A reality check on so called social programmes

A reality check on so called social programmes

When the Government announced with great fanfare the passing of the Right to Education (RTE) Bill, I was among those who hoped against hope that the Government would adopt the neighbourhood school policy and upgrade all State run schools to Central school quality so that every child could walk to a good school. The RTE per se should provide quality education in their own schools to thus allow every child in India to access such education. The model elucidated in the Section 12 of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act  2009 states that the Act has made it compulsory for every private unaided school to admit at least 25% of its entry level class from children belonging to weaker and disadvantaged groups. The article cited above shows the many flaws of this proposal and is worth a read. One of the comments I agree with in toto is the following: This minor social engineering has produced some ridiculous protests from the elite. Yet, equally ridiculous is the claim that this will significantly help the poor. Of India’s hundreds of millions of schoolchildren, only a few thousand poor will enter the elite havens. The others will remain at the mercy of third-rate government schools that provide no worthwhile education. We seem to be a State that loves social engineering and reservations of all kinds. For the last six decades and more we have shown that we are masters at perpetrating divisive polices and thus create a new caste system.

I have also realised over the years mutating from a naive and ignorant person, who believed with credulity that every social programme initiated by the Government was done for the right reasons, to a cynical and disenchanted one, that these programmes are not meant for the stated beneficiaries but to fulfil wily political agendas and fill deep pockets. This is done with great finesse and a perfect play. people are led to believe that all such programmes are debated by activists and the people and thus carry   a stamp of approval. This is a sham as ultimately all the inconvenient parts are deleted and the Bill presented at the appropriate time like just before elections to show one’s self as the Messiah of the downtrodden. And we gullible idiots refuse to see through their game.

One of our most respected activist who has been the at the helm of many important proposals resigned yesterday from the  National Advisory Council that  that sets the social agenda for the government. In her statement she said: It is difficult to understand how a country like India can deny the payment of minimum wages and still makes claims of inclusive growth. The story is the same be it minimum wages, education, health and even food security. I do not understand how startling statistics such as more than 5000 children dying every day of malnutrition does not trouble our law makers and administrators. I guess it is perhaps it is not their children who die. It is only when we find it in ourselves to take ownership of all that is wrong and raise our voices that things may change. Why do I feel that that day is still a long time coming.

I started this post by expressing my reservation on the 25% reserved for poor children in all schools from the swankiest to the humblest. First of all the stark reality is that it is not the poor kids who are availing of this facility but  middle class kids with clever parents who are masters at getting fake documents. However let us presume that some truly deserving kid make it, there is no way the child can keep abreast with the remaining 75%.  Here is a small example.

I am in the process of helping Utpal finished his holiday homework. His school did give us hard copies of the said homework but in the case of Kiran, the homework had to be downloaded from the Internet. I wonder how a kid living in a slum could manage that. Then the homework itself required lots of searching on the Net and most of the questions could not be understood by the child himself and needed adult help. And last but not the least it cost me over 1500 rupees to get all the stationery and other material required to complete the homework. I would love to ask our Education Minister how he expects illiterate and poor parents to get their child’s homework done.

This is only one aspect of the situation. There many more. Just put yourself in the place of a slum kid in a swanky school. You will have all the answers.

We need to stop fooling ourselves. It is our money that runs all the social programmes in the country. It is time we demanded accounts. But to do that we must first accept that there exists a whole world on the other side of an invisible line, and they too are citizens of this country with same rights as us.

a clumsy winged voyager!

a clumsy winged voyager!

This is the picture that is sits on my computer and on my phone screens. It is my feel good shot and normally can bring a smile on my face under any circumstances. But for the past weeks or should I say months the magic has not worked. True the smile does appear but it is a tad jaded and laced with sadness. Recent events have brought to the fore the reality that you may make all the plans you want, and think you have the power to control your destiny, everything can change in a moment as you are a puppet and the strings are in unknown hands. My father tried to explain this to me in a spiritual way by saying that not a single leave moved without the will of God. Yet we mortals easily fall prey to hubris and defy those very Gods. When things go right, we become brazen and start making impossible dreams and with each dream or wish fulfilled we begin to believe that we are masters of our destiny. For the past decade or so my life, both personal and ‘professional’ – I guess that is what pwhy is – has been nothing short of wondrous, barring a few hiccups easily resolved. It was an obstacle race I managed to win with ease. From a tiny project with barely 3 persons and a small biscuit distribution programme, we morphed into one that reaches out to 1000 beneficiaries and at every stage we cleared every milestone almost effortlessly.

I discovered a whole new world and fell in love with it. My greatest gift and blessing was Popples landing in my life. True they were many lessons one had to learn and accept, some quite troubling and even distressing but that was part of the game. My own world kept pace and all those I love prospered and flourished. I became a grandmother when a little Angel landed in my heart. My life partner moved into retired life with a spring in his gait and opportunities galore. His strong shoulder was always there to lean on when things looked a little blue. Everything seemed on course and life could not have been better.

Then one day, almost a year ago, my carefully constructed and nurtured life fell apart. The one, who had always been the strongest fell, ill and this time nothing went as planned. I only could watch helplessly as he who was my strength began wasting away in front of helpless eyes. I knocked at every door from the white coat specialist to the preferred star gazer. Every test was inconclusive and every magic formula in vain. No one seemed to understand what was happening. And as days became weeks, and weeks turned into months a new lexicon stemmed out of the recesses of my mind. I started thinking almost surreptitiously about the expiry date of one’s life. Alas it is not printed on the soles of our feet when we wail our way into this world. Actually the only thing we are sure about when we are born is that we will die and what comes in between is anyone’s guess. So the maxim that urges us to live one day at time, and live it as if it was our last is true and believing that everything  will run the way we want because we are knowledgeable and have done all the right things is pure folly.

Everything could change in a instant. Gone was the hubris. The wise thing would be to start tying loose ends as quickly as possible. Time to stop dreaming. One actually had to live every day as if were the last one and complete tasks with a yesterday deadline.

When I look at my little boys today with a somewhat despondent smile, I realise that for one of them at least my task is far from over. When you extend your hand to someone and s/he holds it tight, it is a lifelong engagement. The child can be the one you gave life to and who clings to your finger instinctively or the one that everyone gave up on except you. I would like to see my grandson grow into a young man but that can only be wishful thinking. But the one I reached out to is another story. Maybe that is the biggest loose end that needs to be tied. I know there are many who love this little fellow, but his future can only be secured if I ensure that he has a Trust Fund that would look after his further studies, and give him what he needs to begin life. At least ensure his needs, if not his wants. So from today on, this picture will be a reminder of what I still have to do and do fast. I just hope and pray many will come forward and extend their hand. It is funny that I who till now was the one reaching out to others find myself on the other side of the fence. I guess this a lesson that has to be learnt. The sad but true reality is that in the world we have created and are so proud of there is scant place for compassion and empathy. The lexicon in use is that of money. I am sure many would be willing to look after this little man provided they do not have to dip into their pockets. I may be sounding cynical but this is something I have learnt over the years. The child protection law that has declared me person deemed ‘fit’ to look after this child and keeps an eye on him as we have to ‘produce’ him in court every time he comes on a school break, washes their hands of him the day he turns 18. He would barely be out of school. And then who cares for him? The law decrees he cares for himself. Who makes these laws I wonder. I only know that I have to make sure that he has money for further studies and also mentors to guide him and love him. Not an easy task but one that has to be done.

It is also time to sift what my mind demands from what my heart yearns for. Secure my pwhy family without chasing impossible dreams; tie up the few essentials of my personal life and ensure that my children can walk into my shoes without any pinches. So need to make a sensible bucket list and fulfil it!

For the very first time in my life, I am truly out of my depth and feel I am caught in a swirling vortex of emotions and events I cannot handle. It is a first for me as till date I had always felt I was in the driver’s seat. As an only child my wonderful parents always made sure that I felt that way and come to think of it, this game continued till the day they left me and even after. They had given me the skills needed to overcome obstacles and challenges without falling apart or if I did, then bouncing back before anyone knew.

After they left, my partner took over and never stood in my way and was always the wind beneath my wings and I a soaring free bird. Today I am grounded. There is no wind to propel me. I feel like Baudelaire’s Albatross: a clumsy winged voyager!

I never realised that in all my existence there was always someone to blow the wind needed to move the wings insisted on wearing. It is a reality check. Maybe God’s way of seeing whether I can be a soaring winged voyager without help or just a clumsy one!

The hunger games

The hunger games

A mother of five watched two of her children die of hunger! I wonder if you can even begin to imagine the pain and total helplessness of this woman. We are of those who run after our kids with plates of food, willing to conjure anything alternatives treats should our brat refuse the fare of the day. We are of those who move heaven and earth should our child get a minor scratch. We are of those who have never experienced hunger pangs or seen our child hungry. So how can we even begin to feel the agony of that mother. The authorities with their art of splitting hair  and their misplaced wisdom declared the children had died of diarrhea as they always do to keep their statistics clean. According to them few really die of starvation. For us it is just a news item, if we are one of those who switched on the TV at the opportune time.

Starvation is something we prefer ignoring as it shows us in a poor light and is not in sync with the image our rulers and many of us want to project. But starvation is real even it we want to look away. It is a terrible failure on our part and is partly if not mainly due to our inability to ensure that social programmes are implemented properly and not hijacked by the corrupt ways of some and the total indifference of others. Grains rot as we can’t put a distribution system in place and most of all the really poor slip out of the net of obtuse paper work. The equation is skewed to favour the administration not the beneficiary and thus the real poor get left out.

Starvation or near starvation exists in XXIst century India. It is not all about food but about systemic failure and the failures of all programmes that could have helped the poor regain ownership of their lives. The proposed Food Security Bill solution to starvation is that all those people who are identified would be guaranteed two free meals per day for six months. My question is: what happens after 6 months, provided of course that persons identified are true beneficiaries.

In Ash in the Belly the author recounts how mothers ferret rat holes for grain to feed their children! I do not think anyone of us can understand the pain and desperation of these mothers and yet they do the best they can even if to many it sounds degrading and unacceptable. These are true stories you can read if you have the heart.

A Food Security Bill, no matter the flaws, was introduced in Parliament in December 2011. One would have thought that the 500 odd representatives of the people would at least come together and pass this bill swiftly. But they did not. For them hunger is just a game to be played at the opportune moment, let us say before elections. No one really cares about those that are dying simply because we have not been able to implement programmes meant to alleviate hunger. For our lawmakers these are just gimmicks to make them look good, and once the law has been passed, then ways to enrich themselves.

The amount of food that is wasted is humongous from the grains that rot for want of space, to food thrown at parties, weddings, religious feeding etc. Our children throw food and we say nothing. Respect for food is not instilled in our young ones. I do not know if you have seen the ad for a food supplement for children, where a brat pushes away a plate of healthy food with distaste. I shudder each time I see this ad. Such representation should be banned! It is time we taught our children respect for food and told them about the starving children. It is not right to hide realities from kids. Compassion and concern should be taught to children at a young age.

But let is come back to the Food Security Bill. I do not know if it will really bring the change it meant to. It is likely to go the way all social legislation have. And that is often because of our indifference. A recent article published in a weekly traces the chronicle of the Integrated Child Development Services  ICDS, a scheme launched with great fanfare way back in 1975 to improve the nutritional and health status of pregnant and lactating mothers and children in the 0-6 years age group, to reduce infant mortality, morbidity, malnutrition and school drop-out rate and to lay the foundation for the proper psychological, physical and social development of the child. Had the scheme been well implemented India would have looked different. As we all know it is 9 months and 1000 days that are the most crucial to a child. The article aptly entitled Privatising the ICDS once again proves the way our rulers like to take each and every time be it education, health, midday meals or any other programme that benefits the poor. The well run pilots proved that the scheme were successful but the Government was extremely lethargic in moving to universalise the scheme, and provided only pathetic amounts to finance it and enable it to function properly and this even after a Supreme Court Judgement noted that the ICDS was very important in the overall development of children in India and ordered the Central government to universalise the scheme to cover all children in the country. The State did but a recent report shows that 61 per cent of the AWCs  (creches) did not have their own building, and that another 25 per cent were functioning out of kuccha/semi-pukka buildings or partially open structures. Between 40 and 65 per cent did not have separate spaces for cooking, storing food items or separate spaces for children’s activities. Fifty two per cent of the AWCs did not have their own toilets, and 32 per cent had no drinking water facility. Functioning weighing machines for children and adults were absent in 26 per cent and 58 per cent of AWCs respectively. The State promised to change things and now proposes to hand over the running of the creches to NGOs and private parties. You can imagine the consequences.

I said earlier that the change we would like to see, as I presume that even if we are cynical, the idea of children dying of malnutrition is preposterous and unacceptable, needs us to take a proactive role. I am sure many of you would be thinking I am mad. Our political duty does not stop at casting a vote but should also extend to asking questions and giving a voice to those who have none. We have a wonderful legislation in the Right to Information, and how many card games or kitty and other parties we would have to miss were we to take a sheet of paper and file an application under the RTI Act asking let us say for example how many Anganwadis there are in a locality, maybe the one where those who work in our homes live, where they are situated, what nutrition is give, does their weighing machine work. Or why could we not ask our maid to take us to an Anganwadi and see for ourselves the reality on the ground and then write to our MP or MLA. If we did, then believe you me things would be different.

This may sound like wishful thinking, but is is time we took ownership of things that shock us and lend our voices to straighten the tort.

Will we? That is the question!

A letter to those who gave me the gift of life

A letter to those who gave me the gift of life

Dear Mama and Tatu,

Today would have been your 64th wedding anniversary. I do not know why after so many years I feel like writing to you. It has been more than 2 decades since you left me and there has not been a day when I have not missed you. It is strange how we miss those we loved more after they leave us. I guess as long as you were there one just lived by the day and never saw things in a larger perspective.

When I was a child Tatu you were the one who always stood in the way of my wanting to fly on my own wings bet it an invitation to spend the night at a friend’s house or go on a school trip, and when I was older to go out dancing or just hanging with friends. I must confess that I learnt to jump the walls and sneak out every night. Today I realise that it was because you loved me so much. You would have got the moon into my room if that were possible, but could not live a minute without knowing I was safe. Your safety rules were very restrictive and incomprehensible at that time and led to many banged doors and tears but then how can I forget the gentle knock on the same door that always followed and the super treat that you then cooked for me to the dismay of the kitchen staff, as they were not used to Ambassador Sahib whipping omelettes for his rebellious child. How could they ever imagine that all it took was a banged door and a fluffy omelette to set things right between an adoring father and his adored child. As I said, those were days when we lived one day at a time, and sorted our problems one at a time. And if your brand of safety did feel almost abusive at that time, today it seems it was the only way you knew to express your love. That is only one side of the story. There is another when you and I seemed more like partners in crime trying to hoodwink mama. How can I forget the innumerable dinners for two you and I shared as you instilled in me a love for gastronomy even before I could walk or talk properly. I remember dining with you at Maxim’s. I could go through a 4 course meal without a problem while having to be propped up on several cushions to reach the table. But that is not all you taught me. I think the biggest lesson you taught me was that of compassion and humility. Yes I was the spoilt Ambassador’s brat, but you sent me to neighbourhood schools where I rubbed shoulders and made friends with regular kids. You taught me respect for the other, no matter who the other was. I remember how on each and every Diwali celebrated in faraway lands, you ensured I touched the feet of everyone older than me, be it the cook or the housemaid. And I never resented it as you had instilled into me that it was the right thing to do. As we both grew we may have drifted apart but I can tell you today that there was only one place I felt safe and that was in your arms. 

If I am profoundly Indian it is because of you Mama. The very first word you spoke to me was in Hindi and you carried on doing so until the day you were sure that Hindi had become my mother tongue. I remember being shocked when I realised that you spoke other languages! It is at your knees that I learnt about my land and its beauty. You shared storied of your life that were imbibed with India’s fight for freedom and though you never believed in ritualism, you celebrated each and every festival in all its minutest details to allow me to make my own choice when time was ripe. Both of you never stopped me from participating in any religious festivities of friends and encouraged me when I wanted to fast with my Muslim friends or attend Mass with my christian ones. I guess this is why I accepted Hinduism as it felt like a religion that was all embracing. It breaks my heart to see what is happening today in the name of religion.

Mama you also gave me another lesson that I am deeply grateful for. I remember when during school holidays you would insist I learn to cook, sew, iron clothes, wash clothes, clean the house and help the staff. There were times when it did irk me, but today I realise that you were teaching me dignity of labour. It is something that is truly lacking in today’s India. 

I grew up in many countries but both of you ensured that I knew who I was and where I came from. My education was westernised but it never came in the way of my Indianess. Actually it enriched me in more ways than one and allowed me to be a better person or so I would like to believe. I could go and on as my memories are filled with exceptional moments I lived with both of you. Let me just say that if I am who I am today, it is because of the two of you.

But today is your wedding anniversary and I find myself writing about me! I guess this is part of the only child syndrome. Today I must talk about your incredible love story that few know. 

Mama you had resigned yourself to being an old maid as you had made a decision of not marrying before India gained its independence. You were quite a gal as you drove your own car, lived alone in Delhi under the watchful eye of one of your father’s client who had been accused of some horrible crime but has been acquitted thanks to your father’s pleading. He owed his life to him and thus protecting you was sacrosanct. He was a true Cerberus. 

Papa you too were living a lonely life in Mauritius though professionally you were at your zenith. You were a judge at a very young age and had even been  one of the youngest recipient of the MBE. I have your medal safely tucked away in a drawer and a yellowing picture commemorating the event. You told me you had once been engaged but the marriage never took place because of your mother’s demise. I guess you were both resigned to your lives. But someone had other plans.

Ma, I remember you telling me that when you had got your father to accept your decision not to marry in an enslaved India, you had also promised him that if you were still of marriageable age at India’s Independence you would marry anyone he chose. You must have been around 30 in 1947. It was an age when women were considered old maids. But your father remembered the promise and was on the look out for a suitable ‘boy’. Destiny took over and a common friend of both families suggested Tatu for you. I guess loneliness had got to you Tatu and your needed a wife on the new career you were embarking upon as you opted for Indian nationality and were to join the Indian Foreign Service. You were an odd couple: the highly educated Gandhian small town lass and the westernised bon vivant. It could not have been love at first sight for you Mama because as you told me once, when you first saw Tatu you thought he was the father for a prospective bride for your brother!

Tatu had been posted to Prague where he was meant to open the Indian mission and had a few days leave. He decided to woo you in the only way he knew: the western one. So there he was taking you on tonga – horse carriage – rides to the Lodhi Garden which was then almost on the outskirts of the city to buy you roses and then to Hamilton, the jewellers of the Brits, to buy you an engagement ring. You followed him wide eyed and totally in love. The only one who was not happy was your Cerberus!

I found a bundle of letters that you wrote to each other during you courting days. I must confess that I only gleaned through one and could gage how much in love your both were. I could not read those letters as I felt I would be prying in a space that was yours. Maybe my children will read them one day!

Your love story is not the kind you find in books and novels. It is borne out of your desire to reach out to the other in ways that were unique. Mama you had to get rid of your nationalist persona as you were  now the wife of a senior diplomat and embrace a world of luxury so alien from the one you knew as the child of a man more often in prison then at home. Papa you had to learn how to please a woman who tastes were so incompatible to yours. In communist Czechoslovakia you had to conjure green vegetables for the woman you loved as she was not one to share your taste for scoops of caviar or an orange duck. But mama you were to the manor born and all through your life you performed like a star.

When I came into this world and was old enough to understand things, both of you always seemed the perfect couple and incredible parents. It is only when I read one of your diaries after your death mama that I realised that there were problems and that you had handled them with such dignity. Tatu your jealousy and possessiveness was almost psychotic. You were unwilling to share the woman you loved with anyone, even her own family and siblings. You resented the time she spent with them in the most childish manner. Mama you were able to look beyond the petty attitude of your husband and realise that it was just his way of loving you and you accepted it without a sigh. I could never have done that. But this was your way of proving your love and I hope you understood it Tatu. You know that this incredible woman whose child I am so proud to be learnt French just for you, as French culture was engrained in your soul and she wanted to share what you loved best. 

But I think Mama that the best proof of how much Tatu loved you was in the last year of your life when you fell ill and lost part of your recent memory. You had cancer, but no one was supposed to utter the C word. You refused treatment and wanted to live life till the last breath. How difficult it was for you Tatu to see Mama wasting away and not accepting any medical help. But you did what she wanted and found ways of easing her pain. You had a hairdresser come almost every day and a beautician take care of her at home. You took her for lunches and to the theatre or concerts, even if you did not like Indian music. You had read somewhere that fish was good for her condition and Mama you ate that fish for him even if I know you threw up after each meal. Wow you guys were something.

In your last days you refused to sleep Mama and would only accept to do so if Tatu sat next to you holding your hand and waking you up every 45 minutes and he did that night after night without a word of murmur of protest. There are so many incidents of those days and I will not recall them all but there was one that particularly moved me. When you had completely lost your recent memory and could not remember what you had done the previous day, Tatu would make you write a daily diary and if someone came to visit you, you would quietly go into your room and read the relevant page and then act naturally. This was his way of protecting your dignity. 

I sit today remembering both of you and wondering whether I have been able live to your expectations and to the quasi impossible ideals you set as an example. I can feel your presence in the home you built with so much love.

Today I too have been thrown a challenge that will test my ability to rise to the heights you did and prove that I too can love in the exquisite way you showed me. 

I miss you Mama and Tatu.

Your child


My all new stress buster

My all new stress buster

For the past months I have been terribly stressed. The reasons are many, some personal and some professional. This cocktail has been a heady one and needs immediate first aid. The normal remedies do not work for me for several reasons. I find it hard to meditate though a friend recently told me a form of meditation called gibberish meditation that seems compatible with my personality. It is called gibberish meditation and goes from singing la la la to the sky to talking nonsense non stop and even jumping and rolling yourself on the floor. The trick is to go on for 20 minutes! I have not begun yet as I am still trying to find the appropriate time and space to ‘meditate’ without having my household think that I have had a meltdown and lost it! But I do intend starting this very soon.

Sometimes the Gods do decide to smile upon you and they did. With stress mounting by the minute, I knew I had to find some outlet I had to find some relief and it came in the most unexpected manner. You know how much I dread Utpal’s holiday homework as it is always a battle royal to get it finished. Most of it is quite inane and makes me wonder what the child learns. It has been, for the past years, a bane that spoils the holiday mood as most of the time one is hounding the child to write his daily page or do the annoying sums. But this time, when Utpal landed and showed me his homework he was all smiles and ready to take on the homework challenge. More so because he wants to finish it by the time Agastya my grandson and his pal land early next month. So we attacked the homework head on.

I took the printed sheets and worked out a plan. There was some research to do and I began in earnest and found myself enjoying every minute of it. So for the past days we have been collecting material, making posters, making charts and colouring them. Harvest festivals, malnutrition, antonyms and synonyms, proverbs, environment is what has kept me busy and stress free, at least for a couple of hours a day. I have been having a whale of a time doing things I did when I was young and loving every minute of it. Handling glue, colour pencils and crayons. Sharpening pencils and drawing straight lines with a ruler are things I had forgotten and like Proust’s madeleine brought back memories of happy yore years.

So till I find my space to scream and shout, holiday home work is my all new stress buster.