In the times of privatisation of education and mushrooming of uber fancy schools that look more like commercial houses; in the times of the existence of the Right to Education Act that makes Education a fundamental right for every Indian child allowing him access to free and equitable education, 2700 children in India’s capital city study in abysmal conditions.
Their school has only two dilapidated toilets, no windows. a playground filled with water and garbage. The school runs on Government funding but in spite of that the conditions are pathetic. No money to change bulbs, no drinking water. Of the 91 teachers sanctioned, 72 have not been appointed. A bare 20 odd teachers keep the show on the road. Hats off to them. When a bulb needs changing they dip into their meagre pockets and do the needful.
The Right to Education Act has failed these children and many more across the city.
Privatisation of education rung the death knell for many such children, but no one can usurp their thirst for knowledge. They still brave all odds and attend school. We should hang our heads in shame. My blood boils every time I come across a news item like this one.
Decision makers ‘opted’ for reservation in public schools for underprivileged children. That option failed as the seats were grabbed by well to do parents who had the wherewithal to fudge papers and get their wards admitted. No truly underprivileged child got access tho those seats.
None of the Project Why children benefitted from this ‘reservation’ as in most cases parents were not aware of the schemes, and even if they were, there was always a paper missing or a criteria not meant.
The Right to Education should have been a leveller and not yet another reservation option. That is in, my humble opinion, contrary to the spirit of any fundamental right. I always backed the approach of a common school system some educationists mooted. Sadly it had no takers. I still believe strongly that if all Government schools were run like Central schools, children form all walk of life would study side by side and learn from each other. For this mindsets have to change. Are we ready for that?
Underprivileged children have once again been let down. They are voiceless souls who need us to take up the cudgels on their behalf.
In the case of the school mentioned above, the case was taken up by activists and the High Court has asked for a report. But this is not the only school that function in such terrible conditions. There are far too many! Even one is an aberration.
Education alone can change lives and transform India.
I would like to end this post on a positive note by sharing the story of Sumitra Devi, a sweeper who spent her whole life sweeping streets we walk on. At her retirement party there were three special guests a District Collector, an engineer and a doctor. They were her sons!
I rest my case.
Utpal is back in school red bag in tow! The saga of the red bag began in July 2006 when he first set off to boarding school. He was 4.
Today he is a strapping handsome 16 year old who still carries a red bag to school!
This is not the one he carried way back in 2006 when he first joined boarding school at the tender age of 4. Yet somehow the red bag remained a constant in his life as it conceals within its hidden pockets the making of his yet undisclosed destiny.
The little red bag is also the story of Project Why. Every child that enters the portals of our Project carries his own little red bag and it is left to us to fill it to the brim with everything she or he might need to fulfil her or his dreams. We strive as best we can to give every child the learning and values that will enable her or him to break the cycle of poverty in which they were born and reach for the stars.
It has been a exhilarating journey that has seen many ups and some downs too. Every moment has been blessed and rewarding to each one of us. Watching children grow and bloom is worth every setback that we may have encountered.
Today we again stand at crossroads as one of our main funders will stop funding us come April 2019. I must confess that I had my moment of doubts at whether I will be able to find the fire to once again set out and look for the support we desperately need. Needless to say my doubts were short lived. Just seeing the little red bag once again was enough to set me on my way.
We still have many little red bags to fill
So help me God!
Delhi is fighting a battle to save 16 000 trees from being felled to make a place for a housing cum shopping complex for bureaucrats.
Delhi is out on the streets to save these trees and has won round 1 as the High Court has put a stay on the felling for the moment.
But that is in no way the worst to come.
In two years from now Delhi may run out of ground water and face a day zero crisis.A Indian government think tank has warned that New Delhi is set to run out of groundwater within two years as climate change and dramatic population growth hit supplies quotes the Telegraph in a recent article entitled: New Delhi to run out of groundwater in two years as India faces ‘day zero’ crises . 600 million will be impacted by the worst water shortage ever. This is nothing short of frightening.
We have been experiencing water shortage in many of the centres we work in. In some slums the water tanker comes on alternate days and people fight to get a measly bucket of water that has to last them till the next tanker. Every home has a vast array of utensils to keep water for different chores. This has become a way of life. Fights do erupt at water points but they too have become part of the art of survival in India’s capital city.
At Project Why we have run several water saving campaigns and sensitise our children to the importance of saving water. From closing dripping taps to reusing grey water. children are taught to save water in anyway possible.
Clean water is a fundamental right, and yet million do not have access to it. The startling and terrifying poof is that 5000 children under the age of 5 die every day of water born diseases.
On the other side of spectrum, the privileged are using water as if it was a perennial commodity. Cars are being washed with water hoses, gardens watered with sprinklers and even swimming pools being made in new constructions. Rain Water harvesting is still in its infancy and the amount of rain water wasted is criminal.
It is time each one of us began saving water in any which was possible. It is also time for citizens to raise their voices and make people aware of what looms large: NO WATER!
We at Project Why will continue our efforts to raise awareness about the value of water.
We have recently been informed that one of our major funders will be stopping their funding next year. They had committed to help us for 3 years to allow us to work towards sustainability. Three years ago we were confident that it would be sufficient time to get on our feet but today we realise that though we are well on our way, we are still nowhere near the figure we need to reach. The news shattered many, but unlike earlier times, I remained calm and collected. The past years have been proof that ‘miracles’ happen at Project Why with alacrity and I could still hope for one, but somehow this is not the way ahead this time.
Once again, borrowing Jim Morrison’s words, I decided to Petition the Lord with Prayer. But this time the Prayer was not for a one time miracle, but one to show me the way to stand on our feet.
The question as to why should the Lord or the Universe listen to me and my first answer would be because of all the smiles in Project Why’s custody. These smiles are precious as they mean so many different things: hope, dreams, trust… each needing to be not just saved but respected and honoured.
Every child who enters the portals of Project Why comes there in the hope of changing her life. We give her the space to dare to dream and then a trust bond is created. The proof that this works is in the innumerable success stories we have experienced. Actually they are nothing short of miracles.
The young ‘teacher’ in the picture is our very own Utpal who is now in class XI. He decided to teach English to the Project Why children during his summer break. Without Project Why Utpal may not have survived his burns and would have never gone to a boarding school or for that matter to any school at all. By deciding to share what he has learnt with his less privileged friends, he has shown gratitude and compassion, two values that sadly many have forgotten, but that we at Project Why are determined to respect and teach.
Project Why is replete with such stories, the most stunning one being that of a gypsy lad born on a roadside who went on to walk the ramp in Paris via Project Why.
Project Why is where dreams come true. It is where smiles are kept safe, where the impossible becomes possible. Project Why is where miracles happen every day. My Petition to the Lord is to show me the way to continue fulfilling dreams and I know my Prayer will not go unheard.
On a more serious note we are in the process of finding new avenues of funding and have been moderately successful. It is a huge learning experience and we are slowly learning that raising funds to run the Project is not easy. It is easier garner funds to ‘buy’ things or ‘repair’ centres, than to raise one salary even if it is modest and goes to a person from an underprivileged home.
Many have suggested that we begin ‘making’ things and set up a social enterprise. That was what we had considered many years ago with Planet Why our Guest House with a difference.
It is time to revive Planet Why in another avatar and get the ball rolling.
That is my prayer for Project Why
For quite some time now, since Project Why’s revamping began, I have not had the occasion of telling the Project Why story to any audience. Now it is all slick presentations, smart looking documents, strategy plans, projections and plans. This is all needed to make Project Why live beyond me. I have tiptoed out of the way and taken a back seat. But last week we had some guests and potential funders and this time it was left to me to ‘market’ Project Why!
I did it the only way I know: from the heart, living each and every moment again with goosebumps at times and moist eyes along the way, with passion and unlimited love and immense pride. From the humble beginnings, to how each centre came to be, from the trials and tribulations to the successes and setbacks, it all came back. I do not know whether the potential funders were touched, but to me it was much needed catharsis. In all the recent upheavals, I had lost touch with the wonderful achievement that Project Why is.
It may not tick all the boxes, not follow all the rules, it may not look pretty to some, but Project Why is definitely a story to be told. To me is is a tale of miracles big and small. The fact that we not only survived, but thrived for 18 years is the biggest miracle of all. And that too with no strategic plan, no smart presentations! We just did it one day at a time, knowing that someone somewhere was taking care of us.
The little lad in the picture who was given up for dead, is a smart endearing 16 year old who is spending his summer break ‘teaching’ Project Why children. Does it tell the whole story! Changing one life at a time.
Over the years we have changed many. I have lost count.
It is a simple story of the heart, of unwavering faith and unconditional love. I just pray this spirit never get lost over time.
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