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I have to do what I got to do

2020-03-29         Shukla Bose

I HAVE GOT TO DO WHAT I HAVE GOT TO DO

I have never been so conscious of my age as I am right now. I have always celebrated my number of years as a rich experience and the growing desire to think of others before myself. I have taken care of myself and have been generally healthy. Today this deadly Covid 19 constantly reminds me that I am on the wrong side of sixty and therefore fragile and vulnerable. I have never looked at myself as fragile before. Although I never thought of myself as invincible I felt that I had many good years left of me to take care of others. I have tried to do that for the last 20 years with great sincerity.

When the Corona virus hit our shores and the media kept blaring about the dangers associated, my first reaction was to go numb. I got stuck to the TV and WhatsApp messages and could only think of myself, my family especially my 89-year-old mother who lives with me. I kept thinking that maybe this was nature’s way of culling out the old and make way for the young and new. For, after all, haven’t we, the old, done a bad job with this planet, anyway? 

When I starting getting messages from the slums where the Parikrma children live, that they were running out of rations and were going hungry, I mobilized myself from this slumber of age and fear. I told myself that I could still be in charge if I took care. Being safe did not necessarily mean bring gripped with fear. This was the time to really show courage and how much we really love our children. We talk about it in meetings, write about it in our brochures, even show it in our daily school life. But real love and real courage emerge in moments of crisis.

So we have begun serving food with the help of Feed My Bangalore and Parikrma teachers who have become valiant warriors. It requires a lot of courage to teach in a school like ours where we deal with sometimes severely damaged children. To get these children to pay attention in class, believe in the value of education and begin to enjoy learning, requires a great deal of patience, compassion and inspiration. Most of my teachers do an excellent job and the results show how well the Parikrma children are doing in life. We have Selva Kumar, who wrote his homework in his father’s cobbler shack, went further to do his BSc in Nursing and is actually combatting Covid 19 patients in a reputed hospital. We have Victor, a great athlete who did his BSc in Biochemistry and is looking at viruses in a lab. We have two of our boys in the army protecting our borders. We have many others who are software engineers; Team Leaders in BPOs, lawyers but this is not the moment to talk about them. This is the moment to talk about how many of our children from the slums will actually impact what is happening in the health of our country. And it was my teachers who made our students who they are today. And it is those same teachers who have sent all fear to the wind and have come out of their homes to take care of the children they teach. My admiration for them has spiraled many folds.

I have one rationale that has driven me all these years. I believe that it is the poor that are the most vulnerable and whatever the situation may be, it is they who succumb first and fast. If there is any calamity like floods, famine, epidemic, riots and even war, it is the poor that get impacted first. That is because they are the most exposed and don’t have layers of protection that wealth and power gives the rest of us. And policies and laws are rarely made for them. The government machinery, whichever political ideology it may be following, is far removed from what is happening in the ground reality. Great welfare schemes are thought of but it dilutes and changes form by the time it filters through layers and layers of bureaucracy and informal vestiges of power. Look at what has happened this time itself. A total lockdown was brought by the government to freeze movement and rightly so. But before the state lockdown happened all the airports should have been closed totally. Those that travel by air have many other options. It is never a life and death situation for them, maybe just some inconvenience. But those that travel to their villages by bus or train have no other option but to walk home or starve in the city streets. So our television screens are full of heart-wrenching images of all the daily wage labourers with their children and meager belongings, walking several hundred miles to go home. It has taken the government a very long time to understand that these labourers too have emotions and in this moment of crisis they want to be back home with their families. I heard one such daily wage labourer say that if he has to die he would like to die at home rather than the streets of a city. Is that too weird an expectation? If not, then why do not policymakers think about those nameless. stateless, homeless people too before making a law?

So while I fretted about what is happening around me and my helplessness in dealing with it, I decided that I should concentrate on what I can do, in whatever small way.  We, therefore, began the feeding program. Our scheme I TOO CAN EARN was designed to give rations and money to the households of our children where most of the earning came from daily wage. Since our schools had to be closed we knew our children were missing the three meals we gave them in school. Their mothers who work as maids or in factories and fathers in construction labour, have been out of work and stopped earning. It is very important for Parikrma families to be dignified even in poverty and be practical about wealth. We asked our mothers to stitch cloth bags at home and come to school once a week and get rations for the family for the week. We would pay them for the bag and give some weekly homework for the children as well. Imagine the plight of our children in their 100 sq. feet homes for 5 people with no fans and most times no electricity. It is in these times we should feel blessed about how many options we the privileged have. We have at least another room to walk into. And yet we want these kids to stay at home not only because of the virus but also from the clutches of the anti-social elements that we have been protecting them from. For such elements, no social distancing works.

We did all our calculations and came to the conclusion that feeding our children and their families would cost us much more than our savings of keeping our schools closed. We would have to continue to pay for the rent of our school buildings and our teachers’ salaries. While I know many schools will deduct the salaries of their teachers, we cannot. They too have families to take care of. We have therefore started a fundraising campaign (I don’t know whether I should call it a campaign or just an appeal) to raise funds to buy the provisions for the families. We have been giving a few kilos of rice, dal, ragi powder, oil, a cake of soap and a few eggs to each family. We have devised innovative ways to create social distancing to reduce risks and bring in the sense of discipline amongst our parents and of course ourselves.

A few days ago we got a call from a newly founded nonprofit that wanted to give out food to the poor. They were good at the production level but did not have any distribution channels yet. With the help of Feed My Bangalore, we have been distributing food to our children and families as well. We began with 500 meals in our Koramangala school which has got ramped up to 1000 meals and from today we have begun with another school as well. We feel good that our children and their families are getting at least one hot nutritious and delicious meal a day. We will continue to give them the provisions for the other meals and also because in the process of buying the bags from our mothers we are actually giving them some money in hand that they have earned. So the message is that even if you have lost your job and are stuck in your house you too can earn.

So my story continues. I now know that sitting at home gripped with fear and finding excuses not to act does not help anyone. As long as you take protection, as long as you are aware and careful, there is a lot that can be done and has to be done. We have neglected the poor all these years. We have either left it to the government or their fate to take care of them. We are so much more fortunate than those thousands around us who have been born in poor families for no fault of their own and the vicious cycle of perpetuates. Someone called it an “embryonic accident”. Close your eyes and imagine you are one of those without food, without shelter and just no money in hand. You think your face mask can shield the virus but can it shield the truth?

So whatever age I maybe, however fragile the health fraternity may consider me to be, I have got to do what I have got to do.

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A truly fulfilling experience

2018-04-09         Shukla Bose

A new beginning for 60 kids & a highly fulfilling personal experience

Friday was a truly fulfilling day. It was also a day of new learning and many heart wrenches.

We have been approached by some government school teachers that we have trained in our Education Transformation Centre, to help them save their school. Their school is a very one but is at the risk of closing down because most of their students have gone to other private schools. This is a Telugu school and there aren't any Telugu families in the slums nearby. The highly dedicated government school teachers together with their Principal have been sourcing out slums with Telugu speaking families and wanted us to visit them. When anyone in Parikrma hears of students not going to school, we are compelled to respond. That is in the Parikrma DNA and that is the very reason we were born.

So, I went to visit this slum several kilometers away with a few of my colleagues. We whispered quietly that everything there reminded us exactly of how Parikrma began 15 years ago. We visited 320 slums in the city then, walked through little lanes, walked past swelling drains and met up with families under trees in a temple yard or a room in a church. Yesterday we met in a community hall. We had to wait a bit because the women were busy filling water from the common taps that supplied water every alternate day. We saw lines of colourful plastic water pots lined up for their turn in the queue. This is such a common sight in most slums. What is also common is the expression of despair in many faces when the water does not come or clearly is not enough. So the mothers were torn between two important things in their lives...water for the family and the education of their children. There were many men there either taking a nap inside the 100 sq feet house or loitering around with other men.

The meeting began at 6pm. We somehow crammed in around 80 mothers and fathers in this small room, the largest in the entire slum. We explained to them what we were there for, and shared with them our story. By the end we had enrolled 60 children for the government school. We promised to organise transport to ferry the kids to the school. And all the time I kept wondering how we could garner support to make that happen. Sixty children's future had to be decided there and then.

So, there is a new beginning for these children, their families, this government school and new relationships for Parikrma.

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Gems beneath the rot

2018-04-10         Shukla Bose

There are some days in your life that re-ignite belief in what you do. Yesterday was one such day. It will stay etched in my memory to revisit whenever I feel low. And in my kind of work such days are not rare.

After 15 years of successfully running 4 schools and college for marginalized children, Parikrma began training teachers from 330 government schools. Seeing the impact of such training in the government schools we have now started adopting government schools where we not only train the teachers but take the responsibility of influencing the processes and systems in the school as well.

This June, we will have four government schools that will have the Parikrma blue and green colours and will follow the “Parikrma Way”. In these schools we will conduct Parents Teachers meetings, probably for the first time. We will execute what we call the Class Readiness Test to know for sure what concepts each child in a class knows. Our School Improvement Plan will be based on the learning level of each child in each class. We will also conduct Sports Day and Annual Day, events that all children love but unfortunately most government schools pay scant attention to such things.

There are many other things we need to do to bring in change and most have to begin with the teachers. Now talking about teachers or talking to teachers of government schools conjures up images of resistance, apathy, belligerence and bureaucracy.

So, when my colleague Sandhya took me to visit the Government Higher Primary School in Shivajinagar, I accompanied her expecting all this in action. This school was in the heart of busy Shivajinagar, the only Telugu and Kannada medium school surrounded by clusters of Urdu medium schools. This was also a 110-year school with an abandoned building declared as a heritage site. I walked into this school and could only see great promise and potential. There is a lovely playground, large classes, toilets that need repair and blackboards that need a fresh coat of paint.

We have got used to talking about infrastructure any time we refer to a government school. The Education Department has made us aware that in such schools, toilets need to be built. There is a government school in Yelahanka where there is not a single toilet and the children are sent home during break and most children never return. But today I don’t want to talk about infrastructure because I have always maintained that brick and motor does not make a good school. It is the human element in the school that determines the personality of the school.

I was then introduced to Ravindra Reddy and Chiranjivi, both teachers in the school. Ravindra teaches Social Sciences for all the classes and is a senior member of the Teacher Association. Chiranjivi is a Math teacher. Their enthusiasm to learn, to improve and raise the quality of their school was palpable. I have not seen that kind of willingness and energy even in some of the best schools. They expressed their sadness because there were many slums far away where there were Telugu speaking children who had no school to go to. They pleaded with me to organize a bus to transport those kids to their school. In fact, these two teachers visit the slums during the weekends to encourage them to go to school. They guaranteed that they would increase the enrollment by 100% and ensure that there would be no drop out. They knew how important these two factors were for Parikrma. No one ever before in either government offices or schools have ever given us such sincere guarantees. No one ever before has managed to convince me so quickly to visit the slums just two days later and actually start thinking of organizing transport so that no child is left out of school.

So, from the looks of it, it seems that this small school will soon become a Parikrma Way school. And it is not because of the quaint building or any promised grant but because of the determination of these two young teachers who want to improve their school.

When we criticize teachers of government schools, we must pause and look for gems under the rot. Thank goodness, there are still a few.

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Oh, what a year it has been

2018-01-25         Shukla Bose

As the chapter of one year is being set aside and preparation for another chapter of 365 pages begins, I need to reflect on what counts and what does not.

What counts are some lessons learnt, a few painfully and others somewhat gainfully. I learnt that change is not easy however much I may desire it and whatever passion I may pump into it. It is easy to excite people but it is another thing to ignite them into action. But we cannot give up, so grit is most important for anyone in the development sector. We keep hearing of how important it is to stay positive. I have learnt that in this kind of work, if I am not positive, I cannot survive. I am just too small, too insignificant to matter in the course of life and yet I have to be a giant in my self-belief to keep going irrespective of the road bends.

What counts is when people begin to trust us. We have had times when we could not do what we had promised, exactly when we said we would. But if the people we work with trusts us then they will wait for us to deliver. The trust that people have in us, be it our beneficiaries, our employees, our donors, our partners, is the most vital lifeline in our kind of work. On no account can that trust ever be violated. It is quite possible for us to make errors of judgment and pay the price for it, but if any time we betray the trust reposed on us then that is committing hara-kiri.

What counts is the humility to acknowledge that we know very little. This humility allows us to listen and that listening shows us what to do. After having been in the social sector for about eighteen years there have been times when I felt I knew how the poor community would think and react. And what a fallacy that has been! It is impossible for anyone who has been born in a different social and economic background to ever totally understand what is going through the mind of someone from the slums. There are of course some emotions that are universal, emotions like love for one’s child, desire to be loved and cared for. But how one prioritises love and need, is very personal and yet influenced by the social background. Therefore it is impossible to predict responses with hundred percent certainty.. We have therefore learnt that it is not just experience but sensitivity that counts.

What definitely does not count is what others think of me. The faster that I learnt that we have to live for oneself and for people that matter, the quicker did I stop playing for the galleries. It does not count to do anything where our heart is not present because it is then that we buy misery for ourselves. It definitely does not count to get lost in the myriad of trees and lose sight of the forest. I have found it is necessary sometimes to take a backseat and look at the situation in a very detached manner to take the best rational decision.

What counts is to love and the ability to show your love. That has worked for me every time, with my students, their parents, my teachers and everyone around.

So in the year of 2018. I want to continue to work for what counts and avoid all that does not.

So here I begin….I would like to thank you for your caring and support. I seek your friendship to jointly serve those that have not been given a voice so far. Lets together make the next 365 days count.

 

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