The Boards results are out and all Project Why children have cleared them. Congratulations are in order! I am extremely proud of them. These children live in extremely difficult conditions and learn in spite of everything conspiring against them. No place to study as they mostly live in one room tenements with extended families. No support from the family. Quite the contrary often parents discourage and disparage them. Inebriated fathers turn on TV sets at full volume and the risk of losing notes to the whims of a younger sibling is real. No costly tuitions. No access to the Internet. Some even have to work while studying to help the household run. And yet they beat all odds and pass their examinations with to my mind more than respectable marks: one of our students got 81% and many had marks in the seventies.
The reason why I entitled this blog ‘bittersweet’ is that the reality is in our face. These children have to compete with children who have 99% +! So what happens to them. Private commercial institutions are out of their financial reach. The seats in state run universities are few and the competition fierce. The cut off marks always range in the nineties. So those portals are shut to them. What is left are: evening colleges, correspondance degrees, open universities, should they want to pursue formal education, or some low grade commercial institutes that would give them a slighter better job opportunity than just a school leaving certificate.
When you look at the kids in the picture, you cannot guess that some of them are Project Why children and others from an upmarket school. They are just buddies enjoying some quality time together. And yet the road map for both is poles apart. Where one in spite of her best efforts will be constrained to opt for distance learning the other will join a private university should she fail to meet the (ill)famed cut off marks.
Yet all these children are citizens of India, protected by the same Constitution and under the same Right to (quality) Education Act. But that is where it ends. Their destinies are charted by the amount of money their families earn.
The first flaw in my opinion is the skewed marking system followed by the authorities where 33% is sufficient to pass but a student can get 100%. The pass percentage has to be increased to 50% and papers set in such a manner that even the brightest student cannot aspire to more than 80% in some subjects. I still cannot understand how you can score 100% in Humanities. Questions need to test the ability of a child to comprehend, analyse and defend an opinion. Here it simply tests your ability to learn by rote.
Education is not a preferred programme of any Government as children are not vote banks. There are many programmes in place but their execution is poor. Schools run by one teacher are a stark reality of our land. In a country where unemployment is rampant, teachers post lying vacant is anathema.
Commercialising education was the death knell for quality education for the poorest. The state run schools are shunned by the very middle class who studied in them earlier. Over the past decade or so I have myself seen that even in slums, parents who studied in state run schools run from pillar to post and tighten their belts till it hurts to send their kids to a ‘public’ school, the moniker for private schools in India.
Shadow education, the more respectable name for private tuition, is a reality in most developing countries. Many children from less privileged homes cannot afford these classes. It has been our experience of a decade and a half, that teaching in school is ‘geared’ to private tuition, and any child, even the brightest cannot perform well if her learning is limited to classroom study. Project Why children are able to perform well because of the support we give them. We must not forget that in most cases the children get no or little help from home as parents are often illiterate and busy surviving.
The answer to most of these issues would be a common neighbourhood school but that was not the option retained while framing the Right to Education Act. What was proposed was reserving 25% of seats in every school for children from poor economic backgrounds. This was hijacked by the middle class who get their children admitted in this category by procuring forged documents by any means. Till date NO Project Why kid has been able to avail of this reservation!
So when I see my kids performing well by my standard, I feel sad as I know that the roads that should be theirs will never be and the challenge is to help them perform as well as their peers from the other side of the fence
The class XII results are out and the topper secured a whopping 499/500 in Humanities! That is close to 100%. My congratulations to the young lady and to all those who passed their examinations, even those who did with a low percentile because I know that every child puts her best foot forward and gives it her 100%.
Every child who has passed should be celebrated but that is not how it goes in India.
A very incisive and pertinent article by Avijit Pathak entitled A sick society that manufactures failures, gives a very real and almost uncomfortable image of the state of education in India. He writes: Young minds in India are being destroyed by a faulty pattern of education, parental ambitions, the aggression of hyper-competitiveness and a flawed idea of ‘success’. In such a system that brings about the death of creativity, there is no real winner.
The article is a must read. He talks about our children who are growing up with the euphoria of success and the stigma of failures. That is what it is all about. To reach the dreaded class XII Board exams the child is deprived of breathing space between school, tuitions, coaching centres and anxious parents. Nothing else. No poetry, no music, no creative activities, no games, no fresh air, all these being considered a waste of time. All creativity is sacrificed at the alter of success.
You can never be a winner as there is always someone who has done better, and even if you miss the coveted space by1% you are branded a failure. Things have to change but who will bell the cat.
First and foremost being the product of a school system where individual thinking was lauded I am aghast at a system where you can score 100% in subjects like History, English or for that matter any of the social sciences. The testing method is totally flawed as it cannot assess whether the child has understood what she has written and would be able to debate and defend an opinion and its opposite. This is a game we loved to play when we were young and it really was an excellent proof of whether you had understood what you had studied. Questions in our exams were so framed. I still remember the history question I had to defend for my Baccalauréat where the curriculum was from WWI to present times (the 60s). The question was: Had the Allies lost the war, what in your opinion would have been the economic status of Germany. There was no right answer. You had to defend your point of view. So any system that does not allow grasping and comprehending the system and does not leave room for improvement is skewed and gives a false sense of success to the child.
The next point is that our present system aims at creating clones and leaves no room for individuality. It gives you one objective only. This too is wrong. Every child cannot be a doctor or engineer. Every child is not happy being a doctor or an engineer. Our system removes joy form learning. A child may want to be a musician or a farmer and find joy in doing so. Let her. Don’t stand in the way. The world needs all kinds of souls, doctors as well as comedians, artists, writers, entrepreneurs. Find what your child wants to do and encourage her or him fully. Let her shine and not fail.
When I told my darling Popples that he did not have to fulfil my dreams but his own, an artist was born. The world is now opened to him and not strangled by my aspirations for him. And for those of you who may still doubt, this is one of his paintings done in water colours barely a month after he began to paint.
This painting has already earned him kudos and admiration, something his studies did not. The smile on his face says it all.
In today’s world children have to be able to think out of the box if they want to succeed. With fewer ‘jobs’ on offer, they need to create theirs themselves and love what they do. We need to bring up children who are compassionate and grateful and happy in their skin. Society will thank us one day.
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
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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?
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 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)
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
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!
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 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.
“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’!
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!
In a recent heated debate on women safety, a spirited woman anchor told a politician that she and for that matter all women, were not anyone’s daughters or sisters or wives. She wanted to be considered simply as a citizen enjoying the same constitutional rights!
A recent article entitled: There’s more to women than being betis and biwis, seconds that statement. Recently two young diplomats, who also happen to be women, were feted for their spirited defence of India at the UN. For the author and for man of us women, these remarks reek of patriarchy. We are sick of hearing politicians spout ‘our daughters’, or ‘just like our daughters’ when any issue concerning women is discussed be it safety or even rape.
Different rules are set up in universities for the so called daughters as it seems that they ‘need’ to be protected! Patriarchy seems to follow women no matter what they do or how high they reach. The sickening ‘in spite of being a woman’ is galling.
As long as this attitude remains, nothing is going to really change.
Women want to be considered as equal partners and so if the roads are safe for men, they should be for women too. We do not want to be talked down too or clubbed as the weaker sex.We want to be treated and recognised as professionals minus the ‘even though they are women”.
Will that day ever dawn?
Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi’s launched a ‘Bharat Yatra’ against child abuse on Monday with the words: “Each time when a child is raped, our conscience, innocence is raped. I am not going to tolerate this. I am going to change this.”
The sad reality is that a child is raped with regularity in this land of ours. Children are raped within he safety of their homes or school. Just last week a 5 year old was murdered in a prestigious school in India’s capital city. In another horrific incident a minor was gang raped by the school owner and a teacher for months. The incident came to light after a botched up abortion organised by the perps. She is critical.
Nothing has changed in spite of public outrage following the Nirbhaya gang rape. Children are still being raped with impunity. Some cases make the headlines. But others remain cloaked in silence, a silence often linked to misplaced family honour. Rapes remain in the closet. It is time they were brought out in the open.
Madhumita Pandey is a student in criminology. For her doctoral thesis she interviewed over 100 rapists. This was prompted by the question she and each one of us ask ourselves: “Why do these men do what they do?” and then goes on to ask: “what prompts these men? What are the circumstances which produce men like this?” This is something we all want to know. Madhumita set out to find out from the horse’s mouth.
It is easy to call all such rapists ‘monsters’! To bung them in a category that has nothing to do with us. To think of them as some aliens from another planet. Anything else makes us uncomfortable. But that is not the reality. The reality is that they come from within our society. How can one forget that 90% of child sexual and other abuse is committed by people within the family or extended family.
When she interviewed the rapists in jail she realised that most of them are ordinary men, with little education, often school drop outs and what they did was related to the way they were brought up. Boys are given false ideas about their gender and most if not all the women they interact with are submissive. Consent is not part of their lexicon. Gender equality is an aberration.
Let us pause a little and look around us and ponder on the day-to-day reality of children growing up in what is undoubtedly a patriarchal society. Children are brought up in an environment where boys and girls are looked at up differently. If one is king, the other is more a slave! In school sex education has been obliterated as such topics corrupt the young and offend traditional values. All conversation about anything related to ‘sex’ is taboo. Never minds if hormones rage or if the young access the mine of information now available at the swipe of hand on the ubiquitous smart pone.
Rape should it occur, is quickly brushed aside with a boys will be boys, or he had too much to drink, or why was she out at night, or the ever present family honour. One cannot begin to imagine how many cases of child sexual abuse are brushed under the carpet to guard family honour.
So what needs to be done. First accept that the real cause lies within our society and that it needs to be addressed head on. Sex education has to come back on school curricula asap! Young children have to be taught to say NO! They have to be taught ‘good’ touch and ‘bad‘ touch and have to be heard. It is imperative to give children a voice. And it is imperative to respect that voice. Even a sex worker has the right to say NO!
A child needs to have an adult it trusts and can go to in case of need. If not someone in the family, then a teacher or care giver. A loud NO the first time any such dastardly incident occurs is all it needs to stop any further abuse.
Perhaps it is too late to change the well ingrained mindset of adults. Let us at least strive to make the next generation aware of gender equality and consent.
I send my child to school because I believe my child will be safe.
This is undoubtedly what most parents feel when the wave goodbye to their child at the gate of the school or the school bus stand. But all changed on the fateful day when a little seven year old was brutally killed within the walls of his school. The case remains unsolved and gets murkier by the day as a cover up game is on!
The terrible crime sends chills down one’s spine. Imagine a little boy who saunters happily to school in the morning, needs to visit the loo and is brutally killed, his throat slashed. His fault? Trust. Trust that in his school he is safe. A culprit had been ‘identified’. Is he the real culprit. The sexual assault angle has been negated by the autopsy. A fact finding committee has come out with glaring lapses in security measures. The Government has stepped in and may take over the school for a period of time. The case has been taken over by the country’s leading Intelligence organisation. But all this can never bring back the little victim to life.
Today as we sit and wonder why this happened and where did we go wrong, many things come to mind. As we look back on the recent history of education in free India, what stares us in the face is its commercialisation. Education is now a business. and in business it is not the child that is the centre of attention, but the money that can be made. The equation is skewed and unless its is redressed, the likelihood of another child being hurt is very real.
The question is: how does one balance the two, or rather can one balance the two.
I have always held that education should be equitable and free for every child born in this land. Thus education should be imparted in state run neighbourhood schools where children of all walks of life should share school benches. Isn’t education meant to be an even playing field.
Sadly this is not what seems to be the chosen option. Education is a business and no matter how many checks and balances one comes up with, one has to remember that market forces dictate businesses.
Memory is short. Soon this terrible crime will be forgotten. Things will go back to what they were.
Will it take another child’s life to bring us to our senses. Let us not forget that one child dying in one child too many.
Live so that when your child thinks of fairness, caring, integrity she thinks of you. These words sum Ram and Kamala’s life. Today a more than a quater of a century after I lost them, and in the seventh decade of my life, I know I could not have been who I am if not for them.
They would have celebrated their 68th wedding anniversary today. I know they are popping the champagne bottle in heaven and I raise my glass to their happiness.
You may wonder why a blog about anniversaries and personal memories on what should be a post on Project Why. The answer is simple. Project Why is the logical outcome of an only child eagerly following her parents’ example day after day and not their advice. Advice is tinted by social mores, and politically correct guidance, example is from the heart. Advise would have been a lucrative career, a heavy bank balance, luxury holidays and three starred dinners. They gave me all that while I was still a child. I had my fill and sought more, but did not know what ‘more’ was as that never came as ‘advise”!
That came after they left and I sat looking desperately for the legacy they had left behind. It was not in the boxes and trunks and memorabilia that was strewn around me. I was terribly lost. All I had to hold on to were my father’s last words: don’t lose faith in India! It was November 1992.
It would take six long years of loneliness and pain to finally discover what the legacy was. Six long years of remembering their lives, the bittersweet memories, the stories often unfinished and bereft of any moral precept. And slowly it all came to me, in no order at all but somehow fitting the puzzle that would become Project Why. From Kamala’s side it was education, women’s right, patriotism, gender equality, standing for what is right, self-respect, courage and unconditional love. From Ram’s it was humanity, compassion, tolerance, social equality, generosity, giving unabashedly, giving when you did not have and of course culture, savoir-faire, integrity, probity and simple living.
It was left to me to honour this legacy.
And to honour them I set up Project Why with the hope that all the lessons learnt at their knee would be reflected in what I have been striving to do for the past 18 years!
The Trust does not bear her name. Once again it was the flamboyant husband who won the match! But the real inspiration and the quiet and gentle motivating force as always in my life was Kamala Goburdhun née Sinha. Her lessons were not exuberant like those of her better half. They were subdued and tender, cameos of her life she she shared with her only child. In the week mother’s are celebrated the world, I would lie to share some of these stories as each is echoed in Project Why.
Kamala the child was determined to go to school and her doting father did not stop her from getting enrolled in the first school for girls that opened its doors in the sleepy town of Meerut where the family lived. The school was established in 1929. She was already 12 years old but that did not detract her. There was no looking back. For education she would break all the rules. And she had to formidable women in her corner: her paternal grandmother and her mother! The three would devise ways to win over the Gandhian father. Kamala went on several hunger strikes to be able to continue her studies beyond class VI, go to Banaras Hindu University for her BA, do her MA and LLB. Her final degree would be a PHD at Charles University Prague, after the loss of her first born. Kamala was your never give up woman.
But there is more in the life of this small town freedom fighter’s daughter who went on to become an Ambassador’s wife. When she reached the age when girls would be married, she made a pact with her father, a pact both would honour. She was adamant about not having a child in a land that was not free and hence would not marry before India’s becoming independent, and should she still be of age, would marry whoever her father chose.
But that was not all. Her concern for fellow women was so deep, that she agreed to work for the British in order to reach out to ward windows in the villages of Western UP to ensure that that their pension was not usurped by some male member of the family. She drove a truck to reach the far fledged villages. She lived alone in Mandi House Delhi and commuted every week to her home in Meerut in her little Baby Austin. In the villages she reached out to women in more ways than one. A real trouper!
India became Independent. Her father found a man, a man that would take her away on a real magical mystery tour. But the transition from freedom fighter’s daughter to diplomat’s wife was not easy. The first challenge came soon after marriage. A dinner at home where one of the invitees was the British Ambassador. Kamala was appalled at the thought of having to receive him in her home. How could she get past the memories of a little child applying balm to the lacerated backs of her father and his companions when they came back from yet another non-violent protest. This was her task as in those days there was purdah, and women did not mingle with men.
It took her husband oodles of patience and love to explain to her that India was free, and it was the Indian flag that flew on the house she lived in. She was to the manor born and understood what was expected of her. Again she never looked back and was the perfect diplomat’s wife.
So when I look at Project Why, at the years gone by, at the work we have achieved, I realise that though the Trust bears my father’s name, it is her lessons that are imbued in every breath I take, in every step I walk. My unequivocal and obsessive love for India and my pain at seeing how things are going, my determination to educate as many as I can, my desire to make women stand on their own feet. Everything is what she taught me.
So today I understand that if not for you, Kamala, there would be no Project Why!
(Posting a series of success stories from the compilation The Project Why Stories 2000-2016)
Project WHY’s journey starts with the story of Manu, a boy with special needs who the founder of Project WHY, Anouradha Bakshi, came across one fateful summer day in 2000. Manu was clad in rags, disheveled and filthy, limping and begging on the streets, crying out for help at being bullied and abused.
Manu wasn’t born a beggar. He came from a family that lived within its humble means – his siblings went to school, his father had a Government job and his mother loved him. An alcoholic father and his special needs were his only challenges. But after his mother’s death, and his sisters moving away after marriage, he was pushed to the streets, and often spent his days without anything to eat. His brother’s wife use to send him begging for a few coins. People fed him and treated him like a street animal, his father’s friends abused him, and kids pelted him with stones.
When Anouradha Bakshi answered his call for help that day in May 2000, in the streets of Giri Nagar, a journey began for both of them that would last ten years. The initial efforts were in finding an institution to take care of him, but with no success in that endeavor, a rented place in Manu’s locality was arranged – a larger plan slowly enfolded called Project WHY. Manu was the reason that really made Anouradha take the road less travelled.
Anouradha made herself a promise she would only reveal much later: Manu would have a home, a bed to sleep in, friends to share a meal with and even a TV.
Project WHY grew as a space to support underprivileged school children. Every day, the organization gained trust and working became better every year, especially for Manu. He was bathed, fed and had his own bed in the verandah of what was then our Project WHY office. And in 2002 when we launched our class for special kids, he was Roll number 1!
Some would perhaps think that was game over…Manu was given a TV and a place to stay. But not for the vision Manu provided or set for Project WHY. The challenges that had been addressed gave Project WHY the audacity to start dreaming big, …very BIG!!! Dreams of a long-term, sustainable future for children like Manu – The dream of Planet WHY. The first plan in this was to give Manu and his friends a place in which they could grow old and die in dignity. The idea of a green building, with terracotta bricks and old style flooring and many widows to let light and breeze in. It would be Manu’s home and workplace as he would be able enough to learn gardening or a skill. Land was bought, architectural plans made and Project WHY started looking for funds.
On January 7, 2011, Manu tiptoed out of Project Why’s and Anouradha’s life after having had a cup of tea and his favorite biscuits. It is only after his death that the true meaning of Manu’s life emerged. As Anouradha puts it, the biggest lesson Manu taught the family of Project WHY is to “never judge a child by their appearances and also believe that each and every child is special”. No life, however miserable, wretched or seemingly hopeless, is meaningless. Every life has a purpose.
Manu’s legacy is huge. If not for him, there would not have been a Project WHY. If not for him, so many lives would never have been transformed, be it the now thousands of children who have had access to education, the scores of kids with repaired hearts, the many hopeless souls who now have dignified employment, the bunch of disabled kids who now spend their day happy and so on. Manu was born to conjure miracles.
In true homage to Manu, Project Why lives on.
(Posting a series of success stories from the compilation The Project Why Stories 2000-2016)
Born to a poor family in Bihar, Gyanti Devi never had the opportunity to learn as a child. Soon after her marriage, her husband, who is severely handicapped, required treatment. This meant moving her life and her two children to Delhi in 2006, where they lived on rent in the village of Madanpur Khader. The area houses mostly migrant families and has a high dropout rate from government schools as well as issues of safety and nutrition.
Gyanti Devi’s case was brought to our attention by a friend of the Project, Sunita, at the beginning of 2014. With her husband unable to work due to his handicaps, Gyanti Devi needed income for her family but, with no skill whatsoever, was unable to find a job.
At Project WHY, we felt that our sewing or beautician classes could give Gyanti Devi the opportunity to start a career. However, we soon realised that, being entirely illiterate, she would need more than just vocational skills. Dharmender, the manager of our Khader centre, proposed that she spend the mornings learning to stitch with the vocational group, but also attend literacy lessons with the children for 40 minutes in the afternoon. She agreed to this and became one of our most motivated and diligent students, slowly building up her literacy skills with the children whilst also finding solace in her knitting.
Now, Gyanti Devi is a proud graduate of the Project WHY system and able to read, write and sew with ease. She has started a small business within her village stitching other people’s clothes, with which she is able to provide income to her family. She is also able to read the local newspaper and understand what is going on in the world. She points to an increased sense of freedom and opportunity with the skills that she now has. Previously afraid to take the bus alone, she notes that “I can now make my house budget and also can read the bus signboard.”
Armed with a new sense of financial responsibility, Gyanti Devi has spent the last three years building a new house for the family. She would get up early in the morning and take the interstate bus from Delhi to Palwal (Haryana) by herself, returning late at night. There, she would bargain and purchase the construction materials required. She kept detailed records of all labour payments in a notebook and is proud of her achievements. “I have successfully built my home for my family. So, I can say today that what every man can do, I can also do”.
Project WHY believes that every person should be able to change his or her life, and it provided the support for Gyanti Devi to do this and achieve her dream. She has created a better future for her children and she hopes that the skills she has learnt will allow her family to prosper for generations.
(Posting a series of success stories from the compilation The Project Why Stories 2000-2016)
Indian society continues to treat disability with indifference, pity or revulsion. Low literacy, school enrolment and employment rates as well as widespread social stigma are making mentally disabled people amongst the most excluded in Indian society. These people are deterred from taking an active part in most families or even communities. Moreover, there is a stigma attached to children with disabilities, especially in rural India, and often even loving parents can do nothing to help their disabled child because they themselves are not aware of the disease or how to take care of their child.
The story of Muna therefore begins in 2005, when he first arrived at Project WHY. It was clear that he had never been adequately looked after. Upon further investigation, it was revealed that, whilst his parents cared about him dearly, they simply did not understand his intellectual impairments. Muna’s parents did not have the time nor the resources to give him due attention, as they had to care for his other four siblings.
Interacting with Muna, Project WHY found that he had little concept of personal hygiene. He would regularly soil himself, and had never been taught to have a shower/bath. He had no understanding of social interaction and rules of engagement. This was demonstrated in 2014 when Muna left a shop without realising he needed to pay for his juice and was severely beaten by the shopkeeper.
Having grown up in the industrial neighbourhood of Okhla, Muna would spend his days begging outside temples, occasionally stealing when money was unavailable. Residents of the neighbourhood would befriend him simply to bully and take advantage of his simple mind. Without the ability to communicate clearly, he was reduced to performing illegal errands around the community such as collecting and selling alcohol for under-aged children.
Project WHY began by teaching Muna the basic concepts of hygiene and to be self-reliant. He was taught to use a lavatory, to dress himself and to shower regularly. From there, we were able to build his confidence through speech therapy classes and develop his basic social interaction skills. Project WHY also initiated the process of educating Muna’s parents, who now understand his disability and the kind of care that he requires. They acknowledge his kind heart and sense of compassion even if he cannot communicate it in the same way as other children.
Today, at the age of 19 years, Muna is one of the stars of Project WHY’s special needs class. He is the first to welcome and befriend any new volunteers, including foreign students who do not speak the Indian language. He is very fond of activities such as art, ball games and dancing and, in spite of his difficult childhood, he shows an overall passion for life.
This picture is not the LOC. It is not an incarceration centre. It is not a prison. It is not a loony bin. This is my home! This the wall that separates us from our new neighbours!
I seek your indulgence today for writing a very personal post. I ask it in the name of all I have done and stood for and in the name of my mother who fought for the freedom of our beautiful country and was even willing to live as an old maid rather than give birth to a child in an enslaved land. God did give her one child: me. Kamala, my incredible and beautiful mother ensured that her only child take her first breath in an India that was free.
Today, sixty five years later I wonder if it was all worth it.
I have over the years felt saddened at many things but set them aside and never lost hope. I preferred taking the road less traveled and dog what I could to fulfil the dreams of all those who fought for our freedom. It was a fulfilling journey. There were hiccups but it was all par to the course and was taken as such. Ours is not a perfect world.
When things got bad, I drew strength from the home we built almost half a century ago where every wall is filled with memories of unconditional love and abundant gratitude. My home, now old and crumbling was my security blanket. I just needed to walk in and felt at peace.
But even that has been taken away from me.
The old house next door was brought down and in its place a new building was erected with many flats. Even that was OK. For many months the din and rattle made by the workers and their families was comforting. It was my India. The wailing of babies, the shouting, the laughter and even the fights, everything was welcome. But that too ended. Now we have neighbours!
I looked forward to meeting them as my generation welcomed neighbours and often bonded with them. But that was not to be.
I was woken from an afternoon sleep by strange jarring noises. I wet out and discovered workers on the wall that separates the house drilling holes and placing iron angles. When I asked what was happening I was told that this was for barbed wires, the lethal kind. My blood ran cold. This was the place where Utpal and my grandchild play in summer, the wall they climb when their ball gets stuck in the tree or on the parapet. This was the wall across which in the good old days when the old house existed we handed over a cup of sugar or some other silly item the neighbour needed, the wall where we stood and simply exchanged a greeting.
The idea of looking at barbed wire was preposterous and filled me with sadness and rage and total incomprehension. What had we become? When had we lost all that was good and beautiful? When had we allowed the invisible barriers we had erected to become visible and so in the face. This wall is just between their house and my house. When did they and I become enemies.
I did try to reason with the young person who will now be my neighbour. But to no avail. The fear was so deeply instilled that no words could assuage them. Those fears were a reflection of the society we have become. It seems like no one knows what the cause is. That has got lost in translation.
The anger gave way to sadness and the sadness to the realisation that the barbed wire was here to stay and that it was for me to find a way of protecting myself and my children and grandchild from its ugly sight.
Today I will get some kind of shield placed in front. I will make sure it is bright and filled with colours. I will make sure that my little ones will be able to climb that wall and that tree and get at the ball they hit often purposely so that they can climb that tree and that wall.
I refuse to be greeted by barbed wires every morning!
Remember, I am the child of the mother who was willing to sacrifice motherhood at the alter of freedom.
The Delhi government, while inviting applications for admissions to nursery, kindergarten and Class I, has imposed an upper age limit of 4, 5 and 6 years, respectively, on applicants. It is so easy to make ‘laws’ for children who have neither voice nor vote! And it is also so easy to find picture perfect justifications that seem logical. “We cannot admit a 12-year-old to Class I, the child needs to go to Class VIII only,” said an adviser to the education minister. Yes true. That is the ideal situation and we all wish we could ensure that ALL children in India could access Nursery at age 4! But sadly that is not the case so a law like this pushes millions out of school. The Education Act allows late entry upto class VI. True a 12 year old does not look ‘good’ in class I but can you take away her right to Education with one stroke of the pen.
One of the most cherished mission of Project Why has been to push back children to school and mainstream them. If we were to look back under this new prism a large percentage would have been pushed right back to the streets. Most if not all children out of school belong to what we call underprivileged homes, the other side of the fence! They do not have parents who are obsessed with getting their kid in a school. They do not have parents who know the value of education. Their parents are often illiterate and busy surviving from day to day. Their kid is not sent to pre and pre pre nursery schools. They often do not even keep track of their child’s age.
The parents we work with have to be pushed and reminded and egged on and often it is Project WHY that takes on the parental role till the moment when a crucial signature is needed. Now I guess we will have the added responsibility of keeping track of their ages.
Why is it that when decisions are taken about children, the ones on the other side of the fence are far too often forgotten.
We push them in; please don’t push them out!