Looking back and looking forward

Looking back and looking forward

2013 was a year that I will remember forever. It is a year when I had to put my life in parenthesises as I was faced with the biggest challenge of my life. Ranjan’s cancer came as a cruel reminder of the cancer that had taken both my parents as I watched in total helplessness and hopelessness. This time I would have to come out a winner even if that meant stopping life as I knew it. That is what I did. My strictly regulated life that had run almost like a clockwork orange since 2000 was put on hold. One of the first casualty was Project Why! It would have been impossible for me to juggle pwhy and Hodgkin as the same time. Mercifully, thirteen years had been ample to train my team and I knew that pwhy was in safe hands whilst I got on learning, then taming and finally overpowering the demon that had entered our lives. I got on with the task and feel I did good, though the battle is not quite over. It will take another six months to really find our way out of the woods. I am confident that this will not be as arduous a task as it has been, as I have now evolved a comfortable pattern that seems to be working. As a new challenge crops up, I know the way to go to overcome it.

Today, on the eve of a New Year, I wonder how I was able to set aside everything that was so dear to me till that fateful July day: the cup of tea and blessings I got every morning, the good mornings of the children, the little problems that one would hash and rehash as it gave one a sense of worthiness, the bigger challenges that required skills you sometimes did not realise you possessed, the long virtual exchanges with friends, supporters and well wishers, the little achievements that turned into huge celebrations, the sense of belonging to a large family and knowing that they were always there for you. All of it had to be put on hold because the one person who held it together for me was in danger. I knew that without him, I would not be able to carry on. So there was never an iota of doubt in my mind when I took the decision to temporarily suspend my life.

Was it easy? Not at all. Did I have coping strategies? Indeed I did. Today I can reveal how I could survive these last months without losing the essence of who I was.  One of the things I found myself doing almost surreptitiously was looking at pictures of project why, pictures spanning all of 13 years. It was a comforting walk down memory lane that I took leisurely, sometimes staring at one snapshot for a long time and letting memories flow back. The picture I chose to illustrate this post must have been taken 8 years or so ago. The little chap in my lap is Popples! Each picture told a story: a story of courage, compassion, fortitude and joy. Each picture brought a flutter in my heart as I knew I was a little part of each one of them. I found myself smiling and even laughing alone. Thank heavens I rise well before dawn and these little escapades happened when everyone else slept. I also must admit a tad sheepishly though, that I often felt a sense of pride laced with humility. In fact, I was truly never away from my beloved project, I simply tuned it to my reality.

In spite of my physical absence and forced sabbatical, project why was very much part of my reality. In some ways this forced vacation compelled me to look at the future realistically. I know that we will have to make changes, so may have to be drastic because of elements beyond our control: the imminent loss of our women centre tenancy, the probable razing and relocation of the Okhla slums in keeping with the new social avatar of this once neglected area, the state of our funding and also because it is now imperative to reassess matters as more than a decade has passed since it all began.

I was telling a friend and supporter about how the social profile of the street where we began in the summer of 2000 had changed. What was once a motley amalgam of mostly single storeyed mud shacks with tin roofs and where our computer centre and maybe a handful of tenements were in brick and mortar, is now a series of multi storeyed brightly painted tenements, with dish antennas and even washing machines. On a street where you barely saw a bike let alone a car but many bicycles, you today see cars, bikes and hardly any bicycles. This is proof that a decade in the life of an urban slum brings about social mobility. However difficult it may be to accept, one has to realise that it is time to move on. I am sure this would have happened irrespective of our presence, but somehow I think that we have had a role, albeit tiny to play in the empowerment of this slum.

Another failure, if I may call it so, that we have to accept is the fact that the model we adopted has resulted in our inability to keep in touch with the majority of our students once they have graduated or left for a variety of reasons: gone back to the village, moved because of the nature of their family’s occupation, moved because of the inordinate rise in rents and so on. This fills me with sadness as it shows a deficiency in our approach as we never thought of setting up an old students group or make sustained efforts to keep in touch with those who had left. I guess this also stems from our initial desire for reaching out to as many children as possible. Numbers did mean access to more funding but also made us take hurried decisions that often did not stand the test of time. We had to shut certain centres because of non availability of space to rent! And let us not forget the fact that when we began there were no NGOs. Today they have proliferated all over.

As our sustainability plan did not come to be, project why’s future is again a cause of concern. Its funding is still very fragile as it depends on goodwill garnered by constant interaction with people. I would be naive and foolish to believe that I will continue to have the energy needed to keep the pace. It is time to find alternative avenues that we can nurture in the coming time so that they can replace the present funding structure. This will be a slow process but needs to be initiated at once. The face of project why has to change and those who have till now been in the wings need to come to the fore. My being AWOL has already started the process.

I am aware of the fact that those who will take over do not have the same skills as I do though they have a host of skills I never had nor will. I feel that what would work best for them is to have a well defined structure that they can take ownership of. What I mean by that is that we need to build our own centre in a location which is approved and hence that will not be razed or relocated. That will ensure that the children we reach out to will remain with us. My idea is to sell the land we have and find a smaller plot near the women centre as it is located near a rehabilitation colony. With the remaining funds we would build a small centre that can be extended in times to come. I truly feel that a building that belongs to pwhy will motivate the team to walk the extra mile needed not only to keep it going but to make it grow.

This is my line of thought as of now. I have six months to fine tune it.

So help me God!

helter skelter

helter skelter

I have not written about recent occurrences and happenings. One of the reason is that I have been somewhat AWOL from life as it once was. But there is another reason which is the onslaught of totally disparate events that defy every norm and challenge reason. Let me try and explain the course of my thoughts. Just as I get in the mood to write about an issue, pops comes another one that stops one’s thoughts! And believe it or not, just as I had written the first line of this post, the news of a mother burning her five month baby to appease the Gods to bring good fortune to her family and feeling no sense of remorse. Speechless.

But that is not all. In the past days/weeks we have heard of a bureaucrat stating that no one dies of cold as if that was the case, no one would be alive in Siberia. This in the wake of the death of many infants and children in the Muzaffarnagar refugee camps! This is so typical. The authorities would concede that children died of pneumonia. My dears Sirs, pneumonia is a result of being exposed to cold. This goes the same was as the misguided assertion that no one dies of malnutrition. True they die of diseases caused by malnutrition and an impaired immune system. I cannot understand the difference. Children die and that is cause enough to hang our heads in shame. I totally agree with the politician who quipped back and stated that the bureaucrat in question need not go to Siberia but simply spend a night preferably with his family in the conditions the children were living in.

As if that was not enough, the CEO of the state where these children are dying of cold, has organised a 14 day carnival with merry making and splurging. Is this simply yet another example of the two Indias? I find it revolting. Needless to say the carnival is funded by our money. Seems like the people who ‘rule’ us have sold their conscience to God knows who. To add fuel to the fire, today’s news says that 150 families were forced to leave their camps. Does anyone even think of where these families will go in this bitter cold.

In another part of India, legislators are off on a study tour! They will visit exotic locations, view exotic dances and partake of exotic meals. Their programme does not seem like a study tour at all more like an R & R with lots of shopping thrown in. Apparently each legislator has the right to 2 such study tours during his/her tenure, all paid by the tax payer. One legislator stated the following: We are not committing a big crime…don’t you send school children on vacation..similarly MPs and MLAs are being sent through the legislature committees…. Yes dear Sir, we sent children on vacation but we pay for their trip! Another legislator who is on a ‘study’ trip to Australia stated that they were meant to go to Japan, but Japan was ‘to chilly’ hence they decided to cross the Equator to warmer pastures. Mind boggling is it not! Seems like the public outrage that has followed this news has made the Chief Minister put all trips on hold.

In Delhi last week 900 person’s homes were left in the cold after their homes were demolished. This in spite of a supreme court order banning demolition during winter months. Many lost everything they possessed. Seems the new Government in the city has promised relief. Let us hope it comes in time.

I guess it is just not the politicians or bureaucrats who has lost their conscience, compassion and empathy. It is said to be the coldest December in 10 years. There are over 50000 homeless in delhi, children, women and elderly people. They are not INVISIBLE. They often huddle under flyovers we go by with the eyes of our heart tight shut. Maybe it is time we opened our eyes and did something. A blanket, a hot meal, a cup of tea, anything to ease the horror of the cold nights these people have to face.

Fulfilling dreams – Utpal’s new school

Fulfilling dreams – Utpal’s new school

I love Utpal’s new school. It is a school after my heart, the kind I would like every child born in India to go to. The first time I visited the school I felt an immediate empathy as you see the Principal is a daughter fulfilling her parent’s dream! But that is far from being the only reason.

When things became out of control in his old school, I had to do something. I suddenly felt transposed to the terrible night way back in 2006 when I scoured the Internet in search of a boarding school for 4 year Utpal. Not easy but I did find one and he spent 8 years in that school. It worked well in initial days when he was still what many would call a baby, younger than what Agastya today. Bu then things did not turn right as grew and understood his reality in bits and pieces and poor child, coped as best he could. He had to deal with the disappearance of his mom, the constant bullying about his scars and a very depleted emotional bank that could only be filled when he was home with us. Things got from bad to worse and the once enabling environment became a depleting one. When all our interventions failed, Utpal auto mutilated himself, thankfully with a blunt metal ruler. It was time to move on.

Another search on the Internet, undoubtedly guided by Utpal’s Angel, helped me find a new school immediately. Utpal, the eternal survivor, took to his new school like a fish to water and once again was to the manor born. The credit goes to his school as much as to him.

There are some very special and probably invisible and intangible elements in his new school. First and foremost in my opinion is the fact that all the children of the school staff from the lowest to the highest have to study in the school as the Founder felt that if anyone thought the school not to be ‘good enough’ for her/his kids then s/he could not give it their best. So the one who cooks, cleans, watches, drives, supervises and teaches ultimately cooks, cleans, watches,  drives, supervises and teaches his/her own child and you always do your best for your child. But that is not all, this non negotiable rule also ensures that children from all walks of life learn together and is thus as close as one can get to my dream school which is the neighbourhood school where children from all walks of life learn under the same roof and bond ties they never would have otherwise. This is a true case of my driver’s kid sharing a bench with my kid, something that is still anathema to many.

The other aspect of this school is that there are kids from across India and some from other countries too! This is a true celebration of diversity.

But the real litmus test of any school, is its ability to highlight the plus points of each child and work on the weaker ones without demeaning the child in anyway. The stunning proof of this is the fact that though Utpal was barely two months in the school which has almost 2000 children, he was part of the Annual Day celebrations where he showcased his skating skills. Need I say more! I am sure that in days to come he will improve in his studies and gain fluency in English. It is only a matter of time.

I have attended two PTMs in this school. The first was barely a few days after Utpal joined. I was overwhelmed to hear his class teacher say that he was an intelligent child, very creative and very polite. In the next PTM, his grades were not bad and again his teacher was full of positive comments. In a short time the school was able to understand the child and work towards boosting his self esteem. The school also has a lovely counsellor who has understood Utpal’s problems.

There are many other things that I have found very impressive in this school: staff quarters are interspersed across the campus so children are always close to adults; the meals that I have share twice are well balanced and varied; children have many sports and physical activities and thus are out in the open for extended period of times.

I hope and pray that Utpal blooms in this school and fulfils both his and my dreams.

Let me tell you why

Let me tell you why

Elections results are out. This time I too voted as for many years someone had decided to strike me off the rolls. This time wonders of wonders my name was on the list. On voting day I wrote a post entitled to vote or not to vote, because I truly felt that there was an option to arrogant style of politics we have been subjected to over far too long. Yesterday’s results are witness to the fact that many of us have had enough of the high handed ways, the corrupt ways and the hubris that seems to have engulfed politics in our land.

I have been on the hit list of local politicos for a long time. The reason? Simply that I had the audacity to empower people who were best left ignorant and subservient and thus easily manipulated. There was time when, because of old links, I had sought the help of the very powers that stand defeated today. What I got was false promises after being sent from pillar to post and treated with contempt. When a community centre was made in the very park we taught in and promised to us but given to a page 3 NGO, I had approached the ruling CEO and still remember being told to continue teaching under trees to which I of course retorted I do not need any one’s permission to do that, and would teach on the trees if need be. That is when I decided to find my own ways. The rest is history!

I was asked last week by a friend why I was so disillusioned as Delhi had improved in the last 15 years. My answer was simple: come and see how the other half lives. It is great to talk of the flyovers and malls and other glitzy buildings. But I would like you to look at some pictures which also are from the very city we live in

This is a ‘house’ where a little girl with brittle bones lived for many years with 7 members of her family. This house is barely 4 feet tall. You had to virtually crawl and tuck yourself in it. No wonder Radha got many broken bones when she lived here as the lack of space resulted in everyone having to walk over the other. The family had to pay 500 Rs a month rent and feed the ‘landlord’. There was one saving grace: this house what a street level. When it was razed during one of the famous slum clearing exercise, the family moved into another ‘house’. The house they live in is about one and half feet below street level, in other words a hole! Like all slum dwellings there is no window, no sunlight, no fresh air and let us not talk of bathrooms and toilets.

But people who live in such holes are still house proud and that is the most touching factor of the ‘survival’ story. It is not easy to store your whole life in a hole and yet that is what slum dwellers manage to do with elan. They find space for their Gods, their belongings, their utensils, their clothes and even the odd decorative object. At night, particularly in winter, 6 or 8 people will sleep in this space, but come morning it is transformed into a space than can even welcome guests as the generosity of such people surpasses ours. I am witness to this fact.

This was the Lohar (gypsy blacksmith) camp next to the Kalkaji bus depot. For many years we ran classes there and were witness to the many razing and rebuilding of this camp. It was almost a cat and mouse game. The authorities came and bulldozed the camp. A day or so later when money exchanged hands, the camp was built again and again, till the fateful day before the Commonwealth games when it was destroyed for good. This community is a nomadic tribe and according to the law should have been resettled. The city gave them and identity as they all had ration cards and voter cards and even a postal address! Every election promised were made to them and never kept.

This is the sad saga of the slum dwellers. They come to the city and find some unused land and put up a shelter of sorts. Instead of the shelter being demolished immediately according to the law as these are illegal encroachments, the corruption drama begins. The authorities ask for money and politicians promise to legalise the settlement. This emboldens the slum dwellers who ‘build’ a better house and even add floors and rent rooms and become ‘landlords’. The whole drama can carry on for decades till one fine day the land is needed and the slums demolished. Some people get relocated but not all. Needless to say that on demolition day no politician is available, they have all gone AWOL. Who cares about what happens to the children, the women, the men; to their schools and livelihood. They are just pushed to some faraway place and given twelve and have square yards of barren land.

I love this picture. It was taken years ago at the Lohar Camp. It proves beyond doubt that every one has a destiny that no one can change. The boy behind me in an orange shirt is Sanjay! He is today a model who walks the ramp not only in India but in Paris! want proof? Here it is.

I had to write about this fairy tale story as many still believe that fairytales do not happen! A much needed breath of fresh air.

But let us move on. The reality is that no one looks at the way the poor live, eat, learn, work, in a word survive. Many slums have been erected next to factories that spew all kinds of toxic smoke and discharge strange coloured chemicals in the drains that flow just in front of tenements, with children playing nearby. I wonder if any study has been done on the health of people who live in close proximity to toxic waste. And talking about health, whilst new swanky hospitals mushroom with alacrity all over town (we have a handful walking distance from my home) nothing new has come up for the poor who have the option of going to local dispensaries if any often to be referred to a bigger hospital miles away, or to visit the local quack who will hand you a set of pills in a plastic pouch without telling you what they are. Often I guess the body takes care of the healing! And if you do have to go to that speciality hospital it means spending the whole day or more and often losing wages for that day.

Instead of building new facilities for the poor, the Government came up with yet again a reservation solution. How we love reservation, it seems to be part of our collective genes. So if you have a BPL card, and let me tell you that this is no easy feat, then you can go to the swanky hospitals. The problem is that many of the poorest of the poor do not have these cards, and most of the poor are unaware of this facility.

Most of the programmes for the poor never reach the really poor as these do not have any documents. Think of the homeless, who should be the first in line for these programmes. On the other hand they are many who hold BLP cards even though they are not poor by any yardstick.

And talking of reservation again, when the Right to Education was adopted, rather than building new schools and improving the existing ones, the Government decide to ‘reserve’ 25% of places in existing public schools from the swankiest to the humblest. Here again the true beneficiaries are either unaware of the scheme or do not have the required documents. However I know of many children from the middle classes who study for free in good public schools as their parents found the ways to get themselves all necessary documentation.

All these populist programmes are just a drain on finances and look good on paper but never reach the intended beneficiaries. If they do, their implementation is a far cry from what is on paper. Just go and visit any of the government run creches under ICDS schemes and you will be horrified.

Corruption is rampant and somehow has become a way of life. Political parties of all hues follow the same practices. Gone are the days of ideologies. It is all about money and power. You will be surprised to know how many bottles of booze and wads of money were lavished on potential voters by all the parties we know.

The arrogance of politicians again of all shades, hues and size is galling. A young widow with three children who works for me told me a shocking tale. When she went to the local Corporator’s office to get the widow’s pension she is entitled to, she was told by one of the minions that she was young and should get remarried. The poor child left and never went back. The reality is that most of the beneficiaries feel that politicians dole these goodies from their pockets. Forget democracy! Feudalism serves politicians better. I always gall at the ‘touching of feet’ syndrome politicians so enjoy. Does it give them a sense of false power

I could carry on and on but I think you get the picture.

So when a new party comes by and does not chose their candidates based on caste, creed and winnability, it is a breath of fresh air. When these unknown candidates trounce old hands then we see a glimmer of hope. One cannot tell whether these motley crew will uphold their principles, but there is no place for cynicism or doubting Cassandras. We have an option. It is up to us to grab this once in a lifetime opportunity.

Project Why 2013

Project Why 2013

2013 has been a very special year for Project Why! A watershed year in more ways than one. For 13 years I had been guiding project why at every step. The first few years saw me present almost 24/7 with hours spent on the field and the remaining on my computer or thinking new ways even when I slept. The next years, I withdrew my daily presence which I felt was a hindrance to my senior staff who were unable to grow their own wings as they felt compelled to be the wind beneath mine. I use to go to the field every morning as I could not stay away from the children and then leave after a cup of tea and my daily fix of Good Morning Ma’am and smiles. In the first months I received umpteen calls seeking guidance and reassurance. But as time went by, the number of calls decreased both in duration and number till the time when there ware almost none. I use to to call to find out how things were and was greeted by a cheery: all well!

My task was a bit little the one of the King in the Mother Goose famous nursery rhyme: Sing a song of sixpence. Substitute ‘finding’ to ‘counting’ and you got it right. My duty was to keep the coffers full now and forever. The now bit worked, the forever sadly is still on the anvil with the iron barely warm. It was an comfortable solution that worked well for all and soon became a habit. Researchers have found that it takes 66 days for anything to become a habit. I discovered this fascinating theory a short while back. Hence we were all set in our ‘habits’ and comfort zones. 2013 was to be a rude awakening that would require creating new habits.

My husband who had been unwell for quite some time took a turn for the worst. The problem was that no one was able to diagnose the cause of his slow fading away. For me, the year began with innumerable visits to innumerable doctors of all kind, and even soothsayers and star gazers. With every day my worry and fears grew my quantum leaps. My presence at the project was severely truncated as most of my time was spent accompanying my husband to all hues of the medical fraternity. Every test was inconclusive or within parameters. We groped in the dark till the fateful day when the final diagnosis was made: cancer. It was a turning point for me as I knew that for some months to come, I would have to give all my attention and time to my husband.

I convened a quick meeting of my senior staff and handed them project why to run till the time I was emotionally and physically able to return. My incredible team had no hesitation in telling me that I should do what my heart dictated and not worry at all. They were true to their word and I am deeply grateful to them.

Last week I requested them to give me a quick rundown on how the year had gone and this is what I want to share with you today. Over and above the day-to-day running of the Project I was astounded to learn about the multitude of things that had been achieved during the year. It goes without saying that every child passed her/his examination and that once again we got good results in the Board exams. But that is not all.

All festivals were celebrated in each and every centre. In March, April and May our children performed a show in the Ashoka and Hyatt hotels for foreign guests. The dances were perfect as workshops had been held prior to the shows.

A group for Stanford University ran workshops with the students of all our centres in based on their SMILE (Stanford Mobile Inquiry-based Learning Environment) and mobile phone were donated to our children. The children are using this learning approach every week and really enjoy it.

Gender equality and adolescent issues workshops were also held in every centre and a sex education workshop was organised for the teachers.

An adult education programme for women has been set up at our women centre and is doing well.

A partnership with Vintage Rides gave our Okhla children the the opportunity to learn about Royal Enfield bikes. Selected students from Okhla school were given  mechanical classes and training in which they learnt about the construction and function of bikes. Vintage Rides has also offered internships to interested students.

A science workshop was organised in all centres as well as a magic show. This was thanks to our favourite volunteers from New Zealand Alan & Em!

A photography workshop was also held with our Govindpuri children as well as an animation workshop with some of our computer kids.

The Khader children were taught to care for plants and our special kids have their little kitchen garden.

Many in house awareness programmes were also held. The topics were water, hygiene, gender equality, pollution etc. Posters, drawing competition and essays were held in all centres.

Some outings were also organised and the children loved them.

The Okhla children painted their school for Diwali and the brave special kids painted their classes and decorated them. Awesome.

And let us not forget the lovely diyas painted by the special children!

There is much more, I am sure. What is overwhelming is the fact that the project ran without any glitch and that is the greatest gift I could have wished for.

I am so proud of my team!

Here are some pictures that will give you an idea of it all.

Ready to perform at the Ashoka Hotel
Learning all about Enfield Bikes
Alan the magician with the Khader kids

Our dancers at the Ashoka

Independence Day at Khader
Performing a play on water issues
Independence Day at Okhla

I chose not to pace ‘dis’ in my ability – the motto of our special kids
Munna and Umesh painting their classroom

The beautiful diyas of our special kids
Performing at the Hyatt Hotel

The creche picnic
Outing of the Govindpuri Primary to the Railway Museum
Painting their school for Diwali at Okhla

The real  project why A team
Dharmendra, Shamika, Rani and Mamaji

And very a very proud Maam’ji