Archive | Change-makers

A golden GOAL

A golden GOAL

Naz Foundation empowers underprivileged girls through the sport of netball

By Neil Maheshwari

The ground at Abhinav Gyan Mandir in Trombay looks dusty and forgotten most of the time. But, twice a week – between 10 am and noon on Tuesdays and Thursdays – a curious exercise takes place here: A group of pre-teen and teenage girls take part in rigorous training and a rousing match of netball, nonplussed about the makeshift pavilion, stacks of plastic chairs and folding tables, their enthusiasm and body language rivalling that of a World Championship winning team. The difference is that these girls are from some of the poorest communities in Mumbai.

For most children, playing competitive sports implies a stick, a ball and a strip of road. But for these girls, netball has become a part of their learning, thanks to the GOAL programme, an initiative by the Naz Foundation Trust, a non-profit organisation that works on sexual health and HIV/AIDS. With seven players to a team, netball is a women’s game that is played at the Commonwealth Games. Introduced in 2006, GOAL uses netball and life skills education to transform the lives of young underprivileged girls in India.

“GOAL uses sport to empower adolescent girls living in urban settings, provide knowledge, personal and economic development, all the while offering a safe place to play,” says Kalyani Subramanyam, the National Coordinator for GOAL. She is a part of the Naz Foundation, which Standard Chartered Bank has partnered with as the National Implementing Agency in this country. The programme currently runs in Delhi, Chennai and Mumbai.

“We have a four-point programme”, says Bhagyashree Hakim, Mumbai coordinator. “Know Yourself, Be Healthy, Be Empowered and Money Saving.” The way these tenets are taught and reinforced is the reason that makes GOAL not only unique but also effective.

Girls aged 11 to 15 years are invited to join a team, either through a school (mandatory) or from a nearby community (voluntary). One 11-year-old, when asked why she played netball, replies, “Because football is for boys, no?” prompting her classmates to giggle.

The girls are often sponsored till their second year of Junior College and are also provided with job opportunities after they finish the ten-month course. Girls who show great promise are named GOAL Champions (GC), and sent for training to Delhi and often return to teach at centres in their home town, becoming an inspiring example for younger students. This team’s coach, Nayana Pardesi, who was just another participant until last year, explains “Becoming a GC implies moving up in life.”

Akshita Kasare, who cleared her Class 10 exams and wants to go to Mahatma College to study Commerce, says, “It’s helped us to work better as a team. We fight less now.” The programme not only brings home some of life’s lessons but also gives the girls confidence and focus. They all have big dreams for their future that include college degrees in a variety of fields and the aspiration to provide well for themselves and their families.

Girls like Akshita don’t live an easy life; money is tight at home, there are too many mouths to feed and good opportunities are few. Which is why initiatives like GOAL matter; asking an introverted child for a recap of her day or making sure that no one gets ‘out’ during the game can shape a personality. And you are left astonished to see how physical activity – something many take for granted as children – coupled with true desire to broaden their horizons can achieve fantastic change.

For more information, email naz.goal@gmail.com or visit www.nazindia.org

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Living in the ‘moment’

Living in the ‘moment’

NGO Kshana organises events for the underprivileged, for the sheer fun of it

By Shahid Judge

The Shanti Avedna Ashram in Bandra (W) is usually a quiet refuge, as a hospice for advanced and terminally ill cancer patients needs to be. But Sunday, May 29, 2011, was different.

Thirty-four children, along with their parents and guardians, were treated to an evening of games, music and dance, food, making it a rare experience for the young cancer patients and their families, otherwise used to a clinical atmosphere and grim tidings.

Moments of fun

Put together at the behest of the Cancer Patients Aid Association (CPAA), an NGO that works for the welfare of cancer patients in India, the event was organised by Kshana. Named for the Sanskrit word ‘kshana’, which means ‘moment’, Kshana is a Mumbai-based NGO that plans and executes events for underprivileged communities in Mumbai, working with the poor, the elderly, the disabled, children and medically ill patients.

“We focus only on entertainment,” said Roshni Dadabhoy, now in her seventh year with Kshana. “There are many other groups that work for the benefit and betterment of the underprivileged, so we’re trying to be a bit different and help organise events, usually with certain themes, purely to entertain and bring happiness to the less privileged.” Dadabhoy added: “All we hope is to spread smiles.”

And that they did on Sunday. After a round of introductions, announcer Aditi Kanakia gave out instructions for the first game. Excitement and anticipation filled the room as a parent or guardian lined up with their respective wards to play ‘Passing the Parcel’. The Kshana volunteers also joined in the game, upping the energy levels. Squeals of laughter accompanied every halt in the music, as the eliminated pair was given a ‘punishment’ — to sing the Gujarati version of ‘Amplifier’, dance to a famous Salman Khan song, recite poetry or crack jokes.

For the second game, the children were divided into five groups. An obstacle course was set up, which one blindfolded team member had to navigate while the others shouted directions from the side-lines. Of course, the fun was in guiding your own teammate while misguiding the others.

An impromptu dance session and a snack later, it was time to go. The emotion was unanimous: “I had so much fun dancing with ‘Didi’,” said Gauri Shinde. Another young patient, Vinay Gupta, who recently finished his Class 10 exams, said, “NGOs come and teach us things all the time. What really made a difference was the fact that the volunteers also had fun with us. We enjoyed it because of that.”

In 2011…

Now in its 10th year of operations, Kshana’s plans have changed a bit this year. For the first four months, the NGO focussed on events at old-age homes. In the next four months, its efforts are concentrated on the Acworth Leprosy Home and CPAA. But, like most NGOs, there’s a shortage of funds. “We send emails out to everyone on our database, and we talk to several corporates that look for groups to help as a part of their Corporate Social Responsibility,” said Dadabhoy. “We often get offers or donations from people who are sincerely interested in the work we do, so we somehow manage to cover all costs for the events we hold.”

The efforts seem to be worth it. After Sunday’s event, several parents congratulated and thanked the Kshana team. “My brother learns a lot from these events,” said Faiz Siddique, whose brother Saif is undergoing treatment for cancer. “But I haven’t seen him smile like this in a long time.”

To know more about Kshana and make a donation, go to www.kshana.org.

Contact: Roshni Dadabhoy on +91-98207-50480 or kshana.mumbai@gmail.com

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Breaking silences

Breaking silences

Pooja Taparia and her NGO, Arpan, spread awareness to prevent child sexual abuse and help survivors reclaim their lives

By Aditi Seshadri

A chance viewing of a play changed the course of Pooja Taparia’s life. It was 2003, and Pooja came out of Lillette Dubey’s 30 Days of September, moved by the trauma of child sexual abuse portrayed, and convinced that it was an issue she wanted to work with.

Soon, Arpan, the charity that Pooja had started earlier that year, took up the issue and made the prevention and healing of child sexual abuse its main focus. The organisation works at two levels: PreventionEmpowering adults and children with skills to protect children from sexual abuse, and HealingEnabling victims & survivors of abuse to heal and live beyond the trauma of their abuse.

“The first step is to spread awareness, among parents and teachers,” says Pooja, 33. “And there is always denial. Most people think that ‘this can’t happen in my home or my class’, but the truth is, it does.”

Data from the National Study on Child Abuse in April 2007, Ministry of Women and Child Development, seems to concur. More than 53% children report facing one or more forms of sexual abuse and 50% of sexual offenders are known to the victim or were in positions of trust (family member, close relative, friend or neighbour).

Through a team of psychologists, counsellors and volunteers, Arpan carries out a range of activities to tackle the issue at different levels. Since 2008, the organisation has been running a personal safety programme in two schools, for Classes 1 to 7, teaching children the necessary skills — such as how to behave with strangers or what constitutes inappropriate behaviour— to protect themselves from sexual abuse.

This, Pooja believes is essential as there is “too much of a taboo around sex, too many inhibitions”. Research shows that children as young as five years of age can be victims of abuse, and that boys are equally at risk as girls. “We get reactions like ‘the kids are so innocent, they’re too young to learn about all this’ but eventually schools and families come around.”

The organisation also helps survivors of child sexual abuse by offering counselling and therapy to adult and children, including rescued minors. “This is a more complex area, as there is a dearth of good counsellors, and we are not equipped to deal with trauma,” says Pooja. Arpan also makes it a point to conducting training workshops, to build a more skilled team of counsellors able to aid the healing process.

“When we first started, there was limited knowledge or expertise. It’s through our own research and field work that we’ve understood more and seen what the needs are.” By developing their programmes in this way, Pooja and her team have begun to see a tangible impact at various stages. “At the schools, the feedback from the kids shows a better understanding of the issue and more awareness; after counselling, many of rescued minors are visibly less violent and more hopeful about the future; the adults have better self-esteem and embrace the concept of self-care, addressing their own needs.”

In the last four years, Arpan has helped 8,500 children and adults. It has had some help on the way from Unltd India, a foundation that trains, support and funding social entrepreneurs. To keep the team in balance in the face of such a difficult issue, Pooja says they are all under compulsory clinical supervision. To ensure that they motivated, Pooja has established a flexible work culture and makes sure everyone gets enough time off.

As for herself, she says, “I found my life’s purpose.”

ARPAN FACTS

School programmes:
Statistics from one school in 2009-10

Total no. of children: 394
12% of children had experienced inappropriate behaviour or touching
2% of children had experienced sexual abuse

Statistics in 2008-09
Total no. of children: 766
11% of children had experienced inappropriate behaviour or touching
5% of children had experienced sexual abuse

Other programmes:

  • In 46% of the cases the offender was either immediate family or a relative (incest)
  • In 53% of the cases the offender was a known person (neighbour, family friend, building friend, watchman, etc.)
  • In 1% of the cases the offender was a stranger
  • A large number of the clients are adult survivors aged 20-40 yrs
  • Sexual abuse in above cases ranges from showing children pornographic material, to molestation to rape.

— Aditi Seshadri

Pooja Taparia and her NGO, Arpan, spread awareness to prevent child sexual abuse and help survivors reclaim their lives

A chance viewing of a play changed the course of Pooja Taparia’s life. It was 2003, and Pooja came out of Lillette Dubey’s 30 Days of September, moved by the trauma of child sexual abuse portrayed, and convinced that it was an issue she wanted to work with.

Soon, Arpan, the charity that Pooja had started earlier that year, took up the issue and made the prevention and healing of child sexual abuse its main focus. The organisation works at two levels: PreventionEmpowering adults and children with skills to protect children from sexual abuse, and HealingEnabling victims & survivors of abuse to heal and live beyond the trauma of their abuse.

“The first step is to spread awareness, among parents and teachers,” says Pooja, 33. “And there is always denial. Most people think that ‘this can’t happen in my home or my class’, but the truth is, it does.”

Data from the National Study on Child Abuse in April 2007, Ministry of Women and Child Development, seems to concur. More than 53% children report facing one or more forms of sexual abuse and 50% of sexual offenders are known to the victim or were in positions of trust (family member, close relative, friend or neighbour).

Through a team of psychologists, counsellors and volunteers, Arpan carries out a range of activities to tackle the issue at different levels. Since 2008, the organisation has been running a personal safety programme in two schools, for Classes 1 to 7, teaching children the necessary skills — such as how to behave with strangers or what constitutes inappropriate behaviour— to protect themselves from sexual abuse.

This, Pooja believes is essential as there is “too much of a taboo around sex, too many inhibitions”. Research shows that children as young as five years of age can be victims of abuse, and that boys are equally at risk as girls. “We get reactions like ‘the kids are so innocent, they’re too young to learn about all this’ but eventually schools and families come around.”

The organisation also helps survivors of child sexual abuse by offering counselling and therapy to adult and children, including rescued minors. “This is a more complex area, as there is a dearth of good counsellors, and we are not equipped to deal with trauma,” says Pooja. Arpan also makes it a point to conducting training workshops, to build a more skilled team of counsellors able to aid the healing process.

“When we first started, there was limited knowledge or expertise. It’s through our own research and field work that we’ve understood more and seen what the needs are.” By developing their programmes in this way, Pooja and her team have begun to see a tangible impact at various stages. “At the schools, the feedback from the kids shows a better understanding of the issue and more awareness; after counselling, many of rescued minors are visibly less violent and more hopeful about the future; the adults have better self-esteem and embrace the concept of self-care, addressing their own needs.”

In the last four years, Arpan has helped 8,500 children and adults. It has had some help on the way from Unltd India, a foundation that trains, support and funding social entrepreneurs. To keep the team in balance in the face of such a difficult issue, Pooja says they are all under compulsory clinical supervision. To ensure that they motivated, Pooja has established a flexible work culture and makes sure everyone gets enough time off.

As for herself, she says, “I found my life’s purpose.”

ARPAN FACTS

School programmes:

Statistics from one school in 2009-10

Total no. of children: 394

12% of children had experienced inappropriate behaviour or touching

2% of children had experienced sexual abuse

Statistics in 2008-09

Total no. of children: 766

11% of children had experienced inappropriate behaviour or touching

5% of children had experienced sexual abuse

Outside the school programmes:

· In 46% of the cases the offender was either immediate family or a relative (incest)

· In 53% of the cases the offender was a known person (neighbour, family friend, building friend, watchman, etc.)

· In 1% of the cases the offender was a stranger

· A large number of the clients are adult survivors aged 20-40 yrs

· Sexual abuse in above cases ranges from showing children pornographic material, to molestation to rape.

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By the people, for the people

By the people, for the people

Community media are empowering the poor with a voice to tell their stories

By Aditi Seshadri

It’s an unusual sight, even for a local railway station: Scores of children sitting patiently in line, outside Bandra station, wearing black headbands, holding up posters and signs that say ‘Kab tak sahte rahenge hum?’ (Till when will we bear this?). Even more curious are the handful of teenagers hovering around them, one holding a video camera, others organising the kids and interacting with them.

Self-assured in their work, unperturbed by the chaos around them, the teens are with Yuva (Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action), an organisation based in Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, and are shooting footage for their community video programme, Hamari Aawaz (Our Voice).

They have been picked and trained as community producers and correspondents by Video Volunteers, an organisation that creates models of sustainable, locally owned media that empowers the poor to tell their stories and find solutions.

The Hamari Aawaz team at work

In the past few years, Video Volunteers has helped set up 12 ‘community video units’. Each unit is made of up people from the community and produces a ‘video magazine’ every month or so, on topics decided by a community editorial board, which is then screened for a larger local audience. Hamari Aawaz is one such unit, run with the support of Yuva, an outfit that has been working with slum dwellers for years. When we met the Hamari Aawaz team, they were filming a campaign against child labour.

It’s a similar set-up at Apna TV (Our TV), a community video unit supported by Akshara, an organisation that works for gender justice. The young team produces a number of videos on various community issues such as public toilets, women’s safety, BMC elections, and more. The impact is two-pronged – one, marginalised youngsters engage more with the issues because of their involvement, and two, their proximity to the community means their message will reach more people.

The Apna TV team works on a script

Apna TV has nine people on its team, between the ages of 18 and 29 years, and most of them are Class X graduates. They have all learned to research, script, shoot and edit, though they tend to break up the work according to their interests. “For every video magazine, we come up with ideas and discuss it with the editorial board, which consists of filmmakers, activists, social workers and community representatives. We do some research on what aspects need to be covered,” says Anmol Dharmadikari, trainer and coordinator. “The ideas are vetted by members of Video Volunteers and Drishti. Once we get the go-ahead we decide on formats (fiction or non-fiction) and begin work.”

In this process, the team also learns about issues. For their latest video, the team had decided to look at how safe and gender friendly Mumbai is. But after their initial research, they changed their focus and decided to examine how notions of masculinity affect everything, from a woman’s physical appearance to who does the household work to the socialisation of kids. Their research had taught them that women’s safety rose from deeper issues of gender justice.

That’s not all. Every film, explains Anmol, has a call to action. For instance, Jor se bol (Shout aloud), a film on sexual harassment, urged people – men and women – to dial 103, a helpline for women, if they experienced or witnessed any harassment. The screenings are usually accompanied by discussions and talks. Sometimes, they have a more tangible impact.

200-odd people attend every film screening

“One of the slums in Chembur didn’t have a toilet, for which they had already been fighting with the local government body,” says Anmol. “But after we screened our film on public toilets, they were further motivated to get something done. Two of our producers, who were from the community, also followed up the issue with the officials. Now, there’s a toilet there.”

Now, that’s a start.

– Aditi Seshadri


To see the various videos, go to YouTube.

Video Volunteers is looking for people to hire and train as Community Correspondents. See details here. To work or volunteer with Video Volunteers, see Get involved.

To know more about Yuva, visit www.yuvaindia.org

To know more about Akshara, visit www.aksharacentre.org.


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An InspirED goal

An InspirED goal

The ambitious InspirED education conference kicks off on August 27, Friday. Organised with the aim of focusing on innovative approaches in the classroom, the conference will draw together hundreds of India’s teachers from around the country.

Mumbai Action caught up with Vandana Goyal, CEO of Akanksha Foundation, one of the key organisations behind the event and pushing for quality education in Mumbai, for her take on the event:

What is the inspiration behind the InspirED conference?

For educators, there are not too many platforms in India today that bring people together to discuss innovation, progressive practices and effective models in a meaningful way. Together with the American School of Bombay, Teach for India and the Asia Society, we felt it was important to create this platform as part of our mission to see that the children we serve, and children across India, have the opportunity to receive an excellent education.  The key to transformation in education is the quality of educators available to a system, and InspirED is a major effort to recognise high-quality educators and create a network that is able to impact the education system in classrooms and schools across the country.

Where does the Indian education system stand, the good and the bad?

The greatest positive in the Indian education system is that there are many parents and children out there who really want a great education for their children/themselves. Families living in poverty often push themselves financially to see that their children can go to a good school and tuition classes. There is also a rigor in the education system that instils the importance of discipline and hard work in children from a young age, something missing in the West.

There is huge potential in India to really transform the way that teaching and learning happens in schools across the country.  There is a growing demand for high-quality education and the number of players in the sector has been increasing steadily in the past few years. Access – although still an issue – is not in as critical a state as it was 10 years ago, so the focus has now shifted to quality and to student learning outcomes.  There is an urgent need to put a renewed emphasis on teacher education, both on principal/teacher training courses as well as continuous professional development and support. There is evidence worldwide that investment in the development of the skills and abilities of educators (teachers and principals) is the greatest lever to create long-term change in learning outcomes, and this is the most important thing we need to focus on right now.

We must also focus on making learning relevant and meaningful for children by adopting child-centric methodology that focuses on learning with understanding and conceptual clarity from a young age, building skills as well as content knowledge in young people.

What impact is the conference meant to have?

The conference is meant to be a forum where educators from across the country can come together once a year to continue to learn effective practices and new methods, while creating a network (both of people and online) where people can connect to each other and have access to resources that will impact their ability in their classrooms and schools.  It is a platform and a starting point for a deeper conversation that we hope continues throughout the year amongst educators from across the country.

Your checklist for what is needed to improve the quality of education in India…

  • Getting great people attracted to the education profession
  • Improving teacher training courses and professional development
  • Making classroom instruction child-centric and focused on learning with understanding
  • Making curriculum relevant and meaningful for children in today’s world
  • Focusing on student learning outcomes instead of inputs
  • Educators using data to drive further understanding of how children learn and improving instructional practice

Date: August 27-29, 2010

Venue:  American School of Bombay, Bandra Kurla Complex

Visit InspirED India for details.

– Mumbai Action team

Photo credit: Mumbai Smiles

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Have an idea? Your options are Unltd

Have an idea? Your options are Unltd

Pooja Warrier (centre), co-founder of Unltd India, with members of her team

“If you are passionate and have a good idea, the money and resources will come.” Pooja Warrier speaks with enviable conviction. It probably stems from the fact that, in the past few years, she’s been the one providing the means for a number of passionate people to launch their great ideas.

Pooja, 29, is director and co-founder, along with Richard Alderson, of Unltd India, a launch pad for social entrepreneurs, by giving them support, funding, space and other resources. As Warrier puts it, the organisation “invests in ideas”.  It finds people with the ideas and skills for projects aimed at bringing about social change – from improving agricultural productivity to rehabilitating burn survivors – and gives them an eco-system of seed funding, networking and coaching and guidance needed for their projects to take off. The belief is that there are people who have a vision but don’t have the means to get there.

Beginnings

“Where are the new ideas and leaders? That was my thought,” says Pooja, “People shouldn’t be held back for other reasons.” With this in mind, she began the groundwork for Unltd India in 2006, assessing the sector and exploring India’s needs. She had the advantage of having worked at Unltd UK, a place “infected with energy”, after which she decided to replicate the model in India.

There was massive outreach in the first two years to go out and find the right people. “How do you find and trust people? What happens if it fails? How do we give the funders their money’s worth? These were the issues, and we had to prove to ourselves that things would work,” says Pooja. In the first cycle, Unltd India picked 10 investees; they currently collaborate with about 40 investees. They have continued to support some of those projects, while they have exited from others for reasons like lack of scalability or focus.

The Hub, an open office space for start-ups, managed by Unltd India

Selection

If you meet the basic eligibility criteria, there are three steps to the selection process – an intensive meeting with an Unltd India associate, followed by submission of an application form and then a presentation in front of an interview panel. “We look at four things – the individual’s qualities, the project’s impact, whether it matches with our philosophy, and whether we can add value,” says Pooja.

Depending on which stage the initiative is at, the organisation provides support at three levels, with funding starting at Rs 80,000 and going up to Rs 20 lakh, and various hands-on support packages tailored for each stage. For instance, Grassroutes, an organisation that generates income in rural areas by promoting tourism, has moved from level 1 support to level 2 support this year.

Founder speak

“The big picture is to create leaders like Muhammad Yunus and run high-impact programmes within communities. It’s about creating change and finding new solutions,” says Pooja, adding, “We look for that entrepreneurial streak in people, where you keep absorbing from things around you, where one trigger moves you to action.”

The passion she sees in her investees bubbles in Pooja as well. “I’m excited by new ideas and I love the process of making them real. And I believe that if you don’t love what you’re doing, you should stop and find something else.”

And she has this advice for other entrepreneurs: “Although I love ‘doing’, I see the sense in planning and getting systems in place. All those things we think of as boring are necessary. She adds, “It is important to attract a great team, listen to what people are saying and follow your gut.”

Unltd India is now selecting its 2010 investees. Deadline to apply is August 31, 2010. Visit www.unltdindia.org. For logistical reasons, the organisation currently collaborates with projects based in and around Mumbai.

 – Aditi Seshadri

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Building blocks for the future

Building blocks for the future

Mumbai Mobile Creches gives kids of migrant construction workers food, shelter and a chance to learn

It’s a common sight in Mumbai. Towering structures covered by scaffolding and swarming with workers, lifting, pounding, carrying, building. This skyscraper, located on a large tract of what used to be mill land in Agripada, is no different. But down a paved path, past the soon-to-be prime realty space, bordering the shanties that the migrant construction workers temporarily call home, is the nondescript dusty setting for a remarkable venture.

A cluster of rooms covered by asbestos sheets, spotlessly clean, festooned with colourful paintings and craftwork, and bursting with the sound of children’s voices – this is a daycare centre and school for the children of the construction workers who work on this site. Till the building is done, the workers will live here and their children will get a shot at an education.

  The structure

This is the vision and reality of the Mumbai Mobile Creches (MMC), a 40-year-old organisation that works with children up to the age of 14. MMC has a straightforward, well-tested strategy: When a new construction site comes up, MMC has the construction company build rooms on the site. While the parents are at work all day, the children come to the centre, where they get food, shelter and, most importantly, learning. It’s a healthy alternative to running wild around all that dangerous construction material.

Each centre has a crèche (for kids up to the age of 3 years), a balwadi or daycare centre (ages 3 to 5 years) and classrooms (ages 5 to 14 years). With the babies, activities are geared towards cognitive development, with games and songs. The pre-schoolers are taught colours, numbers, alphabets, etc through fun and interactive learning. In the case of the primary school students, the attempt is to get them up to speed or supplement their education so they can eventually try to join the mainstream.

The biggest challenge lies in the fact that the kids are all from migrant families and so it’s never certain how long they will remain at a centre; some stay for years, others leave in months. Also, when construction is finished, the workers move on and the organisation closes down the centre.

MMC has 26 centres across Mumbai and a network of 150-170 teachers and helpers, often products of MMC themselves. Each centre is open Monday to Saturday from 9am to 4pm. According to the NGO’s 2008-09 annual report, they reached over 5,500 children. The daily drill is often enlivened by interactive sessions like this one (left), where a group of volunteers talked to the students about water – its usage, properties, conservation and more.

 

The people

The effectiveness of the MMC programme depends largely on people like Vaishali Choudhary (seen in this photo playing with the kids). A coordinator at the Agripada centre, Vaishali has worked with MMC for 33 years, evident in the easy and efficient way in which she handles the children. “I joined the organisation in 1976, even before I was married, along with some friends,” she says. “I didn’t know anything. At that time, a few construction sites had come up.”

Vaishali has worked at various centres over the years, moving as and when they have opened and shut. She has worked at the Agripdada crèche for nearly two years. “Earlier the workers were reluctant to send their children to us. The kids used to cry, show up dirty, we would have to clean and change them,” she says. “Now, they come on their own, happy and clean.”

Vaishali talks with pride of all the kids she’s seen going off to municipal schools after stints at MMC. “Many have given their Std X and XII exams after studying in primary classes here.” She beams, “There’s even Ramachandra sir, who teaches primary children at one of our centres. He himself was a student here.”

 The vision

CEO Vrishali Pispati, talks about her vision for Mumbai Mobile Crèches and driving change in the world around us:

How did you end up here?

My association with Mumbai Mobile Creches (MMC) started as a volunteer over two years ago. I started by helping the Preschool Education Coordinator create her monthly curriculum and teaching aids. Soon, because of my background in finance and economics, and my interest in working full-time, I joined MMC as their general manager. With a year’s multi-disciplinary experience of finance, operations and administration, I have now been appointed as CEO from March 2010.

What are the surprises you have encountered?

The challenges of so much multi-tasking required of any position in MMC was a surprise – but is also why I find it so very enjoyable and exciting!

What are your goals for the organisation?

My immediate goal for MMC is to reach over 8000 children by the end of 2010-11 and the eventual goal is to ensure every child on every construction site is safe, healthy and educated.

What have been the setbacks, and what has helped?

We work in an environment where government policies (and there are a fair number for these children) are not implemented, and builders are yet to buy into the ideas of Corporate Social Responsibility. However, we have over 40 years of experience in this field and are well recognised in the child rights space. Moreover, our teachers have been with us for over 20 years! With very high levels of commitment, what makes this a very special organisation, is the sense of teamwork. I think this is one of our core strengths.

What are your happiest moments?

Our centres are located on dangerous construction sites which have cement mixers, trucks and heavy mechanical equipment moving around. Amidst this chaos and dust-filled environment, our centres are a little haven.

When I step into a centre and  see little babies gurgling and smiling happily, and older children engrossed in learning and playing games, I am overwhelmed by the importance of this work and immensely humbled to be part of an organisation that is making such a difference to the lives of the most invisible and vulnerable children of India.

Another thing I am very proud of is that 30 percent of our teachers are women from the construction site who are now role models in their community.

What has been your biggest learning?

I have learnt that the ideal way to resolve problems and tackle tough issues in the face of multi-disciplinary and multi-level challenges is by understanding the situation at the ground level, initiating dialogues and maintaining excellent communication within as well as outside the organisation.

What is needed to drive change in India?

Every citizen owning responsibility for his actions and his surroundings would be the very first step.  Initiative, willingness to face difficult situations, ability to not remain a silent spectator but be a willing participant of the democratic process will join India with Bharat. Slowly but surely things are changing, but the pace is too slow and the divide too deep.

Mumbai Action team

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A Mirakle worker for the deaf

A Mirakle worker for the deaf

Dhruv Lakra

Mirakle Couriers is doing what no one else thought do. The company employs the services of only deaf adults for its Mumbai-based courier operations, marrying enterprise and social cause. Founder and CEO Dhruv Lakra talks about his unique venture:

How did you end up here?
I graduated from HR College in Mumbai, after which I worked for Merill Lynch for two years. I left Merill Lynch to go join the tsunami relief efforts, and worked with a firm providing strategic focus to non-profits. Through all the chaos, I encountered a lot of people with disabilities and saw how much more they struggled because of neglect and the lack of systems in place for them. I thought they needed a lot of support, particularly the deaf, to be included in society. Indian society places labels on the disabled, separates them from “normal people” and underestimates their capabilities. In this case, sympathy and treating them as “special” only worsens the problem, rather than help them deal with daily life.

What was the genesis of Mirakle Couriers?
One day I was on a bus where I spotted a deaf boy. I saw that he was having trouble with even the simplest tasks, he couldn’t hear the announcements, nor could he communicate with anyone to find out which stop he had to get off at. I realised that disability is invisible to the public and therefore not understood properly.
People who are deaf are only physically disabled, their mind is completely sane, and through sign language they have developed their own means of communication and culture. They need tremendous support to be integrated into mainstream society but, given a chance, they are just as capable as everyone else. I thought of ways to employ the deaf so that they could earn their own incomes and gain respect and I landed on the idea of a courier service because the process does not depend on verbal communication.

What situations or reactions have you encountered?
The reactions are varied. There is a lot of positive reaction from educated people and those who have seen a bit of the world. They understand our motivation and impact. But, a lot of people do not understand the important distinction between mental and physical disability. They assume the blind or the deaf are mentally incapable of being “normal” and quickly cast them off as useless and untrainable.
With the community of the deaf itself, there is scepticism about Mirakle Couriers as they have long been isolated from the mainstream. There has been slow transformation on both sides of the fence. We have also received a lot of favourable attention in the media.

What are your goals?
The eventual goal is to expand the business and turn it into a success. By doing this, we will be able to employ more people, increase our staff’s salaries and improve their quality of life. The other indirect goal is to prompt other companies to employ people with disabilities and see that they are more capable than just filling government quota. We want to be game changers in the private sector and encourage other companies to see that employing people with disabilities does not hinder your success. We want to set a benchmark for the way people with disabilities will be employed.

The Mirakle Couriers crew

What have been the setbacks, and what has helped you along?
Cultural issues remain a constant hurdle, whether with a client or new employees. The best part is that by building good relations with clients and the deaf community, we have become very powerful from it. I try to talk to our employees’ families, and also find out from clients how they feel about our services. In the end, our service should surpass that of other courier companies.

What are your proudest moments?
We won the Hellen Keller Award in 2009 for being a role model for companies to employ those with disabilities. We are extremely proud when our employees are able to support their families with the income they earn at Mirakle Couriers, which is better than the poorly paid jobs they were at earlier. Several of our employees are married and have children; it is inspiring to know we have had a positive impact on their lives.

What do you think is needed to drive change in India?
Many issues run deep in terms of how people perceive the deaf and the disabled in general. People do not take the time to understand those who are different from them. Things would be better if more us learned the Indian Sign Language, if there was more government support, especially in providing education and employment.
Out of 8 million deaf people in India, only 37 per cent find employment; the rest sit at home and are constantly told how useless they are by others around them. The deaf have been oppressed and ostracised, which makes them frustrated and angry, which is counterproductive. Though things are improving, they are still far from being fixed.

What has been your biggest learning?
Running a business with a social purpose is much more complicated than it seems. On top of trying to make a business successful from the ground up, there are many societal and human rights issues to deal with. It can get frustrating. However, there are moments of joy when we can see the impact – how much they have learnt, their growing confidence, how much happier they are because of the work they do.

To know more, visit www.miraklecouriers.com

– Mumbai Action team

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Travel made meaningful

Travel made meaningful

An initiative that pioneers responsible rural tourism

Inir Pinheiro talks of a ‘noise’ in his head; a disinterest in a typical ‘successful’ corporate life, and an urge to help others. A voice that eventually lead him to set up Grassroutes, a venture that promotes responsible rural tourism, by developing villages as tourist destinations.

“The basic cause of our problems is the lack of opportunity, which leads to exploitation and violence. So our aim is to create sustainable opportunities so a person can provide for themselves, their family and then their community,” says the 29-year-old MBA graduate, adding, “We’re doing this through tourism because it is the largest economic multiplier. Plus, if the local community is at the centre if tourism, they will protect the land better.”

The Grassroutes concept is simple: city-dwellers in want of a relaxing weekend, a taste of rural life and a fresh environment to stay in, travel to villages where they are taken care of and housed by locals, for about Rs 1,000 a night. In return, the villagers see an influx of business and money, and a livelihood. The attempt is to keep everything organic and preserve local culture and resources.

There are currently two villages on the Grassroutes trail, Purushwadi (250km from Mumbai), and Kohane (230 km away), both with predominantly tribal populations. The tourists are mostly Indian – from Mumbai and Pune – and the trips last two or three days. And though bookings are made through Inir and his team, a village tourism committee – made up of locals who have been trained – supervises the trip. Any number of people, from one to 40, can go on a trip.

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Inir Pinheiro

“In the past three years, there has been an annual inflow of about Rs 5-6 lakhs in each village. Average income has gone up to about Rs12,000-16,000 and 50 of the households have benefitted directly from tourism,” says Inir. Plus there are the non-monetary benefits: “The Purushwadi tribals used to migrate for livelihood, but they stay put now. Their local tamasha had died out, but is now being revived because of tourist interest. The youngsters are now occupied, have access to opportunities and have the confidence to go after them.” Inir says the model deliberately engages with youth and women, because “men are dumb and power-hungry; it’s the women who know people’s needs and are interested in growth”. 

The initiative has also had a boost from Unltd India, an organisation that acts as an incubator for social start-ups. “They have been brilliant. The funding has been a blessing, but the non-financial support is more important,” says Inir. “You get to learn from top industry experts and other mentors, and you have a peer support group, as you meet other investees who are going through a similar journey.”

 But it’s not been easy. Grassroutes had and continues to have its share of hiccups – there was the problem when they trained two landless labourers, only to find them too set in their ways to open up a to a new concept; the team had to overcome a big gender gap while interacting with the women, who are ones who cook and manage the houses; in July 2009, operations were shut down for two months because of political unrest. Inir says, “I have lost my hair, money, relationships, confidence, but I know what it is to pursue a dream.”

 And he’s dreaming big: By 2012, Grassroutes plans to have a network of villages in Maharashtra, each with a different attraction, from Warli art to jungle trails. By 2020, Inir hopes to replicate this network around cities all over India. We can’t wait.

Aditi Seshadri

For more information, go to www.grassroutes.co.in

To know more about Unltd India, go to www.unltdindia.org

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‘There’s no vision for Mumbai’

‘There’s no vision for Mumbai’

By Aditi Seshadri

Her children would rather she indulged in gentle hobbies like other 65-year-olds, but Nayana Kathpalia is too busy trying to save Mumbai’s diminishing public spaces. She runs Citispace (a citizens’ forum that works to protect public spaces) along with Neera Punj, and until recently it was work that was consuming but safe.

That changed in January. Kathpalia was in her home in Churchgate when two men fired gunshots through the front door, and Punj received several threatening phone calls; both women have now been provided with 24-hour police protection. Rattled but as determined as ever Kathpalia talks about Citispace’s work and Mumbai’s needs:

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Nayana Kathpalia

“We started 11 years ago. Citispace deals with policy and advocacy, and aims to empower people, providing them with information, guidance and other tools they might need, to fight their local battles. It also works as a network, informing and involving people in different local issues. With the exception of one architect, all the members are volunteers and the organisation runs primarily on the strength of individual citizen donations.”

Key Citispace projects

  • Hawking zones: “One of the first issues we took up a decade ago was the problem of hawkers taking over public spaces. We discovered that there was an order that areas in the city were to be demarcated into hawking and non-hawking zones, but this had never been implemented. Citispace pursued the matter and tried hard to have the order implemented.”
  • Open spaces: “We’ve been running a campaign to prevent public spaces like recreations grounds and parks being taken over by private entities. Why should public land be turned over to private clubs which restrict membership? That space is meant for the people. When the O.V.A.L trust – of which I am a trustee – restored the Oval maidan in Churchgate, people scoffed at us ‘elite women’, but my point is, it is only the so-called elite women who have the time and money to get involved in projects like this; I don’t expect a middle-class women who is struggling to keep her household together to have the inclination.”
  • SRA: “A few years ago, Citispace tackled an SRA (Slum Rehabilitation Authority) policy that allowed developers to take over reserved open spaces that had slums on them. We went to court and got an order that said no further development could be sanctioned without the court’s permission.”

Why were you attacked? How do you feel?

“Our campaign against the SRA scheme has, naturally, upset many builders. But what can we do now, the matter is in court, and it’s up to the judge to clear redevelopment projects.

I am angry, not just for Neera and myself, but for the city. I am angry at the loss of my liberty and that justice is being toyed with. Our families are shaken but our work must continue.”

What does Mumbai need?

“People need to be alive and alert. They have to push the government to realise that the middle class cannot be taken for granted. We have to think ‘what do I do’ and participate. There is no pride or vision for Mumbai. It must not be all about money; we need a balance, the rich or the poor can’t stay in ghettos.”

– Aditi Seshadri

To get in touch with Citispace, mail citispace@nagaralliance.org

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