reinventing ourselves

reinventing ourselves

In a previous post, I had related how tings had changed in pwhy calling for a realignment of our forces and the need to reinvent ourselves. As fate would have it, I fell sick soon after writing that post and was forced to remain away from pwhy for almost three weeks.

Seems like this forced absence was god sent as it cleared all doubts I may have still had about the ability of pwhy to run without my presence. It ran probably better than I could have imagined! My efficient team handled every situation with efficiency be it the presence of three volunteers or site visits over and above the day-to-day running of each of the 12 centres. If there were any crisis, these were resolved without my ever getting to know about them.

As I tiptoed back into pwhy, I realised that it had finally come of age. Everyone seemed confident and the place ran with clockwork precision. I was briefed about some of the decisions taken in my absence and was pleased to see that sound solutions had been found. Staff had been relocated in some instances to meet new requirements and new activities had been launched with the help of our volunteers. I was also informed of the outcome of a day long workshop where they staff had shared their experiences and come up with new and better options. Time tables were being reset and streamlined. The new centre that had 40 kids when I left now boasted of 80! A better place had been found in Govindpuri and the shifting scheduled for this week. Come to think of it I almost felt de trop!

It did seem too good to be true and one could have been tempted to sit back and bask in this new found sense of achievement at least for some time. But how could one forget the reality that loomed large albeit faraway. The day was not far when many slums would be relocated and the necessity to ensure continuity needed to be addressed. One had to start working on possible options to meet the situation as and when it arose and that I guess is what one will have to start working on.

It is true that pwhy and its 12 centres can run on their own but that is only possible as long as required funds are available and even if individual centres continue to function even if they are shifted to new places, pwhy’s existence depends on its ability to create a long term sustainability project.

The one we have thought of is planet why but it requires a huge initial investment. We do hope to be able to one day see this dream come true.

Apocalypse when?

Global warming is hitting our planet faster than we can imagine. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report: “Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability,” in Brussels, 6 April 2007 and the findings are alarming and urging everyone to act.

Recent magazines and newspapers have started highlighting the issue with regularity and publishing lists of what can be done. Many websites have come into existence each trying to make us understand the gravity of the situation and suggest remedial actions. Yet there seems to be no urgency in the matter be it on the national level or the individual one. The number of cars and bikes are increasing in quantum leaps, trees are being felled with renewed alacrity, the sales of incandescent bulbs is as healthy as ever and quite frankly none of us seem to care.

Plastic is being used with impunity and water wasted with abandon. In slums with the advent of credit cards and easy loans, there has been an increase in the number of motorcycles that young people use even to go to the next block and rev with glee to impress. The panni or plastic bag is to be seen everywhere from hand to choked drains, and plastic pouches litter the streets flaunting the names of the biggest MNCs. From washing soap, to detergent, to shaving foam, to ketchup, to chewing tobacco, to coffee, to jam, to shampoo every brand has its packaging for the poor.

A recent informal survey showed that each slum dwelling used an average of 10 to 15 pouches a day. We tried over the years to raise awareness on environmental issues but too not much avail. Perhaps we did not do it convincingly enough. One of our projects entitled once is not enough lost momentum. Maybe we ourselves did not see the writing on the wall.

Two years back we even launched a sustainability programme based on raising awareness on bio-diesel. In 2003 – 2004 we gathered one ton of seeds from the pongamia trees that proliferate in Delhi and milled about 300 liters of SVO the crude form of bio-diesel. We organised a meet to introduce slum migrants to this new fuel. Unfortunately because of lack of resources this project had to stop. Today each year, tons of plum pongamia seeds replete with oil are swept away and then burnt by the local municipality sweepers.

I guess we too did not persue the matter with the required passion. However recent events have once again made us face reality and revive all our past efforts. A workshop on global warming and related maters was held with the staff and an action plan drawn. It was decided to revive once is not enough, a simple project that asks each one of us to find one more use of any thing they are about to discard. It could be paper, a plastic bag, a bottle, a box.. The idea is to delay its landing in the garbage dump.

The Okhla children held a rally against plastic and went to many slum clusters explaining how its inordinate use could harm our environment. Teachers are now talking to the children about global warming and how we can help in arresting it.

It is not an easy task as most of the things we need to fight against are the the very ones that spell success and achievement in the lives of the urban poor. Others are the ones hat brig ease and comfort in our lives. But we will carry on as best we can as no education can be complete unless it teaches what is relevant to our day and times.

This is long journey, one we hope will lead to the day when our students will turn into young adults who walk three blocks rather than take a bike ride. We also hope that the day will come when MNCs will look into eco-friendly pouches and the pongamia seeds that go waste every year will yield their liquid gold.

I’m explaining a few things

I’m explaining a few things

Once again I borrow the title of one of my favourite Neruda poems. The need for this post is based on a call from a dear friend and supporter who was a bit perplexed at what what happening at project why. I guess his doubt came from the posts like this one, and could have given the impression that we were stopping our activities as they stood today.

Far from that, project why as it stands today- 2 early education programmes, 4 primary education programmes, 1 day care for special children, 1 secondary programme and 1 computer centre – is thriving and will continue to do so as long as no outside factors come its way.

The thoughts shared on several blogs of late about planet why was because of some issues that one cannot afford to play down. One is the likelihood of seeing many of the slums we work in relocated prior to the Commonwealth games coupled with the sometimes incomprehensible sealing laws; the other is the need to plan a long term sustainability effort that is in tune with the demands of the market forces and in consonance with our abilities and skill, and last but not the least is the long term responsibility we have towards some of our more fragile wards in the light of a quasi absence of state run residential programmes for such forsaken souls.

Keeping in mind the possibility of seeing our nine centres scattered one fie day we have also begun a gentle transfer of power which began with an unlikely gift I asked my staff. The idea was to make them aware of their own capabilities and then teach them slowly how to manage and administer their own centres. This would come useful if and when our centres are dispersed in many directions as part of the Delhi shining campaign.

The sustainability issue I presume is self-evident as one has to set pwhy on a long time auto pilot course some day. I would also enable us to widen our activities and reach out to more children

both sides now – the sustainability factor

How to sustain project why is a question that has been haunting me for some time now, I guess time waits for no one and the writing is on the wall! It is a question many have raised, some gently others even brutally. I must confess that I spend many hours thinking about valid options and reviewing past mistakes.

The list of ideas that did not work is daunting: we made candles, jewels, painted T shirts, pots and more of the same and sold them at charity bazaars. We gathered pongamia seeds from he numerous trees around, milled oil and made soaps; we made eco-friendly shopping bags; we even made chocolates but soon saw that none of these could ever bring us the funds required to run pwhy.

And as each idea failed, lessons were learnt. It became clear that we could not match the competition. Moreover the complex legislations related to some products like soaps and food items were wrought with red tape. And finally marketing any product required huge investment. The final blow was the sealing laws that put an end to any small business idea we may have had.

We had to find a minimum or no investment and high return option. That is when I stumbled upon the idea of the one -rupee-a day option. It seemed such a doable one as one thought that it would not be difficult to convince people to part with such a tiny sum. One become bold enough to believe that even the community would part with that tiny amount. But reality struck soon enough as one laboured on. People did not come forward. Or those who did, just did it once and forgot. And yet like you hold on to a special child, this option never left me though it did not bring the desired result.

Slowly planet why came to seed. And yet it again looked doable provided one found the funds to set it up. Many have warmed up to the idea but the investment is huge.

As I write these words I am reminded of the lyrics of a Neil Diamond song:

I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall.
I really don’t know life at all.

Somehow the sustainability options of planet why are two sides of a spectrum: either we find a huge number of people and ask them to part with a tiny amout of money over a long period of time, or we find a huge amout of money and create our own way of finding money.

Tht is the dilemena one faces!

planet why – sustainability factor

Seven years ago we set out to create a model whereby underprivileged and illiterate or semi-literate parents could be empowered to steer the educational needs of their children with local resources.

The model proved doable as in the last 7 years drop out rates were contained and children passed their examinations with success. We used local talent and proved that teaching could be done anywhere and did not require structures. The only factor that remains to be proved is that of having the staff initiate funding modalities and this necessitates a phased withdrawal on our part. That is where we stand now and will soon have a model to share.

Were that to happen, then phase I of pwhy would come to a logical closure compelling us to move on to phase II. Whereas a set of precise goals steered phase I, it would be unwise to think that they same can apply to phase II.

Many factors have to be taken into consideration to launch phase II: some are beyond our control as the new habitat and town planning realities, some emanate from our past experience and some are guided by our desire to see pwhy live beyond individuals.

The idea to seed planet why in a rural outskirt answers the first concern, the need of a residential facility, albeit a tiny one, stems out of the handful of persons that have come into our lives and the resolve to address the sustainability option form day one of phase II is the logical outcome of the precarious and fragile nature of our funding ways which have been resting on individual skills and individual state of minds.

So whereas we could begin working with the children and the community of Goyla immediately and without much requirements, we have chosen not to and instead find a way to ensure a permanent source of funds from day one.

The cusco model was one we found eminently doable in the present scenario as there is a paucity of pleasant guest house facilities in Delhi and the ever increasing desire of tourists to pair voluntary work with sight seeing to get a real feel of the country makes us believe that our concept can work not only in Goyla, but elsewhere to making this model a replicable one too!

So it seems to be a win-win situation. However it will need all our friends and well wishers to once again open their hearts and help us get going!

Ever since we have started sharing this exciting idea, we have been overwhelmed by the positive response we have got. A friend from China says it all in these words:

When I read about the guest house and the new location near the airport, I just think it’s wonderful. Imagine if we can draw transit passengers from over the world to drop by the planet.. And the thought of children showing how proud they are to be of service and showcasing the planet and India, the jubilation’s beyond description

We second that!

seeding planet why

seeding planet why

Many things have been happening at pwhy and some of them point towards the indubitable yet maybe invisible reality that Chapter I of pwhy is slowly coming to a close. Most of the slums we work will eventually be relocated as metro lines extend and the dream of some becomes the doom of the other.

India is all about macro and micro realities and in order to make substantial and meaningful change it becomes imperative to address both sides of the coin. What began 7 years ago as an honest effort to empower underprivileged communities to take charge of the education of their children, has met with a fair amount of success.

A viable model was mooted, and tested successfully as drop out rates were contained 100% and the model steered by local efforts. The only element that did not quite meet the set target was sustainability as till date we could not truly seed the one rupee a day programme.

This has led me to believe that maybe the way to see it seed is to actually withdraw much of the spoon feeding and slowly position ourselves as a consultant/advisory entity. Then it will be a do or die and once again if out of all the various elements that form pwhy one emerges a winner we will be satisfied. A little radical I know but nevertheless necessary.
That is the macro level.

But the past seven years has also brought the micro level into our lives be it children needing surgery, children having no future, single mothers at the fringe of giving up and children and young adults with disabilities facing a bleak future.

For these creatures of a Lesser God we need to find a larger solution particularly has we have witnessed the total lack of social and administrative support which is at best inhuman (orphanages, homes for the challenged etc)

So as we slowly hand over power in the first case, we need to create a viable option for the later. That is what brings us to Chapter II of our journey in the shape of what I would like to call simply Planet Why: a small home in a rural suburb where we we would try to give a new lease of life to these souls. Moreover this home would have three or more activities: a refuge, education and empowerment for the local community and specialised vocational training.

As land cost is prohibitive, we are looking at a long lease option and have short listed two plots.

This brings me to the invariable question that is waiting to be asked: how will planet why sustain itself?

Here is my answer: we want to seed planet why in a village called Goyla, close to the airport and to Dwarka which is already on the metro line. With the imminent completion of several flyover/highway projects the place is ideal to create a guest house like the ninos hotel set up in cusco Peru entirely run by street children.

We are thinking of having one part of planet why as a guest house with about 6 rooms for those who do not want to transit Delhi but just have a take off point to their holiday destination. Goyla is close to the Jaipur and Agra highways. Many friends have promised us 100% occupancy.

Pwhy has taught me that nothing is impossible and no dream too large if it’s intent is honest and for the good of those no one cares for.

No matter how empowered the present community we work in gets there are always some that still need us on a long term basis: Abhishek and Rahul’s widowed mother who is constantly ill treated by her in-laws and made to live in a room that reminds us of the torture box of the Bridge of the River Kwai as she lives in a tin box on a fifth floor; Utpal’s mother who has to one day come out into the world again, Mansi and Himanshu who saw their mother hang and their father be shot in a vendetta like operation commandeered by their maternal grandparents, Babli who in spite of her open heart surgery seems to be of no interest to her family the father being too old and a gambler and a mother to busy working or seeking greener pastures, and many of our special kids who no one really wants and last but not the least Manu for whom pwhy began.

So we begin a new journey and hope you will once again be there for us..