Our recent efforts to bring about qualitative change in our work call for some modifications and adjustment in our functioning and one of them is the transfer of some staff from one location to another. This of course has met with some resentment. Last week one disgruntled teacher came to my office stating that he would not accept any move. I must admit that in his case the change was rather drastic as his centre – the junior secondary – was being relocated to Okhla. His attitude was childish as he simply stated that he would rather be thrown out than move.
At first I was angry but controlled myself and asked him to give me a reason. The one he proffered was flimsy and unconvincing: I get sick in Okhla was what he said. It is true that he had been teaching in Okhla some years back, when the conditions there were not salubrious but since things had changed and Okhla was today by far one of our most vibrant centres. I knew that this was not the real reason so I prodded some more and out came the real issue: a salary raise!
This was the trigger needed to unleash feelings that I had tried to keep in check for far too long. It was time to let it all out. I simply told him that I was aware of all the reasons necessitating a salary increase not just for him but for all my staff. But I also added that he and all the staff had never bothered to understand how pwhy was funded and had over the years almost contemptuously discarded all the valiant and feeble attempts I had made to try and generate funds to enable us to become sustainable. The reality was that the only source of funding we had came through pa(e)nhandling and that the only one who held out the beggar bowl was me! I had done it for over a decade and quite successfully! And at each and every moment I had been painfully aware of the fragility of our funding model that depended solely on an rapidly ageing woman.
I had oft repeated these words but they always fell on deaf ears. No one was willing or ready to hear them. I had also mooted innumerable funding ideas that all fell short as again no one was willing to give them their hundred percent. The very ambitious one rupee programme that I believed, and still do, to be eminently doable as it required no special gift or skill, was pooh poohed away. My team found it infradig to solicit help, and the mere idea of rejection was anathema to them. Our weak attempts to market things be it recycled copy books or soap made from home milled pongamia oil landed us at the labour court courtesy some disgruntled staff. The stories are endless but the outcome the same: we never moved to another funding option.
Somewhere along the way came the idea of planet why and though the figures were mind boggling and the idea almost preposterous, we barely managed to keep afloat and here I was dreaming of something that cost more than 1o years of pwhy, I intuitively knew it was the only way I could ensure pwhy’s life beyond mine. And I held on to it with passion. Slowly friends and supporters came around and what once looked outrageous starting making sense. Today many not only believe in the idea but have come forward to extend help and support. For me it has become my raison d’etre and a befitting swansong. But to see it happen requires me to give it all my time and energy and thus be freed of having to raise any additional funds for pwhy. Hence the words raise my salary were, to say the least, most inopportune! I tried once again to convey all this in the best manner possible to the one who sat in front of me but I saw I was getting nowhere. It seemed everyone and everything was stuck in a inescapable loop. I needed to find the way out.
My mind travelled back to the time when we first began and when I doggedly decided to only employ staff from the slums. It was not simply a matter of creating honourable jobs for those who could not never aspire to them – the woman stuck in a home in spite of her long years in school and good results, the young migrant armed with a useless degree and an alien accent-! It was more than that. Would it not be extraordinary if these marginalised people could be empowered to one day take over the task and become leaders in their own way. And one strived towards that, carefully and painstakingly imparting the needed skills. I must admit that whereas each one of them rose to the occasion and became great teachers, I was never truly able to get them to take the one step needed to set them free by finding their own resources. There are many reasons for this: the fright of stepping out of a comfort zone, the reluctance to get out and seek help from others, or was it simply that they thought that funds came easy and were perennial.
It was time to spell out a few more things. I asked the teacher sitting in front of me whether he really knew how we were funded and what kind of persons send us money? As luck would have it K, a volunteer and also one of our supporters was in the office. K is a young man who lives in the UK and works in a company. He also moonlights as a DJ. The money he gets as a DJ is carefully set aside and sent to pwhy. I pointed this out to my teacher and asked me whether I really could ask a person like K to send me more simply because my staff felt they needed more. And it was people like young K who were the backbone of pwhy. Was it not time to prove to all our wonderful funders that we were empowered enough to fly with our own wings. So if the teacher did not want to move to Okhla, there was an option available: set himself up and run his own secondary support classes. We would help him in the initial stages, but it would be his enterprise and he would have to ultimately run it independently. The choice was his and the sky was the limit. In his present state he could just hope for a marginal increase that would not really make any difference.
I had said my bit. As usual the teacher has not uttered a word. I asked him to think about matters and get back to me. I know he will ultimately accept to move. The other option is still too scary. But a see has been sown and I hope it will bear fruits sooner than later.
For the past few weeks we have been on a mission: find 2 good English teachers for our new focus on quality programme scheduled to begin on April 1st. To be on the safer side and ensure that all goes according to plan, we decided to begin our search way earlier and try out potential candidates so as to be ready on the given day.
Finding a teacher to teach spoken English to class 2 to 5 kids did not at first seem a very daunting task. We would soon find out how wrong we were! We first took the easy road – word to mouth – and spoke to everyone we knew. The result was negative, no one came forward. I was a little saddened as I had hoped that some one would come forward. We then decided to place an ad in the leading newspapers. We did get flooded with calls but the moment the word slum was mentioned, the potential candidate backed out. In some cases we were the ones who beat a hasty retreat as astronomical salaries were asked ( 30 and 40 K)! However we did have a tiny handful of people who accepted to come for an interview.
We finally selected two on trial: one with no teaching experience but a pleasing personality and a good command on the language, and the other with some teaching experience, a fair command on the language but a slightly reserved personality. Whereas the former worked out like a dream and now teaches at the women centre, the later was a sad reflection on the reality that is India. Both ladies belonged to the middle class, but whereas one had an open mind the other was closed and set in her ways. When she realised that her colleagues at Okhla were from an inferior social strata, she shut them out choosing to isolate herself. She did not even sit with them at lunch time. One would have looked over that aberration has she bonded with the kids, but here again she kept them at bay. She never smiled or laughed with them but chided and scolded that all the time. It was a nightmare that has to be ended and we thanked her and asked her to leave. What really shocked us all was when she said: If you expect me to take a child on my lap like the volunteers do, I will never do it! Well said ma’am, and yes we expect you to do that but we understand your reluctance but do not and cannot accept it.
So the hunt began again and we found a person who had taught for 14 years in an English speaking school in a small town in India. We called her for an interview. We asked her the usual questions and were a little perplexed when all we got as answers were one words: No, Yes, I can.. She was unable to form a single complete sentence. The poor lady was simply a reflection on the state of education in the country. We of course rejected her and as I write these words the search is still on.
It is sad but true that some realities permeate every aspect of our lives. The innocuous search for a simple teacher shows the abysmal state of our education and reflects the depth of our social stigmas making us want to scream once again: all is not well in India!
The recent award ceremony and ensuing conclave on confronting the challenge of corruption concluded two days ago. Most participants must have returned to their pursuits and for many life would go on as usual. Somehow that was not the case for me. The two days spent amongst people who are trying to make a difference and sharing their experiences and views has had a deep impact on me and has compelled me to stop and think about project why and its relevance if any. Please bear with me as I share some thoughts as they may bring about a real change in the work we have been doing for the past decade.
While debating on the disturbing issue of corruption what came to the fore was the fact that there was a complete erosion of values across the social spectrum. For every one, rich or poor, corruption had become a way of life, a belief system, something that one and all had accepted and stopped questioning. This was indeed a dangerous situation, one that needed to be addressed. Many ideas were mooted and debated, the main one being: how does one re-instill values in each and every strata of society?
The conclave ended but the disturbing questions raised had taken root in my mind. Something was not quite right. For the past 10 years we at project why had been trying to make a difference and yet at this moment it seemed that we had not really been able to do much. The perturbing why that had resulted in the setting of project why had been: why do so many children drop out of school? And for the past ten years that is the issue we had been addressing. Hence for the past ten years we at project why had been meticulously ensuring that no child drop out of school and I must admit we did a good job. Our benchmark had been numbers and we achieved tangible success as our numbers rose from 40 to 800! And in our desire to excel we perhaps forgot to look at other issues altogether. Or was it that we just sank into another comfort zone. Last week’s conclave shook me out of that complacency.
Giving children the possibility to remain in school and hopefully complete their schooling is undoubtedly laudable, but is it sufficient? To bring about the change we all seek what is needed is agents of change at each and every level of society and an average or sadly often mediocre class XII certificate cannot do that. The issues that plague our society are far larger. Let me give you an example that may explain what I am trying to get at.
We all know how important it has become to save the environment and reduce our carbon footprint and yet this footprint is growing surreptitiously in every little sum hovel. When I first walked into the home of one of my staff members who lives in what we all call a slum ten years ago, they had one small black and white TV, a few tube lights and a fan. Today thanks to an increased income and two dowries they have 3 colour TVs, two refrigerators, two DVD players, 2 coolers, a washing machine and more! The family was once very poor and thus to them all these new additions are endorsements of the fact that they have climbed the social ladder and bettered their worth. It is impossible to walk into this home and talk of carbon foot prints! If we want to see change one day in this home, it can only come when the little girl who is growing up in this home and attends what is called an upmarket school, brings about a wind of change. And that will be possible because she is getting a sound and holistic education.
Yes what I am trying to say is that the time has come for us at project why to mutate and replace quantity by quality. Today in our chase for numbers we often have children who spend short stints with us and then move on. This can be for a wide range of reasons: parents relocating because of work or increased rents, a new NGO opening and luring children away etc. Increased numbers also means our inability to provide more than basic instruction because of paucity of time or shortage of funds. And even if a child stays on with us and completes her of his schooling, she or he is far too often swallowed by the prevailing system: an early marriage or a mediocre job to help the family. With 800 children it is impossible for us to maintain close contact with the family and mentor the future of the child.
Would it not be better if we stopped our obsession with numbers and sought quality. Rather than 800 kids, we only reached out to let us say 200 and gave them quality education. Children that we would ensure remained with us and grow with us. Children we would give more than instruction in the three Rs! Children we could follow as they bloom.
True it is ambitious. True it will not be easy. One cannot just cast away a few hundred of children. Then how does one select the chosen few? My brain has been working on overdrive and after much thought a possible option comes to mind. Perhaps we could take the class I, II and III children of let us say Okhla and the women centre and begin with them. Thus we would add a new class every year till we reach class VIII and only take on new children in class I. The rest of the classes would carry on as usual with the only difference that we would not take any new kids, or replace any child who leaves.
The other point that comes to mind would be the increase in costs. At present what would be needed would be two English teachers and a small activities budget. The rest would have to be managed within existing resources. The children would come to project why for three and not one hour. The children of the pilot project would continue having one hour of school support but would have an extra hour of English and an hour of for wanted of a better word: general knowledge. This would range from environment, to story telling, to science, geography etc all taught in an interactive and fun manner. This is the bare bones idea. It will of course have to be fine tuned as we go on.
This will enable us to make the much needed shift from quantity to quality and truly make a difference. However this can only happen if all who support us continue to do so!
Our Okhla centre has a brand new computer class! Well it is what only pwhy would call a class. It consists of one old laptop and a very motivated young teacher, a rickety table and a bunch of starry eyed kids.
Some time back, Dipankar the secondary teacher at Okhla hesitantly asked whether we could start a computer class. He told us that there was not a single computer learning facility in the vicinity and that the children were very keen on learning computers. What children ask, children get is that not the pwhy motto! But how would we conjure this one. Our main computer centre did not have a single computer to spare and the newly set up one at the women centre barely had enough resources to meet their requirements. But there is a god that listens to children and a little miracle came our way: someone donated us an old laptop. That was enough for us to launch our Okhla Cyberwhy!
So in the midst of a garbage dump, inside a rickety structure, on a shaky table sits a prize possession – a laptop – and around it sit a bevy of eager kids rearing to learn what they know might hold a key to a better future. It is a sight to see and savour and yet it also makes us wonder at how little is needed to transform lives and how little is actually done. These children who come from the poorest families also have dreams and aspirations and it is for us adults to fulfill them. But do we? That is the question.
The Okhla children wanted to paint their school for Diwali. Instead of coming to us and asking for money, they decide to do it themselves. They all contributed five precious rupees and bought all the material and then rolled up their sleeves and painted the school themselves. The result a pink school. Not my preferred colour for a school but that is what they wanted it to be an after all is is their school!
This make look like an innocuous piece of news to many. But it is far from that. This is the first time children have taken the initiative to do something that would make their school look better. And five rupees may look inconsequential to many but for these children it is a huge amount. They must have had a lot of convincing to do to get it from their parents.
It is a very special moment for all of us at pwhy and for me in particular. Okhla had from its very inception been a community initiative. It has also been steeped in the love of people big and small. It has been hit by problems big and small, bet it storms or trucks. And it has survived all as it is imbued with a rare spirit no one could ever destroy. The spirit of children willing to overcome all odds to reclaim their often usurped right to education.
It is these very children that we have let down time and again. We have done it again with the recent scrapping of the Xth Boards or the latest decision on IIT admissions. It is time we started thinking about them and making laws that would include rather than alienate them. But is anyone listening?
When I see the Okhla project I am filled with immense pride and joy. Way to go!
It has been a long time since I have taken you on a tour of project why. Somehow the picture of little Komal peeking through the balcony inspired me to do just that. True that from the pwhy building balcony you simply see another building but that is when you look with your eyes. Try to look with you heart and suddenly everything changes.
So let us talk a stroll through pwhy. It is 8.45 am. The office is abuzz with activity as most of the teachers have come to sign in after their early morning spoken English class taken by Jillian our long term volunteer. Instructions are given and everyone sets out to their respective class. By 9 am the office is empty. A walk down the stairs and we reach our creche. The toddlers are still coming in and little shoes are aligned in a straight row. Some kids are already settled. It is toy time and every is busy with hos or her toy of the day. We tiptoe out and walk own another flight of stairs and are greeted with a loud Good morning ma’am. It is the special class and morning exercise time. Whether you walk or not, hear or not, comprehend or not does not matter, morning gym is for everyone and everyone loves it. The music is blaring and everyone is happy.
A walk across the street and a climb up two flight of stairs and we reach our erstwhile foster care. The foster care kids are now in boarding school but their special roomies still lie there. Manu, Champa and Anjali still live there but while they are in class the space gets used for other activities. We walk through the second creche and the prep class. Every one is busy settling down. We leave them to their taks and peep into the junior secondary class. A score or so of boys are busy revising for their exam.
A short drive takes us to Govindpuri Nehru camp. We alight from the three wheeler an walk through a maze of lanes and reach the tiny jhuggi. A class is going on in earnest. We continue our journey and reach Okhla. About 100 children are busy studying. Two volunteers are also taking an English class. The teachers share their concern about a wall that has cracked after a truck banged into it. The matter is serious and we will need to find funds to redo the wall. A quick drop at Sanjay Colony and we are back to Giri Nagar where it all began almost a decade ago. Today the little street is host to our senior secondary and our computer centre as well as our library which also doubles up as a primary class. Everyone is busy and we quietly walk away.
A drive takes us to the women centre. We are surprised to see how choker block it is. Over 50 women are busys with their sewing and beauty class. A few children are left in the creche waiting for their parents and over 150 kids are packed on the terrace all lost in their work. It is impressive, 150 kids almost pin drop silence. You only hear the teachers!
Yes the walk has been virtual but it reflects the reality and fills me with a sense of pride and deep gratitude.