Blog Archives

Fascinating chats with kids and a confrontation with misogyny 

I’ve always been fascinated about the trajectories of everyday conversations. This morning, Aadyaa complained about the days getting shorter and we started talking about the forces and mechanisms of nature. That you can’t pick what you want, it’s a package deal!

That reminded me of Ingapirca (watch out for that post, coming soon!), an Inka ruin I visited in Ecuador where the intimate knowledge developed about solar and lunar cycles was evident. I commented on how amazing it was that man had learnt so much through observation and analysis even very far back in time. Udai, whose grade 7 history syllabus includes the European Middle Ages, reminded me that medieval Europe, to the contrary, went through a ‘dark’ period in which science was ignored and reviled. He went on to educate me about how he saw rationalism and empiricism as the two main approaches to scientific thinking.

The jump to present day politics in our conversation was inevitable. Is the rejection of rational thought as seen in majoritarian political behaviour the world over (especially in the use of unsubstantiated information as part of a communication strategy) part of a cyclical process? Could poor basic education that does not grant people the ability to engage with content, leavealone have an independent opinion, be part of the problem? Has credibility in post colonial India been (wrongly) built on status, class and the ability to speak English instead of facts? And is a backlash against liberal intellectuals about a re-evaluation of whether these attributes constitute credibility or is it built on something entirely different like effective communication that feeds into people’s fears?

By this time, the kids were in a contemplative mode, realising just how privileged they were to be in a good school, where standards of education are high and teachers competent. The bus arrived and they left.

When I got back home and checked my social media feed, an abusive comment from an acquaintance on a post that critiques India’s recent demonetisation policy brought home to me that we are fighting a very real war, one which is fuelled by resentment against those who are capable of providing the empirical evidence. Combined with an odious level of misogyny and low self-confidence, rendering those with an opinion legitimate targets of abuse. Especially if they are women.

Let’s improve museums, but also create shared spaces to experience culture, explore identity

I started bemoaning the condition of Indian museums very early in life. I may have been eight or nine when I found myself peering through a stained glass at an exquisite Ming vase at Hyderabad’s Salarjung Museum. I remember being horrified and declaring an immediate ambition to become a ‘museumologist’, a term I was offered in an attempt by my bemused parents to add some vocabulary to what was clearly an emotional moment! Of course, my attitude of despair must have its roots in what I sensed around me, chiefly mum’s constant critique of how poorly Indians appreciated their own cultural heritage.

Today, as a mother of two eternally curious children, I am a vehement museum goer. No matter how dowdy or dusty, we go to as many as we can, as often as is possible. Not only to museums where collections are formally housed but also to archaeological sites that I see as museums of a different kind. Sometimes there is some interpretation offered, other times we have to do our own reading and research, but it is always interesting. And yes, with children now better traveled and exposed to international standards of preservation and interpretation, the questions on the quality of Indian museums are sharper.

Interestingly, they come with less angst. I don’t think my kids see life from the lens of Indian nationalism nor do they have that same view of India as an under-resourced nation fighting for its place among the cultures of the world. Instead, they seem to take things for what they are. ‘They could be better, but if it isn’t here, we shall see something else somewhere else!’- that’s what their attitude seems to suggest. Simply put, being Indian does not seem to be the focal point of their identity. Being city-bred, educated, English-speaking, internet-savvy, politically aware- these attributes seem more pronounced, and so they fit in easily with children of friends from other nations and contexts who are from similar backgrounds.

A few of my SPA students have taken up museums an other sites of heritage interpretation as their final design thesis projects. We have had intense discussions; for instance- Whose heritage are we choosing to interpret? Are we commodifying heritage? Is commodification ok if we also benefit communities? And then deeper issues about the self-perception of communities about what is their cultural heritage. All of these discussions highlight the vast differences in how people, across cultures and generations, perceive their identities and how sensitivity to a wide range of identities is crucial to nearly everything we do as interventionists- whether as architects, engineers, social workers, policy makers, lawyers and what have you.

hallofnations

Refurbishing and adapting iconic architecture to new uses is imperative. Demolishing important markers of history is tantamount to erasing a section of our collective historical identity. Raj Rewal designed the Hall of Nations in 1972

To come back to museums and specially the debate after the pathetic and tragic case of Delhi’s Natural History Museum, clearly much needs to change in how we manage our museums. Whether the fix is in devolving management or in bringing them all under a single umbrella, the fact is that museums and all sites of heritage interpretation must be given the utmost importance in our public culture. I’d vote for bringing a larger number of sites into public use for a variety of uses, of course with attention to safety and long-term preservation. The Purana Qila hosts a dance festival in Delhi, as do the Khajuraho and Konark Temples. The Lodi Gardens is a fantastic urban space where families picnic, couples embrace, theatre groups rehearse and fitness enthusiasts work out and the Nehru Park is known for music performances and food festivals, where kids in keds holding badminton rackets will sometimes tumble into a Bhakti music concert! Many other spaces that are now being considered obsolete, like Rewal’s Hall of Nations in Delhi, can be refurbished and used practically even as they serve as markers of our modern history. Instead, they are being demolished and petitions to save them seem to be currently unheeded.

 

IMG_7506-640x340

On the 1st day of May this year, this past weekend, The Max Foundation hosted its fundraising and awareness event ‘Chai for Cancer’ at Lodi Gardens, leveraging the sheer beauty and evocative power of the heritage site for a great cause! Viji Venkatesh, Country Head, The Max Foundation claims patients feel positive vibes here.

There are similar sites across the country that offer a chance at cultural education through osmosis, that offer the freedom of expression and exploration, that are in themselves spaces of interpretation. These must be better integrated with the city fabric through transport, branding and the seeding of activities as and when appropriate. A strategy that works on improving the quality of museums as well as opening up the idea of cultural interpretation through the creative use of heritage-rich public spaces can achieve two important objectives. First, they will open culture out to a much larger number of people and in this, keeping spaces and events free and open to public is key. Second, the new and varied interpretations of culture born out of these new experiences will impact how young people view their identities; indeed, this will generate some much-needed thinking about the question of identity in our society. I can see this ruffling feathers too, but that’s part of the social churn and I believe the more space we give for this churning to happen, the better off we might be!

 

The guru shishya parampara has lessons for modern education systems

Several scholars and social commentators are making the link between the rising tide of overt nationalism and a discomfort over the democratic nature of some educational spaces in India today. Janaki Nair, the feminist and historian from JNU, wrote yesterday in The Hindu that:

“The moral panic that has gripped large sections of the Indian public is… related to the fears about the democratising opportunities offered by campuses today. In this expression of outrage, the newly moralising Right ….. aims to replace critical thinking with worship, forms of hard-won equality with structures of deference, and forms of new community-building with a return to the ideal of the patriarchal “family”.”

She goes on to cite an example that is a bit uncomfortable for me. She sees in the Indian Council of Historical Research’s program to institute fellowships that will foster a Guru-Shishya parampara a patriarchal design. She says that shishyas will be tied in “a relationship of obedience and honour, rather than thinking and debating”. She sees this as a problem.

While I buy her point about the important place of critique and question in the process of learning (refer my earlier post on this issue), I’m not sure her understanding of guru shishya parampara is accurate. I’m no authority on the subject, but I’ve been a shishya, first of Hindustani classical music for many years and in recent years of kathak. In these years, I’ve interacted with many gurus and shishyas, heard many stories of how the gurus learnt and experienced first hand the complexity of this relationship and my comments are limited to the learning of the performing arts.

The relationship between the guru and shishya has some prescribed rules. Broadly, the shishya is expected to train rigorously and usually has limited freedom until this period of training is completed. This period may vary. Modern gurus permit their shishyas to perform in public much earlier than what was the norm a generation ago. Once the shishya is past her training period, she is not only free to make her own adaptations and improvisations to her art but is in fact expected to do so, while taking the traditions of her guru and gharana forward. A good guru will appreciate out of the box thinking, though the tolerance to deviating from the gharana’s essential style may vary. In the classical arts, learning is a lifelong process. In the traditional form of the gurukul, theoretical training involved both reading and debates among students and with the guru. The education was not designed to be a one-way dictatorial process and Prof Nair seems to imagine, though the status of the guru was (and is) undoubtedly exalted, with respected to her many years of rigorous sadhna and the exalted knowledge derived from this.

There are many positives to this model in my view – a long period of sustained interaction, an expectation of commitment, peer-to-peer learning and the setting of high standards. I do not believe the guru shishya parampara is in conflict with freedom of expression or dissent; yes, it is a system in which charting your own path comes after years spent learning the basics and that is the nature of the kind of knowledge the system was designed to impart.

In today’s far more transactional education system, with its short-term targets and restricted rather than expansive curriculum, the guru shishya parampara often finds itself out of sync. That I do perceive. I also feel that our dislike of religion-based politics must not blind us to the positive aspects of our traditions. And so, instead of writing it off, we must reflect on how to weave in some of its positives into our discourse on pedagogy and education.

Why I’m working towards hands-off parenting

In a hyper-aware super connected world where paranoia is becoming the main strategy by which we live our lives, parenting has become a complex job with immense responsibility. As parents, we are constantly aware of the grave consequences of wrong decisions. We obsess over every choice we make with regards to our kids, from choosing a school to monitoring the company they keep, from the toys we  buy to the places we take our kids to.

As a mother of two reasonably intelligent and talented kids, I am constantly stuck between two distinct models of parenting. The very structured and demanding ‘Tiger’ mode that Amy Chua eloquently bats for in her book[Ref: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua (2011)] and a more relaxed instinctive style that allows children to experiment and set their own pace. I’ve tried both and I’ll say this: Tiger mode is seductive for parents who are ambitious for their children and need to feel in control but relaxed mode is more fun, more gratifying, more humane. I’ll also tell you why I’ve come to this conclusion.

Children are individuals, parents do not ‘own’ them

Someone recently asked me this: “Aap apne bacche ko kya banaana chahte ho?”- What will you make your child? It’s a common enough question in Indian society. “Why would I make him anything?”, was my incredulous retort. Mine wasn’t a naive statement. Questions like these imply that parents own their children or at least own rights over their future, and I do not buy that.

Children, right from the moment they are born, are individuals. They have ideas, a sense of themselves and their place in the world. These ideas are shaped in the early years by their parents and guardians, teachers, friends, caregivers, by what they see and hear. In this, a parent plays a defining role. But to extend that role to decisions about their careers, or who their partner should be, or where they should live and what they should wear is a gross mistake and a fallout of an erroneous patriarchal construct that we need to urgently challenge. For several reasons, and I will not go into those here and now, but simply because freedom is a right. No parent wants their child to live in chains. To examine our own relationship with our children and see the chains we feter them with for what they are is an important step of good parenting. A step we should not take with a sense of insecurity and trepidation, but with a sense of empowerment, knowing this is the right thing to do.

Freedom nurtures creativity, creative people drive change

By conditioning children to over-instruction and putting in place a system of rewards and brickbats, we teach them that seeking our approval is the chief objective of their lives. As adults, they continue to work towards the approval of someone or the other. A spouse, a boss, a friend.

Pushing kids through rigid structures and pressurizing them to over achieve may drive excellence and cause success in the short-term, but it severely compromises originality, believes Wharton Prof Adam Grant. “Limiting rules,” he writes, “encourages children to think for themselves.”

No one can be in doubt that we need original thinking to take us forward. We need new  ideas to tackle a host of problems, from malnutrition to climate change. We need innovative technology to drive economic growth and create prosperity. We need creative people to compose music, write plays and books, make films that entertain as well as enrich us immeasurably.

Easy to say, hard to implement: ‘Letting go’ is a mindset change

Even if you buy my arguments for less structure and more freedom, how do you act upon it in an increasingly competitive world that drives you to measure success instantly (and share it on your social media feed even faster!)? For a parent, taking a step back is incredibly hard. Taking the long view seems like a risk. What if it backfires? What if my child does not get through the best colleges? What if her musical talent goes wasted? We worry about the possibility of a perceived failure in the future because we are comparing our children constantly to their peers and to the best in the world.

My main rejoinder to myself when I find myself worried is that less structure does not mean apathy. It must be accompanied by an emphasis on quality interactions between parents and children and a concerted effort to create opportunities to expose our children to multiple stimuli, experiences and information sources. So the formula changes from choosing a select set of structured activities and ensuring they are done, repeatedly, till excellence is achieved to something else. Choosing fewer of these structured routines to free up time for a wider variety of less structured ones.

To make this shift happen is requiring me to change the way I think about life, about choices, about expectations. It is pushing me to place more value on the here and now and worry less about a future that I, in any case, cannot determine. Increased conversations are creating opportunities for debates within the home, often about complex and ethically difficult issues. About sex and gender, about the drug regime and politics, about the failings of the modern parent even!

I hope this journey will make questioners of my children (and push me to question too, as I learn everyday from these two and the students I interact with on a weekly basis). Those of you who know how disturbed I’ve been over what has transpired in university campuses across India these past few months may now understand why the muffling of dissenting voices is deeply disturbing for me. While I persevere in a difficult personal journey towards hands-off parenting, I fail to understand how a political agenda that envisages a nation of minions instead of one with creative thinkers will serve a nation that professes an ambition to inclusive economic growth.

No place for fear and parochialism in India’s transformation

Three people I know and who do not know each other told me last week that they are thinking of leaving India and making a life abroad. They were all deeply disturbed by the Dadri lynching incident and the growing climate of intolerance and violence around us. They all expressed concerns about bringing up their children in a nation where hatred is normal, even a virtue. I feel their pain. I have also not stopped worrying about the future for weeks, though I’m not contemplating leaving the country. Not yet.

Many others I have spoken to in my circle of acquaintances (and let me clarify here that I’m referring mostly to educated, urban Indians in well-paid jobs) dismissed these incidents as collateral damage in electoral politics. Historians like DN Jha (link) and Aparna Vaidik (link) have shown that this is nothing new; cow protection has been an important aspect of pastoral lives but beef eating and cow slaughter have long been sensitive issues, used cleverly by politicians and monarchs to appease certain communities and demonize others. The people who were doing the shrugging seemed to regard themselves as distanced from these ground level politics, while those who felt disturbed imagined that this particular brand of politics, previously at a distance, was now poised to invade their relatively peaceful and protected lives.

Dealing with a climate of fear

Whatever situation you find yourself in, there is a palpable sense of fear that is forcing many of us to take sides. The climate of fear is urging many educated Hindus who have previously regarded their religion as a matter of private belief, separate from their public lives, to acknowledge that their sense of security stems from their ‘Hinduness’. Aware that their actions and words are being judged for how Hindu they are, this is a group that is now deliberate in what they say or do. They are sandwiched between what they are and what they want to project of themselves. They are struggling with the morality they practice and the moral code that is slowly being imposed on us.

Educated non-Hindus too, make a choice. The blending of many religions into the broader umbrella of Hindutva is an obvious strategy of the right wing forces and I truly wonder how cognizant practitioners of these faiths are of this inexorable sucking in of non-controversial faiths into the big umbrella of Hindu belief. For educated Muslims, keeping fear at bay must be a very very deliberate and difficult process. Those who are promoting this atmosphere of hatred must also take responsibility for the growing radicalization of educated Muslim youth in India, and the increased threat of terrorism that our country faces as a result.

The educated Indian is an unfair target

Then there are the die-hard liberals (and I refuse to stigmatize that word), who genuinely believe in the diversity and pluralism of India, who support the idea of choice and who are suspicious of a majoritarian view. I would call them idealists. These are the people for whom hope is an important word at this time. For they seem to be the true targets of this new brand of aggressive Hinduism we see around us. Devdutt Patnaik acknowledges this when he calls the discourse around beef-eating a “symbolic attack on the ‘educated Indian’ who did not stand up for Hinduism in the international arena” (link).

To me, this is a baffling situation. How does PM Modi expect industrialization (Make in India), technological growth (Digital India) or urban investments (Smart Cities Mission) that will catalyze India’s economic growth to happen without the contribution of the educated Indian? Is he supporting the atmosphere of fear expecting that educated Indians have no choice but to accept the hegemony of a dominant Hinduism and carry on with the productive lives they lead? Does he not realize that an atmosphere of fear, violence and suspicion works counter to one of productivity, innovation and entrepreneurship?

No place for fear and parochialism in India’s transformation

For in becoming educated and urban (by default it would seem), it is true that we (and I speak collectively here, as a nation and a community) move a teeny weeny bit out of the stronghold of family, religion, clan and caste. In becoming educated and living in a place of multiple and varied influences (ergo, the city), we do begin to acknowledge and even appreciate the tastes, the expressions of those unlike us. We develop some tolerance, we learn to prioritize actions that take us forward over those and re-negotiate the older codes of religion, caste or clan so they can serve us better. It is in this process of self-discovery and prioritization, in the journey between what we were and what we want to be, that we take risks and contribute the most to the world around us.

At this time, India’s economic objectives seem to be hinged around the expectation the above journey will be one of hope and success. The atmosphere of fear I wrote about above, is a bid to re-focus the core of our identities away from our education and expanding minds inward to a place of fear, bigotry and parochialism. The atmosphere of fear is putting in jeopardy everything that our nation has worked very hard for, including the eradication of poverty and child malnutrition and the provision of decent living standards for all Indians. As Kalpana Sharma points out (link), it’s not just religious minorities but women too, who are becoming targets of a deeply vicious misogynistic moral code. Do we want our young people to become the skilled workforce (ref: Skill India Initiative) that will help India leverage its demographic dividend, or would we rather they lynch a beef eater or strip a woman who dared defy convention? What kind of economic growth will a nation of fighting, insular people achieve?

This is an appeal to all educated Indians. Let us not be silent and accept the blame for something we are not ashamed of. Why should we be ashamed of focusing our energies on studying, learning skills and deploying them for the betterment of ourselves and our country? Certainly not! We need to recognize the terrible impacts this atmosphere of fear and hatred will have on ourselves, our children and our nation. We need to petition the government to contain this. If we do not speak out and take action, we will have no choice but to toe the line, or leave the country.

Rights, capacity and control: Debating issues around the ability and willingness of cities to extend social services

This post was first published on the SHRAM blog. SHRAMIC (Strength and Harmonize Research and Action on Migration) seeks to bring together academia and NGOs to develop a richer understanding of migration in South Asia. 

The economic benefits of migration to the city is often offset by expenditure towards schooling, healthcare, food, sanitation and other services that the State is meant to provide.

Rights vs capacity: Are cities able to service the needs of the needy (migrants included?)

One dimension of this issue is the mechanisms of accessing social services. The question of portability of rights has been debated time and again and there is no real solution in sight. However, attempts are constantly being made to push this rights-based agenda that help let migrants into the social security net. For example, the National Health Policy 2015, the draft version of which was made public on 31st December 2014 talks the language of universal health coverage and portability of the Right to Health, which it advocates as a fundamental right.

The other dimension, and an important one, is that of the capacity of cities to provide these services. Large metropolitan centres like Mumbai and Delhi are unable to service residents, regardless of whether they came in yesterday or have lived there for generations. Small cities are stretched for finances and have barely any capacities to service residents.

Don’t let them in: The idea of entry barriers

In this context, I find the idea of allowing cities to define limits to their growth fascinating. Historically, land use planning has been a popular instrument to contain growth. By specifying densities, types of land use and building controls, it was possible for cities to imagine what kind of people would live there, what they would do and how communities would function and interact. In theory, at least. Urban growth boundaries, for instance, were used widely in the US through the ’80s and ’90s to limit growth and contain urban sprawl, with mixed success.

Closer to home, China is in the process of reforming its hukou system, which is a legal system of house registration that has historically acted as a formidable tool in controlling rural to urban migration. The reforms, which were announced in mid 2014, boldly delink hukou and entitlement to welfare, allowing city governments to decide on the level of social service provisioning that is possible. The larger intent of the policy seems to be to redistribute populations, urging rural migrants to move to small and mid-sized cities.

Professor Bingqin Li, who teaches at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, recently wrote a piece on the hukou reforms on the website of the East Asia Forum. Her article illustrates some of the ways in which different cities have reacted to the reforms,

“Cities that are either unwilling or unable to invest more in social services can use the flexible settlement criteria to set up alternative barriers for entry to replace the older hukou barrier. The largest cities, such as Shanghai and Beijing, have made it even more difficult for migrants to settle down permanently than before. A number of medium-sized cities have also introduced policies to favour highly-skilled migrants at the expense of low-skilled ones.” 

In India, the question of entry barriers is not on the table, but somewhere under it! Prof. Amitabh Kundu and others have commented that Indian cities (esp large ones) have become “less welcome to migrants” (Kundu and Kundu 2011) by using processes of formalisation and sanitisation that discourages the inflow of the rural poor.

A case for strengthening capacity

In her article, Bingqin Li subtly points out that the apparent merit in permitting autonomy of decision at city level masks the fact that cities are not equal in being able to provide services; and that inequalities would likely result in higher entry barriers for migrants coming in from rural China. A strengthening of the social services system is her ask.

In India too, rights-based approaches like that of the new health policy are critiqued for the same reason; inequalities across States in being able to provide the coverage and quality of primary health services threaten to render the most progressive of legislation ineffective when it comes to the ground. The same goes for education as is seen from the recent results of the Aser Survey, which pronounce dismal education outcomes, more in some States than others.

Better delivery of services for the urban poor is clearly an issue that merits both introspection and investment, regardless of whether the urban poor are migrants; however the removal of barriers for migrants to access government-subsidised social services can go a long way in helping migrant families truly reap the economic benefits of migration.

A sliver of hope and learning from children on Xmas

“I lost my name nine and a half years ago, when I started this school,” he told me. I was struck by the humility of this soft spoken, dignified gentleman who, along with others, had transformed the lives of hundreds of children in Gurgaon. Children of migrants, who live in shacks but dream of a future of opportunity and brightness. Bright children. Talented children. Children who just want to go to school like everyone else.

Enthusiasm unlimited. Singing songs at the top of their voices

Enthusiasm unlimited. Singing songs at the top of their voices

This is an amazing school in many ways and I’ll tell you why I say this, in a minute. Run under the aegis of the Guru Nanak Sewa Sansthan, this tiny school in Gurgaon brings quality English education to the lives of underprivileged children through a small team of dedicated teachers and volunteers. The gentleman I spoke with mentioned that the school is ‘unrecognised’ and works with the aim of mainstreaming the children by helping them get admitted to regular schools under the Right to Education provision that mandates private schools take in children from the economically weaker section of society.

It was our privilege to celebrate Christmas Day here. We came to savour the spirit of gifting, but we walked away with much much more. Conversations with the kids told us much beyond these pictures show how wonderful they felt about getting gifts. What’s more, they got to choose what they wanted from a bazaar-like display that volunteers had set up and this pleasure of choosing went far beyond the materiality of the gift itself.

Happy with the gifts they chose

Happy with the gifts they chose

_DSC8794

The school is a place where the children can count on food and clean water, in addition to education and encouragement.

The school is a place where the children can count on food and clean water, in addition to education and encouragement.

Meal being served. Aloo puri, halwa with chips and cupcakes thrown in for Xmas!

Meal being served. Aloo puri, halwa with chips and cupcakes thrown in for Xmas!

The children were bright and enthusiastic. Some sang well, others were academically gifted. Still others could paint well, dance well, and so on and so forth. However, it was their confidence, sense of empathy for each other and their teamwork that really impressed me.

A speech-impaired child stood in front of the crowd and sang. A teenage girl belted out a rendition of ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’ as we watched on incredulously! Senior school children helped serve meals (yes, they get a hot meal here everyday), collect plates, serve food. Incredibly, the school has no building. Children and teachers set up the school every morning, spreading rugs out on a concrete floor and tying tarpaulin to bamboo poles that stand there permanently. Each afternoon, once school is over, they take all of this off, and fold the tarp and rugs neatly for storage. We saw them do this yesterday.

_DSC8723

Teachers sharing a piping cup of coffee

Teachers sharing a piping cup of coffee

The unassuming gentleman amidst the children

The unassuming gentleman amidst the children

Taking of the tarps

Taking off the tarps

Nearly done

Nearly done

We have much to be thankful for. Yesterday taught me that there is also much to be hopeful for. Both children were with me yesterday. They even joined a group of singers during the celebration. We didn’t talk about the experience, and I deliberately refrained from bringing it up. Aadyaa had asked me if she could give away her toys and clothes herself and our visit was in response to that demand. I have a feeling something of the experience will stick with them. Like it has for me. A little sliver of hope for the millions of migrant children across India denied education by the formal system, but eager enough to take whatever they get to the next level.

Many thanks to my friend Bhavna and the many enterprising families who initiated the ‘I Love to Share’ event at Ardee City, Gurgaon

Keep the faith! In support of 17000ft’s incredible efforts in #education

My life is truly enriched by a few passionate friends. I’m not only driven by their energy and dedication as seen through Facebook updates and media coverage. I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in their journey, be the listening ear to their struggles and sometimes, like now, a helping hand as well. Take the case of 17000ft Foundation, started by Sujata Sahu and Sandeep Sahu.

Sujata and Sandeep were my next door neighbours. In the the two years or so that we shared a floor, I was thrilled to be occasionally admitted into the fun and frolic in their menagerie of a house (5 kids, 2 dogs, and some more in the nooks and corners). Somewhere between the chatting and eating and drinking (oh yes!), we discovered a shared passion for the social sector and I saw in my friends a will to change the status quo that most of us simply accept.

Both of them were passionate trekkers and outdoor enthusiasts and I remember envying Sujata her solo trek in Ladakh. Then the flash floods happened there and talk changed into action. Sujata, then a teacher at Shriram School, ably partnered by Sahu, plunged into Mission Julley. I’ve written before (read here) about how they came in with a refreshingly practical perspective to ‘aid’, throwing existing systems out of the window and adopting a hands-on approach that directly and effectively reached remote communities. By the end of this endeavor, the duo was hooked. Despite all odds, they decided to look at transforming the experience of schoolchildren in the remote areas of Ladakh. 17000ft was born!

From mapping schools in the State to bringing in infrastructure, from setting up libraries to training teachers, 17000ft Foundation has worked hard to bring meaningful and practical value additions to how Ladakhi children learn. They also run a successful Voluntourist Program that helps bring a little revenue to the Foundation, but more importantly, leverages on the enthusiasm and knowledge of trekkers and vacationers to contribute to the development of this remote mountainous region.

Sujata and Sahu, at a remote village in Lingshed, a quiet moment after a 7 day project to trek to a school where they setup a library and provided furniture

Sujata and Sandeep Sahu at a remote school in Lingshed, Ladakh

Breathtaking, but so so far. This is a school with only 14 children!

Breathtaking, but so so far. This is a school with only 14 children!

This school has 19 kids

This school has 19 kids

The last mile connectivity - 1 day drive, 2 days on horseback and the final mile by the students as they carry their desks and charis into the school

No mean task!  Furniture took a day’s drive and 2 days on horseback from Leh to reach this school. In the pic, students carry their desks and chairs into the school

Pleased as punch! Teachers pose with their new library. They were as eager to read as the kids were!

Pleased as punch! Teachers pose with their new library. They were as eager to read as the kids were!

Kids posing at a school in Chushul on the China border

Kids posing at a school in Chushul on the China border

High connect is essential to succeeed. 1700ft works with schools that are small in size but spread over a large difficult region

High connect is essential to succeed. 1700ft works with schools that are small in size but spread over a large difficult region

17000ft, which already reaches out to 25,000 schoolchildren and covers Leh district is now expanding to Kargil district as well. Behind the success of 17000ft, I know, has been the anxiety and toil of its founders, who have braved personal uncertainties and risks to make this possible. Like any other not-for-profit, funding challenges and the need for recognition are two sides of the same coin and I see Sujata and Sandeep struggling to keep that coin in circulation even as they work on logistics and operations on a day-to-day basis. Sujata pinged me on Facebook Messenger yesterday with an astute obervation. “More than anything else, people need to talk about and write about the not for profits they know,” she said. “It’s not just about visibility and funding, endorsements helps me keep the faith, something I’m in the danger of losing every now and then.” I, for one, am not about to let Sujata lose her faith!

Help 17000ft keep the faith!

While I do my bit by blogging about their incredible work, Nalina Suresh, a friend and ardent supporter of 17000ft has been running marathons to raise funds for the Foundation’s work. On the 23rd of this month, she is running the Delhi Airtel Half Marathon for this cause as well. Click here to donate and help build libraries for schools in Kargil!

To remain connected, do like their FB page and follow them on Twitter

Fabricating hope from ingredients like poor education & poor ideas

I see a child at the traffic light. He is about two years old, in tattered clothes and howling away. He looks like he has been abandoned, perhaps temporarily. What’s new about that, you might ask? It’s a regular sight in any Indian city. Life is harsh for many out there! *shrug*

One the same day, our Finance Minister was presenting the nation’s annual budget and there was much talk in the air about the revival of investment, the promise of growth and development, the changing fortunes of India.

I was having a hard time reconciling the two strains of thought. I gulped and what I had the taste of bile in my mouth.

Of all the dismal facts about India, it is the ones about children that are the hardest to come to terms with. The trafficking, the child labour, the sexual exploitation. Today’s Hindustan Times carries a full-page editorial about the number of children out of school in our part of the world and this is disturbing too.

Two aspects of the editorial struck me. First, that it wasn’t just poverty that keeps children out of school. India has unleashed a slew of legislation to reinforce primary education- the Right to Education (RTE) Act, the National Programme of Nutritional Support and others. Yet children stayed out of school. Experts attribute this to the poor quality of education that is unable to keep the kids interested. In my research with migrants in north India, I find access to private sector education for their children drives poor households away from villages to small towns, but they are hopelessly disappointed in the quality of these private schools, that offer English-medium all right (as compared to govt schools that teach in Hindi) but no knowledge whatsoever. Also, experts point to the availability of funds but the utter poverty of good ideas that means new investments in the sector are hardly ever realised, especially at the primary and lower secondary levels.

The other idea that struck me was the familiar argument that couches the entire issue of children’s education in the garb of productivity and loos of potential on a national level. To me, more tragic is the experience of the child herself, the family to which she belongs or worse to which she does not if she is an orphan or being trafficked.

We aren’t able to create enough jobs for the ones we do manage to educate, so perhaps instead of worrying about creating a higher volume of educated workforce, we should focus on improving the quality of the education and the experience that children have in school. And higher education? The majority of youth in rural and small town India do not actually attend college, but get their degrees through correspondence and part-time engagements or by simply appearing for exams without ever being taught.

I find it hard to be hopeful about a generation that is barely getting a real education. And yet when you speak to young people, it’s hard to feel so low. They are charged with energy and ambition and I can only hope that we can find a way to not let them down!

Learning should continue to be fun!

Aadyaa is raring to go! She is a few months beyond five and studies in a progressive school where they take it fairly easy in introducing basic concepts and she has just about finished covering the alphabet. However, she is a big fan of Udai, who is nine and is grade 4. Result: We have a super aggressive learner on our hands right now. She wants us to assign her 3-digit addition problems and we struggle to ensure that they do not have the carry-over issue to deal with. She wants to read and write.

Today she has been working on writing out a description for an illustration she has made. This is happening in the other room. So there is a writing pad going back and forth in which I write out a word and she copy-writes it onto her creation. I haven’t yet seen the product of all this activity, but am totally amused by her little frustrations and triumphs.

Learning is such a fun process. Why do we make it such a drudgery? Why do we link learning to fear- fear of failure, fear of punishment? I see the joy Aadyaa takes in discovering each new fact, each new formula (Udai was the same in pre-school) and in contrast, I see Udai starting to get bogged down by the compulsions of learning, and starting to somewhat lose the excitement to discover new ideas. There must be a good way to keep excitement levels high through middle and senior school! Technology, perhaps, could be a good tool, but I see school hesitate to go that way for various reasons.

Thinking back, I found some subjects painful, especially in grades 11 and 12, but now I see the lethargy was either because of poor quality teaching or too many distractions and I’m none the worse for that short phase. For the most part, I have found learning a lot of fun and continue to do so. In fact, I can learn and study all my life! On that note, let me get back to my work….a part of which is trying to find flexible ways to pursue a PhD in migration and urban planning.

Ok, I managed to click a few pics of what she is upto….here you go!

What she asked me to write....

What she asked me to write….

Illustration...book cover maybe?

Illustration…book cover maybe?

struggling with putting the words together...

struggling with putting the words together…

 

getting somewhere, but also getting frustrated!

getting somewhere, but also getting frustrated!

 

%d bloggers like this: