Thursday, 18 July 2013

The Mid-Day Meal Muddle

As the horrifying news of the mid-day meal tragedy in a government primary school in a village in Saran district near Patna burns the airwaves, I'm reminded of the day I spent at such a school in Samastipur (a district bordering Saran) some two years back. The meal being served to the children that rainy day had seemed anything but edible, even then. A look at the way it was being cooked (picture on the right) convinced me that such a tragedy was just waiting to happen.

My mind also traveled to a conversation I once had with the Director of Primary Education of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD - which has since been trifurcated into three separate Corporations) a few years back. Commenting on the humongous task of ensuring cooked meal that had to be served to nearly a million children in about 1800 primary schools of the MCD every day, with a budget of just over Rs. 3 per meal, she lamented the politics behind the much touted mid-day meal scheme (MDMS) of the government. She also made a telling comment - as per her estimate, she said, only about 30% of all the children coming to her schools actually needed a subsidy for a meal; the others came from families that could well afford to feed their children a more nutritious meal every day. Why then, she asked, was this being imposed on the system?

Introduced in the 1960s by the Tamil Nadu government, the MDMS has now been adopted by nearly all states after a landmark ruling of the Supreme Court in 2001. Sure, the scheme does have several things going for it - it can prevent malnutrition at the bottom of the pyramid, it improves socialization among children belonging to varied castes, and it helps improve school enrollment and attendance. Of these, I find the last argument to be the flawed-one-out: if the meals become a reason for the children to be attending school, does it not give the system an excuse to be complacent about the quality of learning in the school? Does it not detract from the main reason for children to be attending school? Sure enough, I've heard hundreds of teachers over the last few years complain about the fact that administering the MDM leaves them with little time for preparing for their classes. If not the truth, this is certainly a convenient excuse.

And then there's the question of implementing this scheme at such a large scale, making it easy enough fodder for the corrupt and the greedy to make hay many times over. Distribution of contract of the MDM scheme is one of the most corrupt practices in India, given the stakes involved. Several scams have been reported since the scheme got off ground. Only a handful of NGOs, most notably Akshay Patra and ISCKON, have managed to bring in a semblance of quality in the provision of meals to children. Several other NGOs see the scheme as an easy way to rake in some moolah.

The corruption perpetrated by the scheme does not remain on the "supply" side only, it extends to the "demand" side as well. In our work on the field, we've come across hundreds of cases where children are enrolled in schools only to avail the free meal at the middle of the day; they come to school only when it's time for lunch! There are thousands of cases of double enrollment as well, in which the children are enrolled in a private school in addition to the government school. Worse, the Bihar administration has been grappling with cases of "ghost enrollment" - where non existent children have been shown as enrolled in the school so that the school gets additional subsidy for the MDM.

They deserve better!
Surely, our children deserve better. Why can't the schools focus on the task of providing to the children what schools are really meant to provide? Given the appalling learning quality in our schools, it will take a herculean effort for government schools to get their act together on the teaching-learning aspects. Must they then be burdened with the responsibility of providing food, when food for thought is what they ought to be worrying about?             

Saturday, 20 April 2013

The Classroom in the Field

In a recent casual discussion, the CEO of a prominent CSR foundation shared her lament about how youngsters who join the social sector prefer to spend their time at the office, noses buried in their laptops. Going by my observations of some of these youngsters as well, this indeed appears to be a disturbing trend.

The social sector is all about causing a positive change to the lives of those who've been left behind. Much of this is to do with basic human requirements such as health & nutrition, education, livelihoods, clean water, and dignity. As in any other social discipline, the traditional classroom can only at best provide a theoretical perspective - the real learning can only be found in the field. To that, no alternative exists.

And this learning is seldom apparent in one or even a few visits. The field reveals itself gradually - layer upon layer - and that too, only to the discerning, non-judgmental eye. For a newcomer to the sector, it would take several visits to the same community before the real picture would emerge.

Further, akin to the domain of technology, one needs to keep updating oneself to the developments and transitions in the field. The Field is not static; rather it is one of the most dynamic environments you can expect to find. It is also diverse; as you spend more and more time in the Field, you would tend to generalize less and less.

If there was just one piece of advice that I were to give to youngsters joining the sector, it would be to spend as much time in the field as possible. The real classroom is out there!

Monday, 4 February 2013

………until 14th April 2011

All my life I've been harassed.........Harassed day in and day out.........Harassed for no reason, all four season..........Harassed for doing and not doing as well.

Man fools himself, more than he fools others.
Is it?
Yes... I repeat.... Man fools himself, more than he fools others.

This very line summarizes why I was harassed.
Not "why" I was harassed but "How" I was harassed.

I kept on fooling my own self for all the gone years, since time memorial.
The most intriguing question of childhood times is…

“What do you want to become in life?”

To my surprise and wondering, each kid had an answer to this toughest question of all times. The question remains unchanged until a child transforms into an adult i.e. passing/failing tenth class exams.

I lately was informed that the question was a multiple choices, and the choices are:
A) Doctor
B) Engineer
C) Prime Minister/President
D) Teacher
E) Sportsperson
F) Army/Police Personnel

1) The Question and choices remains unchanged irrespective of the class you are studying in.
2) You are bound to answer.
3) If you have no answer you are shit and subject of humiliation.

With due respect sir/ma’am I accept being shit, since I have no answer.
This question on the very first day of each standard made me pseudo patient. Just to avoid the question and being shit again, I would lay my head down on the table pretending too ill to be disturbed for a repetitive question.

I escaped the question 27 years (to be honest) fooling everyone and myself as well….but what remains unchanged is …I still remains shit…… without answer to the question.

I was damn sure that none of my counterparts then had the real answer to the question but still they answered it….simply not to choose being shit. The point is they had an answer. No matter the answer changed every year. But they still had an answer.

The lady whom I admire most after momy was Geetanjali Joshi, whom we used to call Joshi ma’am, an excellent Science and English teacher. I remember, she asked me the same question and I was again answerless. But when Joshi Ma’am asks a question you cannot choose not to answer, you cannot pretend to be ill, wet your pant she doesn't bother, you have to answer.

I could not answer the question even after allotted time. Head was down with the shame; a tear rolling inside eyelids refusing to drop down, such was the horror of Joshi Ma’am. The devil approached; my heart stopped pumping.... paralyzing me to unconsciousness. She raised her hand to its limit and landed on my head…softly.... to my surprise. Just like moms hand on my head lulls me to sleep.

Words of wisdom poured in from the mouth of devil, “Beta I am not seeking for the answer. What I want from all of you is to think about your future and start making decisions. No answer is correct and no answer is wrong. You are in such a tender age that you can change your answer every day till the final call comes. Have aim.”

Hand lifted up from the head and rested back in the pocket of her overcoat. Tears came rolling down happily. I escaped once again. I remember her words by heart, but never thought off to decipher the meaning. That’s precisely the reason I am still aimless. I am still to find the answer. How long will it take, again I don’t have an answer.

Harassment Continued.... Until 14th April, the day I joined EDULEVER.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Keeping "Nirbahaya" Alive...

It's been exactly a week since "Nirbhaya" passed away...

The crowds around Jantar Mantar have dissipated...Happy New Year messages are flying about as usual...the TV channels are busy dissecting India's defeat to Pakistan at the Eden Gardens yesterday...the FB regulars are back to posting pretty pictures and rants about the freezing weather....we're back on our workstations, making plans for the weekend...

Life goes on as usual..."It has to! What else can we do?" we ask!

We the concerned, whose marrow stirred on hearing Nirbhaya's story. We the cocooned, who quickly go back to our little zones of comfort.

But, there are things we can do to bring about the Change we wish to see. Central to the ideas that follow is that we all wish to see a more equitable society; that we do not want any more Nirbhayas; that we do not want any child freezing to death on the pavement for want of clothes or shelter.

We could organize ourselves into small groups (4-5 like minded friends would be perfect) and visit a slum near us. To begin with, just go and see for ourselves what it is really like to be them. Go with an open mind, and with the knowledge that we will not necessarily be welcomed. Take a walk through the slum a few times. Then, start talking to a few people to find out what bothers them most. And then, go ahead and find ways for them to deal with it.
Meeting with the slum dwellers of Lucknow
I remember being in a Lucknow slum where their biggest problem was that the nearest source of drinking water - a public tap - was across the main road, and hence very difficult to reach. No one in the slum knew what to do about it. Finally, an NGO worker was able to take this matter to the concerned civic authority, who agreed to extend a pipeline and install a tap within the slum.

Why can we not do what this NGO worker did?

We could find out which is the nearest government school to where we stay (there is bound to be one within a 2-km radius), meet with the HM (or principal), and request him/her to let us read out to children of Classes 2 or 3 once a week. Take along with us a few nice books (which would in any case be lying around somewhere in the house), sit on the mat along with the children, let them look at the books, and read out to those who are interested in listening to us. Let them listen to stories we tell; in return, they will have a thousand of their little stories to tell us!

Back in 2003-04, while at Pratham, we piloted our Library program very much like this. This program led to the starting of Pratham libraries in hundreds of government schools, and eventually, to the starting of Pratham Books.

Construction site workers are among the most
vulnerable sections in a city who we could reach out to
We could go to a construction site near where we stay (even a small one), and request the contractor to let us interact with some of the construction workers. Usually, these workers stay at or near the site itself. Tell the workers that we would like to organize a small meeting with them on their day off or after work hours. Have this meeting, just to find out more about them. Which village are they originally from? Why have they migrated? Are their children getting an education? Can we be of help to them?

An NGO I visited in Mumbai regularly does this, even organizing film shows for the construction workers at night. (Last time I was there, they had recently screened "Well Done Abba!"). Even the contractors / employers were happy with this intervention, as they reported that worker morale had improved with this.

We could volunteer to work with an NGO on weekends. NGOs are usually strapped for resources, and always need help with writing reports, proposals and other documents. Especially the smaller ones can make good use of technical skills such as database management and website design.

Around five years back, I had done a small bit with a Delhi based NGO called Adi Gram Samiti that works for the education of girl children in Mewat, around two hours drive from Gurgaon. The organization is now well on its feet, implementing several projects supported by international agencies.

These are just a few ideas that we can look at to do our bit for bridging the vast social and economic gap that's taking a toll on our society, and at least for some of us, on our conscience. There can be many more such ideas. Let us no more be content with protesting on social media or on streets. Let us be the change.

Let us do our bit to keep Nirbhaya alive...

04 Jan '13     

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

New Year Musings

The beginning of a new year is, technically, just a new date on the calendar – yet it is usually the time we tend to reflect, or celebrate, often both. However, given the way 2012 has ended, celebration seems to be the last thing on the mind. So let’s just stick to the reflections…

2012 was in many ways a defining year for Edulever. For a business start-up, the 1000-day mark is a significant psychological milestone to be crossed. We not just crossed this milestone, but also took confident strides towards many more such milestones. With the successful execution of two large projects – Barclays and CAF India – we consolidated our portfolio of work and strengthened our confidence for more such achievements. A notable accomplishment was the work we did – and are continuing to do – for Tech Mahindra Foundation. The VT Resource Center is not just a huge feather in our cap, but one that can make a meaningful contribution to the entire VT sector. The fact that TMF has also entrusted us with a project in Education is a strong affirmation of the quality of our work.

But if we were to pick out our Achievement of the year, it has to be the launch of our employability project in Gurgaon – the Agrasar-Tech Mahindra SMART center. When the year had begun, Agrasar had just taken a few baby steps in Saharanpur, though we knew we were off to a good start there. Thanks to the dedication shown by the ACE team in Saharanpur, we have managed to create a name for ourselves in the small town. And now that we are off to a flying start in Gurgaon as well, I’m confident that we will be able to walk the talk. The fact that Agrasar – in less than two years of its existence – has the backing of three major corporate houses (Tatas, ITC, Mahindra & Mahindra) is a huge achievement. However, this also raises the responsibility on our young shoulders.

Now that we have a direct outreach in the community through Agrasar, we can leverage this outreach for trying out ideas and outputs (such as draft lesson plans).

The other imperative for all of us – especially those who’ve now been around for a while – is to become more efficient in managing our work. This implies being able to accomplish a task in lesser time than what we took earlier, for which we have to leverage the work done in any of our earlier projects. To restate a cliché, there’s no point in reinventing the wheel. But yes, the wheel can always be fine-tuned to turn more smoothly and swiftly!

Though Edulever and Agrasar are siblings, there will come a point in the future where they are both operating completely distinct from each other. However, this is still a few years away. In the short run, I see a lot of overlap in their work, which implies that all of us have to be prepared to wear twin hats as per the requirements of the work on hand.

And finally, the events that have unfolded – first in Delhi and then across the nation – have brought to the fore some significant questions for civil society organizations such as ourselves. To me, two things are clear from the widespread protests we have seen as well as from what I’ve gleaned from the rants in the social media: one, the urge for change on “our side” of the society is real enough – this was no flash-in-the-pan that we saw on the streets of Delhi and elsewhere. At least some of this urge should translate into a more active involvement in social causes in the times to come. Here, it is up to the civil society to offer a meaningful option for the channelization of this involvement. Second, most of the noises that have followed the ghastly incident have revolved around the need for speedier justice and better enforcement of the legal system. It can be expected that the government will respond to these demands. However, there is a more long term angle to this as well – ultimately, the root cause of what has happened can somewhere be traced to the growing social and economic disconnects in the society. It is here that we as an organization can come up with a measured and meaningful response to surmount the challenges we face at a societal level. So let us get working on this response soon – we owe it to ourselves!

Here’s wishing that 2013 brings Joy, Fulfillment, Prosperity, Good Health, and Peace to all of you and for those you care!

Jan 1, 2013