Tuesday, March 21, 2017

A visit to a Leprosy colony in Chhattisgarh

12:52:00 PM
“We are the local outcasts. We have been pushed out of our communities and made to live here instead.” – Leprosy affected victims speak

In September 2016, when I visited one of the leprosy colonies in Chhattisgarh, the people there were expressing similar experiences. I witnessed the silent oppression and sadness in these colonies.

Contrary to popular belief, leprosy is one of the least infectious diseases as nearly everyone has some measure of natural resistance against it. It is one of the leading causes of permanent disability in the world and is primarily a disease prevalent in communities who live in extreme poverty. It currently affects approximately a quarter of million people across the world, but the majority of these cases are found in India. Leprosy is believed to be dated back to biblical and pre-biblical times. India is currently running one of the largest leprosy eradication programs in the world, called NLEP: National Leprosy Eradication Program. This issue can be majorly seen in 13 states of India, focussed mostly in the north and central India.

World Health Organisation (WHO) and other research reports state that 58.85% of new leprosy cases in the world are in India. In 2013-14, 1.27 lakhs new cases of leprosy were diagnosed.

Social stigma associated with leprosy is forcing leprosy-affected people to stay away from their village and settle in colonies demarcated for them.  The social stigma attached to the disease combined with the fact that it seems to be prevalent among those that are already disadvantaged makes those affected by it doubly ostracised from their own communities.People are coming from different parts of India and living together by building their own small huts or tents, struggling to get access to the basic amenities. It is sad to see how they’re being treated as untouchables in most places.

In fact, leprosy-affected people are not only facing social discrimination, but they are also deprived of basic legal rights. Laws in the states of ChhattisgarhRajasthanMadhya PradeshAndhra Pradesh, and Orissa prohibit leprosy patients from running for representation at local elections. These laws have been supported by the national government, as evidenced by the Supreme Court of India which has upheld a ruling by the State of Orissa prohibiting leprosy patients from participating in local elections. Other laws include the Indian Rail Act of 1990 which prohibits leprosy patients from travelling by train; the Motor Vehicle Act of 1939 which restricts leprosy patients from obtaining a driving license.

There are some organisations like Pratham taking initiatives to bring Leprosy-affected people to the mainstream. Pratham Institute, the vocational skilling wing of Pratham, has trained nearly 200 candidates since 2013-14 with support from Sasakawa India Leprosy Foundation. Pratham is covering Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar under our partnership with Sasakawa. The youth are trained in different trades such as healthcare, hospitality and beauty programs. Post the successful completion of training; candidates who wish to get employed receive placement support as well.

In the course of my journey in Chattisgarh, I met Shiv. Shiv is from Janjgirchampa, Bilaspur (Chattisgarh), one of the biggest leprosy-affected people’s colonies in the state. His father who used to be the sole earning member is a sweeper and earns barely Rs. 3,000 every month. Shiv did not have an opportunity to further his education post the completion of his 9th standard and was forced to work elsewhere to meet the family’s expenses.

This is when Sasakawa India Leprosy Foundation in partnership with Pratham Education Foundation started vocational skilling courses specifically aimed at youth like Shiv.  He chose to start training in the hospitality trade at Pratham’s centre in Dhamtari, Chattisgarh. This opportunity opened many doors for him, as he was able to finish his training successfully and secured a job at NovotelImagica, an international chain of hotels and a 5-star rated property in Maharashtra.  He earns 15,000 rupees per month and avails complementary food and accommodation. This seems to be a small effort but the outcome of this is commendable and a life-changing opportunity for someone like Shiv.

There is still a huge need for support for these affected people which need to be addressed as soon as possible. The social stigma associated with leprosy has to be eradicated, as leprosy is a curable disease and awareness of this has to reach everyone so that the victims do not suffer. I believe, more work needs to go into changing the mindsets of people, so that these people do not remain victims of not just a disease but also social exclusion.

- Shweta Hegde,
Former Program Manager, 
Pratham Institute 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Delightful Differences: Libraries in Mumbai

12:24:00 PM
Learning does not necessarily happen only through books. It is important to open minds of children to learn from the environment around them which would include interacting with community members, local traditions and culture as well as from each other.A lot of learning can happen because of the context. This precisely was the idea behind Library Program which was started around in the past year.

In January, a discussion about reviewing the program and its impact came up. As all geared up to review it, we all were oriented with the program and its format. 100 odd people travelling to all corners of India and working in groups! The JOSH and eagerness to visit and understand was manifold. Moreover, the way we were put in groups was interesting too- each one was from a different team, a unique profile and a different location. This ensured that the same thing was looked from different lenses.

Parent-volunteers in the community 

The guidelines were clear and concrete. We were told that in any library village, children from std. 3 to 8 (or in that age group) are divided into small groups of 5-6 each. We were told that the groups are formed mohalla-wise so that children do not have to go far from their homes to be a part of these learning activities. For each children’s group, volunteers or guardians are identified. The volunteers/guardians take responsibility of giving different worksheets to the group every day and encouraging the group of children to work together and learn. The tasks of each stake-holder were explained to us and we were asked to see how the processes were followed, what was the impact in the terms the communities’ engagement and children’s learning. Mumbai Urban Program was the visit location for me. We worked in a group of three where I was with an MME Associate (they assess the impact of programs) and a State Head from Pratham (he/she is the senior most person in the state who coordinates all the programs run in the state). As we started our visit, however, a very different yet delightful picture emerged.

Mumbai, from the point of view of Governance, is divided into zones. It has been Pratham’s field area since 1995. The location we visited is one of the oldest; M-Zone, Mankhurd. Mankhurd, a very populated region of Central Mumbai; is a tough working space. Narrow lanes, garbage dumps of Mumbai on all sides of the communities, and very noisy surroundings; was all that I saw as we entered. This however, was way less powerful than the impact of our Library Program.The library program that we visited here was conceptualized and implemented about 12 years back. Here, the teacher goes door-to-door and distributes the books at home. On an average, one teacher reaches out to about 150-200 households- about 20-25 household per day. A Baseline assessment is done in March which helps understand the learning levels of children. These results help decide the books that are to be taken. Around August, the Library begins wherein for six days of the week, the Teacher goes and distributes the books. There are about 250-300 books that the team has selected which are suitable for students of different levels. The teacher divides her days among all the children depending on the learning levels of children. The child selects the books and when these books are returned, the teacher does a gup-shup with the child. This is done in order to understand if the child has read the book and whether he/she has comprehended- did you read the book?, what was there in the book/ which characters?, what was the story about? - are the questions asked. On the last day of the week, children sit in groups and do activities. Mumbai had an absolutely different model as the Libraries are mobile, it was not a group intervention; the teacher went to every household and interacted.

Our Team at M-Zone

As we were moving from one household to the other and the teacher was trying to explain her activities; there was one point where she got a bit confused. As this happened, a lady making garlands, sitting out of the house we visited started sharing. She shared about program and the details of the teacher’s schedule. I started interacting with her; her name was Sushila. She is a parent of two children - her daughter being in class 7 and her son in class 4. She emphatically spoke about the program and the impact its having. She spoke how her children have got this taste for reading now and that they look forward for Lalita tai (our teacher). She said, हम लोग दरवाजे पर खड़े रहते है ललिता ताई के लिए! As I was interacting with her, she said, “मैडमयह किताबें तो ठीक है पर आप वो डिक्शनरी होता है नावो भी दोबच्चों को और हमको नए शब्द पढ़ने मिलेंगे! As she spoke, a few others gathered and the other parents too started speaking about our work; they were a part of the parent’s group/committee who in a way hold and support the program with our teacher. It was indeed delightful to see these empowered women who want to think about their children and are facilitating our teacher's work in the community.

 We saw the same model at Worli, Jijamatanagar on the next day and also got to know the similar library there. Here, we tried to explore if there are spaces where the students interact in groups on the basis of the reading they do. To this, the teachers and TMs shared that in different communities in Mumbai, there are two major problems- The space and Safety. Because of these, parents at times do not allow children to go to other households.

We had realized that the Libraries here were absolutely different; however, we also realized that the learning was not affected by that. Children were reading and they wanted new books. More so, the impact in terms of ownership in parents and eagerness to read in children was very visible. Mothers and other family members also started getting engaged in reading the books that are delivered at home and taking things up; leading to some discussions and ‘group learning’ at home. However, one thing that amazed us strongly was that; it was a Teacher-Intensive model- everything depends upon the teacher. She is going to all the households and distributing books. When the teachers were asked about the challenges they face, they shared about how it takes time to convince parents when they go door to door, face rejection and reach out to all members/households of the community. Moreover, they shared that they need some more skills for doing this and also in the process reaching out to the children effectively. 

An activity underway

With these experiences and reflections, on the last day, we visited Govandi; in M-Zone again; where a pilot of the new model of Library (the model we were oriented about) was being done.A Trainer Monitor, Chaya tai took us around and facilitated the visit. There are five locations in Govandi where Pratham is working using this model since September. In this time period, the team has made 291 strong volunteers. From these, 61 volunteers are there in Gautam Nagar- where we visited. ‘High energy, commitment to do as much as they could and consistency’; were my major observations about the volunteers here. Moreover, the team has tapped different stake-holders as volunteers and this is very interesting. Along with the mothers and the youth in the community, tuition teachers and such other professionals have joined the process. Our books are distributed through them. While I was there asking the students about the books they have read, the teacher got into a natural dialogue with the students on the books- he had read it and the way he spoke showed that he did it regularly.

It was indeed an encouraging visit which helped us get a comparative of the two models. So here, in Mumbai we experienced a 'different library' – in fact two different libraries. In this process, I gathered a lot of learnings on my way; but the major one was that of valuing the context! I think those four days in Mumbai made me feel Gratitude for all our teachers and volunteers who are doing their bit each day so that our children learn. I think they helped me realize, ‘what Empathy actually looks like..’ Understanding people, their needs, their scenarios and then framing an Intervention- Isn’t that called REACHING OUT effectively?

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Out of the Box

3:27:00 PM
Parigi, located at 17.1833°N 77.8833°E, the oldest Mandal in Vikarabad/Rangareddy district, since the period of the Nizams, was to be our destination for the next 3 days as part of our Library Review visit. 

The drive to reach here took us a cool two and a half hours and as we made the ascent over a small hillock, towering windmills dotted the skies to the left and like an old Chinese saying “When the winds of change blow, some people build walls and others build windmills” I wondered what the people of this village would have embraced and in which direction were the winds blowing.

Our CRL Vinod was our guide and he took us through the narrow lanes crisscrossing the village terrain. It was early evening and we saw children across ages huddled in groups, taking out their worksheets from neat plastic bags and working without supervision. As we did a general round up eyes slowly peered from the lowering of the worksheets excitedly smiling towards Vinod and wide-eyed and curious as they observed us too.Vinod had developed sensitivity and apathy towards children and they looked forward to his visits in the village. Guess he was just not a CRL  but their trusted friend. Our casual walk through the village had created enough distraction and it was now time to do business to engage with them.

Children had invented their own learning spaces. The courtyard at the entrance of the house was the normal choice for group seating. But surprised to see some eager beavers entrenched on top of sacks of cotton just farmed from the fields. And to top it all one group had communed in a cowshed. These unassuming places were proof on what children felt as simple environs for learning, nothing fancy but enough to engage.

“I am in Class III,” quipped eight-year-old Renuka proudly, “and have completed the charts.” She pulls out her worksheet from the bag and began to read the contents fluently. Satish, just nine years old, can read both Telugu and English fluently with an almost smooth pronunciation. “Earlier, children could only write and found it very difficult to read”Vinod recalls “but now even a Class II student reads with ease.”Children took pride in finishing their simple worksheets. A doubt cropped in my mind, why is it that in all the groups we met all were keen to show their worksheets. Was not our program also about fun? Vinod was up to speed on this,  the children were conditioned to show their reading and math to visitors first because that meant learning in their minds. This came naturally to them but was soon dispelled when the group did an impromptu skit. Manoj acted as the village water pump and each one dramatized their actions at the pump, washing, cleaning cattle, spitting with a message that it was just a place for filling water buckets and it was not the village washroom. Their own Swachh Bharat skit. Throughout this interaction noticed that Mohan was one child who kept telling something or the other to the group and later I was told that he was the Group leader by choice of the other children. He was always received with a nod of approval by his friends. The group had faith in him and why not? In case of problem-solving, he was their guide.Most group leaders were older children and where the leader was from upper Primary the group bonded well was our observation.

Who was the catalyst to bring these groups together? Vinod promptly remarked “the Mothers!!!” “In each Group we found a Mother who had done some schooling who could read and write and new the school syllabus,” he said. Vinod in his mobilization conversations had earmarked a few who took a natural interest that their kids along with others should learn in groups. “If something new is being introduced in the village which will be good for the children we should embrace it,” remarked Jyoti. She had offered the courtyard to the children for learning. In normal circumstances, children would wander through the village but now they sit in one place and discuss amongst themselves. She was specifically appreciating the materials and thought that they were structured well and helped children to comprehend easily. “Everything is broken down into small steps and this helps the child to grasp better and self-learn,” she said.

Interested to see children interaction we conducted an informal quiz. Most new the answers. Hands went up in the air and eager to be the first one to get it correct. When quizzed about what they want to be when they grow up, professions of teacher, police doctor were all time favorites. But four-year-old Ganesh got us in splits when he said that he wants to get married.

We moved to another two groups not prepared to see what I was about to witness. Naresh a differently-abled boy was being helped by his friends. He too was doing his worksheets and instead of talking about themselves the children were excited to tell me of how much he knew.A few houses away another group was helping Vanshika a hearing and speaking challenged girl with her math sums. They were so proud that she knew so much in spite of her condition. This pulled at my heartstrings. Both Naresh and Vanshika were too happy to be members of their respective groups. Geeta and Smitha had become close friends since the program commenced and were nurturing their new found friendship.
Library Program …A program where you can find a friend! Amazing.

The eagerness to learn and have fun at the same time was evident from every happy child in the community groups. Am sure this would prepare them for their work life in future.

Day 1 ended and the mind was circling with thoughts. Although learning manifests in an individual change, the context in which these changes were occurring was the community.

An informal setting, internal motivation, variable easy and structured content, voluntary attendance, minimum supervision, secure children, team bonding, all far removed from a traditional school setting, if these were the effects of the Library program, a learning opportunity, where the emphasis was on community outside the school walls then
Pratham has definitely shifted the Learning paradigm !!

Friday, February 24, 2017

A library for all

12:29:00 PM
We can find a ray of hope in the darkest corners of the world. It is one of these dark corners where we met Asha Dolhare, a volunteer with Pratham’s Library program.

A library for all Pratham India Priyanka Shertukde
As we moved from one house to another during a Library review visit in a village in Talasari we encountered many ignorant parents who had little knowledge about the whereabouts of their children in the evening. “He goes to that house to do some homework”, father of 10 year old Kalpana replied. She has been attending Pratham’s library program every evening. It starts getting dark after 7 pm. There are no street lamps and children would study under a mere light bulb in one of the houses. Their only source of light evaded them due to power cut at 6.45 pm. Some children continued reciting tables while others decided to wrap up their activity sheets and head home in the darkness.

“I would like you to meet one of our volunteers,” said Kanchan, a CRL who was accompanying us in her set of villages. We set off to the volunteer’s house in pitch darkness. As we walked passed scattered huts in the village we could see a faint white light from a crack in the door of a house some 100 metres away. As we approached the house we were greeted by someone who looked like a girl in her teens. A few children appeared from the darkness and followed us to the house.

“She is a volunteer with us,” said Kanchan. “She conducts library in the evening. About 8-10 children or more come to her verandah and work with our activity sheets,” she added.
“What is your name?” I asked. She smiled. We were at her doorstep but we were not aware of her name yet. “My name is Asha Dolhare. I live here with my husband and 2 children.” Asha replied. Her daughter clutched at her hand and gave us a meek smile. She invited us in her house. The source of light was a battery powered bulb. She is a tailor and supports the family by stitching blouses and kurtis during the day. This is when we noticed that Asha has a slight limp in her right foot.
A library for all Pratham India Priyanka Shertukde

We were complete strangers for her but she is more than eager to share her story with us. Asha attended school till 10th grade. It was on the last day of her examination that her father passed away.

She did not receive her certificate. The family’s financial situation compelled her to quit school and get married. Today, at 30 years of age, Asha has a beautiful family and she is as instrumental in supporting the family. Her children attend school and her husband works at a nearby ‘company’ like most of the other residents of the village.

Asha helps her children with their homework. She met Kanchan one evening and was informed about the library program. She liked the concept and requested to be a part of it. She took the initiative of gathering children from neighboring houses and distributed activity sheets. She loved solving their problems and helping her own children with topics beyond their school syllabus. “The stories and puzzles are enlightening. At times I get engrossed in solving them,” she said. Her body language was that of confidence and excitement. She asked us questions as well. She expressed her desire to complete 10th grade and enroll for a course in nursing.

“My husband supports me and he wants me to fulfil my dream,” she added. She sits with the children every evening with her own study material. She is preparing to attempt the pending subject to pass through 10th grade. “It is encouraging to see children absorbed in their books and sheets at a time when they usually wander in the village. They are my motivation,” said Asha.

Volunteering for the library gave Asha a sense of purpose and a boost to her ambitions. She not only makes time for studying but also works with the children encouraging them to explore possibilities. 

Friday, February 17, 2017

A visit to Pratham's Library Program at Nandurbar

5:29:00 PM
Though States in India are organized on the basis of language, it is impossible to draw a distinct line between two states and create a border between two languages. In fact the cities or villages that lie on the border of these states, display a beautiful confluence of language and culture! However, this also creates a challenge of a different kind, something which I experienced during my visit to Nandurbar for the review of Pratham's 'Library Program'. Nandurbar is a district in Maharashtra that is flanked by Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh on its West, North and East and the Maharashtrian Khandesh lies to its south! Hence this district is a confluence of Marathi, Hindi and Gujarati. If this is not enough, the tribal influence adds some other dialects like Bhilli, Pauri, Mauchi and Konkani! Hence the biggest challenge for anyone who works in the education sector is this very variety, which at times creates communication hindrances! And hence I find it very appropriate and necessary to salute the tireless work of our colleagues who are working in this district for the past so many years!

Happy Faces from the Library Program at village Kakarde, Nandurbar 

Library Program allowed me to understand and imagine the extent to which an 'impact' could be made and how many lives it could influence. It was heartening to interact with the guardians of these library groups, who in most cases were mothers (and in all cases, women). Our CRLs tell us that participation of the womenfolk in this program is indeed healthy. Not only do these women participate in the program, but they also enquire and are curious about the child's progress. Most of the women I met thanked us for the program as this, according to them, made their child sit at one place and do something productive. Otherwise these children used to roam around in the village or spend their time watching television. Our CRLs also tell us that these mothers talk to them about their children's future, something they did not do that often before. One wonders if this could be directly linked to the problem of rampant alcoholism in the state. Men consuming alcohol outside the house and women monitoring the library program besides them was a familiar sight in some villages! Do these women have a hope that studying won't let these children go their father's way?

"Do the male members or the elders in the house interfere in the decisions taken by these women?", I asked one of our CRLs during our meeting. The answer was an emphatic NO! Apart from students learning their lessons, this program has created an opportunity for women to empower themselves!

Library Session in Progress at Village Khokrale 

Kamal Rajput, a guardian grandmother had a different perspective to share during our visit to her village, Khokrale. While she too mentioned that this program has moved children away from television addiction, she added an economic dimension to it as well! Pointing in an anonymous direction she gestured that 'they' can afford good schools and private tuitions, whereas we here cannot! 'They' are the rich families of the village. The library program, she said, has provided a platform for poor students in the village to study and solve their problems by themselves. Her request of more visits and interventions from us, hence, carried a lot of significance! Another important point of view came from Ghotane village, where the village chief (gaav pramukh) Ganesh Mistry opened up. He emphasized that the library program has enabled the first generation learners of the village to get their doubts cleared, then and there in the group! Earlier they used to wait for school the next day and this used to dilute their curiosity and keenness for the answer. These words, probably, pointed towards the growth of a literacy movement in the village. That the village chief himself spoke about this was more heartening!

Overall for me, the program has summarized the fact that women of the village are satisfied that their children are studying and spending their time productively. It has also allowed them to be a part of this very different literacy movement in their village. Will this transform the villages and make them more curious about the world outside? Radically, no! But, gradually, yes!


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