Let me begin by telling you a story:
There was a little boy, say 8 year old or even tinier. He lived in a remote village with his family and not a care in the world. He knows he does not have much, but for him it is more than enough as he has his family. One day a man comes to the village and talks at length with his parents. Some time later he is told to pack his bag as he will be leaving with this man for a nicer place, where food will be plenty and he will even have friends his age. Though he does not want to go, he does as he is told because it seems to make his parents happy. The few tears he sheds will be seen by no one. He follows the man quietly and boards a train. Like all little boys the train journey seems exciting. Maybe his parents had made the right decision.
Fast forward one year later.
It is early morning. The little boy is asleep in spite of his aching back and burnt hands. A loud voice and then a sharp kick in his ribs. It is time to wake up. The master is angry. In no time he is huddled with many little boys like him painstakingly gluing pieces of glass onto brightly coloured bangles. These bangles are the only colours he and his pals see. It has been eons since he saw daylight. The room where he works from dawn to dusk and where he sleeps are dark and damp. Another working day has begun.
This is not a fairy tale nor a horror story! It is the stark reality of thousands of small children ‘sold’ by their poor parents for a paltry few thousands of rupees and used as cheap labour in bangles and other cottage industries. A handful of them were ‘rescued’ yesterday.
The images that were aired on TV made my blood run cold. These boys were barely older than my grandson. They toil day after day and are not allow to rest, let alone play. The chemicals used cause burns that are barely treated. They live in unhygienic conditions and are barely fed. CCTV cameras are fitted in these salubrious surrounding to keep a check on them. Their spirit has been killed. They have become automatons too scared to break any rule for fear of punishment.
I have not been able to sleep since I saw this report.
In the report it was said that 5000 children are sold every month just in the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. They are then sent to faraway states to work in horrific sweatshops. This happens across India in cottage industries, brick kilns, incense making units and ever firecracker making ones where accidents occur time and again. Child labour is alive and kicking! And it is not always invisible. Children work in tea stalls and shops. They work in neighbours and even friends homes. The tragedy is that even when we see them we remain mute and frozen.
It is time we asked ourselves why we do so. Is it because we do not want to ‘offend’ said friend or neighbour? Is it because we feel it does not concern us? Is it because we do not want to get involved in legal and such matters? Or is it because these are not our children and can never be so we simply do not care.
But these are children. Children who should be playing and attending school; children who should be laughing. These are children who have no voice and hope that someone will raise theirs. We all applauded Kailash Satyarthi when he received his Nobel Prize for his fight against child labour. For a a few days ‘child labour’ became the flavour of the moment, the talk at page 3 parties when everyone made the appropriate clucks till a new flavour took over.
There are people working relentlessly to help eradicate child labour but they are few and even with the best intentions cannot win this war alone. Each one of us has to take up the cudgels against child labour in our own way. All that is needed is to pick up your cellphone and dial the child help line or the Child Welfare Committee of your area, should you come across a child working. They will do the rest. You need not reveal your name should you wish to keep your ‘reputation’ intact.
Some will want to lay the responsibility on the shoulders of the parents. Come on, are they not the ones who ‘sell’ their children. How many of us have lived in villages and experienced abject poverty, the kind that makes you feed your child chillies so that she drinks enough water to keep her belly full. How many of us have had to pat a hungry child to sleep? If we had done so, we would understand how easy it is to fall prey to the well oiled seduction spiel of the middle men of mafias that handle child labour. Those five thousand rupees that we spend easily on a meal in a restaurant, mean the world to the hungry and probably indebted family. And then there is the promise of a paltry thousand or so every month.
There are laws, but again these are the kind that cannot be implemented without the help of each and everyone of us. Maybe the first thing we should do is stop giving money to children who beg. That would be a first step in the right direction.
Next let us ask ourselves why is there child labour in a country where there are so many adults on the job market. The answer is simple. It is so well exemplified in our constant need to haggle for everything and want everything cheaper. If you do your maths conscientiously you would realise that the price you are quoting cannot cover the cost of the good, if all laws are respected. The minimum wage in India is around 150 Rs a day for 8 hours. The children rescued were paid 1500 rs a month for 12 hours work. That is a meagre 50 rupees a day. And this tiny labour is not only cheap but docile and easily tamed with a few slaps or kicks. It is a win-win situation for the employer.
The law makers have a role to play too. It is pointless to have toothless laws or laws that have large loopholes. Maybe it is time that every thing manufactured bore labels stating that no child labour was employed and it is also time that we accepted to pay a higher price.
And what about the Right to Education. It is certainly not made for the rich and educated who will send their children to school law or no law. It is for those very children who run the risk of falling into the hands of child labour mafias. And I say it again it is the like of us who can help them and rescue them.
I wonder what happens no ‘rescued’ children. Are they truly rescued? How does one deal with the traumas they have suffered? How does one ensure that they go back to their family and are not sold again? How does one ensure that they get an education if it is not too late for them? How does one give them back their usurped childhood.
How does one make sure that they laugh again?
My bête noire and also my most rewarding challenge is and has been garnering funds for project why. I call it my bête noire because I have or at least had till age 50, found it infra-dig to talk money, let alone solicit for it. So when I was handed over the task of fund raising for project why, and knew that I and only I had to do it, it was a serious challenge. This was not a matter of writing off one of the innumerable loans I have handed out with alacrity. This was to keep project why going. I never knew what a hydra headed monster it would turn out to be and how it would test my very spirit and soul. Over the years I have discovered to my chagrin that it is easier to get donations for tangible projects that show immediate results or to get them for individual cases rather than a multitude of beneficiaries. It has been unbelievably easy to raise funds for let us say a open heart surgery, but raising the same sum to run a class for a month is a herculean task. Project Why works with education in all hues and education is long haul.
Once again I am faced with trying to conjure from my invisible hat, a ‘rabbit’ that would ensure that my children can continue their journey with us till they have grown wings to fly on their own. So I ask myself the question: what is it that I am asking money for. I thought it would be hard to find an answer, but it came to my mind in a brightly lit flash. I am soliciting support so that Munna can continue laughing and little Ashu can continue enjoying his chocolate in the messiest of manners. Munna is a mentally challenged young man who has been with us for almost a decade and who would spend the his days wandering the streets of the slums and become an easy pray to all kinds of predators. And Sneha would roam unsafe and filthy lanes with danger lurking at every corner. Munna and Sneha need to be safe and happy long haul. But that is not all. If Munna did not have the project why family then he too could be one day brutally beaten as was the case yesterday in Calcutta when a handicapped beggar was brutally thrashed. As for Sneha, her coming to project why may ensure that she gets enrolled in a school and gets a proper education. After all let us not forget, she is just a girl.
But that is not all. I am asking money so that my children can run in green parks and get drenched in sunlight something that never enter their dark and tiny airless homes. So that they can play and compete against each other and of course laugh till they cry. The lives of slum children is not easy. They have to deal with violence in school as well as at home. Playing is not an easy option for them. We try our best to give them back a part of their usurped childhood. Playing is again long haul, is it not? So yes, I beg for money so that my kids can run and play to their hearts delight.
And above all the money I need helps children get a sound education. In Delhi today state run schools are in a poor conditions and in site of promised made with now tiring regularity nothing much changes on the ground. Children pass from class to class with little knowledge. We have students who have spent years on school benches and who can barely read. Parents are not able to afford private tuition and even if they do, it is often for the boys and rarely for the girls. The hours our children spend at project why enable them not only to learn, but also to top their classes and win scholarships and contest. However, learning again is a long term process and how can one possibly leave them in the lurch midway. They keep their side of the deal by presenting me with glowing report cards regularly; then how can I not keep mine by ensuring that our doors remain open.
Then there are dreams. Dreams that need to be fulfilled. Dreams of breaking the cycle of poverty in which most of my kids are born. Dreams to work in a big and brightly lit office and not have to push a vegetable cart in the scorching summer or freezing winter. Dreams of becoming a teacher or a computer engineer. And for those dreams I need to ask for more to be able to run skill imparting classes, computer centres, beautician training courses and even sponsoring singing, dance or art classes. Today many of our kids have fulfilled their aspirations and are working in the very offices they sought. Two of our alumni have opened their own beauty parlour and another has his own dance academy. Project why is about making dreams come true and what I ask is help to do just that!
The party that ruled India for most of its seven decades as an independent nation, and has ruled this city for the past 15 years, launched its election pitch by announcing a right to shelter for the poor. The right to shelter however seems to have been enshrined in our Constitution as a right to life as guaranteed by article 21 of the Constitution. It seems tragic that even after 68 years of Independence, the right to shelter should be an election issue potent enough to seduce a seizable vote bank. But this is the reality. Delhi has over 4 million of slum dwellers and many live in ‘homes’ like the one in this picture. The conditions in such slums are abysmal to say the least.
Promises of regularisation of slums and of building proper housing for slum dwellers are regurgitated at every election by political parties of all shade and hues. I have been witness to this for the past 15 years. More than two decade ago, I had met Geeta Dewan Verma, an urban planner and author of Slumming India. According to her the root cause of urban slumming lies not in urban poverty but in urban greed. And to feed this ever growing greed, politicians keep the issue of housing for the poor on the back burner and resuscitate it at every election to garner votes. Master plans that earmarked land for the poor are redrafted over and over again to benefit industrialists and the rich and famous. In an interview Verma says: This is happening because of the moral bankruptcy facing our intellectuals, activists and celebrities. They are allowing our cities to die rather than taking steps to the contrary. To cite a few examples, if sprawling farmhouses for a handful are allowed to occupy prime space, then the poor will be forced to huddle in huts, as there is just so much urban land to go around. If fancy malls, used by a few, are allowed to occupy a lot of space, then shops catering to the needs of the majority will come up on the roadside. If only a few industrial houses are given prime sites, then smaller factories needing propinquity to ancillary establishments will come up in residential areas. I guess anyone residing in Delhi will get the picture.
Maybe, and let us continue to be cynical, there is a hidden agenda, just like the one in an education system that stubbornly refuses to hike the pass percentage from a paltry 33% to a respectable 50 so as to keep a large chunk of society illiterate and thus an easily manipulated vote bank. Promising housing to the poor is a good election plank! And when the bulldozers ultimately land up at their doorstep, then all the politicians are conveniently AWOL. I have seen this with own eyes time ands again. Election version 2015 is yet another repeat performance of a jaded script. Every party is wowing the poor. I guess they know that wooing the rich is of no avail.
One party has even come up with a Draft Bill aptly entitled “Delhi Right to Housing, Shelter and Property (rights) to Slum Dwellers Bill 2015.” It will of course be shelved well out of sight once elections are over to be dusted and resold five years down the line. What can one say.
It is difficult for those of us who live in proper homes, to fathom what living in a hole is. If you look at this picture carefully you will realise that you have to crawl into the ‘home’ in this picture and cannot stand once you are in it. And yet many live in such places and hope for the day the promises made to them will turn into reality. They promise makers however are still busy making drafts bills and spouting empty promises. It is time they stopped and began walking the talk. As of now all political parties are projecting themselves as messiahs for the poor, the very poor that will forgotten once the votes are counted and the new dispensation is in place. The right to shelter is a basic human right. It is time we understood this.
This year my little grandson decided to forgo all toys for his birthday and to ask all his friends to send the money to Project Why instead. This was conveyed to me some in all seriousness some days back via Skype. Today is his birthday celebration and this morning I got a mail in my inbox informing me that a donation has been made. The message said: our friend Agastya in St. Louis is the inspiration for this donation. Thank you for all you do for the children’s education and betterment in India. I am sure you can imagine the range of emotions that choked me. I was and am still overwhelmed.
Agastya and the Project Why creche have along association. He was just over a year when he began spending a few hours at our creche each and every time he was in Delhi. And as you can see in the picture he loved being there. Now he has moved thousands of miles away, but he has not forgotten his friends.
The toys he will not receive this year will metamorphose into school bags, pencil cases and lunch boxes for his less privileged friends as some of them will be graduating from the creche and going to regular school just like Agastya. I know they will be thrilled and so will he.
Sharing and compassion are values that need to be taught to children at an early age. I am proud and humbled to see that Agastya’s parents have done so. I wish all parents understood how important this is.
I could blot have been who I am, if my parents had to found it necessary to teach me the right values. I will always remain indebted to them and hope to be able to always live to their expectations.
However a grandma is a grandma! Guess who is going to receive a box filled with toys verysoon.
Happy Birthday Agastya and thank you for being such an inspiration.
The Tenth Annual Status of Education Report – ASER 2014 is out. It is once again sad reflection on the state of primary education in India. Nothing has really changed. According to the report about 25 per cent of India’s children in class 8 cannot read text prescribed for class 2, and math remains a serious challenge across classes! What is so terribly tragic is that it is not the fault of the children, but of the system that seems to be frozen in some time warp, a system that seems to have its own cover and dubious agenda. We have been working with children that come from underprivileged and disadvantaged homes and I can tell you with utmost confidence that it takes very little to get them to excel. So to me a class 8 student that cannot read a class 2 text or do a class 2 sum is absolutely shocking. For the past 15 years now our children have been doing well, often topping their class and even school. True there maybe the odd slow learner as is always the case in any society, but the majority of our children across all classes are above average.
The figures of the report are really troubling, more so in these election times when everyone is tom-tomming about grandiose plans for our capital city and for India. How cleverly politicians hide realities is frightening. If one were to believe them, all is hunky dory and we are ready to become a world class nation.
This morning I got a mail from an activist organisation. It was a copy of a letter addressed to the Chief Justice of one of our States bringing to his attention the state of education in a district of his State.
India has prided itself of its ICDS programme that was launched many decades ago to address the problems of children between the ages 0 to 5. One of the tenets of this well conceived programme were the setting up of anganwadis (creches)in every block. The letter I received this morning describes what an anganwadis looks like: The two rooms allotted to the Anganwadi serve the dual purpose of store-room and class-room/child-care centre. Lot of space in both the rooms was occupied by wheat bags. Both the rooms were dark. There was no electric connection.
Tender-aged children were sitting on a mat made of plastic rags stitched together. The surface of the same was chilling cold. Two small kids were cleaning the room with brooms in their hands in the presence of Anganwadi workers. The utensils which the children had brought for mid-day meal were unclean. One of these kids was having a school bag with him and when the same was opened, bits of a torn book were found. How can children grow and thrive!
There was more. This time about the primary school in the same village. About 200-250 children are enrolled in the two primary schools. There were no boundary wall, no electricity-connection, no chairs, no drinking water-arrangement and no toilet in either of the two primary schools. Cattle could be seen tied down in the vicinity of the school building.
Need I say more? Maybe just a small added bit of first hand information: the anganwadis in the Delhi slums are clones of the one described above.
Instead of all the grandiose blah-blah one is hearing, I would so like one candidate to say that he or she would audit all existing social problems, and there are many and each one is sound if implemented with a modicum of honesty, and ensure that they work. India would be transformed.
I know that each and every child has the potential to grow and succeed. It is for us as a society to give them the enabling environment to do so.