a teacher spent extra time with a student

a teacher spent extra time with a student

 Today in America, a teacher spent extra time with a student who needed it and did her part to lift America’s graduation rate to its highest levels in more than three decades. This is the way the President Obama began his State of the Union speech. I must confess that I am not interested in American politics, have scant if not no knowledge of economics and other such matters but have admired President Obama’s oratory skills and found inspiration in his speeches. Today his opening words unleashed a torrent of thoughts I could barely control. It is almost the best example of brain mapping one could find and I hope I can put all of it in some coherent way in this post. Please forgive me for the heady cocktail of emotions that I am about to pour out.

(Before we go any further, I would like you to pay a little attention to the picture above. It was taken in our Govindpuri primary class and the teacher you see is Anita one of the first students of Project Why. She joined us when she was in class I and graduated school two years ago. She has been teaching for the past 3 years and is about to complete a Bachelor in Commerce from the Open University. Her father is a contractual worker in a factory and her mother is a housewife. She is an extremely dedicated teacher and has spent many extra hours helping students in need. She came to my mind when I heard Obama’s opening words.)

I heard bits and pieces of the speech as I was going about the morning routine. My mind kept going back to his opening words and suddenly it was like an epiphany that brought some kind of order to the disturbing, angry, sad, despairing and troubling thoughts that I have had in the past weeks as I helplessly watch the political circus and the aberrations that come my way when I flick on a news channel, open the morning paper or browse through a magazine. What you get is a dissonant variation on the same themes. Speeches that mean nothing, sycophancy that makes you gall, promises that are and cannot be kept, vigilantism that makes no sense, protests for to save egos, calls to anarchy, shouting matches on the idiot box, battles over whose statue should be higher, and on the other hand, kangaroo courts that have scant respect for the law of the land and condemn a woman to be gang raped for having loved, courts that uphold antediluvian laws that criminalise a whole section of society for their sexual preferences, bonded labour whose hands are chopped because they dared to speak, a 14 month old girl raped by her father’s friend, homeless dying of the cold in India’s capital city in spite of promises of shelter. The list is endless. Seems like everyone’s priorities are skewed and wrong. It is all about agendas and egos. I almost feel sorry for the desperation to make a statesman out of a reluctant soul because of some feudal and dynastic past we refuse to shed. In our land a beggar’s son has to be a beggar and a leader’s son a leader.

I am sick and tired of all the, moral policing. I was shocked to hear the spokesperson of a leading political party defend her party’s view on homosexuality, a view that reeked of false morality. I am sick of vote bank politics that accept denying basic human rights to people who hurt no one.

For the past weeks I have been wondering why I am so disturbed. It was Obama’s words that made me realise why. If you think of any recent speech by the PM, by aspiring PMs, by leader of political parties, any political debate on TV and so on you realise that you never hear anything about education, or of you do it is yet another promise that will remain just that. Obama began his speech by talking of a teacher and a student and the need to lift graduation levels. He had his priorities right. Change, empowerment can only happen when people get education and not the kind of literacy that we see in India, where writing your name makes count as ‘literate’.

 What we hear in our political firmament is one person attacking his opponent time after time, or vague promises of empowering large sections of society like the women and youth (they form the largest vote banks). No one tells us how. We never hear of education because children are not vote banks. We do not hear of malnutrition that stunts the development of children, of hunger that makes women ferret rat holes for grain. We never hear anyone telling us they will ensure that every child will go to school including the child who begs at red lights and that no one will go to sleep hungry. Hunger is something that deprives you of every shred of dignity as you spend every living minute thinking of food and how to feed your children.

The women, the youth you want to empower can only become empowered if they are not hungry, if they have a roof on their heads. And once you have dealt with hunger, the first step to empowerment is education and unless you address that problem India cannot change. We all should be ashamed of the state of our education.

I have written ad nauseum about the state of our education as I have, for the past 14 years, seen every aspect of what we call education in India, beginning from the aberration of a paltry 33% to acquire a certificate or degree that gets you nothing to the pathetic and shameful state of state run schools. I have also witnessed the heart breaking hunger for learning in every child that has come to project why. I have seen failures become toppers with just a gentle push and spent many a sleepless night wondering how could help more such children with the meagre resources at my disposal.

Education in India is abysmal. It is not I alone who says that. A UNESCO report published yesterday states that even after completing four years of school, 90% of children from poorer households remain illiterate. And this also holds true for around 30% of kids from poorer homes despite five to six years of schooling. This in spite of all the policies, Acts of Parliament and promises we are now sick of hearing. And as for the women that one of our aspiring PM wants to ’empower’, if things remain as they are the richest young women have already achieved universal literacy, the poorest are projected to do so only by 2080. That is 66 years down the line.

Simply sending children to school and giving yourself a pat in the back is not enough. With the no fail policy till class VIII you now have children who will spend 8 years on a school bench and still be illiterate though they will have a certificate saying they are class VII passed!

The same report also states that India has the highest population of illiterate adults: India has the highest population of illiterate adults, 287 million, 37% of the total population of such people across the world, according to Unesco’s Education for All (EFA) Global Monitoring report.

Every time we eat out we pay an education cess of 3%. I realised this a few days back. Where does the money go? It is shameful that in India’s capital city we cannot send all our children to school in the most productive hours ie mornings. Our boys go to school after 1pm when the girls have finished their shift. Schools still run in barracks or even tents and in the open come rain, sunshine or cold. Over 100 children are crammed in a class meant for 40 kids. What kind of enabling environment is this. It takes court interventions to get drinking water or acceptable toilets. And no one cares.

I feel both humbled, blessed, frustrated and elated at the fact that for the past 14 years we have been reaching out to an average of 600 kids a year. Today our headcount is 1000 but will not remain so for long as we have limited resources and the cost of living will compel us to cut our numbers in order to retain our staff.

I wish people who have deep pockets understood the importance of education and reached out to those like us who have our priorities right and helped us. But it is simply banging your had against a wall and no matter how hard a nut you have, there comes a time when it hurts and you give up.

So when I see what is happening I see red. A government we elected because we thought it may be different has lost its way. And unless they too have an epiphany, we are condemned to more of the same.

What have the children of India done to deserve this fate. Stupid me. We are feudal and a beggar’s child has to remain just that: a beggar’s child!

Republic of shame

Republic of shame

Anyone who has a modicum of decency, a grain of compassion and a tiny bit of heart should hang her/his head in shame on the eve of our 65th celebration of our Constitution. A magazine that has hit the stands today and is not yet fully on line though you can read parts of it at this link, chose to place some very disturbing figures on its cover along the title: India’s lost children. 38% of our children are forced into sex trade, 23% are forced into domestic servitude, 4% routed to work at hotels and hospitals, 3% shackled at sweetmeat and garment units. Please buy a copy of The Week and read on if you have the guts to do so. An article on how child traders chose their victims made me physically sick. Here is a screenshot of the beginning of the article so that you understand

But it does not end there. The statistics and stories are terrifying. The sex market has redefined its needs: younger girls (10 to 14), young boys who are not only domestic workers but sex slaves for their masters too prudish to come out of the closet, beggar mafias, child labour where two years old carry bricks. Children who are the gift of God and who should be pampered and cared for as indeed they are on the other side of the invisible line, are treated in the most horrific ways as laws after laws are made and remain on paper. How many childhood have we hijacked in the past 65 years of our so called Independence.
You just need to step out of your house with your heart glasses on and you will see these children: begging at red lights, working in a dhaba, working on construction sites, and even working in homes of the likes of us. I wish that all the drama that happened last week to get 2 cops suspended for not raiding a house of alleged ill repute, had been enacted to save the children of India. I would have supported it whole heartedly as nothing short of a revolution will save our beautiful children. But they have no voice and no vote! How I wish someone took up their cause and simply ensured that all the zillions of laws enacted to supposedly protect them did not remain on paper. 
Let me tell you a true story that happened to one of our own girls.  Let us call her M. M is 16. A beautiful and spirited girl. One morning she was slapped and abused by her mother and in a fit of rage she left home. A police case was filed and all the police did was harass our staff and particularly one of our male teachers. This went on for weeks. The girl was not found. Three months went by then one day we heard the girl had been found in another town. This is what happened. M in her fit of rage went to the railway station and sat in a train. She had no ticket and was soon apprehended by the TC. A middle age man offered to pay her ticket and did so. M who had seen scant affection poured out her heart to this nice uncle. He promised to take her back to her home but asked her to first come with him to his house as he had some work to finish. You can guest the rest. She was ‘sold’ for a few pieces of silver and forced into prostitution. One day she managed to lay her hand on a mobile phone and called her family. Today her family refuses to send her back to school in spite of her best efforts. I guess she will be married to some old man and live a life of legalised abuse. 
How can we celebrate freedom or democracy till we ensure that all our children are safe. And how long will remain mute and frozen and go about our petty little lives with our eyes shut.
Let this republic day be the one when we finally garner the courage to open our eyes and look with our heart and move out of our catatonic state and pledge to give every child in India back her lost smile.

You say you want a damn revolution

You say you want a damn revolution

You say you want a damn revolution

 Well, you know We all want to change the world
 You tell me that it’s evolution
 Well, you know We all want to change the world

This is our Chief Minister sleeping on the street, in the freezing cold to make a point. Whatever the point, it is first to see a senior politician bundled in a quilt, much in the way many homeless sleep in Delhi. For many it was a show, a gimmick, anarchy, law breaking and more of the same. But give it a thought would ANY of our senior politicians take such a step to get something for those who have elected them. Whether this is unconstitutional or below the dignity, it has never been done. It is a revolution of sorts and it has shaken the foundations of everything we knew till now.

The same CM was criticised when he said during his sit in that: Republic Day does not mean people enjoying tableau at Rajpath… it means the rule of people! To many it may sound offensive, intolerable and do on, but come to think of it, he has a point. It is perhaps time to rethink on why we celebrate Republic Day and whether we are truly justified in doing so. As a child Republic Day was a fun outing and the parade a treat for our  still star filled eyes. Then as one grew up the enthusiasm dwindled and the idea of having to get up early and walk miles became a chore and with the advent of live TV one could still view the pomp and glory.

For the past years, since I began blogging, I have written a post on Republic Day. But these have been about the celebrations our children organise at every centre. Today too they will be hoisting the national flag and singing the anthem with pride. Watching them is heart wrenching as one knows how their morrows have been hijacked by wily politicians and corrupt administrators. This year I did not have the heart to go.

I wondered what I would write today in the face of all the chaos we are witnessing where hubris mingles with hope and one wonders who will be the winner. The arrival of a new party which seemed to look more like the one our forefathers would have wished for when they drafted the very Constitution we celebrate on January 26th gave us all a sense of hope. We were all willing to forgive them their teething problems as we knew that the well entrenched parties will do everything within their power to ensure their fall. The incidents of last week did upset even die hard supporters as it was not in sync with what we had all pinned our hope’s on. What was endearing about the new kid on the block was that it proved to one and all that that elections could be won without huge sums of money, with utmost transparency and irrespective of class, creed, caste and social background. What a breath of fresh air. We were all touched by the enthusiasm of our young ministers who took to the task head on. They were like kids with stars in their eyes and I guess that most of us were willing to forgive them their mistakes hoping they could correct them as they moved along.

I was extremely sad when one incident turned ugly and gave all detractors the break they were looking for. I so wish our CM had simply asked the minister in question to take time off till the matter was cleared. By trying to defend him, he has given more fuel to his detractors. It is now a dirt political game with all guns blazing: from racism, to gender issues, to political filth. I just hope our new party learns their lessons fast and take all the remedial measures needed. They are the only hope we have, believe me so we need to be patient and pray.

On this republic day I would like us to remember some of the main tenets of our constitution, as we seem to have forgotten them. Every single citizen has the same rights: Equality before law, Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth, Equality of opportunity in matters of public employment, Abolition of Untouchability; Protection of certain rights regarding freedom of speech, etc. Protection in respect of conviction for offences; Protection of life and personal liberty;  Prohibition of employment of children in factories, etc. Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion and in each of these, the framers of our constitution have gone into minute details. Let us not forget the Preamble which states

WE, THE PEOPLE OF INDIA, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a [SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC] and to secure to all its citizens:
JUSTICE, social, economic and political;
LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;
EQUALITY of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all
FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual 
When the CM said Republic Day does not mean people enjoying tableau at Rajpath… it means the rule of people he was right. Can we put our hand on our heart and say that any of the above is true. I remember writing a post in 2011 asking myself what Republic we were. I came up with the Republic of Hunger, the Republic of Corruption, the Republic of the absurd; the Republic of extremes; the Republic of feudalism. Do read this post. Nothing has changed. 
As we parade our republic tomorrow, we do saw in the shadow of a woman condemned to be raped by 12 people for having dared to love. We have a minister who does not appear in front of a Commission and prefers flying kites; we have a father knocking at every door to get the police to find the murderers of his daughter, we have cops brutally beating a man and then scooting off with his money.
So do we have the moral right to celebrate Republic day when 5000 children still die every day of malnutrition, where women and young girls get rapes, where kangaroo courts dispense justice with impunity. Not in my book.
This republic day let us take some time and ponder about who we have become as we are responsible for the India we have made. Let us realise that we have little hope and if we want to change the world then we need a revolution of sorts. The site of a politician sleeping on a street for what he things is right is maybe the beginning of this silent revolution. Even if they do not become the party of our dreams, at least they are trying to shake the ugly foundations we stand on.
Marching on the streets and showing off one side of us whilst hiding the underbelly is no way to celebrate our Constitution.

God to whom little boys say their prayers – 2014

God to whom little boys say their prayers – 2014

 God to whom little boys say their prayers has a face very like their mother’s wrote Sir James Barry. I had written a post with the same title way back in 2007 when Utpal was just 5. At that time we still believed we were miracle makers and the day would come when the little lad would one day have his mom just to himself. But God had other plans. Today Utpal is almost 12. For the past 5 years he has not heard from his mom who left one day and never even called to ask about her son. In the meantime I got his legal guardianship. He battled his demons in his own way. Not getting the answers he wanted because we did not have them, he resorted to challenging behaviour and aggression. With love and patience we helped him craft a new set of relationships and slowly he began to accept us and think of our home as his. 

But the God to whom little boys say their prayers has a face very like their mother’s, and he was just that: a little boy. Last week I had gone shopping with him as I needed a frame for a picture. While I was going about my work, he came to me with a frame in his hand. The frame was an accordion like one with place for 4 pictures. He told me he wanted it. I asked him whose pictures we wanted in them and he said in this other: My mummy, Maam’ji, Agatya and Sirji  (husband). I was stunned, moved and angry. Angry because I had just come to know that his mother had come back and remarried a man with 3 children; moved by the fact that he had not forgotten her and stunned because it had been a long time since he had mentioned her. 

His counsellor has advised us not to tell him about the mother and the new family, he is just entering his teens and has moved school and is still dealing with the bullying he had to suffer in his previous school. The court too felt the same way. We will need to tread slowly as the last thing he needs is for his life to be turned on its head.

Moms sometimes do not realise how much their child loves them, even if they have been abusive or unkind. I have made his little frame and will give it to him when I go and visit him.

Miracles are what happens when you get out of the way of yourself

Miracles are what happens when you get out of the way of yourself

Miracles are what happens when you get out of the way of yourself wrote Brad Szollose. Perhaps that is why the big miracle I sought -making project why sustainable- never occurred. You see I was always in the way. The reason why sustainability is so important to me does not stem from hubris for arrogance. It does not emanate from any misplaced desire to see my work live beyond me. Far from that. My wish to see the work I started comes from the simple fact that I never want my children to stop smiling. It springs from my hope to fulfil the dreams of my children, dreams that they have so trustingly put in my custody. It arises from the frightening thought that the very people who made all this possible and stood by me through thick and thin find themselves on the road. It derives from the very spirit of project why that was to change at least one life. I am nowhere in the picture and should someone want to obliterate my name from my work on the condition of continuing it in the same spirit, I would humbly accept and be eternally grateful.

For the past 6 years or so I have strived to find the magic wand that would open the way to our sustainability. I have made plans and more plans and knocked at every door possible. I have begged and pleaded but to no avail. And with each day passing I have also accepted the fact that big dreams will not come to happen as my strength wanes and my gait dawdles. The options in my bag of tricks are few.

The only way now is if a kind soul, a philantropist, a generous heart or a bunch of them gave me a corpus fund the interest of which could run the project. I am willing to trim the project to the size of the interest. What I seek is not much for many. In my country it would be barely what people spend on one event of a wedding or on a theme party; on 3 hand bags carrying the right label or 4 pairs of shoes! But I do not know such people and maybe investing in something where your dividends are not cash but a smile of gratitude, a first position in an exam or a job you could never have got is maybe asking too much.

Today I am putting this post out on the world wide web and getting out of the way. My only prayer is that it is read by someone whose heart is in the right place and who would invest in a smile.

I will put this post up over and over again and maybe the miracle will happen.