Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Whose knell does the budget toll

For the past days every one had been talking about budget 2015. Is it pro rich; pro poor? I do not know and frankly do not care. We have learnt over the decades to deal with each budget and carry on our lives as best we can. We accept with cynicism the new projects and programmes knowing that they will never be truly implemented but simply make some richer. The cynicism is always tinted with a dash of sadness as some of the said programmes, schemes or whatever else they are called could make the much needed difference for those who have learnt to survive with courage and dignity. I have been privy to some instances when schemes meant for a particular beneficiary never reach the said beneficiary as there is always some administrative hitch. Or simply because the said beneficiary does not have the means to pay the bribe. So budget time for me is just another day, week or month.

This year however my blood ran cold when I was told that the Finance Minister had slashed the school education budget by a whopping 10% and allocated more funds to higher education. I could hear the door slam shut in he face of this little girl and millions like her who are waiting to enter the gates of a school. The budgetary shift from school to higher education tolls the knell of the dreams of millions of poor children in India for whom state run schools are the only hope. I agree with a commentator who said: “Government, according to me, should have focused more on school sector and allowed more private play in higher education. In that count, its a missed opportunity”.

Most, if not all, of the project why children, attend state run schools as this is the only option they have. Their families do not have the means to get them enrolled in a quality i.e public school. In spite of all the talk of ending corruption, most private schools demand a cash contribution that is never acknowledged, and then you need to pay the actual fees which are quite substantial during admission as you need to pay all sort of development and other one time charges. I know of two examples where the bribe or donation was 15K in one school and 20 in the other and the admission fee was 25K in one and a whopping 60 in the other. How can a parent who ears the minimum wage afford these fees. And tough he or she is aware of the difference of quality in s state run and public school, he knows he has no option.

By not addressing the issue of improving the quality of ALL state run schools, the government has ensured that children like the little girl in the picture will never be able to accede to the higher education that is now getting a shot in the arm. Poor child, it will be nothing short of a miracle if she finishes school. And even if she does, she will need have the marks required to enter an affordable institution of higher learning. Those are reserved for children from better homes. Children like her will have to wait for the day when some kind soul in the right position decided to make every single school in the land  a centre of excellence.

Will that happen? Only the God of Lesser Children knows.






Sunday, March 01, 2015

Say a little prayer with me


Of all the precious children that have come my way since the fateful day I decided to cross my Rubicon and enter a world I barely new existed but feel in love with at first sight, it is the very special children of project why who have given me the strength to walk the less travelled road, and been the reason that compelled me to never give up even if at times the journey seemed somewhat Sisyphean! It is for them that the very idea of having to close the door someday was anathema. They have been and are the wind beneath my wings and have enabled me to face every challenge that came my way, and to kick myself hard when the idea of giving up dared raise its head. Was it not Manu, the most deprived of all, who walked into my life and heart and showed me my destiny. Even today, I feel his presence urging me carry on till the day I know my children are safe even when I am gone.

For the past decade and a half I have prayed to all the Gods of the Universe to show me the way forward and to send that one big miracle that would secure the morrows of my children and fulfil their dreams.

It is said you must dream big to see your dreams come true and I dared dream big, very big. It all began on the day when Manu came into my life and I had the audacity to envision a perfect home for someone everyone would refer to as a beggar. The perfect home had to be a place where love abounded and safety and dignity were paramount. I dared dream of a space that would be large and beautiful with flowers and trees that he could tend to. God granted me my dream, though in what I felt was a truncated form. Manu got his home with a comfortable bed and oodles of love and care, as well as friends and pals, but there were no trees or flowers to be tended though there was always a cache of biscuits his favourite treat! In the meantime, I was busy crafting a larger dream one I called planet why.

But one a cold January afternoon Manu slipped away leaving me lost and rudderless and for a while I wondered whether this was a message from the heavens asking me to give up what many considered an impossible dream. But when I closed my eyes all I could see was Manu's incredible smile urging me not to give up as if I did, then his coming into my life would have been in vain. He had not suffered all those years and born all the scorn and indignities as roamed the streets in cold, rain or scorching heat waiting for the day I would come into his life and he would finally be able to fulfil his mission. He had left when he was sure that I was strong enough to weather any storm that came my way and would complete the mission that had become ours. It was the only way I could validate and honour his life. If I failed then his existence would have to no avail.

There was no time for tears or recrimination. The need of the hour was to give substance to the planet why dream and even the Gods smiled as we found land and the money to purchase it. The search for funds was also initiated and we even got someone who seemed interested and promised to give us the money needed. Then it all feel apart. The person disappeared without a word leaving me once again bewildered. The land lay fallow and bare as we tried to figure out other ways to fulfil the dream. Prayers never stopped but nothing worthwhile seemed to happen. Even when we decided to sell the now appreciated land, and purchase something else closer we found no takers.

I was again lost and resorted to what I did best: pray! I simply refused to give up. I could not because of Manu's smile.

When all seemed hopeless and dark I guess someone, God or Manu, took pity and sent what could be the miracle I so fervently sought. Once bitten forever shy I guess. I am barely able to breathe, let alone believe that the dream will come true. There is more waiting, more toiling, more praying and that is why I beseech you to say a little prayer with me.




Sunday, February 22, 2015

The right to education revisited.

This little fellow is 5. I have known him since the day he was born. He is naughty and impish like all little boys have the right to be. That is what makes him adorable.  He is also my grandson's best pal in India. He belongs to a family that I have known since the first day I set foot in the street where project why was to be seeded. Over the past decade and a half I have seen this wonderful little family move slowly and steadily up the social ladder and craft dreams for their young ones. One of the dreams has been to give every child born within its fold a good education. The elder two girls are in what is known as a good school and now it is his turn to enter the portal of a good school. Over the years admissions in schools have become more and more difficult with sometimes ludicrous conditions that need to be filled to secure some extra points. Now he misses two as he is a boy and not a girl child and has no sibling in school as his sister is just about one. He would I guess also qualify for the absurd 25% reservation in public schools but we all know it is just an eyewash and has been hijacked by predators on the prowl. I wonder how many really 'poor' kids avail of this reservation. Last year he missed the boat as he did not 'make' it to any school.

At the given time, for you cannot apply for admissions in school at will, the family dutifully bought admission forms and prospectuses - sold at a price and a good way of making money for the schools - and painfully filled them, attaching all documents required. Then it was waiting time till the date when lists would be displayed. The name of this little chap was not on the main list. When one of the school was approached by the child's aunt, she was taken in an office and surreptitiously handed a scrap of paper with the number 20 written on it. You may wonder what that was all about. For the initiated i.e. those who have already experienced admission processes, the number needs to be multiplied by 1000 and that sum needs to be deposited there and then in  cash if you want your kid to be admitted. You will of course not get a receipt for the amount. While the paper is being pushed towards you, I guess the amount varies according to your worth, you are told that once this is done your child is guaranteed a place in school and you need to come next week with a whopping 60K+ for admission and other fees. If you are not in a position to give the money, then the door is virtually shut in your face. A variation on this theme happens in most schools in our city.

Now the option for the famous right to education that your kid is endowed with by the Constitution, may give you a place in one of the innumerable so called public schools that have mushroomed all over the city as education became a lucrative business, which are at best mediocre or in overcrowded state run schools where your kid's chances of success are non-existent. So what are the options for this  family barring praying for a miracle? Waiting for another year? Opting for a lesser school and thus impairing his morrows? Trying to find the money but the sum is astronomical and will have to be borrowed at a whopping interest? Giving up their dreams?

The Right to Free Education that was obtained after decades is a right that remains on paper alone. The bill itself is flawed and needs to be revisited. The fact that we see children begging or working or roaming the streets is an indicator of the failure of implementation of the bill.

In the last decade and a half I have witnessed many changes. On the one hand I have seen people belonging to what we call 'slums' becoming increasingly aware of crucial and life altering realities: be it the importance of a good education for their children as the only way for them to break the cycle of poverty in which they were born or awareness of issues such as environment and civic rights and duties. Slowly and unobtrusively, they have climbed the social ladder and become empowered and aware. They have begun daring to dream big and doing everything possible to make the dreams come true. This is awesome to say the least and a big step towards the transformation of our society.

On the other hand I have been a mute and helpless witness to the commercialisation of education and the slow degradation of state run schools. I hope the new dispensation walks the talk as they have promised to but there can be no miracles and children cannot wait for schools to be built or decisions to be implemented. For many it will be too late. It is extremely disheartening to have seen that the neighbourhood school idea did not get any takers. If state run schools were upgraded as they should have been, then the situation we face today could have been avoided. But then we are to blame as it is us who have a problem with the driver's kid sharing a bench with ours. It is time we gave up this feudal attitude.

My little fellow deserves the best schooling possible. Sadly it will not come easy if it does come at all. In spite of his family wanting to give him the best, even if it means tightening the belt till it hurts, they may not be able to come up with the unreasonable demands of the present system. I do not know if any decision maker will ever read this blog, should they do so, I sincerely hope they will address the situation and do something. But it will be too late for the ones waiting in line today for a good school to open their doors for them.

I hope for a miracle for this little chap. Maybe some kind hearted soul will come forward and help him. But to me the simple fact of falling in the trap of these schools is galling. What can be done. Only God knows I guess!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The length of a life time

Child abuse casts a shadow the length of a lifetime wrote Herbert Ward. We tend to forget that too easily. When we hear of a little girl being sexually abused and even raped we are rearing to ensure that the perp gets punished. Most of the time he gets away with some years behind bars, ready to resume his predatory forays, hunting for the next tiny victim. The victim or as we prefer the use of the word 'survivor' is left to figure out the rest of her lifetime.

A few days ago, two little cousins, aged 3, where raped by a 50 year old neighbour. They had been invited to his house by his daughter-in-law, who  for reasons unknown, left them there. The perp, who was it is said drunk, assaulted and allegedly raped them.

This story does not make headlines for long. Children never make headlines for long. They are not vote banks and thus faraway from the minds of politicians. They are often poor so their families cannot influence your careers, so they are the lowest priority for law enforcers. Children are voiceless and depend on adults to present their case and adults can easily be influenced.

Imagine the trauma these babies, as babies they are, went through. They had been invited to play and maybe had hoped for a treat. Instead they were violated. I do not have the guts or nerves to try and imagine what they were subjected to and how they gathered their bruised body, torn clothes and  themselves up and walked back home. I cannot begin to imagine how they found the words to explain to their parents what happened. Thankfully their families believed them and the man was arrested. They may not have had the appropriate words to share their story, but their mind, body and soul are seared for life with the agony and pain of what they experienced on that fateful afternoon. And this terrifying memory will cast a shadow that they will drag for their entire life.

I cannot understand what makes men rape babies. Is it simply because litte girls have vaginas that can be violated with impunity. Rape it is said is a power game. Only a coward would exercise his power on innocent children. It is sickening.

This is not an isolated case. Children are sexually abused all the time and left to figure out their coping strategies alone, as best as they can. There are no caring parents, sensitive counsellors or understanding elders to help them through. When we hear of such aberrations we make the appropriate clucks and move on to the next news item, more so because we know this would not happen to one of ours. The tiny victims though will remember their ordeal till they breathe their last. The accused may get away or at best spend some time in the clink. When he is free again, he may get drunk and abuse some other child. There is nothing to stop him.

Every one talks of women safety. Of late the big thing is religious freedom. When will our rulers express their horror on the rape of poor children and take the appropriate measures. Never or surely not in the near future as to truly address this situation, the first step one needs to take is to allow sex education in homes and schools. But come on, how can that happen. There are too many bigots and zealots who are against the word 'sex'! But imagine if these little angels had been taught 'good touch, bad touch'!  Maybe they could have run away or screamed. But in our hypocritical and sanctimonious society one does not mention such things, so teaching then is anathema. When will someone garner the courage to stand up and demand age appropriate sex education. How many more children will have to suffer at the hands of sick predators before someone says enough! It is time we woke up from our slumber.

Let me share another child story. This one has left me stunned. It appears with the title: Woman Denied a Break to Feed Six-Month-Old Baby, He Dies. You read right: a woman labourer was not allowed the time needed to breasted her baby! The child had been crying for hours before he cried his last. This woman had been working for the same contractor for 10 long years, toiling from day to night. Will someone pay for this death or will it just be another poor child buried by his mother who left a feeding bottle next to his tiny grave.

It is time we woke up.





Saturday, February 14, 2015

The blessed Fez

My father, a Hindu, was given a Fez with a quote from the Koran inscribed inside by the then King of Morocco Mohamed V, an honour bestowed on few. When a Muslim Ambassador voiced his displeasure, the wise King answered that whereas the said ambassador was a Muslim by birth, my father was a Muslim by deed. There is no difference between a good Muslim, a good Hindu, a good Christian, a good Jew or even a good atheist. I must have been 6 or 7 then and this was possibly my first lesson in religion which to a child's mind signified that all religions were equal and to be respected equally. The operative word was 'good'. My parents never stopped my forays into other religions when as a child I wanted to go to church, fast during Ramadan or partake of a Sabbath meal with my friends of different faiths with the caveat that it should always be acceptable to them. So I grew up respecting all religions and accepting the one I was born in, with great enthusiasm because it seemed encompassing and so tolerant. What made the Hinduism I embraced so fervently special was that it was inclusive.

I am a believer in some greater force that men along the way chose to represent and celebrate in different ways. And though the rituals we followed at home were Hindu, my faith never stopped me from praying in different houses of God. Never would I have believed that one day I would have to put all this in question again.

It all began with the demolition of a mosque by believers of the very faith I followed. Destroying a house of God was not part of the brand of religion I followed. As years would go by I would be confronted by extremism in all shades and hues, an extremism that went against the very fibre of what religion meant to me.

In the past days one has witnessed attacks on churches and violence between neighbours simply because they worshipped another God. How does one explain this. And then there are the rabid sermons delivered by supposedly holy men and women who have taken upon themselves to issue diktats on your personal life: what you should or should not wear; how many children you should have; who you should love and above all who you should hate. I will not and cannot give the right to interfere in my  life to anyone, let alone some self proclaimed zealot.

The sad thing is that this is a world wide phenomena where even killing another is done in the name of religion. I want to know which God allows, exhorts and even rewards murder. None that I can think of; or any should you which to hijack him or her.

The one thread that linked all religions in a child's mind, the notion of good, seems to have vanished altogether. I still try to hold on to it and preach in my own way, but there are few who want to listen. The very survival of the Hinduism I accepted with fervour and still practise can only survive if it allows me to respect all religions. If that is lost, then the entire edifice collapses like a house of cards.
In my entire life which has now entered in its final stage, I have followed my faith and will never give it up. I will still pray in churches and mosques if I wish to. And the alter in my home has pictures of Gods of all faith.

Religion is such a powerful tool to divide human beings and has been used since time immemorial to divide people and install fear and hate. It is so easy to manipulate men in the name of God. For the power hungry, its is a "god" sent arsenal. The proliferation of self proclaimed fanatics the world over are ample proof to this. It is time we rejected all this nonsense and reclaimed our right to worship God as he or she should.

My land is replete with examples of how irreverent religion has become. In a land that worships Goddesses with so called devoutness, girls and women are treated as lesser beings and dismissed with contempt and impunity. In place of the all encompassing religion I grew up with, one witnesses a pathetic and small divisive religion that I refuse to acknowledge.

I still believe that the religion I was born in, is infused with values of tolerance and respect, where humanity is celebrated with every breath I take.

Religion is between me and my God and no one is allowed to intrude.

That is the lesson of the blessed Fez.








Tuesday, February 10, 2015

May the broom gently sweep and open letter to Arvid Kejriwal

Dear Arvindji,

Congratulations for this resounding victory. You deserve it.

I have been a silent supporter of yours for a long time, way before you entered politics. Once you did, I remained in the wings hoping for the day you would come and fulfil what I believe is a sacred mission: that of building the nation those who fought for Independence dreamt of. My mother was one of them. For the past decades we have seen that dream fading to almost oblivion. Today it has resuscitated and been entrusted to you. May God grant you the strength and sagacity to make it come true.

In your hour of glory, allow me to share a few thoughts that come from one who held on to that dream and whose father's dying words were: do not lose faith in India.  I never did though it was not an easy task, more so since the day I decided to  step out of my comfort zone and reach out to those we dismissively label as the 'poor'. It is in the eyes of those beautiful yet abandoned children that I again saw that dream alive, albeit for a few stolen moments. It is in the courage of those who have learnt the art of surviving with dignity and a smile that I felt the dream of a better morrow had not faded away.

It took more than six long decades for a patient people to finally say: enough! That is what has happened on this blessed day. People across the board have finally rejected everything that we bore for far too long and reclaimed their right to the values we have always cherished: honesty, compassion, tolerance. We are fed of the hubris and arrogance that we had to encounter each and every day. We are tired of the corruption we had to witness at every corner. We are ashamed of the fact that even today more than  5000 children die of malnutrition and millions sleep hungry when others throw food with impunity and alacrity. We are ashamed of the way women are treated. We are tired of being divided by caste creed and God knows what else. We want to reclaim who we truly are.

I feel saddened and infuriated at the state of our schools where bright children become less than mediocre. I feel incensed at children begging. I feel enraged at children working. It is time we mended our ways and set things right.

As individuals we could not achieve much, though some of us still try. We look at you to help the children of Delhi reclaim their usurped rights.

When the celebratory dust dies down, please take some time and think about the hopes the tired citizens of this city have entrusted you with. It is easy to fall prey to hubris. Politics is indeed a heady brew. Please ensure that he broom sweeps gently and effectively.

We have done our bit. Please do yours.

May God walk with you

AB



Monday, February 09, 2015

Not a country for women



I want you to look at this picture. Look at the smiles of these beautiful children basking in the warm winter sun in a park. Nothing great one would think as children are meant to smile, and play and roll in the grass, safe and carefree. If you look a little more carefully you will see that some are undoubtedly children but other seem much older. You would be right. Some are indeed what we call adults and even middle aged.

This our special section on an outing to Lodhi Gardens and some are indeed not children but to me they are and always be my special kids. Some have been with is since the day we opened this section way back in 2002. Some are mentally challenged, some are physically challenged and some are both. They are the loveliest bunch of souls you would ever find and deserve to be loved, cared for and above all  live in an enabling environment where they are safe and respected. That is what we give endeavour to give them at least for a few hours a day and that is what I had hoped to give them long term when I was conceived of Planet Why in my mind: it was to be a safe haven for them.

Never has the relevance of Planet Why been as crucial as today.

A week ago a young mentally challenged woman left her home to never see it again. What happened to her is nothing of short of a nightmare. She was raped and subjected to the worst humiliation imaginable before she was murdered. You will need to brace yourself before you read her ordeal. The doctor who performed her autopsy said that he had never seen such brutality. "He said two stones were inserted into the slain woman's anus. "Her face was eaten by animals; her lungs and heart were found missing. Also, her skull had fractured and there were injury marks on both her thighs and chest.''

Her family had reported her missing the very day she left home but no one cared. You see she had everything against her: she was a girl; she was poor, she was mentally challenged and she was a migrant. She was less than human.

In December 2013 another brutal rape happened in Delhi. Laws mere enacted, promises made as always. But nothing had changed and neither will it change as long as women are considered lesser beings by one and all in this country and more so by political leaders and law enforcers.

Today we should hang our head in shame. But don't we every time such horrors happen? And then we forget till the next outrage comes our way. How long will this happen. Is it not time we begin to ask ourselves what has made us such a brutal and uncaring lot.

This is not a country for women and certainly not one for women who are poor and mentally challenged.