The past week has been hectic in all centres of Project Why! Every one is busy preparing for Independence Day. Decorations are being made, tricolour balloons blown, patriotic songs rehearsed, speeches learnt by heart, dance steps practised. A sense of perceptible excitement and joy pervades every nook and corner of Project Why.
On Independence Day, flags will be hoisted in each centre and the national Anthem sung with fervour. Then the children will perform all that has ben carefully prepared in front of guests teachers and friends. In that moment every one will be a star! And the dreams every heart carries will for an instant be in the realm of the possible. Celebrations do weave their own magic.
I too will be a guest at one of the centres as alas I cannot be at all, and will applaud the loudest. They are my children, all 1100 of them and seeing them in their best attire putting their best foot forward is always a matter of pride and joy. I also know that I will be moved to tears as I know I hold the dreams of all these children in custody and feel the weight of the huge responsibility I carry. Will I be able to fulfil all the promises, the hopes that all those who enter the portals of Project Why carry in their hearts. Only time will tell. All I know is that we will leave no stone unturned in this mission we have undertaken.
Amidst the celebrations and the joyful mood, there is also immense sadness in the wake of the reality that surrounds us. In 72 years have we done all that we could have for the children of India is a question that begs to be asked and sadly the answer is a deafening NO!
Children still beg at red lights. We see them every day. They still work in tea stalls and sweat shops. Millions of children are out of school, and hundreds of thousands drop out. Our education system is flawed, access to higher education is denied to too many. True there are laws in place, but many are toothless; true the Right to Education is now a fundamental Right but is not given to all.
Children die of malnutrition every day. 5000 a day in a land that throws away food with alacrity and impunity. What hurts me most is that we seem not to care.
It takes so little so make a difference. We at Project Why strive to do make that little difference and will strive to do so in the future. Do join us.
Happy Independence Day!
One of the greatest lessons I have learnt during the last two decades is that of survival with dignity and a smile. It has been not only a great eye opener but also taught me to review my own life in a whole new perspective. The art of survival with dignity lies in the ability to live in the now and feel abundant at all times. Over the years I have seen this many times in the generosity and kindness of those who have practically nothing but give with abandon and love. My respect for all hose I work with has grown in leaps and bounds.
The art of surviving with dignity and a smile rests in the ability to look for positives in the times of adversity. We were all privy to this last week when the Yamuna plains got flooded and all the people living on the banks of the river moved to higher grounds. This was the case with all the families of the children of our Yamuna centre. Though the water did not quite reach the centre, we closed it for a couple of days.
The floodplain was filled with water and all the vegetables growing on it were destroyed and hence the very livelihood of these families. But when you live hand to mouth, you cannot waste time on past ad future, you have to think in the now and so as soon as the water receded to waist height, children jumped in to catch fish! Some would be sold and the remaining would provide the next meal.
It is this spirit that I salute each and every time I encounter it, be it in the cup of tea and the flatbread shared offered by a gypsy family who does not know whether it will have a rood on its head the nest day orin the smile of the young boy looking to catch fish after the floods.
Three little girls aged 2, 4 and 8 died of hunger in India’s capital city! Their autopsies revealed that there was no trace of food in their bodies and that they had most probably not eaten anything for at least 8 days. The media is abuzz with the news. The political blame game is on. I wonder what will transpire. If one is to go by precedent then I guess nothing! Malnutrition deaths have been happening every day for years. The official figure is 5000. Yes you read right: 5000 children under the age of 5 die every day of malnutrition related diseases. 5000! That is 200 every hour; 3 every minute.
I have been writing about this terrifying statistic for years now, but somehow it has never seem to elicit the anger and outrage one would have expected. I presume it was because they were just remote numbers, far away from our reality. But Mansi, Shikha and Parul died in our very own city, a city where we throw food with impunity; a city where garbage cans are replete with perfectly edible fare; where food is thrown with alacrity at parties and religious festivals; a city where neighbours remain aloof; a city that seems to have lost its heart forever.
Will the deaths of these little girls go beyond the political slugfest and get us to open our eyes and maybe our hearts. There are some lone individuals and some organisations that feed the poor with love and compassion, but they are far and few.
No one should die of starvation in any self respecting society, let alone a child. Even one child is one too many!
Many countries run community soup kitchens. I guess we could do the same. It is not impossible. It just needs the will to do so. The local temple or community centre could provide the space and a handful of grocery from every home would be enough to get things on the road.
The little girls were migrants from Bengal whose father had to come to Delhi looking for work. There are many such families who come to the big city and live a hand to mouth existence. They earn daily wages, have no savings and no access to any social welfare programmes as they do not have the required papers. Losing a day’s wage can push them to the brink.
Delhi is ‘home’ to thousands of homeless people, many of them migrants. Many find work and manage to survive, some like the family of the little girls fall of the net.
It is time we a individuals, as citizens, as civil society became aware of this stark reality and opened our hearts and reached out with compassion and love.
Is this asking too much!
Our very own Project WHY student turned teacher, Aman, secured admission to the prestigious Delhi College of Art. Since 2014, he has been training to get admissions in the college. Project WHY has been supporting Aman in his pursuit for Art both emotionally and financially. We wish Aman all the very best.
Delhi Government on Friday(July 27) issued its first flood warning when water level in Yamuna started raising due to continuous heavy rainfall. Though our Project WHY Yamuna centre is on a higher plain, our staff have been keeping watch. We have moved all our learning materials and essential items. Today, the water is just a meter away from the centre. We have closed our centre indefinitely for the safety of the children. This would mean a break in their studies and access to a wholesome meal by Azure. We need all your prayers and support
One of the inevitable consequence of moving forward, is that some have to step back. At Project Why the ‘axe’ fell first on yours truly. For the team to learn and gain not only the experience but also the confidence Anou Ma’am had to step back. So for the past two years or so, I have been cutting the umbilical cord gently but surely and boy it has worked: the project does not need my presence anymore, a far cry from the days where I sat doggedly from 8 to 4 to keep the show on the road. Now I visit the Project on a need basis: to welcome guests, hold a staff meeting and so on. So my contact is fractured, one centre at a time, often in the morning so I miss the girls.
We recently engaged two budding photographers, Taranbir Singh Sawhney and Devika Grover, to take pictures of all the centres and shifts of Project Why. Yesterday I was given a link allowing me to view the pictures and it was a real treat. The pictures are amazing and will soon appear on our site and social media for all to share.
I sat down to watch them in the evening not knowing what was in store. Through these 200 odd images, I could visit, albeit virtually, my entire Project! It was a heady mix of delight and nostalgia. The first common denominator of most of the pictures is SMILES! That warmed the cockles of my heart and filled me with pride as for Project Why was always to be a place where children could be happy and joyful. Mission accomplished. I give myself a tap of the back.
It was a pleasure browsing from picture to pictures and seeing the kids in a child friendly and safe environment. It was heart warming to see them enjoying what they were doing be it studying, playing, dancing and above all fooling around, something they often do not have the chance to do.
My heart filled with gratitude as I saw my stellar staff at work, braving the extreme heat, but not losing patience or smile. Once more I felt validated in my decision to take staff from the community. It was a challenge for both sides but I am glad to say, we met it head on and in perfection.
It was nice to see the ladies busy learning a skill that has the potential to transform their lives. Again a matter of pride.
Always a delight to see my very special ones. They never stop smiling and have the ability to lift your mood in a jiffy.
The babies always so endearing and it was truly special to see Rani’s son, tiny Astitva, as the youngest member of our early education programme. His mom’s story is also the story of Project Why.
I could go on and on about each picture as each has a story to tell. Maybe I will do so one day.
Revisiting Project Why was a huge treat. Thank you Taranbir and Devika for having captured its spirit.
With the summer holidays long over, all our kids are back to school.
We are back with a bang on social media. Find us on Twitter Facebook Instagram!
In the times of privatisation of education and mushrooming of uber fancy schools that look more like commercial houses; in the times of the existence of the Right to Education Act that makes Education a fundamental right for every Indian child allowing him access to free and equitable education, 2700 children in India’s capital city study in abysmal conditions.
Their school has only two dilapidated toilets, no windows. a playground filled with water and garbage. The school runs on Government funding but in spite of that the conditions are pathetic. No money to change bulbs, no drinking water. Of the 91 teachers sanctioned, 72 have not been appointed. A bare 20 odd teachers keep the show on the road. Hats off to them. When a bulb needs changing they dip into their meagre pockets and do the needful.
The Right to Education Act has failed these children and many more across the city.
Privatisation of education rung the death knell for many such children, but no one can usurp their thirst for knowledge. They still brave all odds and attend school. We should hang our heads in shame. My blood boils every time I come across a news item like this one.
Decision makers ‘opted’ for reservation in public schools for underprivileged children. That option failed as the seats were grabbed by well to do parents who had the wherewithal to fudge papers and get their wards admitted. No truly underprivileged child got access tho those seats.
None of the Project Why children benefitted from this ‘reservation’ as in most cases parents were not aware of the schemes, and even if they were, there was always a paper missing or a criteria not meant.
The Right to Education should have been a leveller and not yet another reservation option. That is in, my humble opinion, contrary to the spirit of any fundamental right. I always backed the approach of a common school system some educationists mooted. Sadly it had no takers. I still believe strongly that if all Government schools were run like Central schools, children form all walk of life would study side by side and learn from each other. For this mindsets have to change. Are we ready for that?
Underprivileged children have once again been let down. They are voiceless souls who need us to take up the cudgels on their behalf.
In the case of the school mentioned above, the case was taken up by activists and the High Court has asked for a report. But this is not the only school that function in such terrible conditions. There are far too many! Even one is an aberration.
Education alone can change lives and transform India.
I would like to end this post on a positive note by sharing the story of Sumitra Devi, a sweeper who spent her whole life sweeping streets we walk on. At her retirement party there were three special guests a District Collector, an engineer and a doctor. They were her sons!
I rest my case.
A recent article on the quality of persons correcting CBSE class XII papers sent my blood running cold. One must remember that marks are of the essence and that careers depend on the marks you get. A high score guarantees you a place in Delhi University a place affordable to project why parents but it is quasi impossible for our kids to get the coveted 95+%! Not being able to afford private universities they are relegated to evening colleges, correspondence courses and open universities.
One would have hoped that the marks given are honest and deserved but a sentence in the aforesaid article is enough to make one shudder: Examiners are picked by the CBSE, from schools, but many, especially those who teach in government schools, seem to be unequipped to grade. Some students don’t end up getting the marks they deserve, while the rote learners do well. This explains how a humanities student can get a perfect store in subjects like english or psychology. Just learn the book by heart and voilà you top the batch.
My hear goes out to the child who spends time understanding the subject and writing the answer in her own words. She does not stand a chance and yet she is the one who deserves a place in the hallowed portals of a good affordable university.
The article has other aberrations. It just makes me angry and sad at the same time.
Will things ever change?
Utpal is back in school red bag in tow! The saga of the red bag began in July 2006 when he first set off to boarding school. He was 4.
Today he is a strapping handsome 16 year old who still carries a red bag to school!
This is not the one he carried way back in 2006 when he first joined boarding school at the tender age of 4. Yet somehow the red bag remained a constant in his life as it conceals within its hidden pockets the making of his yet undisclosed destiny.
The little red bag is also the story of Project Why. Every child that enters the portals of our Project carries his own little red bag and it is left to us to fill it to the brim with everything she or he might need to fulfil her or his dreams. We strive as best we can to give every child the learning and values that will enable her or him to break the cycle of poverty in which they were born and reach for the stars.
It has been a exhilarating journey that has seen many ups and some downs too. Every moment has been blessed and rewarding to each one of us. Watching children grow and bloom is worth every setback that we may have encountered.
Today we again stand at crossroads as one of our main funders will stop funding us come April 2019. I must confess that I had my moment of doubts at whether I will be able to find the fire to once again set out and look for the support we desperately need. Needless to say my doubts were short lived. Just seeing the little red bag once again was enough to set me on my way.
We still have many little red bags to fill
So help me God!
Delhi is fighting a battle to save 16 000 trees from being felled to make a place for a housing cum shopping complex for bureaucrats.
Delhi is out on the streets to save these trees and has won round 1 as the High Court has put a stay on the felling for the moment.
But that is in no way the worst to come.
In two years from now Delhi may run out of ground water and face a day zero crisis.A Indian government think tank has warned that New Delhi is set to run out of groundwater within two years as climate change and dramatic population growth hit supplies quotes the Telegraph in a recent article entitled: New Delhi to run out of groundwater in two years as India faces ‘day zero’ crises . 600 million will be impacted by the worst water shortage ever. This is nothing short of frightening.
We have been experiencing water shortage in many of the centres we work in. In some slums the water tanker comes on alternate days and people fight to get a measly bucket of water that has to last them till the next tanker. Every home has a vast array of utensils to keep water for different chores. This has become a way of life. Fights do erupt at water points but they too have become part of the art of survival in India’s capital city.
At Project Why we have run several water saving campaigns and sensitise our children to the importance of saving water. From closing dripping taps to reusing grey water. children are taught to save water in anyway possible.
Clean water is a fundamental right, and yet million do not have access to it. The startling and terrifying poof is that 5000 children under the age of 5 die every day of water born diseases.
On the other side of spectrum, the privileged are using water as if it was a perennial commodity. Cars are being washed with water hoses, gardens watered with sprinklers and even swimming pools being made in new constructions. Rain Water harvesting is still in its infancy and the amount of rain water wasted is criminal.
It is time each one of us began saving water in any which was possible. It is also time for citizens to raise their voices and make people aware of what looms large: NO WATER!
We at Project Why will continue our efforts to raise awareness about the value of water.
We have recently been informed that one of our major funders will be stopping their funding next year. They had committed to help us for 3 years to allow us to work towards sustainability. Three years ago we were confident that it would be sufficient time to get on our feet but today we realise that though we are well on our way, we are still nowhere near the figure we need to reach. The news shattered many, but unlike earlier times, I remained calm and collected. The past years have been proof that ‘miracles’ happen at Project Why with alacrity and I could still hope for one, but somehow this is not the way ahead this time.
Once again, borrowing Jim Morrison’s words, I decided to Petition the Lord with Prayer. But this time the Prayer was not for a one time miracle, but one to show me the way to stand on our feet.
The question as to why should the Lord or the Universe listen to me and my first answer would be because of all the smiles in Project Why’s custody. These smiles are precious as they mean so many different things: hope, dreams, trust… each needing to be not just saved but respected and honoured.
Every child who enters the portals of Project Why comes there in the hope of changing her life. We give her the space to dare to dream and then a trust bond is created. The proof that this works is in the innumerable success stories we have experienced. Actually they are nothing short of miracles.
The young ‘teacher’ in the picture is our very own Utpal who is now in class XI. He decided to teach English to the Project Why children during his summer break. Without Project Why Utpal may not have survived his burns and would have never gone to a boarding school or for that matter to any school at all. By deciding to share what he has learnt with his less privileged friends, he has shown gratitude and compassion, two values that sadly many have forgotten, but that we at Project Why are determined to respect and teach.
Project Why is replete with such stories, the most stunning one being that of a gypsy lad born on a roadside who went on to walk the ramp in Paris via Project Why.
Project Why is where dreams come true. It is where smiles are kept safe, where the impossible becomes possible. Project Why is where miracles happen every day. My Petition to the Lord is to show me the way to continue fulfilling dreams and I know my Prayer will not go unheard.
On a more serious note we are in the process of finding new avenues of funding and have been moderately successful. It is a huge learning experience and we are slowly learning that raising funds to run the Project is not easy. It is easier garner funds to ‘buy’ things or ‘repair’ centres, than to raise one salary even if it is modest and goes to a person from an underprivileged home.
Many have suggested that we begin ‘making’ things and set up a social enterprise. That was what we had considered many years ago with Planet Why our Guest House with a difference.
It is time to revive Planet Why in another avatar and get the ball rolling.
That is my prayer for Project Why
For quite some time now, since Project Why’s revamping began, I have not had the occasion of telling the Project Why story to any audience. Now it is all slick presentations, smart looking documents, strategy plans, projections and plans. This is all needed to make Project Why live beyond me. I have tiptoed out of the way and taken a back seat. But last week we had some guests and potential funders and this time it was left to me to ‘market’ Project Why!
I did it the only way I know: from the heart, living each and every moment again with goosebumps at times and moist eyes along the way, with passion and unlimited love and immense pride. From the humble beginnings, to how each centre came to be, from the trials and tribulations to the successes and setbacks, it all came back. I do not know whether the potential funders were touched, but to me it was much needed catharsis. In all the recent upheavals, I had lost touch with the wonderful achievement that Project Why is.
It may not tick all the boxes, not follow all the rules, it may not look pretty to some, but Project Why is definitely a story to be told. To me is is a tale of miracles big and small. The fact that we not only survived, but thrived for 18 years is the biggest miracle of all. And that too with no strategic plan, no smart presentations! We just did it one day at a time, knowing that someone somewhere was taking care of us.
The little lad in the picture who was given up for dead, is a smart endearing 16 year old who is spending his summer break ‘teaching’ Project Why children. Does it tell the whole story! Changing one life at a time.
Over the years we have changed many. I have lost count.
It is a simple story of the heart, of unwavering faith and unconditional love. I just pray this spirit never get lost over time.
Our FCRA (donations from outside India) bank account has changed.
The new details are here
Our creche children ‘graduated’ and are now ready to go to school. Meet the class of 2018
The Boards results are out and all Project Why children have cleared them. Congratulations are in order! I am extremely proud of them. These children live in extremely difficult conditions and learn in spite of everything conspiring against them. No place to study as they mostly live in one room tenements with extended families. No support from the family. Quite the contrary often parents discourage and disparage them. Inebriated fathers turn on TV sets at full volume and the risk of losing notes to the whims of a younger sibling is real. No costly tuitions. No access to the Internet. Some even have to work while studying to help the household run. And yet they beat all odds and pass their examinations with to my mind more than respectable marks: one of our students got 81% and many had marks in the seventies.
The reason why I entitled this blog ‘bittersweet’ is that the reality is in our face. These children have to compete with children who have 99% +! So what happens to them. Private commercial institutions are out of their financial reach. The seats in state run universities are few and the competition fierce. The cut off marks always range in the nineties. So those portals are shut to them. What is left are: evening colleges, correspondance degrees, open universities, should they want to pursue formal education, or some low grade commercial institutes that would give them a slighter better job opportunity than just a school leaving certificate.
When you look at the kids in the picture, you cannot guess that some of them are Project Why children and others from an upmarket school. They are just buddies enjoying some quality time together. And yet the road map for both is poles apart. Where one in spite of her best efforts will be constrained to opt for distance learning the other will join a private university should she fail to meet the (ill)famed cut off marks.
Yet all these children are citizens of India, protected by the same Constitution and under the same Right to (quality) Education Act. But that is where it ends. Their destinies are charted by the amount of money their families earn.
The first flaw in my opinion is the skewed marking system followed by the authorities where 33% is sufficient to pass but a student can get 100%. The pass percentage has to be increased to 50% and papers set in such a manner that even the brightest student cannot aspire to more than 80% in some subjects. I still cannot understand how you can score 100% in Humanities. Questions need to test the ability of a child to comprehend, analyse and defend an opinion. Here it simply tests your ability to learn by rote.
Education is not a preferred programme of any Government as children are not vote banks. There are many programmes in place but their execution is poor. Schools run by one teacher are a stark reality of our land. In a country where unemployment is rampant, teachers post lying vacant is anathema.
Commercialising education was the death knell for quality education for the poorest. The state run schools are shunned by the very middle class who studied in them earlier. Over the past decade or so I have myself seen that even in slums, parents who studied in state run schools run from pillar to post and tighten their belts till it hurts to send their kids to a ‘public’ school, the moniker for private schools in India.
Shadow education, the more respectable name for private tuition, is a reality in most developing countries. Many children from less privileged homes cannot afford these classes. It has been our experience of a decade and a half, that teaching in school is ‘geared’ to private tuition, and any child, even the brightest cannot perform well if her learning is limited to classroom study. Project Why children are able to perform well because of the support we give them. We must not forget that in most cases the children get no or little help from home as parents are often illiterate and busy surviving.
The answer to most of these issues would be a common neighbourhood school but that was not the option retained while framing the Right to Education Act. What was proposed was reserving 25% of seats in every school for children from poor economic backgrounds. This was hijacked by the middle class who get their children admitted in this category by procuring forged documents by any means. Till date NO Project Why kid has been able to avail of this reservation!
So when I see my kids performing well by my standard, I feel sad as I know that the roads that should be theirs will never be and the challenge is to help them perform as well as their peers from the other side of the fence
The class XII results are out and the topper secured a whopping 499/500 in Humanities! That is close to 100%. My congratulations to the young lady and to all those who passed their examinations, even those who did with a low percentile because I know that every child puts her best foot forward and gives it her 100%.
Every child who has passed should be celebrated but that is not how it goes in India.
A very incisive and pertinent article by Avijit Pathak entitled A sick society that manufactures failures, gives a very real and almost uncomfortable image of the state of education in India. He writes: Young minds in India are being destroyed by a faulty pattern of education, parental ambitions, the aggression of hyper-competitiveness and a flawed idea of ‘success’. In such a system that brings about the death of creativity, there is no real winner.
The article is a must read. He talks about our children who are growing up with the euphoria of success and the stigma of failures. That is what it is all about. To reach the dreaded class XII Board exams the child is deprived of breathing space between school, tuitions, coaching centres and anxious parents. Nothing else. No poetry, no music, no creative activities, no games, no fresh air, all these being considered a waste of time. All creativity is sacrificed at the alter of success.
You can never be a winner as there is always someone who has done better, and even if you miss the coveted space by1% you are branded a failure. Things have to change but who will bell the cat.
First and foremost being the product of a school system where individual thinking was lauded I am aghast at a system where you can score 100% in subjects like History, English or for that matter any of the social sciences. The testing method is totally flawed as it cannot assess whether the child has understood what she has written and would be able to debate and defend an opinion and its opposite. This is a game we loved to play when we were young and it really was an excellent proof of whether you had understood what you had studied. Questions in our exams were so framed. I still remember the history question I had to defend for my Baccalauréat where the curriculum was from WWI to present times (the 60s). The question was: Had the Allies lost the war, what in your opinion would have been the economic status of Germany. There was no right answer. You had to defend your point of view. So any system that does not allow grasping and comprehending the system and does not leave room for improvement is skewed and gives a false sense of success to the child.
The next point is that our present system aims at creating clones and leaves no room for individuality. It gives you one objective only. This too is wrong. Every child cannot be a doctor or engineer. Every child is not happy being a doctor or an engineer. Our system removes joy form learning. A child may want to be a musician or a farmer and find joy in doing so. Let her. Don’t stand in the way. The world needs all kinds of souls, doctors as well as comedians, artists, writers, entrepreneurs. Find what your child wants to do and encourage her or him fully. Let her shine and not fail.
When I told my darling Popples that he did not have to fulfil my dreams but his own, an artist was born. The world is now opened to him and not strangled by my aspirations for him. And for those of you who may still doubt, this is one of his paintings done in water colours barely a month after he began to paint.
This painting has already earned him kudos and admiration, something his studies did not. The smile on his face says it all.
In today’s world children have to be able to think out of the box if they want to succeed. With fewer ‘jobs’ on offer, they need to create theirs themselves and love what they do. We need to bring up children who are compassionate and grateful and happy in their skin. Society will thank us one day.