in limbo

Every year at about this time I sit down to write the annual report of the project. The report begins with a Directors' message, and till date I have had no problems whatsoever in writing it. There was always something to write about: a special occurrence, a challenge, a success story, a knotty issue well solved etc. As I sat down to write these messages, nine of them till now, I always felt elated and on top of the world. This time however was different.

As I settled down to begin writing the 2009-2010 report, I drew a blank. I could not find the one small spark that would guide me through. I sat for a long time racking my brain but to no avail. I must admit I got a little worried: was age catching up, was I losing my memory? I decided to seek help and asked the girls, the one who run the project, to give me a brief on last year's happenings. They came back to me a couple of days later and told me quite sheepishly that they too had drawn a blank. The year just seemed to have passed uneventfully and placidly, almost in limbo. I was stunned. Was this 'good' or 'bad' news?

I sat along time pondering. This was our tenth year on the field and the fact that we had nothing out of the ordinary to write about was cause of worry. Did it mean that we had perfected the model to the point where there was nothing more to add and it could thus run on auto pilot - not a happy thought - or was it that we had sunk into a comfort zone that had made us all forget the spirit of project why itself? I would veer towards the later and thus it was time for some serious soul searching.

Before I carry on I would like to set minds at rest. The year gone by was by all parameters a successful one. All programmes were on course and met their targets. Even the normally challenging issue of funding was well in hand. There must have been some minor irritants, but these were too small to leave an imprint. Then why was I feeling disturbed? What this not what one had wanted: to have pwhy run effortlessly?

I spend a long time wondering why I was feeling troubled. My mind wandered back to early times, when we had just begun, the day I had first set eyes on Manu and the one when I had come across the first child who could barely recognise alphabets though she was studying in class IV. And how can I forget the afternoon when a heartless secondary school principal sneered at a bunch of young boys calling them gutter snipes. I still remember the frozen January morning when a lady walked into our tiny office dragging four challenged children and telling us that they had nowhere to go, or the scorching day when a man hobbling on a stick walked in seeking help to fix his son's broken heart. And the warm morn when I was told that a child had died of burns. And all this in the span of a short year. These were the deafening whys we had to address with confidence and compassion, the two Cs that defined the spirit of pwhy. We answered each one with success, some taking longer than others and that is how project why grew one challenge at a time. Manu was tended to till the day not so long ago when he moved into a proper home. A primary and secondary after school support was created, a day care for the challenged was set up and our heartfix hotel got its first inmate and the scalded boy is now prancing around in a boarding school!

The next years were spent fine tuning the show. Path breaking decisions were taken like the one to only employ people from within the community or the one to use whatever space we could access be it a pig park, a road side or a reclaimed garbage dump! The project grew and from 40 we became 400 and then 800! There was no stopping us. The results were for all to see: children passed from one class to the other. We had our first batch of class X and then class XII and they too did us proud. We were on a constant high. In hindsight I wonder if we missed something along the way.

I am not beating myself. I guess any project or programme does go through a growth process . It is inevitable. But I also feel that unless it is constantly infused with something new, it runs the risk of declining. Is this what is happening. Am I seeing the first signs of weakening? I hope not. But I know it is time to soul search with honesty. I have talked of the achievements but what about the failures or if not failures what about the downside, the challenges not met. The biggest one I guess has been our inability to achieve any success in our sustainability efforts, be it the small early inroads like candles, chocolates, soaps et al or the now seemingly half hearted attempts at fund raising like the one rupee a day programme or the failed raffles? Or even the apparently win-win option like planet why that today awaits expert validation. The reality is that all our efforts to stand on our own feet have not seen any success whatsoever. Project why has survived thanks to donations of people the world over who believed in our dreams of yore years. And whereas these dreams were once worth defending with zeal and passion, they seem a little jaded today. And the one who till date had sold these dreams effortlessly finds it difficult to repackage them.

I wonder what is missing. Have we really gone in limbo.

If I were to look at pwhy today without knowledge of the past, I would just see an after school education programme like so many others and that is no great achievement, even if our children pass their exams with almost obsessive regularity. True there are some add ons like the special children, the foster home etc. But that is it. There is no movement forward, no challenge waiting to be addressed. I do not have to be a soothsayer to say that come next year we will still look the same unless we break the circle and do something. And that is what I intend to do now.

I admit that the discomfort I write about today has been with me for some time and that is what had prompted me to launch the focus on quality programme early this year. Project why children had to imbibe more than just school knowledge, and we needed to stop our obsession with numbers. It has become imperative to give them an identity of their own. But that is not enough. What is needed is to go a step further and look beyond empowerment, it is time to hand over ownership of the programme to the staff and the community at large.

I have tried to do so over the years but met with stubborn resistance from all quarters. Somehow being an NGO - a word I dislike with passion - gave everyone the license to take things for granted. Parents felt we had funds in abundance and thus were almost outraged at our asking a meagre rupee a day, and most the staff found it easier to stick into comfort zones whereby they did their work and got their monthly pack, they somehow seem to think that fund sources are perennial. Even when one tried hard to get them to participate in any resource gathering activity be it the one rupee programme or selling raffle tickets, there was no enthusiasm leaving me to wonder how to shake them out or their torpor. I did tell them that I for one was not everlasting and that even if I were, we had to contend with something called donor fatigue.

Yes that is what is alarming me.

The recent visit by one of our regular donors was an eye opener. In the course of conversation candidly he admitted that it was easier for him to market - to use his expression - individual stories. He wanted me to 'find' more possible candidates for boarding school as he felt that was something donors 'liked'. I will not go into details here, maybe in another post. What matters at this moment is what was left unsaid. Pwhy in its present avatar may not be easy to market. It was strangely devoid of heart wrenching tales. Even the loudest and most deafening why had finally found a permanent answer: Manu had a home!

So time has come to reinvent one's self and while we wait for the verdict on planet why - should it not be the one we want we will need to put our thinking caps on again- we need to address the 'what after me' issue and thereby infuse a new breath of life in pwhy, one that will allow us to resuscitate the flat line. The way forward is to address the ownership issue head on, notwithstanding the resistance.

I must admit that a few days back I would not know how to do that but yesterday the sullen teacher who had refused to move to Okhla for incomprehensible reasons came to me and informed me that he has set up a Bihar Why in his village in a remote district in Bihar. He proudly handed me a set of pictures showing over 40 children studying in the open. I will write a post about this later. He wanted us to help him. My eyes became moist, my heart swelled with pride and I saw light at the end of the dark tunnel. This was the way to go. Staff had to be empowered to start their own nano projects. It would take time I know but it would validate all we had stood for.

Was this a ah ha moment. Maybe. At least it was a step forward, one that could withstand the test of time. I had found my answer. It was time to move on.

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