger. Let me give you an example that may explain what I am trying to get at.

We all know how important it has become to save the environment and reduce our carbon footprint and yet this footprint is growing surreptitiously in every little sum hovel. When I first walked into the home of one of my staff members who lives in what we all call a slum ten years ago, they had one small black and white TV, a few tube lights and a fan. Today thanks to an increased income and two dowries they have 3 colour TVs, two refrigerators, two DVD players, 2 coolers, a washing machine and more! The family was once very poor and thus to them all these new additions are endorsements of the fact that they have climbed the social ladder and bettered their worth. It is impossible to walk into this home and talk of carbon foot prints! If we want to see change one day in this home, it can only come when the little girl who is growing up in this home and attends what is called an upmarket school, brings about a wind of change. And that will be possible because she is getting a sound and holistic education.

Yes what I am trying to say is that the time has come for us at project why to mutate and replace quantity by quality. Today in our chase for numbers we often have children who spend short stints with us and then move on. This can be for a wide range of reasons: parents relocating because of work or increased rents, a new NGO opening and luring children away etc. Increased numbers also means our inability to provide more than basic instruction because of paucity of time or shortage of funds. And even if a child stays on with us and completes her of his schooling, she or he is far too often swallowed by the prevailing system: an early marriage or a mediocre job to help the family. With 800 children it is impossible for us to maintain close contact with the family and mentor the future of the child.

Would it not be better if we stopped our obsession with numbers and sought quality. Rather than 800 kids, we only reached out to let us say 200 and gave them quality education. Children that we would ensure remained with us and grow with us. Children we would give more than instruction in the three Rs! Children we could follow as they bloom.

True it is ambitious. True it will not be easy. One cannot just cast away a few hundred of children. Then how does one select the chosen few? My brain has been working on overdrive and after much thought a possible option comes to mind. Perhaps we could take the class I, II and III children of let us say Okhla and the women centre and begin with them. Thus we would add a new class every year till we reach class VIII and only take on new children in class I. The rest of the classes would carry on as usual with the only difference that we would not take any new kids, or replace any child who leaves.

The other point that comes to mind would be the increase in costs. At present what would be needed would be two English teachers and a small activities budget. The rest would have to be managed within existing resources. The children would come to project why for three and not one hour. The children of the pilot project would continue having one hour of school support but would have an extra hour of English and an hour of for wanted of a better word: general knowledge. This would range from environment, to story telling, to science, geography etc all taught in an interactive and fun manner. This is the bare bones idea. It will of course have to be fine tuned as we go on.

This will enable us to make the much needed shift from quantity to quality and truly make a difference. However this can only happen if all who support us continue to do so!

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