One child every 10 seconds

One child every 10 seconds

Forgive the rather disgusting picture that illustrates this mail but there is a method to my madness. This picture was taken close to the Chhattrapur Temple located not far from Utpal’s school. He wanted   to buy some sweets and this was the closest market. We have just experienced another nine days of the bi-annual feeding frenzy that happens in North India during what is known as the Navratas, or nine nights dedicated to the Goddess.What has become tradition, or a way to please God and Godesses is the feeding of people. Tents are erected at every street corner, food is cooked sur place, and then doled out in non degradable plates to one and all. I guess it is a feel good factor for the ones who organise such communal feeding. I am sure God(dess) will be happier if one fed one person log haul. What horrifies me is the amount of food wasted and thrown away. You would not believe how much goo food there was in this pile! It could have fed so many hungry children. I see red when people waste food, more so when it is done by supposedly educated ones. And I cannot help myself each time I am faced with a similar situation, of thinking of the part in Ash in the Belly that describes the way mothers ferret rat holes in search of a few grains for their hungry babies: On days where there is no food in the house the whole family sets out to find food. They scour the harvested fields of the landlords with brooms to garner the gleaning of the stray grains of wheat and paddy… they follow field rats to their burrows and are skilled in scrapping out the grains stolen and stored underground by the rodents…after each weekly market ends, they collect in their sari edges, grain  spilled inadvertently by traders or rotting waste vegetable… they even sift through cow dung for undigested grain. (Ash in the Belly page 6). Can you please thick about this the next time you are on the verge of throwing food.
Malnutrition kills one child every 10 seconds. 3.1 million children die every year. These are the latest statistics. In India, one child dies every 4 minutes because of malnutrition. 2.1 million every year. They die of totally preventable diseases like diarrhoea, typhoid, measles mostly because their immune system is impaired. They die because of lack of clean water, lack of sanitation and lack of nourishment. They die because no one cares. They die because grains rot with impunity. They die because programmes made for them never reach them but get hijacked by wily predators. And as these programmes fail, more are made and more pockets fattened. 
Amidst all the talk of making India a super power, comes an article from the State our Prime Minister hails from, a state that is often pitched as an example to emulate. The article citing Government sources states that over 6.5 lakh malnourished children in Gujarat. A knee jerk reply promises remedial action: providing take-home rations, giving fruits, milk as well as breakfast to anganwadi children, besides giving supplementary food to malnourished children. We have heard this ad- nauseum and know that not much will change on the ground. These measures were first enunciated way back in 1975 when the ICDS (Integrated Child Development Scheme) was launched. Had it worked there would not have been over 25 million malnourished children in India today. The scheme has failed miserably. All you need to do is visit one of the anganwadis (creche) and you will know the reality.

One child dying from preventable reasons is one child too many. One child every 4 minutes which is what happens in India should make us hang our heads in shame. One child dying every 4 minutes in a land where food grain rots, where food is wasted with impunity in weddings or in the name of religion be it the plates of food thrown during feeding frenzies on the road side, or the still heaped plates found under tables at wedding feasts, or the gallons of milk poured over stone statues is unacceptable. I do not know of any God, if he or she exists, who would not rather have that food find its way in the stomach of a hungry child.

Five thousands deaths a day of children between 0 and 5 is a tragedy. But it does not stop there, even those who make will never be able to develop fully. Malnutrition in early years damage the child for life: their growth is stunted, their immunity low and their brain is affected resulting in lower IQs. Before anything else, it is imperative to tackle malnutrition on a war footing particularly as we pride ourselves in having the youngest population in the world.

I have written about this so many tines, and elicited few reactions. Maybe I belong to another planet but to me the statistic of a child dying of hunger in a land readying itself for a Mars Landing is deeply disturbing. 

Till death do us part

Till death do us part

Utpal on his 13th birthday
March 12 2015

This picture was taken last week on Utpal’s birthday which we celebrated in his school with cake and samosas. He is 13! A teenager! How time flies. He was the perfect host and made sure all his friends got enough to eat and drink. He also made sure that his teachers got a piece of cake and did not forget the guard on duty. I was proud but not surprised. Utpal has always been the perfect host. Even when he was three year old, he was just that: a perfect host! At that tender age he even knew the importance of returning hospitality. We have come a long way Utpal and I. And every step we have taken together has been a blessed one, even in times of strife. He made my world a better place from the instant he walked into my heart. That was 10 years ago. You must be wondering why I seem to be being around the bush and yes I am. That is because what I need to share today is not easy and actually even frightening. The scariest deafening why lurks around the corner and I am petrified. The answer to this one keeps eluding me. I can only pray that I have one in time.

This is what Popples looked like when he came into my life. Scalded, hurt and almost moribund. For months we fought to ensure  that he would heal and keep all his milestones. I remember how I would make fresh chicken soup for him every day and how he had learnt to recognise the flask and give his most endearing smile when he spotted it. Ok here I am meandering again. Time to get to the point and the why! Soon Utpal will be 18. As per the juvenile justice act, my guardianship will end and as again as per the totally absurd and poorly conceived law, he will be an adult and in charge of his life. Yes in India, even children who are in institutions are let out in the big bad world overnight. How they are supposed to manage is anyone’s guess. I know of organisations that employ them to that they can remain in safe. Law or no law, guardianship or no guardianship, Utpal will always have a home that crosses seas and mountains. He is ours forever! However there will be a day when he will ask about  his mom and about what we did for her and should that be not up to the mark then he will ask the dreaded why: Why did you not take care of her. I can never forget the touching quote that says: God to whom little boys say their prayers has a face very like their mother’s. I need to be ready with the right and honest answer.

To a boy, no mom is flawed; but to the world this mom has had a rough deal. Being an alkie and bipolar is a rough deal for any woman but a nightmare for one born on the word side of the fence. We did every thing we could to help her: several rehabs, stays in homes etc but the bottle won and we failed. She disappeared for 4 long years causing havoc in her son’s life that we had to piece again with love and patience. Then she came back, married a man with three kids, left him, lived with another abusive one, was rejected by the only family she has (one sister-in-law and 2 nephews) who refused to take her in. Years of abuse have left her incapacitated. Sh cannot work as she does not have the strength and her manic depression has taken its toll on her mind and turned her into a child. She needs a place where she can be safe and cared for medically. That is according to the best solution. This is also the answer I can be comfortable with when asked the dreaded question.

We are in the midst of searching for such a place but it is no mean task. I hope and pray we can find one that she is happy in and where her son can meet her the day he so decides.

When you take someone’s hand in yours, it is for better or worse till death do us part.

My grandfather’s hut

My grandfather’s hut

Ram Persad Singh Goburdhun 1880 1949

Upon his return from yet another trip, this time to Mauritius, my husband handed me a book. It was surprising,  as though I did not expect the customary bottle of perfume – the ubiquitous gift you expect from a man – as Mauritius is a land that holds some of my roots and family, a book was the last thing on my mind. A glance at the title and I realised that the sepia coloured book was the story of the Transport Company crated lovingly and painstakingly by my elder uncle, a man with a vision way beyond his times. The book is replete with family photographs that made me all fuzzy as long forgotten memories came alive. I sat down to read it as it began with the family history that till date I had pieced through the occasional chats with my father. I was hoping to fill in the gaping holes. Little did I realise that the book was serendipitous as it concealed a small anecdote, tucked away at the bottom of page, 11 that would complete my life circle and perhaps explain why I am where I am today.

The book is called La Grande Histoire du Bus Mauricien, and is beautifully written by Tristan Bréville. It was published to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Company. (I was unable to find a link in English. The one given above is of an article in a French newspaper). The anecdote I am referring to is about my grandfather, Ram Pershad Singh Goburdhun, the son of a indentured labourer bearing no 354495, who landed in Mauritius in 1871. The son born 9 years later was my grandfather. Of the sparse bits of my ancestors’ history imbibed with yearning at my father’s knee, I was to learn that my grandfather was a school teacher. The story of how the son if an indentured labourer would become a teacher remained shrouded in mystery. All I knew of my grandpa was that he was a teacher and that he was a very strict man.

Tristan Bréville
La Grande Histoire du Bus Mauricien page 11
The tiny but life altering anecdote that I referred to, tucked away on page 11 of this book, reveals that my grandpa was not just ‘any’ school teacher. It says that he was one of the youngest school teacher ever as he was just 21 when he started teaching. But that is not all. He also created his own school, and when the owners of the sugar mill ‘acquired’ the little piece of land where his school stood in 1918, he converted a little straw thatched hut on his own sugar field into a school. The primary school  at Belle-Vue Maurel in Mauritius still bears his name as you can see by scrolling down the list on this page
Every life has a story to tell and those of our ancestors often foretell the ones of those yet to be born. It is when you and you alone read it, that you find the part that relates to you. And as I read of the school under the thatched roof, I knew this part was mine to hold on to. Nothing in my early life or career would have ever suggested that I would in my twilight years turn to educating children, and that too deprived children. True I taught in an University but that was not my true calling and was a short and not so sweet stint. Even when I started project why, education was not the first thing that one had in mind. But then a series of unexpected events, an encounter with a beggar whom I know now was a man with a mission, and a string of deafening whys led me to what was to be my calling: creating a space to educate children from slums, children of the kind that would have found their way to my grandfather’s hut. I can feel the undoubtable and powerful link that binds that little hut created almost a century ago to the first project why classroom that was a mud hut with a tin roof. 
I have often wondered why I set up project why! I always felt  the presence of an invisible force that blew beneath my wings and steered  me on an unknown journey. Unable to identify it, I thought it was the one I called the God of Lesser Beings. Today I know who he is. The man who would not give up when his school was taken away and built one on his own land. The man who knew that education was the greatest gift of all. The man  never met. The man who was my grandfather.
Life has come full circle and I feel blessed.

For the rich, by the rich and of the rich

For the rich, by the rich and of the rich

Whenever I hear even the faintest murmur about primary education being reviewed, my heart beats faster but my blood also runs cold. The question is: what now! We have so many aberrations in our education system. The fear is that one more may be added. A recent article entitled: Failure Not an Option for Students Till Class 8. But That Could Change has again given me food for thought. I shudder to think about who will be the persons deciding on the future of all the children of India. Sadly there are many decision makers whose interests lie elsewhere. Just to cite one: if schools ran spot on then who would teachers make money on tuition, something you see across the board in India! Remember children are not vote banks!

Before I give my take on the no fail till class VIII policy, I would like to share a few other aberrations and I use the word with full responsibility as I have now been an enraged and somewhat helpless witness of what we are doing to extremely bright and not so bright children in the name of education and I should know as I have seen and helped thousands of them in the last 15 years.

I have often written about education on this blog. Unfortunately my blog do not reach concerned authorities but are read by like minded people and project why aficionados. The first number that shocked me beyond words was the (un)holy 33! Thirty three per cent is what you need to pass any examination in India. Actually who needs a no fail policy when the pass percentage is so abysmally low. That was an aside. Let us get to facts. If you peruse any advertisement for a job and this includes Government jobs like peons, the pass percentage required is 50%. Now to my simple mind the two should match: either you make the school pass percentage 50 or lower the job application one to 33. The cynics would say that anyway a child that is bright enough would cross the hurdle and schools would ensure a modicum of quality but that is not the case in state run schools. I will give you an example from my own experience. A  few years back, a bunch f class X students came to me a month of so before their Boards and told me that they had not even finished half their curriculum. Those were days when I was still naive and so I marched to the school and into the Principal’s office and asked him the reason. Pat came the reply laced with a smirk: You need 33% to pass so we only cover 40%. (What was left unsaid was that the remaining 60% was ‘taught’ by the same teachers privately. The fact that schools run in 2 shifts is a perfect fit for this!). I was speechless. This meant that an intelligent child who was poor and could not afford private tuition would never be able to reach the required marks to access higher education.

The 33% pass percentage is an aberration that needs to be removed if reforms have the children’s interest at heart.

The other disturbing figure is the 14. That is the age when according to the RTE Act, free education comes to a abrupt stop. I say abrupt as at that age you are in class 8. So imagine the equation: no fail policy till class VII and no free education post class VIII = no education at all! Let us be real. Sadly the reality today is that you have children in class 4 or 5 or even 7 who can barely read or write courtesy the no fail policy. The tragedy with a big T, is that most of these kids are bright. What they are not is rich. We have had such students and with a little help, they have caught on and gone and topped they class. I hope you agree that all is not well in the kingdom of education.

The no fail policy to ensure that the self-esteem of children was not bruised. There is wisdom in this but with many caveats. School has to be an enabling environment and the child’s progress had to be monitored. This does happen in what is known as Public Schools in India, but in a Government school where there are 100+ students in a class even the most experienced teacher cannot impart knowledge in the 35 to 40 minutes allotted per subject. The self esteem of the child is nowhere in sight.

The jury is out but whether the right people are sitting on it is another question. It is difficult the find the motley crew that would be able to keep the interest of children on either side of the fence at heart. When the no fail policy was instituted it came with a series of teaching options ranging from projects to open book exams. The up market schools were thrilled and would perform as required but in Government schools this is pure chimera and when you live in a cramped hovel with barely enough to survive, you will never get the money for all the material required for the model asked for, and if you do manage than you run the risk of having your younger sibling or drunk father destroy it before it reaches your school.

My fear is that whatever new policy is conjured, it will not keep the interest of poor children in mind.

But if reform is on the anvil, I so wish the concerned people would have the guts to take the bull by its horn and turn education on its head if needed keeping today’s reality in mind. Education is what helps you accede to a better future, what helps you break the cycle of poverty you were born in, what helps you discover your talent and ability, what helps you make choices.

First and foremost any education system which has a scoring system that can reach 100% and even more should you have a good handwriting is not right. The difference between 33 and 100 is gaping and cannot succeed. When I was a student 60% was to be celebrated. I passed my Baccalaureate with distinction. 60% got you that distinction. Many years later when my daughter passed her Baccalaureate with distinction it was a nightmare to get her admission in Delhi University as the reign of cut off marks had arrived and the numbers were in the nineties. Now you can never get 90% in the French Baccalaureate. It had to move heaven and earth to explain this to the authorities. Today affordable universities i.e. Delhi University etc have mind boggling cut offs and the children from poorer homes can never aspire to get there as they run the race with a handicap. Their parents cannot afford the plethora of private universities that have mushroomed nor send their children abroad. So these kids, who are as bright and even brighter than others can only seek correspondence courses, open universities or evening courses. Another door has been shut at their face. Looks like education is for the rich, by the rich and of the rich!

There are two categories of children: those who are academically inclined and those who are not. The former must get the best possible and the later should be gently pushed into vocational skills in sync with the market needs. This needs to be done midway, in class VII or so. These can range from spoken English or Chinese if need be, to computers, sewing, carpentry and so on.

Vocational education has to be introduced intelligently as is well discussed in this article.

You have to move with the times. Maybe not as fast as Finland, where children will not learn writing but typing, but maybe it is time to sift out all the unnecessary information that one has to learn in school as in the times of the Internet, what needs to be taught is how to access information. Maybe learning to use a calculator is more useful than learning tables till 20, even when India has adopted the decimal system and abandoned the anna or 1/16 of a rupee. Even then tables 17 to 20 were useless.

Education by rote should be thrown out of the window. What a child has to learn is to think independently and intelligently. I was privileged to have schooled in the French system. I would like to share an anecdote of my life. When I passed my Bac in the sixties, History was a subject that was tested orally. The curriculum was from world war II to present times. You had to pick out a question from a proverbial hat and got 20 minutes to prepare it. Then you had to defend your answer in front of a jury. The question I got was : If WW II had been lost by the allies what in your opinion would have been the present economic situation in the world? No rote learning would help you with that one. There was no right or wrong answer. What was needed is for you to defend what you put forth.

They deserve what you deserve if not more

They deserve what you deserve if not more

one of the last pictures with Manu

I was extremely saddened but hardly surprised when I saw the news coverage of the way differently abled athletes were treated in the recently so-called National Paralympic. Yet no matter how jaded I have become over the years, my blood could not help from boiling when I heard the insensitive explanations given by thick-skinned officials. Abled or not, the people in question are citizens of India and worthy citizens who represent their country in International meets where when they win our Flag is hosted and our Anthem played. But above all they are human beings just like you and me. They had come to Matiala village in Ghaziabad (a few kilometres from the capital city) to compete for the honour of representing their country. The vent was organised by Paralympic Association. One would have expected them to be well treated, fed and looked after. What happened was that they had to crawl, defecate in the open as the toilets were filthy, sleep on tables as there were no beds and eat the same poorly cooked at every meal. The lame excuse given brazenly on National TV was that they had expected a certain number and more came. This in my humble opinion does not explain the unfinished building, the lack of beds, ramps, water and the poor quality of food and the filth! The only explanation that hold is that no one cared as they were JUST differently abled athletes. Try to do that to your cricket team and see what happens! Let us not even go there.

I have been blessed to have know and love many differently abled souls. I call them special children. I must admit that it took me almost half a century to meet the first one. He was no athlete and did not hail from a privileged home. He was what is called a ‘beggar’! His name was Manu. He was and still is my guardian Angel.

The picture above was taken a few months before he left us but it is the same trusting eyes filled with immense love that met mine on a scorching summer in 2000. The only difference was that at that time he barely looked human, with his long dishevelled and matted hair, his half clad body and the years of dirt and filth that caked is rarely washed limbs. It would take us month of tender scrubbing to get rid of the dirt and maggots. He had waited patiently for I guess a quarter century treading  the same stretch of road waiting for us to meet and walk into my heart. He had a mission to fulfil and he did. There would have been no project why, if not for Manu.

I remember the first meal we ‘shared’. At that time we had no resources to give a home to this saintly soul so we use to be a hot meal and he would eat it sitting on a blur chair with a red stool that held his plate. He use to pick his plate up with his unsteady hands and ask me to sit on the stool and then break a piece of roti and dip in in the dal and hand it over to me. Believe me that was manna from the Gods and a very special and blessed moment for me. I did give Manu a home, albeit a temporary one as he left before I could build Planet Why for him. I guess he knew that he had accomplished his mission and that I would carry it on.

Even today, in my moments of doubt and insecurity, when things look dark, I can feel his gentle hand on my shoulder and the warmth of his smile in my heart. I never feel alone. But this post is not to retell once again Manu’s story. This post is about the way we treat differently abled people in a land that heralds its traditions and values but has lost its heart. To me the officials of the Paralympic association are no different from Manu’s wily and crafty sister-in-law who use to send him to beg and promptly take the few coins that had been thrown at him to treat herself leaving him to rummage the garbage bins for food.

Special children are God’s own children. It is for us to reach out to them and embrace them. They give you much more than you can ever give them as they give you their unadulterated love and trust. When my spirits are low and I need a feel good shot, all I have to do is spend some time with the wonderful children of our special section. You are welcome to come and meet them anytime.