Thursday, April 17, 2014

of toffees, balloons and tea parties

These elections look more and more like the Mad hatter's Tea Party with toffees and balloons. This is what elections have come too. Toffees and Balloons and a tea party! This is what it has come down to: slandering and more slandering. And let us not forget the sprinkling's of 'off with their heads'!  We are really in wonderland or rather its very antonym: dread sea! The whole show is absurd. They are now even borrowing catchy lines from popular TV ads to make their point! I wonder what we can expect next.

Though I agree with one of the star campaigners that these elections are or should be for the heart of India, my take is somewhat different.

In the past decade or so I have seen, felt, fallen in love and embraced the heart of India. The heart of India is the slum kid who smiles, the little child who begs at a red light, the millions who survive despite every politician and do so with rare dignity and courage. Th heart of India is the desperate mother who ferrets rat holes to ensure that she does not have to once again lull a her hungry child to sleep, it is the mother who sprinkles large amount of chillies on the family's only meal to ensure that they drink so much water that next meal can be skipped. The heart of India is the young boy whose eyes glinted with joy when I told him this morning that maybe we would be starting sports activities in on the neglected grounds of his school, the heart of India lies in the vegetable vendor calls out in my street in the sweltering heat or the bone chilling cold. The heart of India lies in the millions who find ingenious ways to earn a living even if it means being hounded by cops and officials who claim their right on part of his meagre earnings. The heart of India lies in the woman who sits at her door step late in the evening waiting for her man to come back with the day's earnings and hoping he will not stop by the watering hole; the heart of India lies in my little Radha who sleeps in a hole with her brittle bones hoping that she will survive one more day without a fracture. I could go on but I guess you get the picture.

Why should I not be enraged when one of the aspiring PM candidate whose party has been in power for the best part of Independent India, states in a speech after more than 6 decades: Our top three priorities after the elections are "free medicines and free hospitalisation by law, a roof for everyone, and pension to all senior citizens. Does it take 60+ years to realise that everyone needs a roof on their heads and access to basic health care not to forget schools. What the hell were you doing till now.

 I have being watching  a TV programme called Election Yatra, were reporters visit remote areas and interview ordinary people and politicians and ask them to share their views. Yesterday they visited Uttar Pradesh. Should you wish to watch it here is the link. I was shocked to find out about a village that in its late found wisdom has decided not to vote this time. The reason is that every aspiring candidate from any and every party promised them a road and never fulfilled their promise. They actually never came back. This time NO ONE has visited this remote and lost village. You may wonder why a simple road is so crucial. Let me enlighten you. During the rains, the mud road - if one may call it so - gets flooded and the village turns into an island. Children cannot go to school and in an emergency you cannot reach the hospital in time. Two people from the same family died last year as they could not reach help in time. So this time first ROAD then VOTE. Maybe the real meaning of democracy is finally filtering down. The village is called Nada and the district is Etawah. The story is some 8 minutes into the programme. I forgot too mention that the village has a hand water pump that never functioned.

To me it is shocking that the constituencies of the top politicians look the most neglected. One would have expected the opposite and thought they would be models of development. I am at a total loss to find out the reason for the neglect. I am talking of constituencies who have diligently voted one family back for years. I hope they too get the message this time.

The probable winning candidate for the top post of the country has till now scared me. I know the country needs a kind of a  dictator but a benign one and I am a little weary of how power may alter all good intentions. I was however comforted to hear in his latest interview that he will not be vindictive. On cleaning politics this is what he said: What is the solution? That political parties do not give tickets to such people? But frankly, such a situation is not feasible just now. I am determined that candidates, MPs from whichever party, including the BJP, against who cases are already lodged, I will request the Supreme Court to dispose of their cases within a year’s time. So that if they are guilty, they go to jail and vacate the seat for a non-criminal. Makes sense and I hope that he will stand by his words and do just that.

I would like to know though what he will do to ensure that every child has access to quality education we as a country would not have to bear the shame of watching 5000 children die everyday of malnutrition.

And hove all, what he will do for what I call the heart of India.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Up in the mountains he climbs...

I am one happy biddy today. Utpal alias Popples is up in the mountains on a school trip. It is a one week trip with rock climbing, rope climbing, trekking, sleeping in tents and even in a three star hotel! He told me about staying in a hotel when he called one day asking for new inner wear and socks and felt the old ones would blot do. he is becoming quite a little man.

I am over the moon. Of course like the old worrying and dotty Maam'ji enquired about the details over and over but yesterday night he called me all excited and told me about his day and his sitting around a campfire and having snacks! And then he would be sleeping in a tent. He had rope climbed, just like in movies he told me, and also climbed rocks. I hope someone is taking pictures.

This is the first time Utpal has been in a big bus, seen mountains, slept in a tent, sat around a bonfire and had fun. God bless him always.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The biggest reality show

Watching what one could truly call the biggest reality show on the planet a.k.a the Elections leaves me bewildered and saddened. No matter which way you look at it, it all seems wrong as no one is willing to address the real questions that plague our country: malnutrition, education, health and most of all the poor. One of the candidates for what may be called a 5* constituency as it has returned a Prime Minister and now has an aspiring one in the fray, stated that no development is  visible and the people feel betrayed. Logic would make us believe that a high profile constituency should be made a model for development, but this is not the case. Here, just like everywhere else, you see the candidate once in 5 years and hear promises forgotten before the dust of his departing cavalcade has settled.

For the past weeks we have been 'treated' to a script worthy of the best soap opera script writer as is proved by the twists and turns in the plot. Beats the Hunger Games. You have the case of the forgotten wife and her reappearance after half a century, the episode where you are told that boys are boys and can rape with impunity, followed by the one who prescribes death for anyone who has had consensual relationships outside marriage reminding me of the Bob Dylan lyrics: every body must get stoned! What about the slaps, punches, ink and egg throwing? The slandering matches are priceless and often absurd. It almost seems like all our aspiring Parliamentarians are simply interested in oneupmanship of the wrong kind. And what about the advertising campaign: the posters, the songs, the TV clips, the caps and God knows what else. Even the simple and normally pleasing act of reading your morning newspaper has become polluted by the aggressive PR campaign on each and every page. And then the TV debates, the India wants to know, the can I get a minute to answer. These prolonged and seemingly never ending elections makes one want to hibernate. I miss the days when elections were wrapped up in a day and then the results took two days of viewing Hindi films on TV with news flashes in between. Those were happy days!

But what truly upsets me is the lack of connect between this election soap and reality. Having spend almost a decade and a half in the field, for want of another word, I have seen reality. I am not talking of faraway villages or disturbed tribal belts but of slums in the nation's capital city, just a stone's throw away from where we live our privileged life. I recently visited the house of the husband's acquaintance and have no words to describe it. Let me simply say I wished I had sunglasses on to protect me from the glare. Every item in  the house comes from Italy or some other hallowed land and the only words in my lexicon to describe the place is gaudy, over the top and nauseating. More so as the family lives most of the year abroad. Now for the show stopper that says it all. The house is replete with surveillance cameras right down to the kitchen and viewed from the master bedroom.

Barely 2 km away little Radha - the girl in the picture -, her brittle bones and her family of five live in a sunken dark hole that can barely hold a bed. This is how most of the pwhy children live. And what is galling is that in every election political parties promise them regularisation of their homes if they vote them in. Needless to say this saga has been going on for decades. I would like to ask these politicians if they can live one day in these conditions. Need I say more. This is India.

So what went wrong. A recent article aptly entitled Decolonisation of the Mind make interesting reading. The article begins with these words: Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the least independent of us all? Or, to put it in more familiar terms, Macaulay ke asli aulad kaun hain (Who are Macaulay’s real children)? To find out read the article as somewhat we all stand guilty. Homosexuality is still a crime, we still have or had till recent days criminal tribes and our Penal Code relies on anachronistic Victorian values and legislation. And yet no political party has the b**** to change things. Both our minds and our politics remain in thrall to colonialism. The article shows us what the parties in the fray stand for. It is scary, particularly if you have your heart in the right place.

Who will bell the cat?

I will end by simply quoting the concluding words of the said article: Now is a good time to reflect on the colonial racism which infects mainstream India’s view of Adivasis as primitive savages who can be deprived of land and livelihood with impunity. Dalit and Adivasi perspectives should not be footnotes to envisioning a decolonised India free of hunger, disease, environmental degradation and deprivation: they should be central to it. Only then will we have a truly independent country with no family resemblances to the late Lord Macaulay’s vision.

Right to Education

Once again the Supreme Court has stayed all nursery admissions in Delhi and once again little children are paying for the total inefficiency of the administration. It makes us shudder at the kind of state machinery we have. They are not even able to get their act together to ensure the first step of the Right to Education Act: nursery admissions.

When the Act was promulgated I knew that it would encounter huge obstacles as it just did not make sense. The state takes full responsibility of providing free and equitable education to ALL children in India and this can only be done if they make ALL state run schools centre of excellence or they let keep the status quo: poorly government schools and a vast spectrum of private schools from modest to uber rich with their criteria and rules of admission and management. Mixing the two is a recipe for disaster as is the case now.

Many lauded the absurd solution of reserving 20% seats in every private school for underprivileged kids and the equally absurd points system for nursery admission which they heralded as their solution to the neighbourhood school option. The implementation has been a total failure as we all know. On the one hand it is not the poor who have availed of the reservation but the middle class who though able to afford the fees, have instead manufactured all the needed documents and pushed their children in. The main problem is the fact that good schools are not available in every area and that state run schools that proliferate the city are abysmal.

When the husband, who got his epiphany after casting his vote in the government school and taking a walk on the immense but neglected grounds, went to meet the school Principal and offer to run sports activities in the school, he pointed out the cobwebs and broken windows to the Principal. The Principal told him that all cleaning staff was contracted and thus he did not have any hold on them. This is yet another example of the again much lauded Public Private Partnership where huge amounts find their way in greedy pockets and the work remains undone. Why is the Government always abdicating its responsibilities.

For the Right to Education to truly become a Right for every child born in India, then the State has to assume its responsibility and set up quality schools at walking distance. I have always been an advocate of the State run neighbourhood school imparting quality education and where any child from the said neighbourhood can study. State run schools should not be of poor quality and hence an option only for the poorest children. Sadly that is the case and yet there was a time when State run schools imparted quality education. The proof lies in the biodatas of many who are today in high posts across the board.

True we need to deal with the present social barriers where the so called 'rich' would shudder at the thought of sending their progeny to a State run school and have her share her school bench with the maid's daughter. But that is what school is all about: a level playing ground where all children learn together. I am sure that if all State run schools were of the quality of the State run Central schools, many of us would have no problem sending our kids there.

Next time my home two schools share a common wall. One is a secondary state run school - the one the husband visited and the other is a known Public school one of many across the city. The former has a pathetic building with some classes mere barracks and humongous but neglected grounds. The other has a swanky building but hardly any place to play. The logic is simple: the later being a commercial enterprise will try and stuff in as many classes as possible as every student is a source of income and follows market forces. The demand is far higher than the supply as is well proved by the numbers of Public schools mushrooming in our city.

Now let us talk admission. The points system for nursery admission was established to counter what was perceived as the high handedness of certain schools who set up their own criteria and even demanded large donations. The idea was to to simplify and fine tune the criteria of admissions to nursery in private schools and do away with interviews both of parents and children which was undoubtedly unfair. But we not forget one crucial recommendation of the committee set up for this purpose:it said the concept of neighbourhood school would slowly gain momentum in the capital and would set an example for the rest of the country. "If we can help the government schools improve their quality, then our vision will get a great impetus".

As always we do things in half measures. The point system began to be followed and amended along the way with regular intervention of PILs and subsequent court orders. The absurdity of the whole system is now evident as nursery school admissions which should have ended by now as school resumes on April 1st, has not even begun as groups of parents risk to the Courts to defend their rights.   What will happen is a mystery. The other measure that needed attention: namely improvement of the government schools was lost in translation.

Friday, April 11, 2014

They are boys, they will make mistakes

We have just learnt or rather been reminded of the fact that the most favoured contender to the top job in India is married. This is what he declared in his poll affidavit in Vadodara. A hasty explanation was proffered by his elder brother   who stated that the marriage was forced on Modi by his parents when he was a teenager in keeping with the old orthodox tradition of fixing marriages between children and that it was never consummated as Modi walked out of the marriage soon after it was solemnised. What is worrying is that he has left the field for "spouse" blank in four Assembly polls. Of late, he has also flaunted his single status at rallies, saying that he was single and had no one to be corrupt for.

In an interview earlier this year she claims he is still her husband and wishes him well. She never married again.

Another 'leader' declared yesterday that boys make mistakes and hence should not be 'hanged' for rapes they commit. His statement is nothing short of outrageous :Boys and girls ....later they had differences, and the girl went and gave a statement that I have been raped. And then the poor fellows, three of them have been sentenced to death. Should rape cases lead to hanging? They are boys, they make mistakes. Two or three have been given the death sentence in Mumbai. We will try and change such laws...we will also ensure punishment of those who report false cases. 

Boys make mistakes you see. They get married and then decide to lead the life of dedication to nation minus wife so in a land where a woman once married, even if she is a child, and discarded does not have a second chance at making a home. Today's headline is proof of this fact as the lady in question never get marries and if that was not enough she still does penance for the success of her 'husband'. She  has given up eating rice for some months now as a penance to see Modi as PM. And if that was not enough she gave up wearing footwear for four months seeking PM candidature for her husband. To our politicians she must be the ideal woman, the kind lauded in our epics or portrayed in the all time Bollywood block buster Mother India!

I am sure there may still be women like that but in today's India there are women like us who claim equal rights in every which way. And we need politicians who can represent such women and accept and respect the laws that protect women.

Rape can not be brushed aside as a boy's slip up pr boo-boo. Rape is the vilest form of assault against a woman and scars the survivor for life. For that matter any form of abuse leaves life long scars and should be punished by law. Rape can never be mistake. I wonder if the said politician would feel the same should anyone dear to him be raped. He belongs to the party where one of his Minister moved heaven and earth when his buffaloes went missing. What would he do if someone raped his kin. Would he simply say boys and boys...

One voted without quite knowing what the views of parties were on matters that are important to us. One party released its manifesto on the day voting began. This year one simply tried to work out in one's head the best option possible. Time will tell us if we did right.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

An epiphany and a prayer answered

Ranjan and I just voted. For Ranjan it was the first time as for years his name was not on the voter's list but this time it was, as it seems to be part of God's plan for R's recovery. Coming to the vote, I did not get the epiphany I so wanted. I simply voted for what I felt was the best option. Only time will tell if I did the right thing. Ranjan, on the other hand had his plan and voted accordingly. So you may be wondering why this post is entitled: An epiphany and a prayer answered. Bear with me as all this is rather convoluted and has to be explained as logically as possible. I will give it my best try!

The polling booth was in the secondary school next door, a school we all pass each time we leave or come back home. Most of us never look at it let alone see it with our eyes, seeing with the heart is a pipe dream. The school is not the one our kids go to and at best we get irritated by the students who crowd the road when school is out and slow us down. But today was different, not so for me, as after 14 years of working with children who come from such schools and hearing their horror stories, I am almost inured as I expect the worse. However Ranjan has never entered a Government school and was more than horrified at what he saw. For the uninitiated it is just about everything: desks that are broken with shards that can hurt the child sitting at it and that are so narrow that they would that one cannot place a note book let alone a register straight across it, filthy walls with peeling paint, ceilings that are falling apart or in some classes asbestos sheets that must be hell in summer. I could go on but I guess you get the picture.

Ranjan was truly appalled and decided to walk through the school and as he walked around I could see him opening the eyes of his heart. He was amazed at the sheer size of what is called the playground but where no child plays as it is not maintained and filled with stones. However Ranjan the sportsman saw the possibility of innumerable hockey and football fields and even a cricket ground. That is when he had his epiphany: let us do something. This was further reinforced when we found out from the guard that this was a one shift school and thus all this lovely space that should be filled with children playing lay empty from 1.30 pm onwards. On the way back Ranjan and I talked about what could be done and to every caveat I put forward based on my experience of 14 years, he had an answer ready and was willing to go to the highest authority if need be. His idea is to begin sports activities for the kids by making proper grounds and giving proper coaching. So that was the epiphany bit.

Now you may wonder what the prayer is all about. That is where I come in. When I was totally broken after the death of my parents and had sunk into a dark depression that lasted years, it is project why that lifted me again and gave me a second lease of life. I have been wrecking my brain for a project for Ranjan that would give him what pwhy gave me: a reason to live and more than that a way to give back something to those who are less privileged.

God works wonders. I will beat the iron while it is hot and take Ranjan to meet the Principal - hope this one is not too much of a sourpuss - and set the ball rolling. Who knows? By this summer itself we may have kids playing football in the grounds that lie empty waiting for children to run on it.

So help me God.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Who to vote for

Voting is tomorrow and I still do not know who I will vote for. I have been trying to hear between the lines all the screaming debates that have invaded our homes in the past months/weeks. I have been scouring magazines and the net for articles that would help me decide. I have talked to friends and mere acquaintances and even unknown people. Every one had a different point of view.

I recently received a link to an open letter to Modi, Rahul and   by Veer Das which quite sums up what I feel. It all bhakt up as he says in his own ignitable style! But vote we must and intelligently if possible in the present scenario as pressing the NOTA button gets you nowhere. So let me try and get some order in my thoughts and share with you some of the very unexpected views I have come across in the past few days. I was told that a person I know well and who has entry into the hallowed circle of the dynasty, is voting AAP and has asked his staff to do the same. Another lady whose wisdom I respect is doing the same and so his her staff. A sikh shopkeeper told me he would vote Congress as one of the other options scared him and the other would not be good for his business. I leave you to guess which is which. I just got a call urging me to vote BJP as if they did not come with all the numbers then we would have elections again and that was not good for stability. I guess everyone has their point but I am still confused.

For many years I voted Congress as that was the party whose ideology was closest to mine but then it got diluted, dictatorial and then simply greedy. Wonderful projects that never saw the light of day. I strongly believe even today that if 50% of all social programmes are implemented as they should, India would look healthy! My nana was a Congressman in the days when the Congress had one agenda: freedom from the British. It was undoubtedly a motley crew held together by one dream. When India did become independent many thought that the Congress as it was then should be disbanded as they had achieved what they set out to. My nana was one of them. Many attempts were made to make him agree to join the Government but he wouldn't budge from his point of view. Later he would contest elections, municipal ones, but as an Independent candidate whose symbol was a pair of scales and won many times. It is believed that he did a lot for the city he made his home. Maybe people like him were right as history shows that the Congress has gone through several mutations. I did not vote in a couple of elections, being out of the country or again a tad lost. In 2004 when the option 'refused to vote' was possible, I exercised it. However I dot feel comfortable pressing the NOTA button this time.

This election is a whole new ball game. Early this year a new political party again with a one point agenda - end corruption - changed the equation and I voted for them in the Assembly Elections. We all know what happened next and how in my humble opinion, they were manipulated by political stalwarts and Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. They picked up the pieces but the harm was done. The husband is of the opinion that they should be given a few seats to act as watchdogs in Parliament.

A recent article on the necessity or rather the urgency of having a political alternative makes interesting reading. It ends by stating and no matter how regular, free and fair our elections, democracy cannot flourish without dissent. Many have criticised the fact that the AAP is contesting a large number of seats but as a friend quoting a political analyst said, it is the only way for this young Party with few resources to establish a pan Indian presence. Do read the article for a different point of view. Let me reproduce the first paras to tempt you into reading it:

In India at the time of a national election, it’s usually considered fair for politicians and political parties to make promises that everyone knows will not necessarily be kept; for electoral contestants to make claims, counter-claims and allegations that are exaggerated and sometimes completely preposterous; for ticket-seekers to switch parties and allegiances at the last minute depending on the patronage they receive or are denied; and in general, for language to be used loosely, excessively and rhetorically during campaigning. The usual rules about how we speak and what we mean are suspended for a few months, after which things once again return to normal. Odd as that sounds, the exceptional use of language is part of the routine of any big Indian election, and this is probably true in most other democracies as well.

But the 2014 Lok Sabha election in India appears to be unfolding in a way that distorts the use of campaign language as well as the language of election analysis more than usual. It is not just about exaggeration, false accusations and dithering, but rather about serious ideological about-turns and self-censorship on the part of many contestants as well as commentators.

I think we cannot but agree. This election has been the most strident one, a real cacophony.

I have still not made up my mind. I pray for an Epiphany!

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Dare to dream

In the past years I have come up with many bye lines for project why. Because it makes that little difference is the one that seems to have stuck! Where children dare to dream, however, is my all time favourite though it made a short appearance in our lives. To me it encompasses the spirit of project why in more ways than one as I believe that if a person like me can create something like project why then nothing is impossible. I remember the early days when we began our field project in the gypsy camp now razed to the ground, I told the children there that they had to dream big dreams, dreams bigger than they could imagine.

Sanjay circa 2002

Sanjay walking in Paris for AgnesB

 He dared to dream!
One young boy heard me loud and clear. It is Sanjay the boy in the orange shirt in the picture on the right. Today he is an international model who walks for designers in Paris and of course India. He dared to dream big and maybe things did not turn quite as he had at first imagined but his success story is remarkable to say the least! He even has a movie about his life aptly entitled Bollywood Boulevard! Before he hit success he spent some time as a primary teacher at project why!

Young Anita comes with her own success story. Today she proudly teaches primary and secondary classes at our Govindpuri and in the picture above is leading her brood to an outing at the Railway museum. Would you believe me if I told you that she was one of our first students in 2002 in our creche! But that is the reality. When she passed her class XII she came to us asking us for a job. She told us that she wanted to do a B Com from the Open University but that her parents who are very poor could not afford the fees. But that was not all. Being very conservative, her father would not allow hurt to work anywhere but at project why. You guessed right, she got her job like  a shot! This year she will finish her B Com. I do hope she does a B Ed as that would allow her to become a teacher in a good school as that was always a dram, even as a little girl: to be a teacher! We would have to let her go then as our salaries as paltry! I hope her father allows her to continue working and marries her to a man sensitive enough to understand her and help her fulfil her dreams.

It is amusing but whenever you ask one of the project why's girls what she wants to be pat comes the answer: a teacher or a singer. I guess this is the only world they know: Project Why+Bollywood as even the poorest home's prize possession is a TV. When Suzie, a young and motivated volunteer asked them this very question she got the same answer.

But Suzie is a feisty woman and thought she had to widen their horizons in her own inimitable style. I requested to give me a short summary in her own words and this is what she wrote: Well I wasn’t having any of it; I decided to put together a list of 11 famous women who achieved so much throughout History, from scientists to writers to politicians, and show the girls that there is more out there for them if they put their mind to it.

We learned about Joan of Arc, Marie Curie, Jane Goodall, Anne Frank; I asked the girls to read out to each other texts about all these women and their achievements, to ask each other questions about them; we spent three afternoons, learning about Sampat Pal Devi’s gang of Pink Saris; about Mathilde Anneke’s first newspaper dedicated to women; about the work of Mother Theresa in 133 countries; about Florence Nightingale and her revolution of the world of nursing; and about how JK Rowling thought up Harry Potter on a train to Manchester… 

We made a wall hanging, with photos of all of them in chronological order, ending with a banner that read “YOU COULD BE NEXT – We can all be scientists, activists, writers, if we get an education! 

It was an amazing project and I must admit it got me thinking. Maybe we needed to add something to our teaching to help children widen their horizons and confirmed beyond doubt my belief that with education you can DARE TO DREAM!

The girls love dancing and are mean dancers. Here is proof.