poor = criminal!

poor = criminal!

I am livid, hurt, upset and totally speechless. Yesterday night a news item was aired on a TV channel stating that an upmarket school in Bangalore labelled poor children as criminals. This aberration was stated in a circular sent to parents in the wake of the new Right to Education Act, which stipulates that all private schools have to admit 25% children from underprivileged backgrounds. The said circular referred to this and proclaimed that admitting poor students into the school will be detrimental to the psyche of those that are already studying there. It even added that such children beat up your child, smoke on the campus, misbehave with a girl or a teacher!

This is scary. First of all let us remember that the Act stipulates that children will be admitted in class I and thus I am at a total loss to even begin to comprehend what the school is trying to say. Do 6 year old children smoke or misbehave with girls? Wonder where. But that is not the real issue. The reality is it that this attitude though politically incorrect, is one that pervades the very fabric of our society. I have often mentioned it whenever I have talked of the elusive common school. My son cannot study in the same class as my driver’s child. Period! This is where the truth lies. We are feudal in our beliefs and will remain so. The 25% reservation was a sort of a back door entry into inclusive education and a semblance of a common school. The circular of the Bethany school just brings out in the open what many think but dare not express. In a way it is good this has come out in the open before the real implementation of the reservation policy. It shows how such back door and half hearted efforts are doomed to fail. Inclusion has to come the other way if it is to succeed. The so called school for the poor has to become a centre of excellence that will attract the so called rich and become a viable alternative to expensive private schools. You cannot make poor children second class citizens in their own country. They are full fledged citizens protected by the same Constitution and having the same right to Education than any child born on the other side of the invisible divide.

Now let us address the aberration of equating poor children to criminals. I urge you to look at the picture above. These 8 kids are form the most deprived homes you can imagine. They have been studying in an upmarket school for 2 years now. They are the pride of their school as they have excellent results, each topping its respective class, and are extremely well behaved. they do not misbehave with teachers, do not smoke or beta other kids. Need I say more.

loos @ of one crore; 3 loos for a planet!

Apologies to be harping about the Commonwealth games again but then every time you step out of your home the common mess hits you in the face and your mind goes into overdrive. Yesterday I passed one of the 50 luxury loos being built for the Games. This is one is a horrendous structure in coloured glass and is tucked away in the corner of a park of a not so upmarket shopping centre in South Delhi, one that I doubt any visitor to the games would drop by. The structure is big by loo standard but actually the size of let us say a drawing room. And quite ugly too! Now @ 1 crore a piece (10 million) it seems obscene. Come to think about it what we are desperately trying to raise to make pwhy sustainable is the cost of 3 loos! (cost of building planet why: a guest house + a children’s centre).

Something is terribly wrong. The Games are under the scanner of all vigilance agencies of the land as corruption seems rampant. As I had written earlier it seems that these Games are an opportunity for all to line their bottomless pockets. So what if the work is shoddy, the material used sub standard and the infrastructure shaky. As long as some become richer, all is well! But as if that was not enough now a UK agency is investigating a dubious money transfer whereby large sums of Indian tax payer’s hard earned money has been given to a shady individual who runs a one man show in London where he provides portable loos, cars, security screens and also hold your breath, consultancy for costume design @ 25 000 pounds a month! This is getting as Alice would say curiouser and curiouser. It is also making the blood of the likes of me boil!

When questioned those in power are quick to either pass the buck or try to appeal to the pride of the country excuse. What pride! One would, as a proud Indian like to wish the whole thing away if that could be done. Stadia are not ready and even if they are they may fall on our heads, the city is a holy mess and only a miracle can salvage things. Maybe we as Indians can be proud of the fact that we have mastered the art of corruption!

Did we need such a useless and mindless extravaganza to acquire pride? What pride is there when people have lost their homes, their livelihood? In all this hullabaloo one seems to have forgotten the people who have lost everything courtesy the Games! It makes me physically sick! These zillions of rupees could have been put to better use. In our very country, the one that is busy trying to acquire misplaced pride, children die of hunger every dayand people are still desperately trying to master the art of surviving. But that is one end of the spectrum. At the other they are mastering the art of corruption. And somewhere in between we are watching helpless.

House in order

House in order

For some time now, courtesy creaking bones and aching back, I have come to realise that the courting and honeymoon days of pwhy are over and that it is time to set the house in order. Sounds cryptic? Let me elucidate. For the past ten years I have been trying to answers many deafening whys and I must admit with a sense of pride that we had done quite well. Be it arresting the school drop outs, securing the morrows of the most wretched or empowering those no one believed in, we have done it all. Today over 500 school going children study in our various centres, over 100 toddlers and young souls are off the street and spend the day in a dafe environment, about 20 special children and young adults are learning to live with dignity and 3 of them even have a home and 8 children whose future was in jeopardy now study in a boarding school and who knows may one day take over the reins of pwhy!

But this can only happen if pwhy lives on or in other words if I can put my house in order. Can I, is the question I ask myself over and over again, a question that frightens me and keeps me awake many a night. Planet Why was the solution we came up with but one that is not an easy one as it requires a huge shot of funds before it can see the light of day. We have been working on it and still hope for the best. We have to remain optimists till the very end. Or so I thought till yesterday.

A phone call received yesterday almost brought the house crashing. Let me explain. Even at the worst moments, when accounts are empty and promises few, I have never thought of giving up. Yet, I almost did yesterday! The call was one of many that have been coming our way for the past few months from our bankers! Each ask an inane question, one that had been answered ad nauseum earlier and yet does not seem to register. Who is this donor? What is the money for? is this donor Indian? and so on. And each time one asks why these queries, pat comes the answer: a government requirement. When one seeks a written answer one gets an elusive reply. Mails remain unacknowledged. Everything is on done on phone, making us that much more vulnerable. How can I forget the terrible day when the same bank shut our accounts for no fault of ours: that day David took on Goliath.

To set the record straight we are an organisation that fulfils all Government stipulations and requirements. It is not easy to run a charitable organisation in India. But we do it with application and honesty and our work is there for all to see. Till recently all seemed to be on even keel. But the past months and the prying and almost humiliating questioning by small bank officials has been unbearable and this after the same bank did a due diligence on us recently in the name of new Government regulations! Then why the constant harassing with no reason given? Donations are sent back without informing us, and the pound continues mercilessly. For all these days I have been taking it with patience and restraint answering everything as best I could. How could I forget that hundreds of little souls depended on my endurance. But yesterday something snapped inside me and I was a breath away from throwing the gauntlet down and giving up. I had done enough in the past ten years, more than any and had earned my place in the sun. What no one else could so a large corporate bank had done! They had killed my spirit.

I must admit that it takes a lot to bring my new persona (post pwhy) down. I have battled authorities, slumlords and others and never batted an eyelid but somehow this constant pestering by small and petty bank officials hit me below the belt. It was nothing short of humiliating as you knew they did not have a clue about what was at stake. I was left wondering whether this was the due of anyone wanting to take the road less travelled. What made it worse was that I had made a trip to the bank last week and explained all. I was given the sleek and glib welcome you expect from huge multinational banks, with the expected ‘we will get back to you’ for every query asked. Needless to say they never got back!

As I write these words, I am trying to pick the pieces up and try and weave them together again hoping that no cracks will remain.

Enemy no 1

Enemy no 1

A young man came by recently. His dream: to make a difference. His vision: to help eradicate hunger by feeding the poor. His reason: hunger hampers every aspect of growth and development. One could only but agree. In the recent report on the Commonwealth Games, published by Habitat International Coalition and aptly entitled whose wealth- whose commons, we find some startling data: 40 % of the world’s starvation-affected people live in India, 76% families (840 million) people do not get their daily required calories, 55 % of India’s women are malnourished, 46% of India’s children are malnourished, more than 320 million people in India are unable to manage three square meals a day and the most startling one: more than 5,000 children die every day from malnourishment. So hunger is a huge issue and needs to be addressed.

And yet when the passionate young man came to me, I found myself trying to almost dissuade him from his mission, or at least temper it. When we began, a decade ago, we too had a nutrition component in our programme. I remember the bananas and porridge we doled out every day. But after a some time we found that these were often being thrown away by the children who maybe got bored of these items. And how can I forget the irate mother who came screaming that the banana given to her child was rotten! Anyway, we soon stopped the programme seeing that it was getting nowhere.

In spite of the stark reality and need of addressing the hunger issue, feeding the poor is no easy task. We simply zeroed in on education knowing somehow intuitively that this was the way to go.

I have often written about the wastage of food I have seen in the slums of Delhi. It is almost as if throwing food was a way to prove that you had arrived! And yet as I said earlier hunger is a sad reality and needs to be addressed. No child should be allowed to die of hunger in any self respecting society. 5000 do. Yet, if all was well, this should not be happening. In 1975, India launched the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS). It was heralded as India’s response to the challenge of providing pre-school education on one hand and breaking the vicious cycle of malnutrition, morbidity and mortality on the other and was to reach all the children in India. Huge funds were disbursed and had the programme worked no child should have been hungry. But that was not to be. As all else in India, the funds were hijacked along the way with impunity to line pockets of politicians and bureaucrats. Come to think of it India is replete with fabulous social schemes that could make all the difference but never do as they simply become ways of enriching wily individuals. I have always held that even if these schemes had been half successful, India would be a different land.

Even today a shocking story was aired on national television. Food meant for children is being eaten by dogs! The reason: lack of storage facility. 50 million people in the state need the food, but bad planning has meant that dogs will eat it! I wonder why sufficient silos and storage facilities cannot be built, it would be better use of public money than beautifying cities for games extravaganzas! But then existent silos are used for stocking, hold your breath, booze!

One can open soup kitchens galore but they will never bring about the change we seek. Change will only come when we break free of the vicious cycle of corruption in which we are all held. Media helps, activism helps but these are simply band-aid remedies. We need to stem the rot and that can only happen when the poor are give a voice. And education is the only answer. Today the beneficiaries of social programmes are unaware of their existence or see them not as a right but as an act of largesse handed out by a local politico. You see we are still a feudal society where the erstwhile landlord has been replaced by the devious politician and the scheming official.

Change will only come when every beneficiary will be empowered enough to ask for his due and seek accountability, and the key is education. But that is the one thing the powers that be do not want. No, don’t be surprised and read on.

Public education is in shambles and the princely pass percentage of 33%, prescribed by the State makes sure that no one from the lower end of the scale gets any proper education. Let me share an incident that occurred a few years back. At that time we use to teach in a reclaimed pig park under a huge tent.One fine morning a posse of officials came and told us to vacate the park. We soon found out that the authorities had decided to build a toilet block in what was once a children’s park. We decided to protest and went to see the local Municipal Councilor. He is semi literate. He brandished a paper shouting that it was not a toilet block that was coming up there but a community centre. Raju, one of our class XI students looked at the paper and pointed out that it said public conveniences and that this meant toilets. You see Raju could reach English and the Councilor could not. From that day on I was branded enemy no 1 (apt title for a Bollywood blockbuster). The reason: I was committing the cardinal sin of empowering the poor and giving them a voice. In today’s India you did not do that. The poor had to remain where they were.

But only if we do empower the poor can we bring about the change we seek. That was the message I was trying to give my young friend!

loos and behold….

loos and behold….

Courtesy the Commonwealth Games, Delhi India’s capital city is going to have 300 Heritage Toilets, whatever that means. Each will cost 1 crore (10 million) rupees. Of course, the municipal corporation is quick to add that these loos will be seven star and better than those in any five star hotel.

A recent article in a leading weekly highlights the abysmal state of public toilets in India. There are still places where women have to walk miles in the dark to relieve themselves. Girls drop out of schools because of the lack of toilets, and women from all walks of life master the art of holding on. I remember doing that too many a time. The article goes on to say that girls are now are making toilets an essential demand to a marriage proposal. I wonder how many no star loos could have been built with ten million times three hundred!

The Commonwealth Games seems to be the playground of the rich. The poor, even if they are over 50% of the population, are not welcome. A leading NGO has published a report on the games. I urge you to read it (available as PDF at the bottom of the link). The Games seem to have violated every right enshrined in our Constitution. Over 200 000 people – men, women and children have already been evicted and as I write these words, 44 slums will be demolished and 40 000 families rendered homeless to beautify the city!

Need I say more!