Showing posts with label common school. Show all posts
Showing posts with label common school. Show all posts

Monday, November 03, 2008

whose right is it anyway

The Right Education bill has cleared one more hurdle. A short news item on October 31st stated that the Cabinet had given its not to the Education Bill. It was about time!

For those who are not aware it was in 2002 that the 82nd Amendment made education a fundamental right of all children between 6 and 14. It was indeed a wow moment. The draft bill was then elaborated and debated. In July 2006 the government rejected the bill for lack of resources and the voiceless children of India were once again betrayed.

In February 2008 the Government finally accepted to take on the Bill. It was approved by the cabinet only in October.

If one peruses the twists of the tale it boils down to it is all about money honey! Everyone from the planning commission to the state governments find the financial burden to heavy to bear. never mind the millions easily spent to create new facilities to accommodate candidates from reserved categories to higher places of learning, ensuring that all the children of India go to school is not a priority. Who cares about them. The sad reality is that they are not a vote bank or a good cause to espouse. They remain voiceless and neglected. Needless to say we are referring to children of the other India, the one of the have nots. Their peers on the other side of the fence acquired their right to education long ago.

And who would you ask are the main the detractors of the Bill: surprisingly or not the private school lobby who opposes the fact that hey have to reserve 25% or more of their seats to poor students. The idea was to bridge the gap between rich and poor and ensure that all children get equal opportunities. Something many countries.

For one who has always dreamt of a common neighbourhood school, this indeed was a first step, albeit a faulty one, in the right direction. One no waits to see what happens to the Bill as its journey is still not ever. It may just get referred once again to a Committee.

The Right to education Bill has already completed five years of struggle. A long one for any Bill particularly when some get voted in no time, particularly those that can be political fodder or those that vote for raises in salaries of parliamentarians. Five years means that many children who could have benefited from it have now moved beyond the stipulated 6 to 14 years ans are now probably working in some dark corner of our land, their morrows hijacked.

True that there are many contentious issues in the Bill that need to be addressed: why 6 to 14 ? what happens to children below 6? 14 does not give you any school leaving validation? why should parents be held responsible? who will the Bill be implemented etc. But experience shows that Bills can be amended even after they are passed so perhaps one should pass it.

The children of India deserve the right to Education

But then one may softly ask: whose right is it anyway?

Sunday, October 05, 2008

a peep into their world

One of the tools used during the recent HDCA workshop was photo mapping. A cross section of pwhy children were given cameras and asked to take pictures of what they liked the most and what they disliked the most. The result was stunning and something I want to share with one and all.

The pictures below do not meet any canon of perfection. They are hazy, over or under exposed, badly centered and sometimes even out of focus but I urge you to look at them with the your heart. If you do you will be privy to the lives of children we normally never see or at best pass by: the ones that don government school uniforms and live in part of the city we never roam, children whose family left their homeland on hope of building a better future for their children, children who also have dreams and aspirations, many of which are akin to our own.

As I gleaned through them I must admit that my eyes welled many times. If you look for a common thread almost all the children took pictures of the God and Goddesses in their homes, pictures of their moms sometimes doing housework in appalling conditions, pictures of their family and siblings. Many photographed greenery, trees, plants and gardens and most took pictures of garbage and filth. There were some animals and even a banner seeking help for flood victims. A nice house, motorbikes and even a car led us towards the world of their dreams. Men at work on a road construction site or vegetable vendors were a subtle reminder they wanted to free themselves off and yet one that was their reality. nd pictures of school and library proved that they knew what education meant.

Each picture told a story, one that these children wanted us to know but did not have the words to express. I hope we have the heart to listen, see and understand.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

another deafening why

The festival season has begun. In the next few weeks festivals of all faith will dot the calendar reminding us of the indubitable reality that we are one though some would want us to believe otherwise. Complex rituals, feasting and fasting, revelry and merriment are normally the order of the day. But as I woke up this morning I felt none of the habitual joy and excitement. What kept haunting me was the face of a little boy who lost his life in last week's bomb blast.

Little Santosh was barely 10. After school like many other little boys in Delhi innumerable slums, he helped his family who ran an egg and tea stall to eek out a living. Santosh has been sent to get some more eggs as being Saturday and festival time business had been good. Like all little boys Santosh liked being sent off on errands as it allowed him to walk through the crowded markets. On that fateful day the observant lad did not miss the dropped packet and being an honest child he picked it up and tried to return it to its rightful owner. His last words were cut short by a loud bang that blew the little boy and ended his young life. A deafening why rents the air: why did this have to happen?

Another set of disturbing faces have been haunting me of late: that of young educated boys who seem to be perpetrators of the terrible acts that take innocent lives: those who drop bombs or drive away after running over another, those who whip a gun out if slightly riled, those who commit senseless acts that leave one flummoxed. . A muted and perturbing why also begs to be answered: why do young souls turn to such dastardly ways?

And above all the most disquieting why that begs us to ask who is responsible for all this and what part accrues to each one of us.

We were debating this issue yesterday with a dear friend and somehow what the powers that be, the vested interests, the seekers of answers want us to believe does not quite ring true. At best it is nothing but a half baked view of things. If there is divide in society that leads to all this carnage it is not one of faith or creed or social appurtenance. It is far more insidious and surreptitious as it is one we do not want to see and yet it is time we did have the courage to do it. The divide I refer to is the one between the have and have nots to use a jaded term, one that is growing at a vertiginous speed; one whose consequences we cannot even begin to fathom. As the rich grow richer they also seem to become more remote. Is compassion the goat to be sacrificed at the altar of what is know today as success? And as the poor grow poorer they do so while their dream and aspirations grow in quantum leaps.

The fragile and yet all important egos of the young craves for recognition. Everyone wants to be valorised, remembered, recognised, in a word to be someone. No one wants to become a faceless and nameless soul that runs the risk of sinking into oblivion. Each one wants to have an identity and sadly as things are today, no one is willing to give them one. The education doled out to them is faulty and even their most valiant efforts at studies never enables them to reach the ranks of their rich peers; success in their world is limited to a few add ons that no one sees. They may be able to achieve a little more than their parents but a heavy lead ceiling hangs over their lives and can never be broken. In other lands education enables one to rise to unknown heights and break the glass ceiling but in ours even education has bowed to the unwritten rule that governs society: schools for the rich and those for the poor. The divide becomes even more glaring as to counter the slums of the poor we have gated communities for the rich, society is getting ghettoised.

The majority bows quietly and accepts to play the game. A few do not and desperately seek that elusive recognition, that misplaced moment of so called glory. Some even go a step further and fall into the trap of lurking predators looking for the fall guy, the one who will translate their vile schemes into reality. The game is on...

Is there are a way out? One wonders. Perhaps there is but it requires moral courage and commitment. It requires many of us to give up some of the what has been acquired and perfected over the years, it requires to look deep into ourselves and not look away. The main issue is to find ways of bridging the gap that exists between rich and poor and not by handing a few hand outs that we would not miss. Real and solid bridges have to be carefully built, ones that will ensure that everyone is looked at in the same way. I am no social reformer or political activist and what I say is simply based on what I have seen and experienced over the last 10 years. The simple solution that I propose is one that I have always heralded: that of the common neighbourhood school, one that is a centre of excellence and a level playing field for every child born in this land. Education has to be given its place at the helm. One could even have and Indian Education Service like the IAS to attract the best in the land. But to succeed the common school has to be made mandatory and therein lies the problem. Will we have the courage to accept this. And yet it is only then that the lead ceiling can turn to glass.

But even education is not enough without compassion as in the words of Thich Nhat Hanh compassion is the only energy that can help us relate to the world outside. Sadly compassion has long been sacrificed to many altars and is almost an alien notion. When I launched my one rupee a day programme it was also to try and rekindle compassion in a large section of society, to try and reach out to those one usually does not think of as donors and draw them into the world of giving. It still feels intuitively right.

Little Santosh did not have to die and yet he did. He is one of many innocent lives who die because we do not have the courage to face realities, because we look at the effect and forget the cause, because we have simply forgotten to look and see with our hearts. There should not be any feasting or revelry this festive season. Maybe it is time to ponder on the true meaning of the day when good conquers evil and start asking ourselves where evil truly lies in our own reality.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

time out

Last week end was truly special. It was a long one - Independence day, raksha bandhan, Sunday - and was also little Komal's second birthday. And to crown it all Utpal was at home too. So I decided to put my life on hold for these 3 days, get off the spinning wheel, shelf all worries and work and do what I almost never do: take time off and follow the kids.

Raksha bandhan, the festival when brothers and sisters renew their bond was touching as Kiran and Utpal are soul siblings. Utpal went to Kiran and Komal's home and got his two precious Rakhees. Kiran was barely two when a scalded Utpal landed in our lives, and though she may have at first resented all the attention he got, she soon understood what was happening and became his little caretaker and helped look after him in every way possible. As they both grew they were inseparable and attended the same play school. She was heart broken when he left for boarding school and since has never missed a single of his PTMs and looks forward to his holidays. After the rituals it was time to go shopping. Toiletries that Utpal needed to take back to school and Komal's birthday present. The kids knew that there would be goodies for them too, all they needed to do was look at me with their huge pleading eyes. I must say they were very reasonable!

In the evening, Utpal regaled us with his latest choreography: a 4 minute dance performance to the hit from the film Taare Zameen Par with song and sound effects. He did not miss a step or falter. It was amazing and I realised how much a child can learn through dance: coordination, rhythm and above all self confidence. I wish we could do the same at pwhy but lack of space, time and above all the reticence of parents to any form of creative pursuits are obstacles not easy to overcome.

Sunday was Komal's birthday and it had been decided that we would take the children to the mall. Me at the mall was unheard of but had I not come off the spinning wheel of reason. WE set out early as we knew that a holiday week end meant more footfalls at malls. We also did not quite know how little Komal ,whose two little years have been spent between the cooped up space of her tiny home and the overcrowded space of the pwhy creche with a few forays into the local markets, would react. To say that she was to the manor, or should I say mall born would be an understatement. She took to the place like a fish to water. She ventured in all directions imbibing all she saw: the long brightly lit corridors, the shop and their gleaming windows. Her little face was beaming and her tiny feet busy.

We set out looking for the kid's corner and soon found it tucked away on the second floor. It was paltry compared to the rest of the mall, as if children were not really important. And to the dismay of Kiran and Utpal, the kid zone of this mall seemed geared to toddlers and did not have much for children their age. I wonder why! We soon discovered that to be able to ride the plastic Noddy car or sit in the Barbie house you had to shell out Rs 150 per child for an hour even if the child decided to spend a few minutes. But it being treat time the appropriate amount was shelled out and the kids had their moment of fun. As we sat on the bench watching them many families passed by, some with numerous children and in spite of loud pleas and even wails, most parents were not willing to pay and just their dragged their progeny away. 150 rs per child when you have 4 children was way above many budgets. Kids play areas in malls were just like multiplexes: too expensive for the common man.

After the play area it was time for the food court and then the candy store! By the time the mall treat was over a whopping amount of money had been spent. But this was time off for the kids and their happy faces were worth every penny spent.

You can share some moments of this very special week end here:

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Only time will tell

A dear friend commented on my recent post way to go India. He wrote: I read with joy your latest blog post. 2 messages in particular struck a chord: One, how Project Why stood firm against institutional considerations and put the needs of the children as top priority. Having worked in the Education Ministry of Singapore and probably carrying on a career making education policies in future, I realized this is a dilemma most middle-tier leader face. As a young intern and observing how the current leaders go about formulating policies and making decisions, I was convinced the paramount factor is what's best for the children - and their teachers, without whom education is impossible too, and any other administrative glitches can be ironed out. Two, the motivation and vibrancy of youth. The older I grow, the more I feel I lose this tendency to initiate things, and more importantly sustain them.

I sat a long time mulling these words and their relevance particularly in a week where we celebrate 61 years of Independence and the first individual Olympic gold ever won. And instead of elation and euphoria I am filled with despondency and sadness. Is one medal in a land of a billion and counting, reason to celebrate. I cannot tell. What stares at me are the eyes of millions of potential medal winners who will never be able to do so because we have collectively failed them in every which way possible.

A tiny and unobtrusive news item must passed unnoticed by many. The Right to Education Bill was not taken up by Parliament but sent to another committee for review as vote bank politics is far more important than sending 200 million children to school. It is in 2002 that the children of India got the fundamental Right to Education. A bill was drafted in 2005 and still waits to be passed or killed! A sad state of affairs when Bills on salary raises for members of parliament are passed in a jiffy. The writing is on the wall. No one is truly concerned about the plight of the children of India and with every delay a large number of children miss their chance to be educated. It is true that the Bill threatens many bastions and social divides as one of its clause is reservation of 25% of seats in the best schools for kids from across the street and hence everyone is up in arms: how can the drivers or washer man's kid study with mine! In all this the children are forgotten and cast aside.

The lofty idea that education would promote equality and social integration across class, caste and gender is not something we are comfortable with. True it makes great conversations pieces as well as excellent copy for campaigns and ads but when it comes too close it is simply rejected. It was way back in 1966 that the Kothari Commission had mooted the idea of a common school and though many feel that this would be an answer to education for all, it has remain a dead letter for almost half a century. The CSS (common school system) is not something we truly want.

Generations of children have been sacrificed to the alters of greed, vote bank policies, dubious lobbies are more of the same and in those lost years the divide between the rich and the poor has grown unabashedly in all walks of life, even schools who now look more like spas than places of learning. No one is truly concerned about what is best for children or should I say best for all children. The reason being that children do not have a voice and are not a vote bank! Debates will continue, it is politically correct to do so. What makes me seethe with anger is that political parties are not able to bury their differences and come together to pass such a Bill, and unless they do so no Bill that aims at inclusiveness can ever see the light of day.

In this 61st year of Independence and in the euphoria of a gold medal can one hope that things will change. I doubt it unless each one of us, particularly those who were lucky to be born on the right side of the fence, come out of our torpor and do something before we lose our ability and motivation to do so.

Will be able to do so? Only time will tell.

Friday, August 01, 2008

teach India

There is a new buzz in town: teach India, the latest campaign by a leading newspaper group. Larger than life posters, glitzy TV ads, Bollywood brand ambassadors, a dynamic website, heart rendering memories: the stage is set to make India literate, or so the well designed and implemented campaign would want us to believe. As an NGO who has been in the teaching business for almost a decade we qualified as partners and I received the concept note of the campaign.

Amongst other things the teach India wants to : Inspire, motivate and mobilize people to volunteer for education and be more socially active citizens and build a more cohesive and inclusive society based on trust and reciprocity through bridging people from different backgrounds in order to fight discrimination and marginalization. Is this not what many of us have been wanting and trying to achieve for a long long time.

The campaign like every other media campaign is short: 3 months, at the end of which a monitoring process will begin to check the impact of the classes and the efficacy of the program. Wow, wish things would be that easy.

My mind went back a few years to the time when we too at pwhy had tried to inspire, motivate, mobilize people to be more socially active. I remembered the day when after having been in the glare another media campaign, replete with glitzy ads, Bollywood stars et al, I had sought help for our just one rupee campaign, where we did not ask for two hours of any one's time, but just a simple rupee a day to teach India! The fact, as I realised just a few minutes ago, that I have even removed the campaign form our website, speaks for itself. The idea failed, no one was mobilised, inspired or motivated. A handful did come forward but the impact of such an option could only be felt if it withstood the test of time and became part of one's life, almost like an old and bad habit!

For months I tried to flog the dead horse but soon realised it was mission impossible. I did many a post mortem but must admit could not find one valid reason that perhaps could have been addressed. There were many: people got bored and tired of one cause and wanted new ones; people preferred spending their money to help dramatic and heart rendering causes: a heart surgery, a tsunami...or simply coming with packets of food and feeding poor kids! Things had to be visible and the only visibility one could proffer were pictures of kids learning, exams results or some passionate blogs. Not enough to keep them interested and have them make the effort to remember the next month's or year's cheque. I had failed to motivated, inspire, mobilise people to give a simple coin, one that would not even been missed.

Soon the just one rupee a day dream was set to rest without much ado. But the teach India campaign bought it all to the fore and for more reasons than one. If India is to change for the better we all have to accept and assume our part of responsibility and cannot simply hope that government policies and a handful of committed NGOs will do the magic. And though the teach India campaign has all the right ingredients for success why is it that I feel that it will just wane away after the blitz is over. Am I simply getting jaded and tired.

It would be terribly unfair to a bunch of people from different walks of life if I ended my post here leaving all and sundry to believe that no one can get mobilised, motivated, inspired. We have been in the teach India business for almost ten long and exciting years and can boast of great track record (no failures in school, good results in Boards, kids gainfully and well employed) and this is because we managed to find, mobilise, inspire, motivate a great bunch of human beings that form what we proudly call the project why team! We did not have media campaigns, Bollywood stars or any such drama, we simply spoke to their hearts. Our teachers do not have swanky degrees or MNC jobs. They are simple Indians with a few years of schooling and loads of common sense. They belong to the strata we normally fail to acknowledge and often pass by. They are rich in commitment and goodwill and give themselves wholeheartedly to the work entrusted to them. And boy they do it well. To them all I can say is chapeau bas!

Over the past years they have been helped by another bunch of rare beings that go by the name of volunteers. They come form faraway lands: Singapore, France, the US an UK, Italy, Germany, Holland and other lands. They come from famed Universities and Business Schools. They are your would be honchos. They brave the heat, the stench, the mosquitoes and the spicy food and spend what is often their holidays teaching India. They do not need media campaigns to motivate, inspire or mobilise them: they simply follow their heart. To them again chapeau bas!

Teach India is undoubtedly a brave campaign which we would want to believe has been launched for all the right reasons. Its success depends on each one of us and our ability to carry on after the limelight has faded away.

You can see how we at pwhy teach India by flicking through these pictures.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

arresting drop out rates - government style

A news item aired on a local TV channel caught my attention yesterday and made my almost congealed blood run cold once again: the Delhi Government had decided to pass all children till class VIII, doing away with examinations and marks in order to contain drop out rates and free the children from stress and angst. The children would be graded whatever that meant.

Wow would say many, way to go. Sadly that is not the case and once again we are witness to half baked and politically motivated solutions governments are notorious for. The kind of formula that looks good on paper, replete with supporting statistics but does nothing to address the reality.

My recent post entitled 'equal opportunities' skimmed the tip of the iceberg. The problem is not with having exams or not. If schools continue to run as they do, doing away with exams will simply delay drop out time to class VIII. Statisctics would have been doctored to look better. Every Delhi kid would have passed class VII. Whether he or she would have learned anything at all would remain a million dollar question.

In the present scenario children in class IV or V are barely literate. There is practically no teaching worth its name, let alone learning in most of the municipal and government schools. With no examinations and no failing one wonders what will happen. Another Alice in Wonderland situation!

A no exam system can only work in an enabling environment, where teachers take on the responsibility of imparting knowledge in a wider sense. The best example of these are what is widely known as alternative schools, where learning acquiring a new meaning altogether, where classes are small and teachers many. In Delhi schools, even better ones, classrooms are jammed packed. Over fifty children or more are taught by one teacher.

Exams, no matter how bad and stressful, did ensure that every child's knowledge was tested and remedial measures taken at the appropriate time. With a no exam no failing situation children will just move from class to class with no check or balance. And by the time they reach class VII, it just may be too late for many. One must not forget that most of the children who attend such schools have illiterate parents and hence no way of being assessed or helped at home.

As long as schools remain as they are, such a decision spells disaster.

We need to redefine the society of schools, and turn schools into true temples of learning; a place where children from all walks of life can grow together in a nurturing and enabling environment: a common neighbourhood school that is a true level playing field. It is not just a matter of arresting drop out rates, but giving each child equal opportunities and respecting his or her constitutional right to free and fair education.

Is anyone listening!

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

lofty ideas and stark realities

I have waged a war against teaching shops and as often pleaded for well run common neighborhood schools. I have watched over the years the desperate of parents rich or poor to get their children admitted in schools and have raged against the proliferation of private schools in poor neighborhoods that maybe a tad better than government schools but are still a far cry from education should be.

However once again my lofty ideas and ideals were given a rude shock when I read an article in a daily about the imminent closure of 1000 unrecognised schools, many in the very lanes we work in that cater to what is know as EWS - economic weaker sections -. The article presents both sides of the coin. Whereas the petitioner says Cramming students into a small space in dangerous environments and offering a sub-standard education are what we are fighting against. What about child rights? an activist retorts education in a substandard classroom is better than no education at all. Inflicting regularisation will deprive students of even basic education, homes in slums are not safe, and we are not expecting them to become doctors or lawyers.

Where will students go when the schools close down?” adds another voice. “It can’t be denied that these schools fill a gap the government’s failing to meet". The simplistic solution proffered is that the kids will be adjusted in government run schools.

Some years back, when I was still a neophyte and still starry eyed and naive,I would have whopped with joy at the news of teaching shops being closed as at that time I too felt that the conditions of some of these schools were abysmal and intolerable. In those days I had not yet discovered the reality of government run schools! But as years went by my lofty ideas were rudely shaken as the reality of such schools. became apparent: children in class IV unable to read or write, no toilets, no desks, no teachers only one constant - corporal punishment. AS we slowly began our after school support - teaching as well as confidence building - the same children considered useless began not only passing but getting better marks. How can I forget the young girl who came after failing class VII thrice and went on to secure the 11th position in Delhi in class XII!

True that some of the teaching shops that are facing closure are run in dreadful conditions, and many are undoubtedly money making operations, but they do take in children of migrant populations who do not have any official documents to prove their identity, thus giving these children a go at education.

Last week I was appalled to find out that a woman who comes to our women centre had put her 3 children in a private school at the cost of over 800 rs a month though her family is extremely poor. I came to know that he reason for doing so was that the kids born in a remote village did not have a birth certificate and thus has been refused admission in the local municipal school. She did not know that a simple affidavit would have solved the issue.

If the 10 000 schools are shut I wonder where the children will go. Municipal and government schools are already overcrowded and anyway barely function. Once again we are face with a court order population of that does not take into consideration the reality on the ground. Walls around slums do not solve the habitat problem, closure of schools does not solve the education problem. The government has to start looking at running proper schools that can cater to the growing polulation of Delhi or find ways of reversing migration by improving conditions in the place of origin of such people.

When we began pwhy, we were not aware of the conditions of schools. We had wanted to create a space for children where they could come after school and spend constructive time. Today our main task is to ensure that they pass their examinations and do not drop out. Like everything else in India it seems that the poor have been let down, forgotten, marginalised. Yet they are n intrinsic part of society and protected by the same Constitution. It is time we started bridging the gap between the two Indias.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

the society of schools

I have been watching, with utter dismay and deep concern, the plight of parents running from pillar to post to get their children admitted to nursery in a schools across Delhi, India's capital city. The nursery admission saga has been going on for quite some time in this city with a wide range of unlikely protagonists in the fray: school authorities, state government, parent's associations, activists and even the judicial system. And if that is not enough parents now resort to every trick in the bag: pleas, threats and the now sated string pulling!

Education is a a constitutional right for each and every child and yet good educations seems elusive. Over the years a surreptitious and complex caste system has evolved within the society of schools. And sadly education which should be a level playing field has now transformed itself into yet another social status definer with the better one coming at a higher price. A peek into any of the high caste one is sufficient to prove this: some schools today look more like luxury resorts than places of learning. The lower ones a.k.a government schools on the other hand defy all description. In the middle lie a plethora of schools that have mushroomed over the years as education made a subtle shift from places of learning to commercial enterprises, where quality is often sacrificed.

I was horrified when a young nephew ,who is in one of the leading schools in Delhi came for help with is French classes,a subject offered by many leading schools. His copy book was full of mistakes and the pronunciation he had been taught seemed Spanish and not French! The child would have been better off learning Sanskrit or any other Indian language. I brought this fact to the attention of his parents in the hope that they would take it up with the school, but a the look of alarm on their faces reminded me of the long haul it had been for them to get this child admitted into this prestigious school. They were in no mood to rock the boat.

I have always been a strong proponent of the common school system. A school in the neighborhood a child could walk to, a school where children from all walks of life would learn together and celebrate difference, a school where the only admission criterion would be your place of residence. No child should be subjected to rejection at an early age which is what is happening today as parents run from one school to another dragging little 3 years old who are made to go through incomprehensible interviews and complex admission procedures. They may not be able to express themselves but imagine what they feel as they listen to their parents vent their feelings. To me this is just another form of child abuse.

A self respecting society should ensure that this does not happen.

Monday, December 03, 2007

It only happens at pwhy

Sunday December 2nd dawned as just another day for many. For a bunch of us it promised to be a special day but none of us could have imagined what it was to be.

At 9.30 am a tempo traveller reached our doorstep to take us to Utpal's school. Us today was quite a party: there was Kim and Fen who had made a huge detour to come and spend a day with us, Barbara, our lovely senior volunteer who adopted us, Sophie our young volunteer who just came by, and of course our die hards Utpal supporters: Dharmendra, Amit, Kiran and maamji!

At 10. 20 am, we had a rendez vous with our sunshine man and his lovely family who joined the party. A few minutes later we entered the gates of Utpal's school. My thoughts went back to the time when I had been asked by the school authorities whether someone would attend the monthly PTMs. I knew I would be there - God willing- but never imagined what Utpal's parents would turn out to be!

Of the many incredible tings that have happened at project why, I feel that utpal's story eptomises the essence and spirit of project why. This wondrous child has walked into so many hearts and proved beyond doubt that everything is possible if you just learn to look with your heart.

What we did that day would perhaps seem mundane to some: visited the school, watched children play, ambled in the winter sun, drove to a neighborhood market, ate pizza at a mediocre fast food joint, bought a woollen beanie cap, captured some moments on camera... This is how the day seemed when you looked just with your eyes and as my friend the fox from the Little Prince would say you would have missed out the essential.

But if we looked with our heart than the day became different. The tone was set at first by the protagonists of the moment who should not have been together as what do an emiment journalist, a famous photographer, a slum kid, a retired civil servant, a young professional. a business man, a french nurse and an ageing lady have in common. And why should they chose to spend a Sunday attending a PTM! It almost seemed as if St Exupery's tale had come to life in its XXIst century version with its own little prince who strutted with a swagger as he set upon making each one of us rediscover things his way.

The day was filled with Kodak moments that beat any description. Utpal showed us his new antics as he rolled in the grass and ran up the slide and sashayed across the school. He then had a serious lesson in photography with Fen as he discovered the magic of a profesional camera that he handled with a confidence beyond his years. The mediocre fast food became a gourmet meal and the beanie cap a shopping spree. And the ride in the traveler a magic carpet ride.

When it was time to leave, only I could see the fleeting twitch of sadness in his beautiful eyes as he waved us bye bye. As we drove back in silence, my heart was overflowing with gratitude for all that I had been blessed simply because a little child had walked into my arid heart and allowed it to bloom again.

You can share some of those special moments here

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

requiem for two lost souls

Two lost souls left this world yesterday. They had nothing in common bar the fact that they were in some way linked to pwhy.

Anil came to us almost exactly a year ago. He was 8 months old and suffered from a complex congenital heart problem. He needed multiple heart surgeries. We sponsored the first one and he was operated upon in March. His recovery was slow and he was in constant pain. It seemed that his chest bones had not been joined back properly something the doctors dismissed in a cursory way and said would be fixed at the next surgery. Anil barely ate and in spite of the love and care of his wonderful parents, Anil did not keep his appointment with the surgeons. He left this planet on his own freewill yesterday. A brave little fellow who will be remembered for his huge eyes and quiet manner.

Another lost soul left this earth yesterday crushed under the wheels of a speeding car. He was the husband of M, one of our ex staff members. M had come to me almost 6 years ago asking for help. Her husband was a drunk who earned his livelihood recycling junk but often brought nothing home. That day in a fit of temper he had thrown the food in the drain and she had nothing to feed her 5 kids. I gave her a job and for the next 2 or 3 years all was well. But sadly M a mercurial illiterate women got taken in by our detractors and lost her job.

M was always a difficult person and one who gave us many a sleepless night but today my heart goes out to her as she one again typifies the plight of women in India. Married off when they are still children without education of skill, their lives and social acceptability is totally dependent on the man they have been hitched to. As long as he is alive and no matter how wretched he is they are safe. Once he is gone they are reduced to nothing.

M had five children. Her daughter is of marriageable age, her youngest one still in primary school, her elder son a rogue. I wonder what she will do and how she will live on.

A sad day for all of us.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

gift unwrapped

Some of you may remember the very special gift I had sought this year for my b'day. Yesterday was unwrapping time as team project why gathered for a day long workshop and everyone read their essays ( for want of a better word). I must confess that I was really thrilled as everyone, even those who were illiterate had made the effort to produce a page.

When I began the workshop by asking each one to read what they had written I was met with a volley of giggles, exclamations and no ways! But I held on and soon everyone settled and one by one they read what they had written. Some in barely audible voices, some with theatrical aplomb, and some amidst giggles. I wish i had done this exercise before as those few paragraphs were a deep insight into each and everyone. Having known most of them for many years now, I could validate much of what I had till then just felt intuitively.

They had been asked to write about how the years in pwhy had transformed them, it at all, and why should anyone one 'love' them. Some felt is necessary to eulogise pwhy and ma'am. Others were bold enough to state that they should be loved for this or that reason. Some went back to their school days and their relationship with their own teachers. There were even one or two who delivered a passionate speech on the state of the country.

There were however some heartwarming and even poignant common threads: new found self confidence, ability to talk to foreigners, realisation that they could achieve what once seemed impossible. All in all it was a great experience and one that met my secret agenda: that of getting each one of them to take on the running of their own centre. I explained to them that i wanted each one of them to feel responsible for the work they were doing, to make its budget, to list its assets, to maintain daily accounts and above all to state its relevance.

There were raised eyebrows, incredulous looks and much whispering. But step one had been taken towards a change in roles and I knew that this was a great moment for all of us at pwhy.

(to be continued....)

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

admission woes

Some of you know Kiran. She has been part of pwhy since its very inception. She was actually born the day we began our work in Giri Nagar.

Kiran is a lovely child in more ways than one, and she is an extremely sensitive and humane person. Her favourite place at pwhy is the special section where she often spends time helping the teachers with their work and interacts with each and every child. The picture you see is when she lent her face for a make up class and sat a long time while Neha, Rinky and Shaheeda set to task.

Her family has always wanted the best for her and dreamt of putting her in a nice school. They were willing to pay a reasonable amount and had saved for it. When she was ready for class I they set about finding a school but soon found it was not so simple. Kiran had been to a playschool where she excelled but that was not enough. Tests ensued and the dreaded rejection that this intelligent child could not understand.

Her admission became a topic of daily conversations in her little home till the day one well wisher (or so called) stepped in and said he could get her a seat in a school. Kiran sat for the entrance test and got in. Her fees and other expenses - a whooping 15 K - were paid as everyone scrapped the barrel. Last week in her new uniform little Kiran set off to school. The same afternoon the well wisher - a true Shylock - asked his pound of flesh: 20 K commission!

Kiran's story is shared here to underline a larger issue. What many do not realise is that this is the trend not the exception. More and more parents from what we like to call the underprivileged class are wanting to send their children to good schools. This is because the government run schools, particularly at the primary level are in an appalling state. Parents who are now second generation migrants to Delhi and respectable citizens with voting rights, are aware of this reality. The private schools or rather teaching shops that proliferate in slum areas have also been exposed as a costly and poor option. Parents want a good +2 school.

We have witnessed in the past years many parents from slums trying to get an admission for their children. This is often the case when one parent is educated. For many the search is futile and the child sent to a private unrecognised school, for others like Kiran things look possible till the hammer falls.

The child is now in school. If the money is not paid there is a likelihood of her being poorly treated or even dismissed. If the racket is exposed then the child will be ill treated for sure and finding another school is almost impossible. Paying the money is not an option as not only does the family not have the resources, but they are reluctant to walk this road.

Kiran's story is the story of many children in today's reality. I am a die hard believer in the common school system where children from many walks of life will learn together. But the writing on the wall points in a different direction as one hears more disturbing trends on privatisation of schools. Many do not realise that it will ring the death knell for a large chunk of India's young population.

Monday, February 12, 2007

another tale of two Indias

Two young ladies age 6 and 11 visited project why last week. Their mom a high executive in the hospitality industry had brought them along as she felt it would be a good experience for them.

We went hopped from one part of pwhy to the other: from a building in a narrow lane, to a tiny shack in side a crowded slum, to the class in the garbage dump via the broken lohar camp to our smart computer centre.

The girls kept silent as they imbibed what they saw. As we bid good bye I could asked the younger one whether she would like to come and teach her peer group all the songs she learnt in her fancy school. her eyes lit up as she looked eagerly at her mom before nodding her head. Her elder sibling remained silent.

Later I asked my friend what the reactions of the girls had been and was not surprised when she told me that the little one was eager to come back while the older one had not said much barring the fact that it had made her sad.

Once again the two Indias were evident. The yet candid and unspoilt little one had immediately felt at ease and one with other kids her age as social and economic origins meant nothing to her, she was a child amongst other kids. The older one had more to deal with as she felt apart and different yet sensitive enough to feel sad!

Once again this vindicated my view of the necessity of a common school to bridge the now glaring gap between the two Indias.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Looking ahead from ground zero..

One is often so engrossed in the now, that one forgets to delve into the realm of the after. Yet unless we take time to do that, we may remain frozen in time.

Spiritual masters often ask us to visualise the future if we want to see it realised. I guess there is some truth in that. We have many nows in our lives, each pertinent to a particular field of our activities and each requiring its own visualisation.

Maybe it is time for me to assess the now of pwhy and make some projections. Let us consider this instant as ground zero and dream a little.

A bunch of children of all ages and sizes were brought together under the pwhy aegis a few years ago with the sole purpose of trying to better their tomorrows. The first task was to keep them in school as education was often hailed as a panacea to all ills. We set about this task and completed it with success. Somewhere down the line we realised that what was offered as education was in no way going to make a difference to these young lives as much more was needed. So we set about qualifying and quantifying the missing elements or defining the true ground zero.

One common factor linked all our children: they belonged to an urban slum. That sole factor dictated the quality of their lives: poor habitat, bad education, abysmal medical health facilities, few employment options one one side and great expectations fuelled by urban dreams on the other. To lace it all a feudal attitude vis-a-vis those in power.

The fact is that most of what is mentioned - habitat, school etc - has fallen into this state of despair because existing government programmes have been hijacked down the road. And as the end beneficiary are often kept in the dark, no one is ever able to redress the torts.

Hence if we look ahead from ground zero and allow ourselves to dream a little what we see is a day when people will be in a position to ask for all that is rightfully theirs and has been lost in transition. We tend to forget or maybe do not give enough importance to the tools that we have been given. I refer to the Right to Information Act that enables every Indian to seek redressal for a few rupees.

If that day is to dawn, then one needs to empower people and teach them responsibility. And the only way to do that is to catch them young. It has now become imperative for us at pwhy to move beyond the books and curriculum and teach our children the art of being a citizen.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

not yet time

A friend dropped by this morning. We had not met for a long time, yet there was a time when we shared the same ideas and concern and were all set to rebuild the world over innumerable cups of coffee. At that time we both taught in universities. We liked the same books, the same songs and shared similar aspirations. I cannot remember what was said and thought, but I do recall that we both felt deeply that things were not right.

Life took its course and he remained a teacher and still teaches in a prime institution. I left my comfortable, pensionable post as I had felt stifled. Family obligations saw me criss-crossing the planet and it was only a few years back that I set roots and felt I had reached my destination.

The last time we met, we only knew one side of the invisble divide that fractures our country and conjured the other the way we wanted to see it. But this time it was different, I had crossed the line and experienced first hand what reality was, seeing each and every of my preconceived notions being blown to pieces, and re-looking at the very issues we had debated upon with new eyes.

It took me but a few minutes to get to my pet subject and talk about my dream of seeing the children of India grow together, side by side, without any labels stuck to their foreheads, taking time to build their own. Somehow I had expected T to agree to what I said. I was astonished to see his reaction and stunned when he mentioned public-private partnership in education.

A pall was cast on what had started as a happy meeting. We fumbled through the next few minutes and bid farewell. For a long time I sat in silence wondering what had happened in those years to change things between us. Why was it that felt so deeply about bridging gaps whereas all others be it politicians, educationists and so forth maintained that solutions lay in widening the gap. Had history past and recent not given us sufficient proof of how the very fabric of our society was getting destroyed by the multitude of divisive policies we were following leaving far behind the 'we the people of India..' of our Constitution?

T's reaction was disturbing as I knew that he was intrinsically a good person, truly wanting to see change. He taught the best minds and thus could impart new ideas and ideologies were he to believe in them. Then why a total rejection of a common school idea. And why on the other hand was my belief strengthened each and every day. What had happened to both of us who started much in the same way?

Maybe it was the fact that I had experienced the other side, or was it that time was not yet ripe, that our social baggage was so heavy that we were still not ready to accept our children rubbing shoulders with 'their' kids!

All these questions plagued me all day along.

Yet I was to be validated sooner than I thought. The evening news carried the following: the brutal murders of many young children in NOIDA have touched a chord around India. For the first time, residents of NOIDA's bungalows are now venturing out, offering a helping hand to those who work in their houses.
The year 2006 was a year that saw so many conviction. Now taking the same spirit into 2007, the battle has just begun and so tragic as it is that it's taken the horrific serial killings to bridge the glaring class divide between an urban slum and a swanky suburban town.(NDTVnews)

Sad that so many innocent lives had to be lost to see this. I wonder how many of the mothers must have sought help when the child disappeared. I can also imagine the reaction of the likes of me who must have offered kind words and maybe money but were unwilling to make that trip to the police station.

But it is not time to cry over what cannot be changed, but celebrate this new beginning and to ensure that this very fragile spark is kept alive. There are so many who can get justice if they have our support and maybe it is a way of redressing a system that has run amok. Filing a simple FIR, as one discovered today, is a nightmare even for an educated person. Simple rights have been usurped by a feudal attitude that sets the rules turning victims into accused.

One has to also ensure that this new found compassion does not become another power game or get hijacked on the way by those waiting in the wings for any cause to espouse to fulfil their own agendas.

I said earlier that maybe the time was not ripe for the elusive common school system. However I want to believe that if people have found it in their heart to reach out to their poorer brethren, then slowly they may also come to accept one day to have their kids share a school bench.

I guess the penny will drop when one comes to understand that in doing so we are not doling out any charity but investing in our own tomorrows.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

a very special xmas gift

Xmas has always been a time of joy and giving, of cheer and even miracles. As you grow up you stop believing in Santa, but there is always the anticipation of finding out what the little packets around the tree contain.

My xmas gift came a day earlier and in the most unexpected way. I had gone to fetch Utpal from his boarding school and attend his PTA! His teacher handed me his result and as I read it I realised that this was undoubtedly the most beautiful Xmas present one could get.

57/60 were he marks he got and an appreciation that included the word 'excellent'. To some, my reaction would seem silly as Utpal is only 4+, but those who know him and have followed the journey of his life, this piece of paper is much more.

What a story of survival it has been. Barely 9 months ago Utpal had lost everything that makes a child secure and safe to the demon of alcohol. He had no home, no mom, no extended family and no support. Previous to that fateful day in April 2006, he had survived third degree burns and lived a life where each evening meal and night's sleep depended on whether his mom had tippled nor not. Strange visitors, descents by cops and drunken brawls were usual occurrences.

When we found a school that would take him, there was an initial resistance: Utpal did not fit any mold, did not have the appropriate labels and social origins. But a young director took on the challenge and we waited with bated breath.

Six months and two school terms later, Utpal showed us what survivors are made of: he has a great support network in school ranging from the gently forbidding gatekeeper, to the class XII students and includes the hostel staff, the kitchen staff and even the principal. He still had one more point to prove, the one that rebuffs all the divisive policies that are kept on the boiler by dubious agendas and bear names like reservations or affirmative action. In the right environment, and with a peer group that cut across social and economic backgrounds, little Utpal topped his class in an English medium boarding school.

I have always said that the answer to India's is a common school where children of all origins would learn together and from each other. Then each child just like little Utpal, will have the ability to make his place in the sun. It is not by creating a parallel school system, or by handing out a few seats and a few grace marks to humbler children that we will solve the now suspect education for all dream.

Utpal was an ideal candidate for begging at a red light. Drunk parents, a nicely scalded body and yet and incredibly beautiful face, and endearing ways. A little help from Mr God , and lots of help from friends who held on to our dream with us, made it possible for little Utpal to vindicate project why.

As I hold his result sheet in my hand, I stand very tall and believe in miracles!

merry xmas to all!

Friday, December 08, 2006

nursery blues-- yes to interaction; no to interview


I have watched with despair the comings and goings of the new admission policy for nursery classes in public schools for quite some time. Had it not concerned children, I would have been amused.

We are once again faced with the normal beating around the bush attitude that we seem to have perfected to a T in India. Many of us have known the woes of getting children admitted in schools. The scurrying around to different parts of the city clutching forms and dragging a bewildered if not traumatized kid. This after having subjected your darling to distressing sessions of one of the numerous teaching shops that have mushroomed.

So when a petition was made to the High Court about setting a child friendly admission process we were all relieved. But the feeling was short lived as the point system proposed seemed far from clear and open to many interpretations. The one that caught my attention was the fact that interaction with parents was allowed but not interviews. I wonder who will decide if the lines have been crossed. I cannot see desperate parents getting drawn into a semantic or linguistic battle!

One of the parameters stood out: proximity to the school. In it I could almost sense an imperceptible step towards the common school, something I have always held as a solution to many of the problems that plague us.

Nursery admissions in the capital's municipal school is still fairly easy. here the problem lies in convincing the parents. A quick perusal of any part of our city shows that it is dotted with government run schools - notwithstanding the state they are in - and all have ample land around them.

Children should be able walk to their school. Imagine if that were true: no buses or rushing RTVs, no long hours spent commuting...

What a dream

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

the art of learning


These little children sit on a wind swept terrace, on top of a tiny jhuggi overlooking a sea of slum dwellings in India's capital city. A few days back they use to spend their times, roaming filthy lanes. Copy or slate in hand they wait for today's lesson. A palpable energy pervades the little rooftop. A quick roll call proves that caste or creed is no bar here, the common denominator is learning!

Now what they will learn depends on the two teachers one a tribal the other a Muslim, an unlikely combination brought together by pwhy! They are willing to imbibe whatever they are taught.

A recent survey in a leading magazine proved that education in India, even if it is imparted in the best school, is way below international standards. What is excels in is learning by rote. Where it fails is in making connections. Hence though a child knows the composition of water, he/she is unable to give the composition of steam as he/she fails to make the link between the two. And the list is endless..

Today education is a number game with percentages rising to unbelievable heights and children cramming knowledge without often comprehending it let alone seeing its relevance in everyday life. I remember taking a class in the early days of pwhy where I asked class VII and VII children to identify one area where percentages played an important role. the lessons was about fractions. needless to say no one came with any answer and they were all surprised when I told them about sales whereby reduction were offered in percentages: 50% off, 20% saving etc.

I have always held that the Delors (UNESCO) four pillars of educations are essential to any sound education programme . They are:

Learning to know: Thinking abilities: such as problem-solving, critical thinking, decision-making, understanding consequences

Learning to be: Personal abilities: such as managing stress and feelings, self-awareness, self-confidence
Learning to live together: Social abilities: such as communication, negotiation, assertiveness, teamwork, empathy
Learning to do: Manual skills: practicing know-how required for work and tasks

Knowledge is useless unless the student has the ability to apply it to everyday situations. That is where our system fails us.

Unlike upmarket children, slum kids tend to start schooling at a much later stage. And unlike their rich counterparts, their living skills are tested at a very early stage. Tiny kids cross busy roads to shop for their mothers, or learn to fight for their rights when they are barely toddlers. I was surprised to see how a young five year old who had never learn arithmetic could account for the money given by his mother. I have seen little girls intuitively knowing what to do to soothe their howling sibling.

These children who by force majeure have to begin life using the 4 pillars we mention, quickly forget them as the enter the gates of a school. There the only thing they are judged is their ability to regurgitate the lesson.

Education is above all the ability to assimilate, analyze and then use the knowledge acquired and a self-respecting system should teach just that.

I will end this post by sharing a personal experience. When I sat for my French baccalaureate the history syllabus was the history from of the world from 1914 to present days. The final exam was summed up in one question: Had the allies lost the war, what in your opinion would have been the present economic scenario? (the year in question was 1967). Even if you had mugged up the entire book you would not have been able to answer the question if you did not have the ability to apply what you had learnt to a given reality. There was no right or wrong answer; you were judged by your ability to defend your opinion.

Therein lies the difference.

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

chilling numbers

My limousine had not come so I decided to spend some time in the creche where the big section - all between 4 and 5 - sat in a circle for its daily activity.

The past few weeks had been so hectic that I had barely found time to spend with the children as I was busy struggling to survive. But the breakdown of the three wheeler - ie my limo - allowed me that luxury. Once the children were settled and work handed out, I found myself staring at this little circle of around 15 kids and knew that there was something I could sense but not yet see!

It took me a few minutes to register what was disturbing be, till I felt hit by a bolt out of the blue: there were only 3 girls in the group!

It is true that the socio-economic profile of the early education group has always been different to the other sections. I guess that the presence of volunteers of all shades and hues and the fun and laughter that often emanates from this group made many slightly better families bring their children to us. This has been god sent to one like me as it was almost a precursor my dream of a common school as the solution to many problems in our country.

It is also true that the sex ratio of south Delhi is one of the worst - 784/1000 - but it is only today that I saw the chilling numbers it the very micro sample that is pwhy.

There are missing girls and we cannot afford to turn a blind eye. The importance and essential value of the girl child has to be restored in the minds of each and everyone.