Friday, February 19, 2010

Bangalore - 15th Feb 2010

I reunited with Jen in West Bengal. There, we spent a week volunteering at the Mother Teresa home for mentally disabled women, teaching college graduates English and interview skills in Kolkata, trekking on the Nepali border and, of course, tasting tea in Darjeeling.

We flew from Communist Kolkata (where the jute workers, encouraged by the CPM government, have been on indefinite strike since the 14th December) to ultra modern Bangalore, the pinnacle of India’s booming IT industry. The silicon-coated heart of India was immediately evident from the shuttle-bus airport transfer. Here, Infosys, the Indian IT giant, has its HQ. Established less than 20 years ago, today the company has over 100,000 employees and revenues of US$4bn. Its clients currently include nearly 100 Fortune 500 companies. Its 32-hectare campus (which we passed but unfortunately failed the stringent security checks to have a snoop around!) comprises shiny glass and steel structures sprouting from perfectly manicured lawns.

Despite this glimpse of an alternative India, the wealth has not spread throughout Bangalore, or indeed, Karnataka, the state in which it lies. 62% of Bangalore’s population are ‘Indo-nationals’, meaning they originate from other Indian states as far as Punjab, Rajasthan and Assam. The majority of them who fill the vacancies at Tata Consultancy, Goldman Sachs, Intel and the like are India’s privileged few who have been to private schools and one of India’s up-and-coming universities (at a fee). From the young professionals we spoke to, it appears only a limited list of science-based degrees, such as Engineering and Computer Science, hold any value in India. A reflection of this system is portrayed eloquently in the recent hit Bollywood movie, ‘The 3 Idiots’. As Arindam Chaudhuri, editor in chief of Planman Media comments, “the film has a strong message to the many idiots running the education system of this country and to the millions of idiots who accept this system without questioning.” The fact is that many able arts candidates are understandably put off by the lack of job prospects open to them when they graduate and are instead forced to study engineering or computer science. The drop-out rate is not high, but the student suicide rate is.

In Bangalore, Pratham has been working in collaboration with the Akshara Foundation ( since 2000. In the Pratham office in the Bangalore suburbs, Ashok, the well-spoken Chair person showed us the impressive database ( by which they track 725,000 children across Karnataka. The aim is to quadruple that number by the end of this year and to reach 13 million in 3 years time. The Pratham-Akshara interventions are 60 sessions long in, for example, Kanada (the state’s first language), Urdu, Maths and English, over 3 to 5 months. Each child is tested at the beginning and end of the programme to monitor their progress. Pratham-Akshara don’t just work in Bangalore but across Karnataka and particularly in the North, in areas like Bidar and Gulbarga which have much lower HDI ratings and are mainly dependent on agriculture.

In the afternoon Tasmiya, who is in charge of Shivnagar district, took us to visit a government Urdu higher primary school in Frager town. On the bumpy rickshaw ride through Bangalore, she told us how over the last 10 years she’s seen the Pratham-Akshara collaboration grow from serving just 20 school drop-outs between 7-14 years old to over 350,000 children in Bangalore today. At the Muslim school we met the librarians who showed us the impressive collection of Urdu (the first language in Muslim families), Kanada (the first language in Karnataka), Hindi (supposedly the national language, though this is contested down south), Tamil (spoken to the East in Tamil Nadu), Telugu (to the North in Andhra Pradesh) and English. The boys in the class were extremely enthusiastic to read us English stories, particularly one eager boy named Asif. His Father was a rickshaw driver although he had aspirations to study Engineering and work for one of the proliferation of high-tech companies, like Infosys. Ten years ago, this dream would have been just that. Today, with Pratham’s extra tuition and English language materials, the son of a rickshaw driver, like many of his classmates, can indeed make his dream a reality.

From here Jen and I are making our way to Gokarna to spend a few days at the coast before returning to hectic London. It’s been an absolutely thrilling journey, travelling around India with Pratham and experiencing a diverse and genuine flavour of India. We’d like to thank everyone whos made it possible for us to have this incredible experience – all of the Pratham coordinators and the team back in Mumbai, especially Anamara. Thank you and Namaste!

woke up

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Arriving in an unknown city at 4am wouldn't normally be on my wish list, but I was extremely happy sipping masala chai at a roadside Dhaba (cafe/shack) just outside Jodhpur before sunrise. YES, I had arrived.

As the morning sunshine warmed Livi, me, and the fort of Jodhpur on a mountain just behind us, we met Radhe. Radhe, Jodhpur’s DRC coordinator, coordinates projects in all of the 1617 villages in the district. Through our conversations on Rajasthan and Pratham’s history there we discovered a lot about Radhe. Starting as a volunteer librarian 7 years ago, he has been promoted rapidly and has been recommended for a part time MBA to begin alongside his Pratham work. Throughout the day we see the importance of such opportunities to the volunteers who contribute to Pratham.

Rajasthan is an extremely interesting district; not only is Hindi rarely the mother tongue of the children here but we find that their educational possibilities are also highly dependent on the agricultural conditions. Sufficient rain brings wealth to the region. However poor monsoons over the past 4 years have meant children having to drop out of school to help their parents, particularly in the dry North West. Pratham is extremely busy; running Read to Learn, Learn to Read (see Livi’s blog) and Balwadi programs. 10 days previously Pratham had launched ‘Novjeevan Yojna’, a project in collaboration with the local government providing an education and board scheme for female child labourers. When we showed interest in this programme, Radhe arranged for this to be included in our visit within minutes.

Our visit began at ‘Novjeevan Yojna’ where 45 girls have been selected by Pratham’s survey of Bastis, urban slum areas of 250 families. These girls between 6 to 16 years receive full board and lodging as well as lessons in Malwadi, Hindi, Mathematics, and English over a six month period with the objective of enrolling them in a government school. There we met Santosh; her father was a shoe maker on the streets of Jodhpur. She worked as a rubbish picker, a seemingly excruciating occupation given her severely handicapped nature – she was stunted and one leg did not function. Wondering what her future may hold, having never been to school at the age of 15, she now at least has a chance of some education although whether she will ever get one of the few government jobs reserved for India’s large handicapped population is uncertain.

On our way to the villages we stopped off at the DRC office where we met 12 young students working on their computer skills and two MBA students working with Pratham on their MBA internship. We had fun testing the volunteer teaching materials; using the 'purchasing game' to learn the Hindi names of choice fruits; very helpful for our haggling back in Jodhpur! Another hot and dusty ride through rural Rajasthan later and we arrive at the first village school, Devaliya. This was a prime example of Pratham’s growth in its focus bloc; it had been open just 10 days but had 20 children on its register. The single village volunteer offered the Balwadi program: play to learn and health education. Jadiwal Kallum, our second village, had four volunteers and decidedly more lessons, but was again brand new. We met two of the volunteers, sisters Swmitra and Anita Choudhary teaching a class of 31 children of 4 - 6 years. We loved the children in this class, they were so well behaved, when asked if they wanted chocolate sweeties in Hindi, none put up their hands, we had to reassure them that we really wanted give them away!

The day rounded up with a great cup of Masala chai (yes I think you note the theme) in the DRC office and chats with Radhe and some of the other Pratham workers. It had been an amazing experience - seeing the projects, the children, the effectiveness and energy of the Pratham organisation. I was impressed and keen to see more. Delhi will be the next stop - we'll catch up then.


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Assam - 2nd Feb 2010

When asked what my travel arrangements were for this evening I received gales of laughter when I mentioned I was taking the 10.30 overnight Kanchanjung Express train. ‘What’s the problem?’ I enquired. ‘Oh that train was held up the other night in Kokrajhar. No probs though, sure it’ll run fine tonight!’ It appears it’s not just the northern oil-producing area around Digboi where the kidnappings happen. Apparently there’s also trouble to the east, on the Bhutan border, where there’s ‘just some people on the independence bandwagon’ according to Abhijit, the witty well-educated political scientist of the office. The previous night two people were killed in an encounter with the security forces and a doctor was kidnapped by unidentified miscreants suspected to be part of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA).

The Assamese state symbol is the rhino. Abhijit mused the rhino’s slow pace suits the Assamese attitude to life but this description certainly wasn’t fitting with Surjya’s programme for me for the day! We began at 7am. The car was packed with Surjya (the DRC head), Tapashi, (smart working Mum for the joint Pratham-ACER survey), Mukut (Kamrup district coordinator), Abdul (the mad driver) and me (the eager English girl). We left Guwahati for Hajo, a small town 35km away where we visited 2 Pratham Learning Centres (PLCs). 120 children from the 1st to 5th Standard (6 to 11 years) attend classes at the 2 centres before school from 8 – 9.45am. Next we visited Suwal Kucha, nicknamed ‘silk city’ by Mukut (despite the fact it was more of a village), where the PLC runs Saturday and Sunday classes. In this area silk weaving is the major employer – and indeed the main occupation of the Pratham volunteers – so a visit to a silk factory seemed fitting.

Back in the car we drove at the pace of Abdul’s Indian tech music to Darang, 15km from Bhutan. Passing tea plantations on the way we crossed a loud All Assamese Students Union (AASU) protest. A large concern in this district is rising food and commodity prices which severely hurt local people working in the plantations on very minimal weekly salaries. On arrival at the government school that Pratham works in association with I was able to meet 8 volunteers from neighbouring villages. Sitting on the grass in the playground I asked them what their greatest challenge had been. They were unanimous that, though terrorism is often cited, it is not a good enough excuse for poor education in the state. Rather the socio-economic issues – such as alcoholism in poor communities – are disabling their efforts.

After some fantastic Assamese chi at Mukut’s family house, we began the 100km drive back to Guwahati. I began pondering everything I’d learnt. Despite such large challenges – from political to socio-economic – nothing deters Pratham’s reach to this, the most beautiful region of India I’ve visted so far.


Assam - 1st Feb 2010

After Republic Day, Jen and I spilt. I took a flight to Assam, in the far North East, while Jen braved the trains through Uttar Pradesh. I’ve come to Assam for the wedding of Monali and Dan. Although they both live ultra modern lives in London now not a single Hindu tradition was neglected. These included the ritual washing of Dan’s feet with bananas and curd by Monali’s family and, of course, the attendance of over 500 guests who the poor couple had to greet individually over 4 hours!

Arriving into Assam could not be more of a contrast from hectic Delhi. The capital city, Guwahati, is tiny in Indian terms with less than a million people. Only a short run
with my friend Rahul from the plush resort where we were staying took us through gorgeous green rice paddies enclosed by bamboo and palm groves with an idyllic mountain backdrop. In upper Assam, north of Guwahati, there are endless, beautifully manicured tea plantations which produce a sixth of the world’s tea (check your tea bag packet now – it’s likely to originate here!) and dotted around the state are several national parks which protect a phenomenal range of wildlife from tigers to Assam’s unique one-horned rhino. The people who look more Tibetan or Nepali are said to be the friendliest in India. So with all this where’s the rush of tourists?

Some Assamese tribal groups are fabled as head-hunting warriors but that’s not the problem today. Since independence, many ethnic-lingustic groups have jostled – often violently –
to assert themselves in the face of immigration, governmental neglect and heavy-handed defence policy. Everyday The Assamese Tribune is filled with stories of kidnappings and violent clashes between terrorist groups and patrol police. The paper reported that there were ‘only’ 1297 incidents in which 264 civilians and 42 members of the security forces were killed in 2009. Maybe a ‘significant improvement’ but still seems quite large to me.

Pratham’s been present in Assam since 2006 and now works in 19 of the 23 districts. The four remaining districts are both inaccessible and the most dangerous as they border with fractious Nagaland (another Indian North Eastern province with similar ideas of independence) and Myanmar. The Indian and Burmese governments have been professing for years to work together to combat militant groups but have so far failed to turn talks into action. Pratham runs 3 main programmes here: the summer camp which accommodated over 500,000 children over a 4 week interactive learning programme last year; the reading enhancement project active in 82 out of 145 blocs for over 200,000 children; and independent Pratham learning centres, PLCs which run both R2L and L2R programmes for over 40,000 pupils.

With the wedding party I had spent a weekend at Kaziranga National Park where we took a safari riding on the back of elephants with the hope of seeing one of the park’s roaming tigers. Though as it turned out looks like we would have been better staying in Guwahati – on arrival back in the capital we heard that day a tiger had escaped from the city’s zoo and was on the prowl! Luckily the guests escaped before we had any feline encounters and John, my jolly Irish friend, and I met Surjya the DRC leader in Assam. With a mouth full of blood red paan (powdered tobacco) he explained to us about the spider web of
interconnected issue in the stat
e. One concern arises from the proliferation of tribal groups here means linguistical problems in some areas. For instance increasing ethnic consciousness led the Bodo people to resent the prevalence of Assamese over their native Bodo language. Consequently there was a major Bodo insurgency that was only settled in 2004-5 with the creation of a partially self-governing ‘Bodoland’ in Northwestern Assam. The school syllabus is still in Assamese however which is distinctly different from the Bodo prounanciation. Pratham therefore works to ensure these children have special attention to ensure they do not fall behind.


Saturday, January 30, 2010

Delhi - 27th Jan 2010

I’m going to tell you a story about Abid. He’s 12 years old and comes from a village called Akhtar in Bihar, India’s poorest state. Three months ago he was sold by Akhtar’s Pradhan, the village leader, to a factory owner in Delhi. The factory owner promised a golden future for Abid: teaching him a skill that would stand him in good stead for a career in the big city. The state infrastructure is so poor in Bihar that Abid has never been to school. Abid’s poverty-stricken parents had no choice but to send Abid to the factory owner receiving a mere 500 rupees (roughly 6 pounds) in return. However upon arrival in Delhi, Abid found quite a different fate from the golden gateway he’d been promised. Abid starts work at 9am everyday. He works in one of the karhanas, small factories, in the slum of Nabi Karim, applying glue to make ladies purses. He gets 1 or 2 hours rest on a day that lasts until midnight… sometimes 1… sometimes 2am. Abid is not paid but all his immediate needs, food and lodging, are taken care of within the constraints of the karhana’s walls. He’s made just one sacrifice – his freedom.

Abid is just one of Delhi’s (approximately) 50,000 illegal child labourers. With the help of middlemen, these children are taken as young as 6 years old from India’s poorest villages to be entrapped into a life of virtual slavery in small factories making shoes, bags, clothing and even metal items. As well as evidence of physical abuse there have also been cases of sexual abuse. This grave problem is not unique to Delhi but is prevalent across the country. Government raids on such illegal factories have been irregular and half-hearted.

In August 2009, Pratham set up a drop-in centre for child labourers in the karhanas of the Nabi Karim slum. This centre provides not only a place for the children to study (often for the first time) but also to play and to sleep in a warm and friendly environment. The centre is providing some hope for children like Abid who, at 7pm at night, in his one hour’s break from stitching purses, was completing his maths homework. Arshisayyed and her team of 4 other women are currently collecting data for a survey of Nabi Karim’s 15,000 karhanas to send to the Delhi Commission for the Protection of the Child, as well as to inform the unknowing Pradhan and parents of the fate that awaits their children on arrival in the glistening ‘metro city’.

But the difficulties faced at the centre are severe. At Nabi Karim, Jen and I met Arshisayyed who explained to us the challenges she faces on a daily basis. “Once I was held at gunpoint by a Dhaba (roadside restaurant) owner. He threatened to kill me because one 8 year old boy that was working for him was coming to our centre.” Starting as a volunteer Balwadi teacher in Mumbai, Arshisayyed soon became convinced her passion was working for children. She left behind her parents dreams of settling down with a family and joined Pratham full-time. Now she coordinates the programme against child labour in Delhi.

It is clear this dreadful injustice can’t be resolved overnight. But if Pratham can at least put a smile like
this one on Abid’s face in his sparse free time – then a bridge to cross this channel is already under construction.


Delhi - 26th Jan 2010

An exhausting 22 hour train journey brought Jen, me and some larger-than-life cockroaches to Delhi, India’s third city and its bustling capital. On the 26th January, we joined the local population in the 60th Republic Day celebrations (a military parade - including camels, see photo - more like a toned-down Notting Hill carnival)!

The following day we took a rickshaw from Majnu Ka Tilla, the Tibetan refugee camp where we were staying to Sarai Pipl Thala, an urban slum on the outskirts of Delhi. Pratham has been active in Delhi since 1999. Currently present in 5 out of 12 zones, they hope to expand into 6 by the end of the year ( While the monthly volunteer refresher course was going on in the background, Pallavi, coordinator for 3 of the 5 zones told us about the wealth of programmes running in the capital. In 660 MCD (Municipal Cooperation of Delhi) schools Pratham has set up libraries with over 200 books in Hindi, environmental sciences, social sciences and maths. The 250 schools with over 80% level of Hindi, according to the quarterly tests, also receive English books. On top of this internal assistance, Pratham also runs 36 Learning Centres which provide extra support to 3rd – 5th standard (8 to 11 year olds). At the next door centre we tiptoed around some girls conducting their end of year examination. So determined were they to finish that some didn’t even look up to see the strange white faces that had just entered their classroom!


Gujarat to Diu - Jan 16th 2010

After a few days off in Diu, a tiny island of limestone cliffs and rocky coves in south Gujarat, we decided to venture north to Rajasthan. Sadly, Balthasar and Patrick announced to me (15 minutes prior to departure) we were leaving just as I had proudly washed the majority of my capsule wardrobe - not exactly ideal before a 24 hour bus journey!

The advantage of taking local buses in India is there's no need to book ahead. In fact, as we discovered upon boarding our interconnecting bus in Rajkot at 1.30am, there's no word for 'full' in Hindi! Balthasar commanded, 'we HAVE to get in the bus'. So we clambered on, backpacks secured like tortoises, to find many bemused, if slightly sleepy, faces looking up at us. No seats available but 'no problem' the gangway was a fitting alternative (and in fact the most comfortable of the night). We also sampled lying in the cockpit behind the driver, and contemplated the roof but it was already taken up with hessian sacks brimming with fresh green chilies.

As the sun rose I glimpsed my first sights of Rajasthan. Cattle-drawn carts were replaced by tall camels and the lush green landscape became much more arid and stark. This is of course the state of the Great Thar Desert. Our visit is to start in the blue city of Jodhpur, where I met my companion Jen. I'll leave Jen to introduce herself...