Anou's blog

ANOU’S BLOG
The art of surviving #GivingTuesday#India

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.

 

ANOU’S BLOG
They died of hunger #GivingTuesday#India

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!

 

 

 

ANOU’S BLOG
Project Why revisited #GivingTuesday#india

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.

 

ANOU’S BLOG
I rest my case #GivingTuesday#India

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.

ANOU’SBLOG
Numbers Game #GivingTuesday#India

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?

 

 

ANOU’SBLOG
The tale of the little red bag #GivingTuesday#India

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!

 

 

 

ANOU’S BLOG
Water Woes #GivingTuesday#India

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.

 

 

 

ANOU’S BLOG
Petition the Lord with Prayer #GivingTuesday#India

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

ANOU’S BLOG
I have lost count #GivingTuesday#India

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.

 

 

ANOU’S BLOG
Bittersweet #GivingTuesday#India

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

Higher and Higher #GivingTuesday#India

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.

 

The heat is on #GivingTuesday#India

The heat is on. Mercury rising! This summer the weather Gods have also sent violent dust and thunder storms. But nothing deters Project Why children from coming to their respective centres and participating in all activities. It is assessment time and no  one takes it more seriously than the Yamuna Centre kids. And with reason, as they have to make up for lost years.

Our Yamuna Centre is a little over three years old. Before that these children never attended school. They helped their parents in the fields and lived close to nature as free spirits. Even if they had wanted to go to school, there is no school in the vicinity so that was never an option.

When we decided to open our centre it was foregone that we would run it as a full day intervention and give these children a ‘school’ like environment with a healthy midday meal graciously provided by Azure Hospitality. Our objective was to prepare these kids for Board examinations through the Open school.

We would have never imagined that within three short years we would have our first batch ready: the class of 2019. Six bright children will appear for their class X next year.

Come sunshine or rain, these children are always in the mood to study. Last week was assessment time and everyone took this very seriously even if the temperature was soaring at 45 degrees C.

So proud of my kids

 

 

So incredibly proud #GivingTuesday#India

Utpal is at home for his summer break after giving his class X Board Examinations. This young lad is not just watching screens or chilling with pals. He has decided to spend three days a week volunteering at Project Why! One of the group he is ‘teaching’ is the first class X batch of our Yamuna centre. Remember these are the children of agricultural labour whose parents grow vegetables on the banks of the Yamuna and who have never been to school. They are all free spirits who live close to nature and use to help their parents in the fields before we came three years ago and set up our centre. Six of them, are now ready to sit for their class X in 2019. That is how bright these kids are.

Utpal who has just sat for his class X was the ideal person to teach his ‘peers’ and he decided to teach them English. Letter writing, grammar, public speaking: the whole enchilada. And this 16 year old takes his work very seriously and does not miss a class. When I once suggested we do something else he told me very seriously that he had given the students homework and that he had to go to class. I am amazed at how seriously he has taken on this responsibility. But then this child never ceases to amaze me.

When I look at this picture I see one child who 15 years ago was almost given up for dead after suffering third degree burns and then a bunch of children whom everyone had given up on and who would have continued doing what their parents did forever. It is the magic of Project Why that changed everything for them.

In these moments I feel humbled and extremely proud.

God bless them

 

 

The auto rickshaw and the BMW #Giving Tuesday#India

I have been using an auto rickshaw as my unique mode of transport for almost two decades now. It ferrets me from slums to page 3 happening event. I have travelled in it in the scorching summer heat and the biting winter cold a  wet cloth on my head dealing with one and an extra layer with the other. I have never felt the need of changing mode of transport. My three wheeler is also my reading room and I must have read hundreds of book while zipping across the city. This was the best way of handling road stress! I love my auto.

We have recently shifted into a new colony as our house is being rebuilt. Imagine my surprise when an irate Radhey (my auto driver) came up to tell me that the security guard of the colony had told him not to park his auto in front of the house as some resident had complained to the secretary of the colony. Complained about what! I was not breaking the law  in any way. The auto is normally parked in the assigned parking that comes with the flat we have rented.

I gave the guard my visiting card and asked him to tell whoever had a problem to call me. I would deal with the matter. No call has come as yet.

What I fathom is that the auto sticks out like a sore thumb in the midst of SUVs and BMWs and mars the socio economic profile of the colony. I wonder with amusement at whether we have also fallen a few notches in the eyes of the neighbours.

But when you think of it a little deeper you cannot but feel saddened at such an incident. It reflects who we have become as a society where we judge everything by the colour of money. Hence anyone who travels in an auto cannot be my peer! And the auto cannot sit next to my BMW. It is infra dig.

How can India change if we are not ready to accept the other if the other does not look like us.

Think about it.

 

10 to 4 A day’s fast #GivingTuesday#India

A leading opposition party observed a ‘day long’ fast for communal harmony; laudable indeed as communal harmony is often threatened. Fasting is also par to the course in a land where the father of the nation adopted this path to secure freedom. But there is a huge difference between version 1940 and 2018.

My maternal grandfather was a nationalist and freedom fighter and as a child I heard many stories at his knee, some about the indefinite fast he participated in when he was in prison and when the protestors had to battle force feeding with every ruse in their books, even that of eating chillies so that their throats would swell and the feeding tube not go through; fasts that laster weeks taking a toll on your health.

Version 2018 is quite different. You can observe a day long – read few hours – fast after making sure you have gorged yourself before. This is sufficient to get the needed headlines, the social media exposure and score some brownie points.

Today, I would like to speak about another kind of fast, longer than the token fast of today’s politicians: it is the one many of the ones we dismiss as ‘poor’ are forced to take everyday. I have seen many women waiting for their men to come back at the end of the day with the day’s wage that would allow them to buy what is needed for the evening meal. And if the man has stopped by the drinking hole, then in all likelihood everyone will sleep on an empty stomach. For many children this is far longer than the ‘token’ fast as their last meal would have been the midday meal given in government schools. These children often have a watery cup of tea and a ‘fen’ (small price of low quality puff pastry) for breakfast. The time between breakfast and the midday meal and the small midday lunch if longer than the one of the token fast.

Before we began the Yamuna Centre, the children would eat one meal in the morning and then toil on the fields with their parents, help sell the vegetables on the roadside and then eat their evening meal consisting of the unsold vegetables and some flat bread. You can work out the length of their ‘fast’!

It is sad that aven after seven decades of Independence 5000 children die everyday of malnutrition related disease. No one ‘fasts’ for them.

 

No more maths- follow your dream #GivingTuesday#India

So it is true: no maths retest for class X which also translate into no maths for all Project Why Kids, Utpal and Babli and of course me! Hallelujah! What a relief! Cause for celebration.

For many maths is a dreaded subject! And yet we as parents and guardians push our kids to study subjects they do not like. The children do their best. For some the best is not good enough.

What we forgot is that each child is born with a talent, a skill, a gift from God and if given a chance s’he can excel. However it is not always what we adults would like it to be.

I was recently introduced by a dear friend to a software ProMyTheus that ferrets out the hidden skill in every child. It may seem puerile and naive but it is not quite so. We tested a few kids both at CSKM and Project Why. The results were unexpected to say the least: a quiet and seemingly withdrawn kid had talent for Performing Arts; a shy girl with sparkling eyes was your bon comedian and a happy go lucky kid was actually a financer/accountant who actually liked to save and not spend!

Utpal was inventor material, the kind that does not need a big degree to invent a a game changer. He also has the skill to make people laugh; the proverbial entertainer. I am glad I came to know of this before I began my pushing saga. I had my dreams for him. They were not his.

Utpal will be taking humanities for his Boards. No science, no commerce! You should have seen the change in his body language and the beaming smile I got. Reminded me of another smile from another child: my own when I agreed to accept her dream of working with special kids. What a relief it was for both of them. What we fail to understand is that children have their own soul plan and they are there to teach us one thing only: unconditional love.

We parents are stuck in a time warp that is now obsolete. We are still want to make our kids doctors, bureaucrats, engineers and so on. By the time they grow up and enter the job market robots will be performing surgeries and 3D printers will be manufacturing things. Adidas is already planning to ‘print’ its shoes by 2020. New times requires new skills and new skills require us to let go of our aspirations for our children.

Let our kids be writers, painters, inventors, comedians. They have to compete with robots or rather do what robots cannot. It was a delight to find out that Utpal is a born artist with a propensity to make/create!

Education as we know it is passé. Sadly it will take a log time to reform it and make it relevant. Our role as parents becomes crucial if we want our children to succeed and above all  happy.

So listen to your child, even if what s/he wants to do the exact opposite of what you dream for her. Follow her dreams, not yours for her!

 

They are not aliens from another world

In the wake of the horrific rape, brutalisation and murder of two children, one still unidentified, India is outraged and many want action NOW! How do we keep our girls safe TODAY is the question being asked. Alas the answer is not simple.

On the one hand the clamour to HANG THE RAPISTS is growing by the minute but that is easier said than done as the wheels of justice are painfully slow. The killers of the brutal Nirbhaya rape in 2012 are still of death row. Moreover to hang the rapists, the victim has to come forward and be subjected to unimaginable and debasing interrogation and cross examination which makes many victims desist from coming forward. Even filing a simple FIR is accepting to be raped over and over again. What were you wearing? Where did he touch you? What di de do? Then of course the family honour and code of silence comes into the way of any justice as perps are often known persons.

I have first hand experience of this as I have seen how the ‘family’ gathers to protect the perpetrator and malign the victim, even if she is a mere child. She is isolated while everyone gangs up on anyone who dares take her side. That is the sad reality.

At best we can get justice for all the reported cases but how do we stop the pernicious, surreptitious ones, the ones committed everyday endlessly.

How does one stop this hydra headed rape culture where rapes happen every 15 minutes?

What is needed is to try and understand, if understand one can, why men rape!

Madhumita Pandey decided to do just that post the Nirbhaya case. She interviewed 100 rapists for her doctoral thesis and what she found out was that they were ordinary men. She writes: “When I went to research, I was convinced these men are monsters. But when you talk to them, you realize these are not extraordinary men, they are really ordinary. What they’ve done is because of upbringing and thought process.”

Now this is both disturbing and somewhat reassuring, disturbing as we would like them to be monsters; reassuring because upbringing and thought process can be worked on. The young researcher was keen to get to the bottom of the question and find out WHAT prompted men to behave in such barbaric ways.

The search for answers led her to look at the homes and how men and women exist within the home. Whatever your social profile the first thing that surprises you is that the woman rarely calls her husband by his name setting the stage for an unequal relationship. This is where it begins. Rapists are not aliens, they stem from the very society we live in. I do not mean to say that every one is a rapists or a abuser but that the possibility exists because of the submissive nature of the woman and the misplaced power of men.

Add to that the so called value system that makes sex taboo. Parents never ‘educate’ their children about sex, let alone answer any question about body changes. The child has to grow up alone, finding his own answers. The advent of the Internet has created more confusion in the minds of young people dealing with raging hormones. No one talks about bodies let alone vaginas and penises. You bathe with your underwear! This was quite a revelation for me. And masturbation is a no no as it weakens your body.

Sex education is left out of the school curriculum as legislators feel such topics could “corrupt” youth and offend traditional values. What they do not understand is that age appropriate sex education is a win-win situation: it helps the potential perpetrator understand his body and take control and the potential victim protect herself and learn to say NO!

Few rapists are repentant. Most try and find excuses or simply blame the victim. That has to stop too. Blaming the victim is an inherent part of the patriarchal society we live in. It is always the woman’s fault. Even if she is a child! That has to stop and every law enforcing officer has to be taught to treat victims with sensitivity and respect. This is again not as simple as it sounds as where does the officer come from but the same kind of home as the perpetrator.

Then there is consent. Few if no Indian men understands what consent means and that is why marital rape will not easily be accepted as a crime.

Pandey says: “Everyone’s out to make it look like there’s something inherently wrong with [rapists]. But they are a part of our own society. They are not aliens who’ve been brought in from another world.”

She is so right. This is something we tend to forget. Some rapes do have political and religious undertones, but the majority happen within the four walls of a place where the victim should be safe: home!

It is from there that the battle has to be launched.

All the Gods failed her

She was eight.

On a cold winter morning she went to graze her ponies, just as she did every day. One of the ponies strayed and she went looking for it when a man offered help. Innocently she followed him unsuspecting, trusting like any 8 year old. He was part of a sinister plan that had already been hatched. When she realised that she was in danger, she tried to run but was forcibly held and drugged. Then the rapes began. She was taken to a temple where the Gods were not hers. She was raped again and again for days and nights, her cries unheard, raped in a a temple where Goddesses are worshipped by men who worship little girls like her. She was not worshipped but abused and tortured by old and young. It was party time! You too come and join in the rape! An endless nightmare. When lust was satisfied, or maybe when she became an impediment the ‘men’ decided to kill her but not before raping her one last time.She was then strangulated and as if that was not enough, her head was smashed with stones, her brutalised body cast away in a forest.

This is little Asifa’s story.

Law took its course but for a short time, as it was soon realised that the perpetrators belonged to the majority community and she to an inconsequent minority. Tables had to be turned. The perps had to be protected and the big guns cames out. After the Gods it was society that failed tiny Afisa.

The news took months to percolate down but it did, it has! The ball has landed in our court. You cannot escape. Now what! Do we sit in silence and wait for the next child to be raped. It will happen more than once in the time taken to read this post. Do we hear the deafening cries of this child, cries no one heard then but cries we can hear now as you read her story. This is not just an abhorring crime against a child committed by a sick mind, this is a well planned machination aimed at scaring nomadic families like hers, families belonging to a minority religion. Making sure that they do not settle in your backyard. It is a sordid game of vote banks and political agendas. It is a sick cover up game by politicians and law officers who are standing in the way of the law of the land, the law that is meant to protect all Indians.

Asifa was an Indian citizen too! So who gave anyone the permission to usurp her rights.

Today as her picture is flashed on screens, can we look into her eyes and promise her justice. Can we accept her as ours or does such brutalisation only affect us if the victim fits a certain mould, one that makes us uncomfortable, one that is too close to us. A poor child belonging to a nomadic tribe is almost alien to us. Yes we will march, we will light candles, we will rant and rave on social media, we will express our horror in conversations wit our peers. Then we will move on till another child is raped.

Social outrage is short lived.

An article came my way this morning and sums it all. It is entitled: How India reacts to the Kathua perversion will determine if the nation’s moral slide can be arrested.

This is the first time  perpetrators have received official and public backing because they belong to a particular religion. This is a dangerous precedent and we must ensure that it does not succeed. The perpetrators whatever their religion or caste or political affiliation are perpetrators first. Little Asiya had no religion. She was every God’s child and yet they failed her. Close your eyes and listen to her cries in that temple hall. Let them sear your soul and conscience. This is the time to make Asiya ours. She was eight. That alone should wipe out all else. No eight year old should be treated this way. If as a nation we do not understand that, then there is no hope left.

Feel the weight of Asiya’s tiny coffin. Hear her cries. The only thing you can do for her now is get her justice.

A space to study #GivingTuesday#India

When class ends at 4pm, Neam and Tejender’s day does not. They take over the vegetable road ‘stall’ their parents run and run it till lights permit. But that is not all. They carefully carry their books and copybooks to finish their homework. The patch of road becomes shop and classroom at the same time. It is their space to study.

Both brothers are students of our Yamuna centre, and this centre is the only ‘school’ they know. They instinctively understand that this is also their road to a better future. They take their studies very seriously. They know that once back ‘home’, in their tiny thatched shanty they will not be able to study. The space is overcrowded, smoky and poorly lit. So they have created their own space on the road.

This picture not only speak volumes but is very moving. At a time where there is a furore about leaked exam papers, cancelled exams and a new exam looming large, the issue of adults letting down children is in everyone’s mind. For once the subject of debate has broken all social barriers. A strange way to unite India.

I ask you to spare a thought for the millions of children lie Naem and Tejender who too have been let down by everyone. They simply fall of the net. Before we came, none of these children, whose parents are agricultural labour, went to school. Even if they would have wanted to, there is no government school at walking distance. Their life consisted and helping their parents on the fields and waiting to grow up till they would tend to the fields, marry and have children whose plight would be the same as theirs.

I do not know how far will we be able to go, but it is a matter of pride to know that 4 of our students are preparing to sit for their class X Boards through the Open school. We will continue to soldier on as long as we can. We know the precarious nature of their parent’s livelihood on the flood plain of the Yamuna. But as long as we are there we will ensure that as many children as possible learn as much as possible. The benefits of literacy are not contained to examinations and professional courses and jobs. Literacy helps in learning about schemes and programmes that could be of benefit; of accessing bank loans and thus being free of loan sharks; of reading about better agricultural processes. We also plan to introduce them to computers and the world wide web!

We will not let them down!

Games adults play#GivingTuesday#India

We all remember the absolute joy and relief we feel at the end of an exam, mors so after the last paper. All the hard work is over and it is time to celebrate. March 28th 2018 was to be such a day for both Popples and I as the last dreaded maths paper was over. It was time to make fun plans. That was not to be. The celebration was rudely interrupted by the news that the maths paper had ‘leaked’ and that the students would have to sit for their maths exam again. Utpal was brave, as he always is. Maam’ji was devastated!

Not just devastated but outraged and sad at the same time.

Once again we adults had let our children down. I do not know whether it was pranksters or a well oiled nexus, but a bunch of adults felt the ‘need’ to play games, games that had the propensity of hurting millions of children by playing with their future.

The TV channels debated the issue furiously. Some felt that the perps were coaching centres and bureaucrat nexus, others thought it was some smart aleck nerds trying to show off. It does not matter. Whichever way, children have yo sit again for a dreaded exams, an exam that for some, like Popples, would have been the LAST MATHS EXAM.

What is sad is that papers are leaked with alacrity and impunity year after year.

A paper leaked a few hours before the exam would have benefitted a few; the rest of the kids wrote their paper with utmost honesty and integrity. Now because of some adults their holidays are spoilt, for some their professional entrance examination preparation is suddenly curtailed. Imagine the anxiety and fear of these innocent victims.

An irate parent asked the spokesperson of the ruling party if she could tell them about the punishment meted to past perpetrators. She had no answer. An angry school principal challenged the validity of a system where a child’s entire future was judged on a three hour paper. I second that. The debate went on and was to my mind a dialogue of the deaf. The spunky lady moderator hit the nail on the head when she reminded the politician that the class XII kids were first time voters in the elections to come.

The Government made the expected empty statements: the law will take its course; the culprits will be punished etc. But these are empty words as we know. And how do such actions make up to the children who are the innocent victims.

Can anyone answer?

 

I want to hold your hand #Giving Tuesday#India

How many times have you not reached out to your best friend and asked her to give you a hug? More so when you are feeling low. How many times have you not held the hand of your friend just to show your affection? I have and still do. It is said that hugs are good for you. Scientific studies have stated many benefits of hugs as they release oxytocin which is a feel good hormone. Hugs ‘help’ us feel supported; they lower blood pressure, ease stress and even lower your risk of infection! They are truly a powerful healing option and it is said that we need 8 hugs a day! Holding hands too has its share of benefits.It releases pain and stress, and provides a sense of security. Hugs and holding hands are good for you!

Not quite so in a school in Bengal where 10 young girls were branded ‘lesbians’ because of hugging and hand holding. The poor souls were even made to write that they were lesbians.

“If two persons hold hands, or put an arm on each other shoulders, that does not mean they are lesbians” said angry parents. What utter nonsense was this. To add insult to injury, the headmistress said in her defence: “Today we called the guardians to apprise them of the issue. Our aim was to discuss the matter with them so that we can bring these girls on the right course through efforts both at home and in school,”

And the Minister of Education promptly added that lesbianism was against the ‘ethos’ of the state.

If headmistresses and ministers have such narrow ideas, God help our children!

All you need is love #Giving Tuesday#India

All you need is love sang the Beatles!I second that. After a long period of personal blues and professional worries I decided to go and visit all my Boarding school kids last Sunday. Armed with a cake (Meher’s birthday had gone without celebration; a pot of biryani and bottles of junk drinks, I set out to meet my special brood. I was meant to meet the Principal but she got unexpected guests and I found myself with my merry band to celebrate Mehar’s birthday.

We landed in the tiny canteen and sat on the few rickety chairs with the cake on a rickety stool. Kiran took charge and set out to cut the cake. There were no candles to blow but we made up with loud singing. The tiny paper plates used for chocolate cake were used again for the biryani! Who cared. Nothing ever tasted better. It was such joy to be with these kids.

The Boarding school programme is my pet programme even though it has brought me criticism of all sorts ranging from “How expensive!” to “why should slum kids go to upmarket boarding schools”, I have held my own and never regretted it. My formidable 8 are just like any other child born in India! I am so very proud of them.

All you need is love, the love these kids give you unabashedly and taught me the meaning of unconditional love.

God bless them!

(From left to right: Utpal, Kiran, Manisha, Meher, Maam’ji, Babli, Vicky, Yash and Aditya)

 

Thank You Mr. Minister #GivingTuesday#India

Last week, in the news bulletin, almost lost in between the reporting on the death of a star and mega bank scam was a news item that has the potential to change India! As I listened to the report my heart started thumping with joy. And if this one reform is undertaken, the face of our country will be transformed in a few years. So no more suspense: the change I am referring to is the reduction of the school syllabus by a whopping 50%!

It is heart warming to see a government looking at education from the point of view of the child!

So what does the Minister propose to change? Well first and foremost he wished to cut the NCERT syllabus by half and hence lighten the burden on the child’s shoulders, so that the child can get time for other activities and reach her full potential. Hurrah! Children need to be given full freedom for the development of their cognitive skills. More time for creative pursuits, for sports, for day dreaming, for playing for being a child.

There are other changes envisaged, but just this one change has the ability to transform the quality of our young. Today children have to learn a syllabus that in the words of the Minister, is that of a BA or B.Com. Much of what is learnt in school is forgotten right after the exam. With the kind of syllabus they have, there is no room for any other kind of learning but rote learning and the obsession with marks is such that children have to sacrifice their childhood to the alter of numbers. Even class I kids go for tuition in India. When does s/he play?

If a child is given the chance to grow to her full potential by learning all the life skills required to succeed, she will be a better person, worker, parent, citizen and so on and this can change the face of India.

The kind of learning that is imparted in schools does not allow a child to blossom. As often said, education as we know it now, was designed to make good subordinates not leaders. And to enable that, it was important to ensure the deadening of all independent thinking.

It is also good to hear that the Minister plans to implement this reform by 2019.

Now Mr Minister can you also change the examination system into one that does not require rote learning but celebrates critical thinking.

Thank You Mr. Minister

 

 

With a little help from my friends #GivingTuesday#India

We all know the wonderful Lennon McCartney song With a Little Help from my Friends. It is a song I have hummed along for over half half a century to lift my blues and get by or simply to feel good. Today as Project Why takes its first steps in the world of corporates and CSR, I am filled with nostalgia for times gone by and with gratitude I cannot find words to express. Yet I will try my best.

Since its inception in 1998 the Trust I created to honour my father and all he taught me, Project Why has thrived simply ‘with a little help from my friends’ or should simply say ‘thanks to the help of my friends”. Though I know that it can only thrive further by expanding and reaching out beyond friends, I feel a tug at my heart and hence this post to revisit years gone by to express my immense gratitude to everyone who has been part of this journey.

It all began with dipping into my inheritance and almost depleting it. Project Why kept on growing organically one ‘why’ after the other, each needing to be addressed and when the pockets were empty and the ‘whys’ still there, it was time to step into the big world. For an only child with a nomadic childhood, the world was rather small and empty. And that is when friends began to appear. I was asked to join a social network RYZE and began making contacts. Then I would send individual emails till another kind soul who introduced me to blogging. It was a quantum leap. The almost 2000 blogs are a witness to that. My deep gratitude to these two saviours.

My French Connection came handy too as very soon a wonderful soul visited us, got touched by what we did and set up an organisation in France to raise funds for us. My deep gratitude to Enfances Indiennes. Another kind soul from Germany believed in us and set up Project Why Deutschland. The network of friends began to grow exponentially.

Our first volunteer would open the gate to a new mine of friends as over the years our hundreds of volunteers from the four corner of the planet would become staunch supporters and friends. Gratitude to each and every volunteer. The Project Why Family was growing by the second.

When someone suggested that I apply for funding to Asha for Education in the US, I sat in front of their long application form and realised that I ticked very few boxes. I filled the form with honesty and simply requested that someone come visit us before rejecting our application. Someone did come and the rest is history.

What touched me the most and is so humbling is that most of the help we have got has been from the heart. From a young girl who organised bake sales, to another who collected her pocket money, to yet another who gave up his birthday gifts, every penny that came to us was priceless and received with gratitude.

It would take a book to truly acknowledge each and every one who has helped Project Why exist and thrive, I felt it necessary today to remember them all and express my deepest and heartfelt gratitude.

I am simply busy being grateful!

 

 

We need to find that five year old again #GivingTuesday#India

According to a NASA study we are all born geniuses. What dumbs us down is our education. Astonishing is it not? The test devised for NASA engineers prompted the question: where does creativity come from? So it was decided to further the study and take them to school children. In phase 1 1600 children between 4 and 5 were tested and the results were dumbfounding. The test was meant to ‘test’ the ability to come up with new ideas and a whopping 98% fell in the genius category! But what happens as you grow up. So children were tested at age 10 and then 15 and the number of geniuses fell from to 30%  and then a mere 12%. And to prove the theory a group of adults were tested and the result was a mere 2%. Only 2% of adults have the ability to come up with innovative ideas. The test was repeated millions of times; the results remained the same. The take away was that education a.k.a the school system robbed us of our creativity in 10 years.

The reason I believe is that all  education systems have been designed to suit the ruler classes’ hod on the majority. And too many creative persons rock the boat. This is very real in India where a mere 33% is sufficient to pass a school leaving certificate and even a degree. We are all aware that the rebarbative skills that we ‘learn’ in school will be useless with the advent of AI and robotics. The needs of tomorrow are very different to what children are made to cram, and require the very creativity that has been so insidiously thwarted.

Here is an image of what children will need to succeed:

We need to become the five year old we once were. The question is how? The answer is surprising too: dream, day dream, use your imagination, challenge yourself by taking an innocuous object and finding numerous ways to better it using your five year old brain and you will surprise yourself.

One must remember is that is is the fear of being criticised or laughed, of being checked and chided that kills curiosity and imagination.

Watching our poor children and teenagers cram for the impeding exams makes me feel terribly sad as I know that their imagination has been slaughtered at the alter of education.

We need to challenge our belief systems but if we dare too, be ready for many raps on the knuckles!

 

The needs of tomorrow #GivingTuesday#India

The dreaded Boards and final exams are around the corner and everyone is busy studying. It is a race for marks, as marks is what can make you or break you. If you do not perform well on one particular day, your entire life can be changed. It is rather unfair to say the least.

How many of us remember much of what we were made to learn in school? From log tables to multiplication tables, how many hours did we not spend learning them by heart. Today if we need to calculate anything we open our smart phone and go to the required app and voilà you have the result.

In India the race for marks is worse than anywhere else in the world. A different a half a percentile decides whether you will become the doctor you dreamt to be as a little girl or not. Choices are not yours to make but are decided by the marks you get. The grading system is also skewed. To ‘pass’ an exam you need a paltry 33%, to accede to a good college you need 95+!

Kids from poorer homes run the race with many handicaps. Poorly run schools, illiterate parents, economic challenges that make after school tuition a a chimera and tiny overcrowded homes where it is quasi impossible to study. I am in awe of these kids who manage to pass with respectable scores!

The question that begs to be answered is how relevant is this style of education? To be considered a ‘good’ student, you need to spend hours mugging. The child who topped her class XII, and I use the word child for a reason, stated with great pride that she had learnt every page of every school book by heart. My heart went out to her as I asked myself when had she let go of her childhood; had she been out in the park, seen a movie, laughed with her friends. Probably not. Had she had time to ‘learn’ beyond her school books, to read, to meet people, to widen her horizons. Certainly not. She had been too busy mugging every line to get to the coveted position of being a topper.

Do higher marks make you more intelligent? I do not think so. I always go back to Delors’s Four Pillars of Education: Learning to learn, to be, to do and to live with others. In idea we stop at the first one: learning to learn. A child needs to have an all round education and unfortunately in India we have missed the boat completely.

Will any one ever look at education in the light of the needs of tomorrow?

Not for a long time.

 

I hold every person a traitor #GivingTuesday#India

“While millions suffer from hunger and ignorance, I hold every person a traitor who, having been educated at their expense, pays not the slightest attention to them” Swami Vivekananda.

This quote was part of a play that Utpal’s school put up for the Republic Day Celebrations. It reiterated what I have alway held: that each one of us are responsible for the poverty and misery around us.

The same evening I was heading to an eatery when the car stopped at a red light. It was one of the coldest days of the season. A little child in a tattered shirt and shorts, barefoot was weaving in between the cars in the hope that someone would roll down his window and drop a coin in the proffered palm. When the light turned green the child would go and sit on the divider and wait for the light to turn red again

Traitor was the word that came to mind. The traitor of the quote I had heard in the morning. Each one of us that ‘did not pay the slightest attention’ to the child was indeed a traitor.

And the same goes for the collective silence that occurs each time we of someone dying of hunger, a child being raped and so on. We have become inured. Nothing moves us. At best we raise our brows in horror for the time it takes the read the news item. An 8 month baby was raped; will it outrage us as it should

Some of us do react and feel the collective shame. Some of us move out of our comfort zones to do something, brushing aside the many ‘how can you change anything and make a difference!’ I heard that too almost two decades ago when I decided to do something as the plight of the child that knocked at the window of my car actually managed to knock at my heart. Many of you may not know that the first programme of Project Why was to urge people to distribute biscuits and not money each time a child knocked at their car window. Sadly the programme did not take off. I had then believed naively that time was not right and things would change but twenty years down the line the number of children begging seems to have increased.

My promise to myself to one day do something for beggar children could only be redeemed last year when we opened our Kalka Mandir programme. The children in this picture are all ‘beggars’ or children of beggars. They come and study with the same eagerness as our other children and I hope that some of them will continue and maybe break away from the horror of begging. Makes me feel a little less of a ‘traitor’!

 

 

 

 

Complex problem solving #GivingTuesday#India

I have been screaming hoarse for the past 18 years that education needs to be reinvented in India if we aspire to become a leading nation in the future and if we want our youth to find employment. Sadly no political dispensation has made education reforms a part of their manifestos and so our children continue to follow a system where only marks are important and rote learning is the best tool to attain high grades.

Recently I have had many complaints about Utpal from his school. They mainly center upon his lack of seriousness in his studies. At the same time his teachers do not doubt his intelligence and even laud his problem solving and creative abilities. The child is just not interested in rote learning. He would rather be given a challenge to overcome.

This year ACER chose to survey secondary students in rural areas. The results are depressing to say the least. The article makes interesting reading. 50% of students interviewed could not solve a simple math problem. As for their general knowledge let me share the quote of one of the surveyors: “We were shocked when we spoke to some of the children. Asked to name the capital of India, one of them said Pakistan while another mentioned China. These were Class 12 students who could not even mark their states on a map of India,”

So what is this education we are doling out to children year after year and what is it meant to achieve. It is a relic of the education the British had conceived and aimed at making ‘babus’ or low rank officials that would obey and never ask any question. 70 years down the line this does not work!

I stumbled upon an article from the world economic forum entitled What are the 21st-century skills every student needs? Sixteen skills have been identifies.

 

 

 

I do not think any of these are desired let alone taught in our system. In 2020 the three most important skills are : complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity.

Our education system does not impart any of these. Children are busy learning by rote to regurgitate at the exam to get high marks and then forget. I cannot forget a young girl who has topped her class XII some years back saying proudly on national TV that she has mugged up every book by heart.

Kids like Utpal who love problem solving and are creative will not get high percentiles and yet they are best suited to the new demands of the employment market of tomorrow.

It is time to thrash the education system which is a legacy of colonial times and replace it by a new education policy in line with the future.

Is anyone listening?

Above all else, we taught them to fear failure #GivingTuesday#India

I recently stumbled upon an interesting article entitled: When success leads to failure! It was an eye opener in more ways than one. Th article is about a parent and a teacher discussing  a well performing child. The words that caught my eyes were: Above all else, we taught her to fear failure. That fear is what has destroyed her love of learning. In fearing failure and thus pushing herself harder  the child had to sacrifice natural curiosity and love of learning.

Do read the article. It fits like a glove to what education has become in India: a made race for marks where children aspire to a perfect 10 no matter what the cost. The very valid point the article makes is how this fear of failure takes away from the child any desire to learn new things as it may lead to failure. No one gives marks for trying, diligence, perseverance and the learning to get from ‘failing’ and trying again. Better to stick to the minimum and the charted course. Forget uncharted ones.

I was aghast when I heard a child say on TV that she had learnt by heart every single text book and was wondering why she fell short of the perfect 10. You guessed right: she was the year’s topper in high school. My heart went out to this child who had spent a year with her nose in her book. When was he time for playing, laughing, walking in the rain, feeling the warmth of the winter sun, hearing the morning bird sing: simply being a child.

Is this what we want for our kids. To make them well performing robots and killing their creativity and uniqueness.

Sadly that is what all of us are doing to our beautiful and unique children.

 

An apologia for state run schools #GivingTuesday#India

I have always held that to bring about meaningful change, it is imperative to make state run schools centres of excellence. Only then will every child have the opportunity to change her morrows. Sadly we seem to have taken the other route: privatisation of education.

In a recent article entitled Rethink Education, Uday Balakrishnan writes: The shift to private education is not good. Government schools ought to be the drivers of change. I cannot but agree.

70 years after independence our track record in education is abysmal. To quote a few figures: only half of all students who enter primary school make it to the upper primary level and less than half that — around 25 million — get into the 9-12 class cycle. We have around a million primary schools and only half that number at the upper primary level. The number of secondary schools is less than 150,000 for a country of 1.3 billion, and even this comes down to just 100,000 at the higher secondary level. While there are around five million primary school teachers, at the secondary level the number is just 1.5 million.

You do not have to be a rocket scientist to see that the equations is skewed: 1 million primary schools and only 100 000 higher secondary schools!

Education is what can bring about the social transformation we seek. It is a vital investment that requires immediate intervention. Education today is moribund. It is a rote based mark oriented beast that smothers all creativity and self development. It needs a radical and immediate overhaul. There is no scope for band aid solutions or cosmetic tweaking. The obsession on marks is killing children’s creativity and uniqueness. Our kids deserve better!

I recently saw big hoardings stating that thousands of classrooms had been constructed in Delhi. This is laudable but without stellar teachers classrooms are of little use!There are over 15000 vacancies for teachers in State run schools in Delhi. Wonder why these are not filled.

We need to take education seriously. To view it as an investment in the country’s future. Teaching has to be given a respectable status and should be the first choice on the employment ladder and not the last.

State run schools have to be the best and become the first option for parents of all strata of society. Schools have to be a playing level field. Only then will things change.

Education is sine-qua-non to growth and development. We seem to have forgotten this.

Children are meant to laugh, not kill #GivingTuesday#India

Two horrific tragedies occurred last week in the capital city. In the first one a 5 year old sexually assaulted his 4 year old class mate in an upmarket school and in the other, 4 school students slit the throat of a young man over an altercation over a phone. The boys were aged from 13 to 16. The victim succumbed to the injury.

These two terrible tragedies left me stunned. The first question that came to mind was where did we as a society go wrong? Then a host of other questions, each begging for an answer.

What compelled the 5 year old to assault his classmate in such as a violent manner? Was he a victim of sexual abuse simply reenacting what he was made to suffer? Or was he mirroring something he had seen? In this case he too is as much a victim as the girl and needs counselling and a sensitive approach. Will he get it? I do not know. Are we not the society that ‘blames’ a child for being the ’cause’ of her rape?

And what makes 4 teenagers happily boarding a bus first ‘steal’ a phone from another co-traveller and when challenged whip out a knife and slit the throat of a fellow being? Why did the children carry a knife? Where did such violence come form?

And the biggest question that begs to be asked: How responsible are we as a society for such terrible acts?

What is this society we have created and nurtured? Is it not time to accept part of the responsibility.

What are we teaching our children? What role models do they have? The answer is there for all to see. Be it the news, the movies, the idiot box shows, all are replete with violence and more. There is violence in homes, violence in schools. Children are abused in homes where the code of silence reigns with impunity. Sexual education is off the curriculum because it goes against ‘tradition’. People are judged on what they possess. So steal if you cannot get it otherwise.

And if we do not pull the brakes and slam on them hard, more is on the way! We cannot sit with blinkers on. No one is safe. No one. It is time to redefine education, parenting. It is time to speak loud and clear against anything that one feels wrong.

Our children deserve better morrows. We have to give them back the childhood we hijacked.

Will we is the real question.

Bye Bye House #GivingTuesday#India

So the deed is done! After months of procrastination and doubts the old now crumbling house is ready for a makeover. So bags were packed, boxes filled with memories and moved to a new transit home waiting with bated breath for the day one would move back lock stock and barrel. A few tears were shed along the way I must admit but they too are tucked away on some remote cornet of the heart.

It is in this house that I finished my studies, got married, had my kids and brought my grandchild.

It is also in this house that Project Why was conceived from a mere thought to the vibrant entity it is today.

The picture above is that of what I fondly called: the project why cockpit as it is here that I steered its destiny for the past 18 years or so. It is also where I wrote the many of blogs that were the face of Project Why for all these years. This is te first blog I write from another place. Seema a little strange I must confess.

This move is probably my last rite of passage. It is when the old leaves space for the new. Be it home or Project Why!

 

As Delhi chokes #GivingTuesday#India

Delhi is facing a critical health crisis. The pollution rate is alarming. It is believed to be off the charts. Some call the city a ‘gas chamber‘. Experts suggest evacuating the city. But is this a viable option for the millions who live here/

The causes are many from  burning  crop residue in neighbouring states to industrial emissions to cars and construction dust.

This happens every year and every year panic sets in and short term measures are taken. But then winds blow and take the dust away. The problem is forgotten till it hits again a year later. Memory is short.

We are in the midst of a crisis and witnessing the short term measures: schools are closed for three days, trucks have been stopped from plying and people have been told to stay indoors. Closing schools may be an option for children from better homes, they can sit in their room with air purifiers, but what about children from slums who live close to polluting factories and whose homes are dark and insalubrious and so small that you can barely stand. Such children have no option but play outside in the haze and dust. Where else can they go.

With schools closed, many of the younger children will miss their midday meal something they look forward to! But notwithstanding this, it is certain that slum children will breathe in more toxic air while schools are closed. But does any one care?

And come to think of it, do we really care about the environment or do we too only react in times of crises by blaming the government and demanding remedial measures.

The sad reality is that when there is no crises each one of us is a big polluter. How many of us will take public transport? Far from that, in rich Delhi people of a same family got to the same wedding in different cars! How many of us do not use plastic, segregate garbage, do not litter, save water and so on. Not any is any. So are we not all at least a little responsible for the mess we are in?

Is it not time that we take action and commit to play our part in saving the environment.

In the land of silence and raised eyebrows #GivingTuesday#India

Came across an interesting article on the need of sex education in India. Sex education is a highly controversial topic as for some it is seen as offensive to Indian values, and concerns that it might lead to risky sexual behaviour and promiscuity. What its detractors do not understand is that it is quite the opposite. UNESCO defines sexuality education as one that  “provides opportunities to… build decision-making, communication and risk reduction skills about many aspects of sexuality…. encompasses the full range of information, skills and values to enable young people to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights and to make decisions about their health and sexuality”.

Wonder why those who oppose it do not see the situation on the ground with rape, teenage pregnancies and sexual abuse on the rise in a alarming manner.

Adolescents need to be taught age appropriate sexual behaviour or else they will be unable to reign in the raging hormones. If not in homes, then the only alternative is in schools. Some feel erroneously that if there is sexual education everyone will only talk of sex. But that is not true. Sexual education is about knowing your body and its changes, about understanding consent, about learning to interact with the opposite sex.

One cannot be prudish about this.

A very pertinent spoof was made on what would sex education look like in our patriarchal society.

It is so true. We are even afraid of mouthing words like sex!

At project why we have regular workshops on adolescent issues. We feel these are an intrinsic part of growing u in today’s world where teenagers and even tweens have access to unrestricted internet via the smart phone. Teaching age appropriate behaviour is an absolute must. Gender equality has to be taught albeit in our patriarchal society.

Sex education has several benefits:

1. It can help students understand that attraction to the opposite sex is a biological phenomenon.

2. It can do away with the taboo and stigma surrounding sex.

3. It can educate children on health issues related to sex and lower the rates of teenage pregnancy.

4. It can prevent gender and sex related injuries and violence.

5. It can enhance the psychological, sexual and reproductive health of students.

But the Government is even weary of using the word ‘sex’ in any programme on adolescent issues. Some feel it is against vedic values, and a top cop even said it would increase the number of rapes.

Sex education is taken seriously in many countries.

In Holland ‘Lentekriebels’, a government subsidised programme for children aged between four and twelve, is carried out every year. Under this programme, children are taught about relationships, sexuality, the act of cuddling, friendship and also about new born babies.

In Denmark children are made aware of what sex is in a very simple and clinical way. They even have picture books for little children to understand the process of having safe sex. The process is explained factually through cartoon-like graphics.

Comprehensive Sexuality Education  (CSE)is much more than sex education: It covers the physical, biological, psychological and social aspects of a person’s being and sexuality. It covers issues like bodily changes and differences, and relationships with other youngsters, teachers, and society at large, to discussing important social issues like bullying, abuse, infections, and breakups. And yes, it also provides information about sex along with the importance of consent and safety, all in age and stage appropriate terms.

Efforts are being made by the Government but civil society has to back it up.  2017, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare launched the Saathiya resource kit for young people. It is a progressive approach and covers six important adolexent issue: nutrition, sexual and reproductive health, non-communicable diseases, substance misuse, injuries and violence (including gender based violence) and mental health. However it relies on peer educators and an app and thus cannot reach every adolescent.

CSE is essential to help a child navigate through puberty to adulthood, more so in a country where questions are met with silence or raised eyebrows.

 

 

Startling and shocking numbers #GivingTuesday#India

A recent report from theInternational Food Policy Research Institute states that “India is ranked 100th out of 119 countries”. The indicators used are : undernourishment, child mortality, child wasting and child stunting.

The statistics of 5000 children under 5, dying of malnutrition related issues remains unchanged. I have lost count of the number of times I have written about this. 5000 children a day, that is almost 4 children every minute. It is a statistic that should shock us but sadly it does not. We have become inured I guess, or is it that it is not our children who die @4/minute.

Last week a 11 year old died of hunger!  Some administrative glitch The blame game is on. Soon politicians will jump in the fray but the bottom line is that a child died because she had no food. Her family was stripped of their ration card and the little they were entitled to.

I once again revisit all that I have written about malnutrition. I cannot but recall the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions?”. Does anyone remember them today?

The Bill introduced in Parliament few years ago with the mission to ensure no one goes hungry seems to have fizzled out. Schemes to help the poor are multiple and seem to add that feel good quotient but do nothing on the ground. The spectre of malnutrition looms large. And statistics remain the same: 43.5% of children are underweight; 50% of children’s death are attributed to malnutrition, 46 per cent of all children below the age of three are too small for their age, 47 per cent are underweight and at least 16 per cent are wasted; anaemia affects 74 per cent of children under the age of three, more than 90 per cent of adolescent girls and 50 per cent of women.

What do we do? Continue wasting food?

Peek into your garbage bin and ask yourself how many of the things you have thrown are still edible. Look a the your plate at the next party, wedding you go and see if it is empty before you put it down. Next time you are asked by your pandit to offer milk to the goods, ask yourself if that very God would not feel more propitiated if you offered it to a child?

Will we ever light a candle for these 5000 children we lose every day?

When will the horror of malnutrition move us out of our apathy.

Will we ever sing a requiem for these kids?

 

And the drop outs go on #GivingTuesday#India


This graph appeared in a recent newspaper. It makes for interesting reading as to the situation of school drop outs in India. For us at Project Why, its is of prime importance as our primary mission has been to contain school drop outs something we have done quite successfully over the past decade and a half. The other facet of our work has been our relentless effort to mainstream as many children as possible. We must have pushed back hundreds of children to school.

Our work continues.

However seeing statistics like these makes us weary and a tad sad. What held true in 2000 still occurs 14 years later. Nothing seems to change for one end of the spectrum while on the other we witness proliferation of new swanky schools. The school business only thrives for some, the others remain in the dark.

Girls drop out for the same reasons year after year and we can almost say generation after generation: distance of school from home, marriage, engaged in domestic activities, financial constraints, lack of interest etc. Some of these reasons are akin to those we face as we often have to persuade families to allow their girls to study.

Boys too drop out for the same reasons as those mentioned: to help the family finances or simply by lack of interest. One needs to remember that children from poorer backgrounds rarely get marks allowing them to pursue higher studies in affordable institutions. Joining the work force is often their only option.

Containing school drop outs remains a challenge even after 17 years of our existence. At times it seems like a Sisyphean task! But as I always held when faced with the daunting task ahead, even one drop out contained  is worth every effort put in.

 

 

Kamala – An unsung woman of substance

Kamala Goburdhun née Sinha 15 October 1917 – 13 June 1990

It is Kamala’s centenary today. It will be celebrated in the centre that is named after her and where two of her most cherished ideals are pursued: education and women’s empowerment. It will be a low key affair, a far cry from the loud and impressive centenary celebration of her better half a few years ago. A tribute to who she was: discrete while being strong, opting for the behind the scenes role as that is where she could truly colour the whole show.

She left this world 27 years ago but has never failed to guide me in every thing I have done, just as she did when she was alive. I feel her presence around me with every breath I take.

I am often asked why I decided to set up Project Why. There are many reasons, but one is undoubtedly the lessons learnt at Kamala’s knee. These were cameos of her life that she shared candidly leaving them to seep through my heart slowly, knowing that they would reach their destination one day. The destination was Project Why.

Kamala’s education was nothing short of a saga worthy of being brought to life in a TV soap! Kamala was the eldest child of a freedom fighter and in many ways his favourite. When the first girls school opened the town she lived in, she was rearing to join. Her father indulged her thinking that a few years of schooling would be a good thing. He never knew he had opened the floodgates.

Kamala had two formidable allies in her quest for education: her mom and her paternal grand mom both women way beyond their times. To ‘tame’ the freedom fighter they would use his own weapon: hunger strikes! So when Kamala wanted to study beyond primary school and the father was reluctant out came the big guns: Kamala went on a hunger strike! The two ladies would stand with forlorn faces just as the father sat down to eat and needless to say, he would relent. Sometimes it took more than a day but Kamala was fed at night by her two supporters. Hence she studied all the way to her matriculation. I guess my grandfather thought it would stop there as there were no institutions for higher studies in her city. But he did not know his women. Up came another hunger strike, this time a little longer, but permission was given to go to BHU in Varanasi to do her BA. Then would come an MA and LLB but by that time her father had surrendered totally.

Kamala also convinced her father that she would not marry unless India became independent. She did not want to give birth to a slave child. Life as a old maid was a better option.

So what would this tiny feisty educated young woman do? The unthinkable! Women’s equality is something she believed in fiercely and she knew that was her calling. She wanted to do something meaningful. After long discussions with her freedom fighter father she decided to work for the British so that she could ensure that war widows of WW II got their pensions, a pension that was often usurped by some male member of the family. This meant that she would have to leave her home and live alone in Delhi.  Kamala drove a truck into the remotest villages of Uttar Pradesh and ensured that the young widows got their due. While in the village Kamala would talk to the women on several issues life hygiene, child marriage and girl’s education. All this when women her age were already mothers of many.

Kamala knew how to make a difference. She had the courage to stand for what she felt was right and never shirked from walking the road less travelled.

That is what I try to do to honour her memory.

I miss you Mama!