‘The time for action is now. It’s never too late to do something‘ wrote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Wise words indeed. Words that remind us of forgotten intentions and unfulfilled dreams. This post was written after a visit to the Kalka Temple where getting to the deity means coming face to face with beggar children who’s number seems to grow in quantum leaps. Children begging is a shameful reality of urban India.
Every time one walks the perimeter of a temple or stops at a red light, little hands spring from nowhere and seek your attention. No matter how many years go by, the size of the hands never changes. Child begging is thriving. New children take the place of those now to big to tug at your heart.
One has heard of mafias controlling the panhandling business and ensuring a perfect demand and supply equation. This is unequivocal proof of this sad reality. But it does not end there. Actually parents too use their own children in this sordid business. An enquiry on whether it would be possible to teach this multitude of children was turned down as we were told that parents themselves would not allow this to happen as children were those who got brought in the maximum. Without the kids, the family would not earn a day’s wage. School and education are anathema
Even the laws are against us as in a recent amendment to the child labour laws, children under 14 were allowed to help in the family business. Hence the little beggar girl as king for her chocorate is legit.
The only way to solve the problem is to stop giving money and hence with no demand the supply would diminish. That is what Project Why attempted as its first programme: replace the coin by a biscuit. The idea was to have biscuits in nice boxed that could be ‘refilled’ at petrol pumps and hence everyone would be handing over biscuits and not coins. It did not work even though 50 biscuits were sold at one hundred rupees.
As long as we give, they will beg. As long as we give more to children, parents will not allow them to get educated and break the cycle of mendicity and thus will remain beggars producing more beggars to beg. An infernal spiral!
A child seeking alms is something that should disturb each and everyone and make them soul search for a solution.
The solution is simple: remove the demand, stop giving money, stop giving to children: the supply will vanish the moment the business is no more viable
The new education policy is in the anvil. The recommendations of the committee set up to look into the issue are ready. Two of the recommendations are close to our hearts. The first is to reinstate detention beyond class V and the other to set up a cadre akin to the administrative cadre for education.
The first recommendation comes as a sigh of relief. Ever since the no fail policy till class VII had been instituted quality of education particularly in state run schools had taken a free fall. Moreover in a country where corruption has permeated education, this policy could result in the aberration of class XII toppers unable to answer questions from subjects they had aced. For one of them political science teaches cooking and the other did not know the link between water and H20! Looked like someone else sat in their place. Retest was ordered for the toppers.
This is no laughing matter as toppers are the ones who get seats in prestigious and affordable state run colleges, something you can miss by a fraction of a mark!
Creating an education cadre is also of paramount importance as often teaching and more so school teaching is not socially acceptable and a last resort when all else has failed. The need to attract the best could be a game changer.
Project Why as been advocating such changes and welcomes them.
At Project Why we believe that primary education should be given its right place in the education journey as this is where foundations are laid. This is also when the mind is receptive to suggestions and thus a sound policy can make all he difference. Content should impart the right social message: tolerance, gender equality, compassion etc. Extra curricular activities need to find adequate space as they are essential to growth.
The two-shift system followed in the majority of state run schools in Delhi should end. All children, be it boys or girls, should attend school in the morning and the afternoon should be for creative and sports activities.
Quality is of the essence but should be imparted in school. The need for ‘shadow education’ or ‘extra tuition’ should end.
Neighbourhood state run quality schools that see a social mix of children is in our opinion the way to meet the constitutional right to education for all children in India.
Child abuse casts a shadow the length of a lifetime. Scars heal but the pain never goes away. And yet child abuse is on the rise. Recent studies show that there has been a 50% rise in the crime against children rate. Increased urbanisation seems to be a contributing factor. We are talking of children akin to those who come to Project Why everyday. Rape of children have become ‘epidemic’ in India’s capital city. Recently a mentally challenged 13 year old was brutally raped and left to die. She battles for her life.
A 8 year old was raped, she escaped death by pretending to be dead. She had seen this happen in a TV serial! One never thought one would give a thumbs up to serial viewing by kids!
The list is endless, each child being one too many, each one making one’s blood go cold.
At Project Why we are aware of this reality.
The first programme Project Why launched was aimed at children begging. The idea was if people gave biscuits instead of coins, the supply-demand equation could be turned on its head. Sadly it did not meet with success. However the plight of beggar children is still one of the most disturbing ones, a deafening Why that remains unanswered.
The case of the mentally challenged child who was abused once again brings to mind Planet Why. The first and most important reason for its existence was to provide safe haven to souls just like this little one. That too remained unachieved.
Project Why has always been, remains and always will be child centric. We are aware that these children are always at risk as they live in harsh conditions. Okhla is a drug haven and children are preferred targets. Teachers keep an extra eye on each child for tell tale signs, ready to intervene when needed.
Child abuse is most often perpetrated within the four walls of home, and thus a well-hidden secret tinged in guilt. Project Why staff is conscious of this and keeps a quiet watch, looking for imperceptible evidence.
Moreover, regular workshops are held for staff and children and ‘good touch’ ‘bad touch’ is an intrinsic part of our curriculum.
We have sadly had some cases. They are far and few between but in the case of a child, one is too many!
A child rights activist rightly said that “Stringent punishment provisions are not just enough. The changing social fabric needs to be studied to take appropriate measures to make systemic changes.” This is long haul. Till then we need to keep our children safe.
Our dearest friend Kabir of Azure Hospitality conjured another miracle. This time an invitation to a ‘posh’ lunch at the new Mamagoto in Connaught Place. For many of us lunch at a restaurant is a mundane affair. This is another story.
Most of the invitees had never been to a restaurant of this kind. Most of them probably never tasted high quality asian cuisine- a far cry from the chow mien or momos now available at every street corner. Many of them had never entered a restaurant of this class.
But the Project Why team team is to the manor born and no one would have guessed that this was a first!
The invitation was for 20 guests so students and teachers from each centre were selected. Every one was beautifully turned out and tasted new foods with enthusiasm. It was a merry party that lunched a the new Mamagoto on that sizzling day.
But all good things come to an end and so did that lunch.
To say that this is a memory that they will carry on their hearts forever is an understatement.
Two of the guests voiced their feelings.
One said this was probably the first and last enjoyable moment of his life.
The other simply said that this lunch was the happiest moment of her existence.
It is touching and humbling to see how an occurrence we take for granted gives such joy to those who rarely experience it.
Today we would like to walk down memory lane and talk of all the visitors we have had over the years. In most cases they return more than once. That is the magic of Project Why: once you walk in you leave a little bit of yourself and take a little bit of us.
We have many kinds of visitors, some who have become die-hard supporters and who make it a point to visit regularly. There are even Project Why tours organised by them! The best way to see how time has passed is to peruse the pictures and look at the children grow.
They are of all ages and come from across the globe. A bunch of Cub Scouts from the American school decide to help their Okhla friends paint their school, a group of girls from the American school in Beirut came visiting too. An octogenarian from Australia came to share Mahatma Gandhi’s message.
They come and spend time with children not shying from dirtying their hands. They serve meals to the children at the Yamuna centre and even give pedicures to special kids!
One of the most touching group of visitors were students with special needs from France who came to meet their Indian friends. That day doors and lanes seemed to have grown large enough to welcome the elaborate wheel chairs. It was a magical moment when no language was needed to convey what was felt. Everyone danced and laughed to their heart’s content. Invitations were made and for an instant, one believed that Project Why’s special kids could maybe visit their French friends till reality struck: given the circumstances our kids would never get a passport. But one can dream and who knows? Dreams do come true.
Over the years, we have been privileged and blessed to have so many people come to Project and leave as friends forever. Those who cannot come back remain in touch and in our hearts forever.
Please do read the links in this post. They are precious memories