Question time

Question time

Aren’t you too old to take up a new challenge like Planet Why? What difference does your work really make in a country with 1.3 billion? Why should the world care, everyone has got a lot of problems of his own? Do you think you will change the world? These are some of the questions I have been asked to answer for forthcoming interview. As I sat pondering over how I would answer these, I found myself taking stock of what I could best sum up as my life!

If I were to answers these questions with one liners they would go like this: I am old but I do not think I am too old; have you heard of the ripple effect; because we have been given the gift to care; not the world but maybe one life. Anyway I will find the right answers when needed but for the moment I need as I said to review the decade gone by.

Rewind to 2000 and the scorching day in May when I first lay eyes on Manu. Something happened on that day. It was as if I had been shaken out of a long slumber and made to come alive. At that instant it was not the about 1.3 billion people but just one lost soul whose dignity had been usurped and needed to be restored. And hence began the journey many of you know as pwhy! Why should I have cared. I do not know, I only knew that I had no choice. And funnily all my own problems paled and almost vanished. It was not a matter of changing the world but of changing one life, that of Manu. The ball was rolling..

And over the years it has been a saga of trying to make a difference, caring and changing lives and above all knowing that there was no other option. Manu’s morrows needed to be secured and to do that pwhy saw the light of day. From a small spoken English class of 40 to a family of over 700 it was all a matter of making a difference and changing lives.

Fast forward to 2010. Let me tell you what we look like today. Manu now lives in his own home, sleeps in a bed and not on the street, shares his meals around a dining table with his two roomies, and though is health is not as good as we would want it to be, he is happy and safe. His classmates too are a happy lot and spend the day in our day care centre where they are respected and loved. After countless moves often prompted by factors beyond our control we have settled in a tiny lane in Govindpuri. There about 80 pre-schoolers, most from extremely deprived homes attend our early education programme. 50 primary children get after school support and even computer classes. Thrice a week a bunch of hearing impaired children come in for extra tuition and on the remaining days of the week women from the vicinity come for sewing classes.

A few kilometers away tucked in the middle of a reclaimed garbage dump in the middle of an industrial area is our Okhla centre. I cannot forget the day when it was set up by two incredible women fighting all odds walls broken in the name of love or battling the local goons. But nothing deterred us and we soldiered on. Today the Okhla centre has over 200 children from class I to IX, yes we now have a secondary section there and that is not all, the centre boasts of a tiny computer centre too! And there is more: from January this year the children have spoken English classes as part of our what I would call ‘brave’ Focus on Quality Programme. I must admit all this makes me incredibly proud!

Across the railway line, just a short kilometer away, is our women centre. There over 300 children from class I to X come and learn. They too have a spoken English teacher and a computer centre and a library! But there is more: over 60 women attend the sewing and beauty classes held each day and a new adult education class for illiterate women was inaugurated last month. It is heartwarming to know that many of the women who have obtained their certificates are now gainfully employed. Way to go, is’nt it?

But that is not all. I forgot to tell you about our main computer centre that is open to the community and that has helped many get better jobs and our senior secondary section that has never known failure as every student has passed his or her school leaving examinations. And how can one overlook the pictures of the 16 children whose open heart surgeries we sponsored that adorn the wall of our tiny office.

Pwhy also has its library a real dream come true, and even a cine club! Wow is all I can say. Funny that it is only when I decide to write about pwhy that I am able to fathom its reach and needless to say I am filled with a sense of pride and deep gratitude.

But the feel good factor lasts but a moment as I realise the fragility of pwhy. I become painfully aware of my age and of the fact that time is running out. But the sense of helplessness is soon replaced by the determination to ensure that pwhy becomes sustainable and is able to fly on its own wings. In other words this means the setting up of planet why. As many of you know we have the land and now even have a feasibility study done by professionals that concludes that the project is viable and sound.

The sum we seek is astronomical to say the least though many feel it is no big deal. My mission now is to raise it come what may. Ten years of passion cannot go to waste. So help me God!

another sunshine tale

another sunshine tale

PWhy’s blog sometimes makes me sad, sometimes happy. This is a lovely story, so today is a happy day wrote a dear friend after reading Project Why, Namaste. So thought I would write another sunshine tale today, one I must sheepishly admit I should have written long ago! But sometimes there are people who like remaining away from the lime light and Mithu is one such person.

Just like Preeti, Mithu got struck by polio when we was very young and just like her by the time he came to us it was too late for calipers and other such aids! But unlike Preeti, Mithu was a boy and restrictions did not apply at home so Mithu learnt to survive and thrive legs or no legs. He moved at remarkable speed with the help of his hands, climbed trees, played cricket where he bowled a mean ball and lived life to its fullest. When I suggested we get him a wheel chair, the young teenager looked at me with bewilderment and stated: I want to stand on my own feet! Needless to say I felt very small.

Mithu joined as a student in class IX but he had only one fascination and love: computers. Classes were a simple excuse to access our computers. Very soon he became savvy in every aspect of computer learning and we decided to ’employ’ him as a teacher’s aid in our main computer centre. He learnt fast and was soon taking independent classes. When one of our teachers left Mithu quietly walked into his shoes.

When we opened our Okhla computer centre it was a foregone decision that our own Mithu would head it and today he is the ‘in charge’ of that centre. He still walks on his hands, but we would like him to have a motorised tricycle that would enable him to move around with dignity!

The magical garbage dump

The magical garbage dump

I recently came across an article about a ‘school’ in a garbage dump in Mumbai. The article is uncanny. It could have been written for us. It almost recounted the story of our Okhla centre, a story I had never written. It was time to make amends.

My mind travelled back to the summer of 2004 when one of our teachers came and told us about the plight of a bunch of kids that lived in the slums near her home. Most of them, particularly boys, were not in school and spent their time loitering and were used by predators to steal and push drugs. The are in question was close to a railway track and the little boys were trained to steal from stopped trains anything they could lay their hands off. Moreover the area was home to some notorious drug dealers and little children were easy prey. A few coins or the promise of a treat were enough to get the boys to comply. I was deeply disturbed by this and asked her whether we could begin an outreach centre. Unaware of the lay of the ground, I asked her to find us a room to rent! She smiled and told me that barring factories and slums there was nothing else. I refused to accept easy defeat and requested her to look for something.

A few days later, she came back and said that there was a garbage dump that we could use. These were still early days of project why and I must admit teaching in a garbage dump was almost anathema but then children stealing and peddling drugs was a greater abomination. So I asked her to explore the possibilities. A few more days went by and she came back tome saying that she had talked to the local politicos and cops and got a tacit nod from them with a proviso: that we would move lock, stock and barrel the day the space would be needed. I must add here that the dump we are talking about is ‘owned’ by the government. Beggars cannot be choosers and in this case the need was too great. It was time I visited the place.

Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw, more so because I was supposedly looking at it with a view to set up a children’s centre. The place was filthy with layers and layers of garbage and along side there were a handful of ramshackle huts that housed mostly physically handicapped persons, who were all known to be drug peddlers. They looked scary to say the least. But the space that lay in front of my eyes was huge by our standards and had ‘potential’. There was no way we could clean the place. How do you clean years of filth. So the next best option was to dump earth on it. We had to get several truckloads. And then keeping in mind the caveat we had been served and had agreed to, we set up a flimsy structure made of bamboo and plastic sheets. And on a warm summer morning classes began. It was June 2004 exactly six years ago!

The Okhla story has been one of ups and downs, of elation and frustration. A true pwhy story. It was launched by two very special women, who weathered every storm that came their way. It is a story of strange encounters. It is a story of a bunch of children and their teachers defying every odd be the heat, or the unexpected storms. It is a story of grit, determination and above all triumph. Today Okhla has a secondary class and even a computer centre.

Above all it is the story of a magical garbage dump that metamorphosed into a vibrant space that conjures dreams and desires and makes them come true

in limbo

in limbo

Every year at about this time I sit down to write the annual report of the project. The report begins with a Directors’ message, and till date I have had no problems whatsoever in writing it. There was always something to write about: a special occurrence, a challenge, a success story, a knotty issue well solved etc. As I sat down to write these messages, nine of them till now, I always felt elated and on top of the world. This time however was different.

As I settled down to begin writing the 2009-2010 report, I drew a blank. I could not find the one small spark that would guide me through. I sat for a long time racking my brain but to no avail. I must admit I got a little worried: was age catching up, was I losing my memory? I decided to seek help and asked the girls, the one who run the project, to give me a brief on last year’s happenings. They came back to me a couple of days later and told me quite sheepishly that they too had drawn a blank. The year just seemed to have passed uneventfully and placidly, almost in limbo. I was stunned. Was this ‘good’ or ‘bad’ news?

I sat along time pondering. This was our tenth year on the field and the fact that we had nothing out of the ordinary to write about was cause of worry. Did it mean that we had perfected the model to the point where there was nothing more to add and it could thus run on auto pilot – not a happy thought – or was it that we had sunk into a comfort zone that had made us all forget the spirit of project why itself? I would veer towards the later and thus it was time for some serious soul searching.

Before I carry on I would like to set minds at rest. The year gone by was by all parameters a successful one. All programmes were on course and met their targets. Even the normally challenging issue of funding was well in hand. There must have been some minor irritants, but these were too small to leave an imprint. Then why was I feeling disturbed? What this not what one had wanted: to have pwhy run effortlessly?

I spend a long time wondering why I was feeling troubled. My mind wandered back to early times, when we had just begun, the day I had first set eyes on Manu and the one when I had come across the first child who could barely recognise alphabets though she was studying in class IV. And how can I forget the afternoon when a heartless secondary school principal sneered at a bunch of young boys calling them gutter snipes. I still remember the frozen January morning when a lady walked into our tiny office dragging four challenged children and telling us that they had nowhere to go, or the scorching day when a man hobbling on a stick walked in seeking help to fix his son’s broken heart. And the warm morn when I was told that a child had died of burns. And all this in the span of a short year. These were the deafening whys we had to address with confidence and compassion, the two Cs that defined the spirit of pwhy. We answered each one with success, some taking longer than others and that is how project why grew one challenge at a time. Manu was tended to till the day not so long ago when he moved into a proper home. A primary and secondary after school support was created, a day care for the challenged was set up and our heartfix hotel got its first inmate and the scalded boy is now prancing around in a boarding school!

The next years were spent fine tuning the show. Path breaking decisions were taken like the one to only employ people from within the community or the one to use whatever space we could access be it a pig park, a road side or a reclaimed garbage dump! The project grew and from 40 we became 400 and then 800! There was no stopping us. The results were for all to see: children passed from one class to the other. We had our first batch of class X and then class XII and they too did us proud. We were on a constant high. In hindsight I wonder if we missed something along the way.

I am not beating myself. I guess any project or programme does go through a growth process . It is inevitable. But I also feel that unless it is constantly infused with something new, it runs the risk of declining. Is this what is happening. Am I seeing the first signs of weakening? I hope not. But I know it is time to soul search with honesty. I have talked of the achievements but what about the failures or if not failures what about the downside, the challenges not met. The biggest one I guess has been our inability to achieve any success in our sustainability efforts, be it the small early inroads like candles, chocolates, soaps et al or the now seemingly half hearted attempts at fund raising like the one rupee a day programme or the failed raffles? Or even the apparently win-win option like planet why that today awaits expert validation. The reality is that all our efforts to stand on our own feet have not seen any success whatsoever. Project why has survived thanks to donations of people the world over who believed in our dreams of yore years. And whereas these dreams were once worth defending with zeal and passion, they seem a little jaded today. And the one who till date had sold these dreams effortlessly finds it difficult to repackage them.

I wonder what is missing. Have we really gone in limbo.

If I were to look at pwhy today without knowledge of the past, I would just see an after school education programme like so many others and that is no great achievement, even if our children pass their exams with almost obsessive regularity. True there are some add ons like the special children, the foster home etc. But that is it. There is no movement forward, no challenge waiting to be addressed. I do not have to be a soothsayer to say that come next year we will still look the same unless we break the circle and do something. And that is what I intend to do now.

I admit that the discomfort I write about today has been with me for some time and that is what had prompted me to launch the focus on quality programme early this year. Project why children had to imbibe more than just school knowledge, and we needed to stop our obsession with numbers. It has become imperative to give them an identity of their own. But that is not enough. What is needed is to go a step further and look beyond empowerment, it is time to hand over ownership of the programme to the staff and the community at large.

I have tried to do so over the years but met with stubborn resistance from all quarters. Somehow being an NGO – a word I dislike with passion – gave everyone the license to take things for granted. Parents felt we had funds in abundance and thus were almost outraged at our asking a meagre rupee a day, and most the staff found it easier to stick into comfort zones whereby they did their work and got their monthly pack, they somehow seem to think that fund sources are perennial. Even when one tried hard to get them to participate in any resource gathering activity be it the one rupee programme or selling raffle tickets, there was no enthusiasm leaving me to wonder how to shake them out or their torpor. I did tell them that I for one was not everlasting and that even if I were, we had to contend with something called donor fatigue.

Yes that is what is alarming me.

The recent visit by one of our regular donors was an eye opener. In the course of conversation candidly he admitted that it was easier for him to market – to use his expression – individual stories. He wanted me to ‘find’ more possible candidates for boarding school as he felt that was something donors ‘liked’. I will not go into details here, maybe in another post. What matters at this moment is what was left unsaid. Pwhy in its present avatar may not be easy to market. It was strangely devoid of heart wrenching tales. Even the loudest and most deafening why had finally found a permanent answer: Manu had a home!

So time has come to reinvent one’s self and while we wait for the verdict on planet why – should it not be the one we want we will need to put our thinking caps on again- we need to address the ‘what after me’ issue and thereby infuse a new breath of life in pwhy, one that will allow us to resuscitate the flat line. The way forward is to address the ownership issue head on, notwithstanding the resistance.

I must admit that a few days back I would not know how to do that but yesterday the sullen teacher who had refused to move to Okhla for incomprehensible reasons came to me and informed me that he has set up a Bihar Why in his village in a remote district in Bihar. He proudly handed me a set of pictures showing over 40 children studying in the open. I will write a post about this later. He wanted us to help him. My eyes became moist, my heart swelled with pride and I saw light at the end of the dark tunnel. This was the way to go. Staff had to be empowered to start their own nano projects. It would take time I know but it would validate all we had stood for.

Was this a ah ha moment. Maybe. At least it was a step forward, one that could withstand the test of time. I had found my answer. It was time to move on.

Prince will never study at Princeton

Prince will never study at Princeton

Prince will never study at Princeton – excuse the pun! But Prince is actually a very real human being and one that does us proud. He came to us many years ago as a primary student. A seemingly shy and withdrawn boy, Prince was nevertheless always first in class and a very serious student. He passed all his Board exams and recently joined a B Com course. His dream: to be a teacher and that is why he came hesitantly last week asking us whether he could join pwhy! Undoubtedly we said! And today he is one of the team: a secondary teacher at the Okhla centre. Another dream come true.

You must be wondering why I mentioned Princeton at all. A new venture or should I say adventure is being crafted by our new Minister of Education. If all goes is way, then very soon foreign universities will soon set shop in India and the moot question is whether their will be a quota for economically and socially backward classes. According to our flamboyant Minister foreign universities are private and therefore free from any commitment to social inclusiveness when operating in India! All this spells danger and a further division of education. One had hoped that the new Minister would have walked the path leading to leveling education rather than creating more layers. Now you will have the super rich who can go to Princeton and the not so super rich who will enter the portals of Princeton India if that university decides that India is a lucrative business. A repeat performance of what happened with school education when the middle class opted for private schools leading to government schools becoming schools for only the poor.

The article presents a probable scenario which I cannot but agree to: the creamiest layer – using at word now politically correct I presume – will continue to go to the real thing for the ambiance, the ersatz will be for those just below them. And for all others it will be the local colleges reputed or not quite so. And then there is one more question lurking: if branded universities do land on our shores, will our best teachers leave their present jobs and join the more lucrative options? And thus quality higher education, just like quality primary education will only be for the privileged.

Where are we going Mr Minister! Education was the only hope for the teeming millions of Indian children to whom our Constitution has finally granted the right to free and equitable education, to break the cycle of poverty they are enslaved in. From 1983 to 1999 overall education expenditure has declined from 80 to 67 %. Is education for all a farce or a sad joke played on poor unsuspecting and voiceless children. And yet the children of India beat all odds. Prince always stood first even though he lives in a squalid hole. His father is illiterate and drives an auto rickshaw he does not even own. Things would be right if Prince one day could join Princeton, where this temple of knowledge even open its doors in India.

when tables flew and roses appeared

when tables flew and roses appeared

Christopher James is a magician, but a magician with a huge heart. A chance encounter in a pub with one of our volunteers, few words exchanged and voila, Chris was all set to come and spread some magic in the lives of our kids.

He came this morning armed with his bag of tricks and enthralled the children at Okhla first.

Tables flew, roses appeared thanks to a sprinkle of magic powder, 50 rs notes turned to 500 rs one. And the children watched mesmerised and spell bound. Time stood still. For those precious moments the Okhla centre got transformed into a dreamland where everything looked possible.

Chris conjured Canadian coins out of nowhere and then asked his little assistant what her dream was before handing her over a coin. She said she wanted to buy a car. She clutched her coin and was found asking her friends whether she could walk into a shop with the coin and actually get a car! We all smiled but come to think of it it was a magic coin. The boys loved the card tricks and everyone was transfixed by the 50 rs that became 500! Some of the adults were actually seen looking into their pockets for a note to be transformed.

The show was over, too soon for some. Next stop was the women centre. As there was a little time left, Shamika gathered some courage and asked Chris whether he would come to the special section and do a few tricks for the special kids. He agreed and tables flew again for our very special souls. The children were fascinated and even if they could not express in words what they felt, all you had to do was look at their faces!

Chris cast his spell again for the children of our women centre. There again time stood still and everyone was transfixed, even the adults who completely forgot, much to my chagrin, to take pictures though the camera stood charged and ready waiting to be picked up!

Thank you Chris for having brought a ray of hope and joy to our children. God bless you!

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