The Delhi Report Education & Development
The Republic of Ireland has always been respected for its exceptional commitment to international development. Our Overseas Development Aid budget was ranked as the sixth most generous per capita by the OECD in 2008. However, with the recession at our door, it is difficult to remain so financially generous as a nation. Instead, we can embrace less costly, more imaginative, forms of generosity. So in December we travelled to New Delhi, the capital city of India. India is the most populous democracy in the world and its economy has improved in leaps and bounds over the last few decades. However, many Indians still live in what we would consider to be abject poverty. I hope that the journalism contained within this magazine will open your eyes to the problems faced by some of the poorest people in the world, and that you might be part of the next wave of Irish generosity, whatever form that may take. Luke Maishman Editor
It was an honour to receive a grant from the Simon Cumbers Media Challenge Fund to travel to India. Ours was the first ever grant to student media under this scheme to commemorate a prolific Irish journalist, Simon Cumbers, killed while working in Saudi Arabia. To be commissioned to travel abroad with the specific intent of reporting is a significant departure for Trinity News, and for student media in Ireland. May it be first of many. Martin McKenna Editor, Trinity News
Editor: Luke Maishman Travelling delegation: Luke Maishman Catriona Gray Martin McKenna Contributors: Conor James McKinney Jean Acheson Photos: Martin McKenna
Contents First impressions The economic view The Prayas view The World Bank view The volunteer view Conclusion
With thanks to Lorraine Whitty; Bryan Patten, Philip Regan, Andrea Wickham and everyone at Suas HQ in Dublin; Nick Maishman; Vir Narayan, Ashok and everyone at Prayas; Amarendra Singh of the World Bank; Pat Bourne at the Embassy of Ireland in India and everyone at Trinity Publications. Published with Trinity News on April 21 2009. Supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Challenge Fund. Trinity News 6 Trinity College Dublin 2 Ireland www.trinitynews.ie
Fresh nosed and in shock
Chaotic, traumatic, surprising and contradictory; Catriona Gray describes her early impressions of New Delhi
Facing page, top: The seatbelt-less Ambassador taxis would later prove luxurious compared to door-less autorickshaws. Bottom: A bird’s eye view of the ceaseless streets
From the moment we arrived in Delhi airport, the change in atmosphere was palpable. Despite it being the cold season, it was still far hotter, and the air much drier than it ever gets in Ireland. Even the view from the aeroplane window suggested a promise of what was to come: a wide expanse of reddish ground, dotted with the occasional dusty green tree, the panorama punctuated by clusters of low, white concrete buildings. Outside the airport buildings, the culture shock really struck, as we searched for our taxi amidst the throngs of people milling about and shouting to each other in a mix of Hindi and English. There were a surprisingly small number of tourists, all of whom looked very out of place amongst the chaotic bustle of the small dusty area outside the airport. The taxi ride to the hostel was my first experience of Delhi driving. The taxi driver drove his 1950s style, very battered Ambassador at a breakneck speed, beeping his horn constantly as he swerved between lanes of traffic, and displaying a casual disregard for any of the usual rules of the road. Still fresh off the plane at this point, the lack of seatbelts in the back was a bit unnerving, although in comparison to the auto-rickshaw rides that would be our primary mode of transport through-
out our stay, this taxi-ride was sheer opulence. We were staying in Pahar Ganj, which is right in the centre of New Delhi, and is one of the biggest tourist markets, mainly due to its close proximity to the railway station. Picture thousands of people crammed into a very small area, filthy streets lined with stalls covered in brightly covered souvenirs, with beggars, traders and random men all extremely eager to assist you in parting with your newly acquired rupees as you drag your suitcase behind you and desperately try to find your hostel which is located down one of countless, unidentifiable, dodgy-looking side streets. The stalls are nearly exclusively run by men, who spit effusively and constantly, and stare blatantly at any tourist, particularly the female ones. After much trauma, we eventually found the hostel, and immediately embarked upon an argument with the manager regarding the price of the rooms. Money seems to be everyone’s overriding obsession – in Pahar Ganj at least – and haggling is obligatory, as prices are automatically hiked up for tourists. Whilst in India, we had to talk and think about money all the time. It was a constant issue, despite the fact that the prices involved were often
Left: The autorickshaw, our main source of transport – and haggling disputes
ridiculously small when converted into euro. We frequently spent ages haggling with a rickshaw driver in order to get a reduction of 10 or 20 rupees, which is the equivalent of 16 and 31 cent. Taken out of context, it seems incredibly miserly to quibble about such tiny sums of money, but it was more a matter of principle than anything else, as it seemed wrong to have to pay four or five times the price that an Indian would pay for the same journey. The different value of money is also something that seems particularly unique to India. The division between rich and poor India is unbelievable, with people surviving on as little as one rupee per day on one hand, while by contrast a night in the plush Imperial hotel could set you back up to 80,000 rupees. India has a disparity between rich and poor that is non-existent in the West: the very structure of our society does not permit such an extreme gap between poverty and affluence. The sheer size of India’s population, however, enables such contrasts to exist, and it was one of the aspects of our stay that struck most strongly. We went to India a week after the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and although I was not particularly aware of it at the time having never been to India before, looking back now it is clear that they did have some impact
on our stay. There were quite a lot of security checks – we had to go through metal detectors and be searched not only at airports and when going to see national monuments, but when going into shopping malls and even when we went to the cinema. Having no conception of what was “normal” in India, I accepted this as standard procedures, but in retrospect, the atmosphere was quite tense, there were less tourists than expected (although, to be fair, it wasn’t the tourist season) and all three of us noticed the number of security guards who seemed to be present everywhere. Delhi itself is one of the most surprising and contradictory places I’ve ever visited. It is an assault on the senses: in the hostel the noise of car horns and shouting was in constant competition with the Hindi film music emanating from the room across the hall, and walking down the street it was impossible not to notice the aroma of spices and cooking that mingled with the smell of incense and cow dung. Throughout the course of our stay in India, the culture difference continued to reassert itself, and it became increasingly apparent that, given the enormity of the country and the way the society and economy is structured, our decision to write about “Development and India” would prove to be a far harder task than we had initially thought •
Right: Main Bazaar, Pahar Ganj: Our home – and that of many backpackers and tourists – for the duration of our stay.
The problems of an emerging giant
Conor James McKinney looked at the economic situation in India, the extraordinary progress that’s been made and the challenges still faced by the world’s largest democracy
Facing page: Vegetable and other food stalls in Sangam Vihar, one of south Delhi’s colonies, back onto a rubbish tip, in which children hunt for scraps to sell.
India is the future. A by-word for the success of market reform and investment in modern industry based on information technology, its GDP recently passed the $1 trillion mark. The Economist forecasts growth of over 5% this year despite the global economic crisis. As the world’s largest democracy, it is a wonderful example of a country overcoming the colonial legacy and slowly but surely shaping its own future and, increasingly, the future of the world. But does India require no further examination? Surely we can come back in fifty years to find it as prosperous as any European or American state, left to its own devices? Well, perhaps not. It is helpful to look at its performance relative to like countries, rather than the basket-case economies of Sub-Saharan Africa, which it has now, by and large, left behind. In modern economic parlance, much is made of the Big Rapidly Industrialising Countries (BRICs), Russia, Brazil, China and India. These are reckoned to be on the path to prosperity and the drivers of future global growth. It is worth remembering, however, that for all the positive talk, these are places that have started from a very low base. Sub-Saharan Africa, now renowned for little but squalor, deprivation and general misery, was once
slightly richer than China and India; it is only in the last fifty years that the BRICs have begun to edge above those levels of absolute poverty, and only the last ten that that have seen them develop economies of any global significance (the timeframe is slightly skewed for Russia, which developed earlier and regressed after the collapse of Communism). Even now, the fruits of growth are not widely dispersed, so that while the country as a whole may be an economic power, large sections of society continue to live in conditions not significantly different to those that pertained ten, twenty or fifty years ago. In the slums of India, then, one may just as well be in Kinshasa or Dar es Salaam. There are many reasons for this, and one example may demonstrate the difficulties in resolving the problems of India’s poor. One of the main impressions conveyed by the Trinity News team in Delhi was the constant ebb and flow of overwhelming numbers of people. India’s population has increased from around 250 million at independence in 1947 to over a billion today. In contrast to the Chinese Communists’ infamous one-child policy, India never took serious steps toward a meaningful policy to cool the birth-rate. The Congress governments in the first decades after
independence were more concerned to increase living standards, believing that otherwise any policies of control would fail. Nehru, the first and longestserving of India’s Prime Ministers, was unconvinced throughout his career of the merits of contraception as a device for reducing fertility rates. Interestingly, he pointed to Catholic Ireland as an exemplar, a place where lower birth rates were achieved despite a societal antipathy to contraception. The result is a population explosion that puts great strain on social services and infrastructure. For example, the literacy rate in India has increased from 28% in 1961 to 65% at the 2001 census, yet India still has more citizens unable to read and write than there are in the whole of the United States. The country’s National Population Policy was set up in 2000, a mere 24 years after it was first mooted in Parliament. It aimed at a gradual reduction in the increase in population growth, aiming for a total of 1.1 billion people by 2016. Last year it admitted that projections showed it to be off-target by some 50 million people. Hence the slums in major cities, notably Mumbai, where two-thirds of a metropolis of 15 million live in a Dharavi, or Colaba, or one of 2,000 other permanent slum settlements. The constant tide of rural dwellers hoping for a marginally better life in the city keeps these (mostly illegal) encampments full to the brim. According to the Times of India: “there are four great divides that slice up Indian society and pervade every aspect of life: rural-urban, men-women, rich-poor and caste.” In the 21st century, it is important to remember that most Indians still live off the land. Life in the Indian countryside is as hard as ever for many, despite great advances made over the last fifty years. One of the outstanding arguments for self-determination is the fact that independent India has never had a famine; whereas millions died in the Bengal famine of 1943. The Green Revolution of the 1970s transformed India from a food importer to a nation largely self-sufficient in food, with the western states of Punjab and Haryana the breadbasket of
the region. Nonetheless, rural Indians are still poorer than their counterparts in the cities. The countryside is also the place where caste still reigns supreme. Elsewhere in this supplement, we describe the origins and effects of this social stratification: it is common to read in the Indian press of atrocities such as young dalit (untouchable) boys lynched for sending a love note to a high-caste girl. Politically, there have been many efforts made to stamp out this stigma. The law forbids caste-based discrimination other than the positive, which reserves many public jobs for dalits and lower-caste groups. The assertiveness of the downtrodden has led in recent years to the rise of the Bahujan Samaj under the charismatic Mayawati, currently the Chief Minister of the vast state of Uttar Pradesh in India’s heartland. She is set to be a kingmaker (or even queen herself) after the forthcoming election, but hers is only the most prominent of dozens of regional and caste-based parties that have left the political system fragmented, unable to function without laboriously constructed coalitions – yet another obstacle to the enforcment of change on this sprawling polity. Inequality and misogyny, along with the other issues facing contemporary Indian society, have the potential to retard substantially the development process. The Times might reasonably have added “religion” to its list, given the occasional violent clashes between Muslims and Hindus, and even Hindus and Christians, that mar what is, for the most part, a pluralist society. The recent terrorist outrage in Mumbai underscored the danger of Islamic extremism while also reminding the outside world that India’s fraught relationship with her Muslim sister-state of Pakistan is a perennial and worrying issue. We should not be blind to the problems that exist in this vast and fascinating polity, even as we laud it as a success story and a model for others to follow. Hopefully, as the reader delves into the stories brought back by the Trinity News team, he or she will come to understand a little better the complexities and challenges of development •
Right: An excursion to Red Fort illustrated the gender disparity in India. Two security queues outside were in operation, one for each gender. The men outnumbered women by hundreds to one.
A valiant effort in a sea of problems
Luke Maishman, who spent three months working with Prayas in the summer of 2008 as part of the Suas Volunteer Programme, describes his return visit with the Trinity News delegation
Facing page, top: A mosaic on the side of the Prayas Headquarters in Delhi. Bottom: Two girls staying in the orphanage wave from the centre.
After the hour-long journey to the Prayas HQ in South Delhi we gingerly unfolded ourselves from the autorickshaw and set off for a building set a little back from the road in its own grounds. Ashok, the Education Officer, met us on the first floor of the airy and comparatively clean main building and ushered us into the office of Vir Narayan, the new Programme Manager for Prayas’ operations in New Delhi. Vir Narayan, the man we had come to see, was concluding some business with two wealthy-looking Indian businessmen so we were sat down to wait. It was a large office, the four computer terminals attesting to a normally larger occupancy, and we were quite comfortable sitting waiting on the fairly standard grey-cushioned swivel chairs; such as one might see in any Irish office. The businessmen did not seem in the least concerned by our presence and cheerfully continued their discussion, a series of rapid Hindi exchanges. Looking around the room I was struck by how little had changed since my three-month sojourn with Prayas in the summer. My trips to the HQ building then almost always involved a visit to this room, the nerve centre of Prayas’ operations in Delhi. True, there have been some changes of staff since my placement here: Dr Nuzhat, who was
Programme Manager during the summer, has since resigned – Vir Narayan seems to be coping well with living up to her excellent reputation – and there have been some other resignations as well. But apart from the people little has changed; the office and most of the building remain much the same. As if to attest to this fact, Martin points out the Suas poster near the top of a noticeboard next to Narayan’s desk, which I realise has not moved since the summer. I also see a hand-made Suas greetings card pinned to the notice board. On the front is a photo of the entire Suas Volunteer group 2008 standing together in NUI Maynooth; a sister of the card that I, and indeed all of the volunteers, received from Suas at the end of the placement. I remember my own copy, which sits above the desk in my apartment back in Dublin. It feels right that one of the cards should have found its way out here, the place where all the action happened. Vir Narayan has shaken hands with his other guests and is gesturing us over. He is a smartly dressed and polite man, much shorter than any of us, though it is difficult to tell whether this counts as short or normal height by Indian standards. In response to our questions Narayan enthusiastically tells us about Prayas’ activities.
Vir Narayan, Programme Manager for Prayas’ operations in Delhi
Prayas is a large NGO, with operations in 7 of India’s 28 states. They work to support education, both by providing informal schooling to primary school children and vocational training for women and young adults. They run orphanages and a child-line service, and have launched emergency relief efforts in response to natural disasters. It is difficult for us to understand the schooling system in India, Narayan notes. In such a vast country, with so much poverty, primary education for all is a hard dream to realise. The government schools are full, he explains. That is where the Prayas schools come in, taking in children who have not been admitted to government schools and supporting the children who have gained places in government schools after attending Prayas schools. But the government schools are not perfect, as Naryan explains: the classes are too large (sometimes 80 pupils to one teacher) and teacher motivation is low. He attributes the low motivation of the teachers to poor pay rates and lack of support. It is not a good learning environment, Narayan seems to be saying, yet those who fail to learn do not get another chance. Teachers in the government schools have no incentives to keep students back when they fail their endof-year tests; indeed it reflects badly on the teacher’s ability: you might have a child who is in fifth class who does not know basic arithmetic. Then there is the dropout rate. Girls, in particular, are often kept at home by their parents. In a country where the majority of people are living hand-to-
mouth, children are needed as an extra source of income or to look after their younger siblings and the house while their parents work. The advantages of education for their children are not immediately obvious to parents concerned about keeping food on the table. This effect is even greater when the government schools are far away from the child’s neighbourhood, and if the parents don’t know their child’s teacher. The Prayas schools, Narayan emphasises, are located in the children’s community and a teacher from the community is employed. The teachers get to know the parents and try to build up a level of trust so that parents are less likely to keep their children at home. One initiative of the government that Narayan does seem to have some time for is their free lunch programme. This brings lots of children to the government schools and lowers dropout rates, he explains. But because the staff of the school have to administer the food themselves there is a further negative effect on the quality of education, as teachers spend time in the kitchen rather than the classroom. After our chat Vir Narayan and Ashok show us around the Prayas HQ building. There is a girls’ orphanage on the top floor, which I remember from the summer is for victims of abuse. Certainly the girls seemed fine and were pleased to see us, if a little shy, when we visited their large bunk bed lined dormitory. On the second floor there is a computer room and typing skills room, Continued after following spread
Right: IT skills are among those most highly prized in India. These students are using the computer room in the Prayas HQ in Delhi.
Right: Typing skills have not been supplanted by the new technology.
Prayas: acting across India
“We, at Prayas, visualize ourselves as partners in a national and global campaign to restore childhood to millions of children deprived of their basic needs…We dream of an India where every child goes to school, or is provided with decent alternative education and is also provided with health care and shelter.”
Prayas’ goals • Welfare programmes for disadvantaged children, youth and women • To fulfil the basic needs of destitute and neglected street children • To promote and organise educational programmes and recreational facilities for children • Vocational training programmes and to organise self-help for disadvantaged communities • Basic health, nutritional and medical services including health awareness programmes • Running model homes for child offenders in need of care, correction and rehabilitation.
• Research on issues related to neglected children and the juvenile justice system in India. • To usher in policy changes to promote effective child development programmes in India. • To publicise issues regarding development of children and women in deprived communities. • To cooperate and network with similar organisations in India and abroad • To sensitise the government, communities and civil society about the needs of children. • To encourage smaller initiatives working for children by offering technical expertise
m y a n m a r
Of Prayas’ many operations across India, there are education projects in five states
Andaman & Nicobar Islands
Prayas’ education projects • Delhi Through five different comprehensive projects in different parts of the state, Prayas provide education and support to hundreds of children. • Gujarat In January 2001, a huge earthquake shook Gujarat. Prayas run alternative education and services for children as part of their rehabilitation effort there. • Bihar Through three different projects in this area Prayas operates more than 17 schools. • Assam The education centres here work particularly with tribal (low or out-caste) children, and focus on creating stability in a conflict-torn region. • Andaman & Nicobar Islands These islands were practically wiped out by the tsunami in 2005. Prayas offers alternative education counselling to help children overcome the impact of the tsunami.
Aside from education... • Prayas runs a 24-hour childline for children in Delhi. • Prayas set up several shelter homes in Delhi and runs a Juvenile Justice home at Delhi Gate in partnership with Delhi Government. • Prayas supports those who cannot afford healthcare, running clinics and 24-hour centres. • Children in Prayas education centres are provided with mid-day meals. • Prayas supports over 10,000 women through self-help groups, where they are given support and taught independence and business skills.
where a number of students are practising using old-fashioned typewriters. Both are information technology vocational training centres – IT skills are some of the most valued in modern India. There is a sewing and embroiderycraft vocational centre on the ground floor, where a number of young women show us the baby clothes, which they will sell to help fund the centre. In the informal school on the lower ground floor class is underway. About 25 children kneel quietly in front of their half-height, Victorian-style school desks. The teacher, a young woman who was once a pupil in a similar Prayas school, has a full height modern desk and chair. However, she rarely sits down, instead standing in front of her desk to direct the class in quick-fire bursts of Hindi. At the back of the classroom, a door leads into a large, brightly-decorated room. This room, the ‘Resource Centre’ was decorated by a group of Suas volunteers like myself during the summer. They certainly did a good job: this is the most colourful and child-friendly room that we have yet encountered in the Prayas centre, a giant snakes and ladders board is painted across much of the floor and paint and colour bring the walls to life with pictures and two dimensional games. The tour does not finish just because we have seen all of the HQ building. Narayan and Ashok now take us to visit some of the Prayas schools “in the community” nearby. We travel by bus, a first for me in Delhi, to the community, where we visit three schools. It is tempting to think of the classroom that we saw first, in the Prayas HQ building, as a “show school” considering its proximity to the offices that Prayas’ guests might visit. Certainly it is the best-equipped, cleanest and most heartening of the schools that we see. The other schools tell a less optimistic story, perhaps a shade closer to the truth though. Here, the impression is of running repairs only, a gratefulness for the existence of any educational setting, be it far from what would be expected as absolutely basic for a primary school in Ireland. Only one of the schools that
we visit in the community has desks for the pupils, and none of them are in purpose-designed buildings. One is on the second floor of what appears to be some kind of accommodation complex, with a shared atrium in the middle of the building that any stranger might wander into. The buildings housing these schools are not as clean or as well maintained as the Prayas HQ centre, while walking between the schools we find ourselves on footpath-width “streets”. Once again we are amidst the medley of street stalls and beggars that have come to represent, in our short trip, the less affluent parts of Delhi life. Despite their less than perfect facilities the children of these Prayas community schools are pleased to see us and enthusiastically show off their skills: In one classroom children stand up individually to recite poems and songs in English and Hindi, showing second-language fluency that would leave teachers open mouthed in Irish primary schools. In another school all the children sing English songs together, including Five Little Ducks, a nursery rhyme of great popularity during my placement in the summer with Prayas. All the words came flooding back, such was the children’s enthusiasm; many also doing hand actions, that I couldn’t help but join in! For a couple of minutes it is the summer again and I am enthusiastically gesticulating in front of the class as if it were my own three and a half months before. Realisation quickly dawns however; I have no excuses now to behave like a hyperactive YMCA instructor, and I quietly return to my demure stance. Fingers crossed no one noticed the outburst. But that sums it up. What can we give these children but a chance at a childhood? The greatest thing I saw was the smile of children able to spend some of their day doing what children should. Learning maths, reciting poems in a foreign language, or simply spending time with other children in a classroom. Lack of equipment, unusual settings; these things are secondary to the fact that the Prayas schools are giving children the experiences of childhood that they would otherwise be denied •
Right: The age gap between students was often large. These students were lucky to have desks to sit at.
Right: The school in the Prayas HQ. This was by far the largest and bestequipped we saw. Other schools were a quarter the size with many more pupils.
The view from the World Bank
An interview with Amarendra Singh, Social Development Specialist at the World Bank in Delhi helps us place the things we see into the nationwide picture, writes Luke Maishman
Facing page: Many factors, including the caste system, poverty, hunger, and gender inequality all contribute to exclusion from education for many children.
On Wednesday the 10th December we met Amarendra Singh at the World Bank Headquarters for India. A lovely man, he had come into work especially to talk to us. Friendly and relaxed, he quickly made us feel at home, suggesting that we conduct our interview outside since it was such a beautiful day. We happily complied, and so it was that we sat on the giant amphitheatre-like steps in the garden of the World Bank and talked about education, caste and the differences between policy and reality. Then, as now, I was struck by the strangely informal phrases that he used, intermixed with his comprehensive discussion of India. This is probably cultural: I have included some quotes that exemplify his manner to better convey the sense of our discussion. “You want to understand education, you have to understand the country,” Singh begins, launching into a long but informative explanation of the state of the education system in India today, and the difficulties it faces. It seems the major focus of the government and the World Bank is primary level education, which is still by no means universal. “The two biggest problems are definitely around availability and accessibility. Availability is whether the building is there, whether the teachers are there and all that kind of stuff, accessibility is
whether they’re closed or not; and then there’s the dynamics behind the caste system in India.” The Caste system, as you may know, is the embedded cultural and religious system in India, which is essentially an inherited class structure. It is quite difficult to understand from our western perspective, and indeed is often demonised by the West. Nonetheless, it does have its supporters, notably Mark Tully, who worked for the BBC for twenty five years in India and South Asia. But in Singh’s opinion the caste system is not doing any good for the spread of primary level education in India. He refers repeatedly to the situation in rural regions, where the problems with education are often the worst: here the government’s influence is limited and easily overruled by local elders and higher caste figures. These local leaders, who “have absolute say.” enforce the caste system, meaning that lower-caste children are denied education opportunities and tend to go into work at a young age rather than continuing their education. The caste system often, if not always, overlaps with the economic class system, meaning that the children of “forward” or higher caste not only have preference due to caste but are backed by rich parents and have the same class
advantages that we see in Ireland (an analogy might be South Dublin Blackrock students). If a Brahmin or Rajput lives in a village, and their children are educated in the primary school there, the high-caste parents will not want any children of lower castes studying alongside their children. At one point Singh even compares the caste system to racism, though noting that the definitions are not the same. “This is how the whole demography in the country is basically divided,” he notes. Apart from direct exclusion, a major problem of the caste system is its influence on dropout rates. These are inevitable with the high rates of poverty in India, where many families are forced to live on the streets and struggle to feed themselves. For these people every extra pair of hands is needed to work, and families would be tempted to get their children out to work even under the best of circumstances. A cultural system that teaches that children in low-caste families should not be educated, but should work, only makes this worse. So, what is being done? Singh tells us about some initiatives of the Indian Government that attempt to relieve the pressure of the caste system. One is the reservations system, which keeps a certain number of places in education institutions for people of lower castes. But, as Singh notes, this faces the same problems as all government efforts, in that in rural areas where the state’s influence is weak, the local leaders continue to follow the caste-based rules, ignoring the rule for reservations. One of the most effective drives for universal education in India, both historically and continuing today, are the missionaries. Singh notes the work of a number of religious groups including Hindu, Islamic and Christian efforts. In the North-East of India, infrastructural work is particularly difficult because of the terrain and fighting between different “movements.” But the work of the missionary schools there means that “education service is reaching to almost the last person... the literacy rate is almost 99%.” Singh emphasises the difference
between policy and reality in India, a gap which is far wider than we are used to in Europe. As he jokes, “any Indian policy can be compared to any similar global policy – if we can design such beautiful policies, then where are the problems?” On a more serious note, he explains: “the downside is that nothing happens if it is not done. If it is done: fine. But if not then there is no action taken against the state.” One group that have made moves towards improving the accountability of the government are NGO’s, such as Prayas. But Singh is not enthusiastic about their chances in the short term: “it will take god knows how many years to really be effective at the lowest level.” One of the major problems with NGOs demanding accountability is that they themselves are not transparent: “if we can say that the government is corrupt then the second point is that the NGOs are also corrupt.” Singh thinks that the NGOs will have to clean up their own acts before the government will consider their demands. In fact Singh is not overly impressed by the efforts of NGOs such as Prayas. He worries that there is “some kind of disconnect” between NGOs and government “which is not good” for services such as education. He suggests that NGOs “need to be more proactive and complementary” to the government’s efforts, noting that “NGOs think that what they’re doing is basically alternative.” Singh sums up his thoughts on the future of education in India: he sees demand as the driving force of change, noting that in the recent elections “development is the agenda for voting for the first time - that is a very big step.” Regarding the recent bombings in Mumbai he remarks that until now “nobody has seen that kind of public outcry.” Singh has great hopes for a bill put to parliament defining education as a universal right. It is still pending to become an Act, but Singh hopes it will be approved this or next year. That might put pressure on the system “at the grassroots level,” with fewer dropouts from primary school “almost guaranteed” in five year’s time •
Right: Amarendra Singh outside the World Bank in Delhi. “Development is the agenda for voting for the first time”, he said. “That is a very big step.”
Right: The cooperation of the community is vital to the accessibility of education for children.
A student volunteer perspective
Jean Acheson reflects on her experiences in Delhi as part of the Suas Volunteer Programme 2008.
Facing page, top: These students’ enthusiasm and energy was not dampened by their lack of chairs or desks, or by their tiny room. Bottom: In each school, pupils proudly recited poems and songs.
India gets under your skin. That was the part they couldn’t explain at the SUAS training weekends. We met up on three occasions in Maynooth before swapping Dublin for Delhi, and they never succeeded in convincing me of that fact. My mistake. The training for the programme involved three residential weekends in Maynooth in the first half of 2008. These weekends provided a chance to get to know your team of twelve volunteers and one city coordinator, and to establish what the role of volunteer fully entailed. The SUAS selection process was very effective. Teams are picked with incredible consideration; of course, this was something I could only really appreciate later on in the summer. The whole “team” environment of the programme is very reassuring, particularly for people like me with little experience of developing countries. SUAS usually sends volunteers to both India and Kenya for ten weeks each summer. This is only part of their work though; they work with partner organisations in these countries throughout the year and have a number of operations in Ireland. In 2008, almost eighty volunteers went to India, but because of the political violence that had erupted in late 2007, Kenya was deemed too big a risk to expose the
volunteers to. My team, Prayas Laal, was sent to Delhi to work with a charity called Prayas. Prayas operates in seven different Indian states and its main mission is to protect and care for the most vulnerable children and women in Indian society. We were involved in their alternative education centres. I worked in a centre in Sangam Vihar in South Delhi. The residents of Sangam Vihar will proudly tell you that it is the biggest colony in India (a colony differs from a slum by having proper legal recognition and thus a right – in theory – to basic infrastructure. For the biggest slum in India, you would need to go to Mumbai). My centre consisted of two small classrooms (each roughly the size of the security office inside Front Arch) located in the basement of a building down one of Sangam Vihar’s many side streets. My very first impression of the classroom was a sea of brown eyes staring up at me. There might have been about thirty children in the class on that day in June, but numbers would fluctuate throughout the summer as some students got ‘mainstreamed’ into government schools or some simply left. My teaching partner Alex and I spent our time in the centre teaching the kids (aged six to twelve) English, Maths, Art and the odd out-of-tune song.
Our teacher, Monu, was a remarkable person. She herself was a product of the Prayas alternative education system and had begun teaching in their centres when she was fourteen. She worked six days a week and when we asked her about her hobbies, she said it was encouraging more of Delhi’s children into education. She was also the exact same age as me. I would like to recount one of the oddest parts of our days in the centre. From time to time, parents would come in with their children to enroll them in Monu’s class. But Prayas has a strict policy of only accepting children over six year’s old (even though some of our girls often brought younger baby siblings in with them). I would watch as Monu instructed the children to place their right hand over their head and touch their left ear. It didn’t make sense. Eventually, I asked her to explain. It emerged that these children did not have birth certificates and one means of testing their age was to get them to perfom this exercise. At six, their arms were long enough to reach their ears, but generally not before this age. But of course! That was India. People go officially unrecorded and you make do with what you can. One of the highlights of the programme was the Creation Week the volunteers ran toward the end of the summer. It was a week-long summer camp for all the centres we worked in. Our attempts to teach rugby failed gloriously but they seemed to enjoy the alternative: chasing after the lucky child who had the ball, ripping it from them and starting all over again. That was the week where relationships with the children and my teacher really crystallised. Afterwards, there was only another two weeks left and they flew by. The toughest part was saying goodbye to Monu. I think we provided the children with entertainment, attention, and some new English words, but the friendship that developed with ‘Monu from heaven’ was more important. Be under no illusions: the SUAS programme in particular and short-term volunteering in general is not an effective way of aiding developing countries.
There are arguments that say by having this experience you become a greater advocate for global equality, and that the people you knew who donated money would not have done so unless you had been there. But, overall, change does not come from spending ten weeks in Sangam Vihar. I think Alex and I were good role models for the children, but I cannot be certain whether we had a lasting impact on their education and development. We were there for a discrete amount of time, and made a difference during that time, but I am unsure that the benefits we (may have) given in the classroom outlasted our stay. I can say with certainty that the programme did change my attitudes. The reality that there is no perfect solution to poverty and inequality became far more apparent. One simple example involves Delhi’s chronic rubbish problem. If the city were to implement a proper rubbish collection system, hundreds of thousands of ragpickers would be out of a job. Would I advise someone to do the SUAS programme? Yes. But with certain caveats. You are only as good as the skills you bring. Presumably everyone who volunteers has a positive attitude toward learning and an enthusiasm to pass this on to the children. But more tangible elements are required. One team-member, Amaya, had just completed a degree in Speech and Language Therapy. She used this to help diagnose a girl as partially deaf (as opposed to be being a slow learner, the previous opinion). That made a sustainable difference. SUAS is a good first step. But it is not a perfect nor sufficient one. The reality of India in general, and development work in particular, cannot be conveyed in just words. So I’m acutely aware of the difficulty, and almost futility, in trying to prepare someone for it, and in sharing the experience of it with others. I keep remembering a construction sign that constantly reappeared on the roads as we first drove into Delhi from the airport: “Work in Progress.” It is the most apt expression of India and development work I have yet to come across •
Right: The beginning of the alphabet painted on the wall of the Prayas HQ in Delhi.
Right: Students at the school in the Prayas HQ.
Our eyes have been opened
Some final thoughts from Catriona Gray on this trip and the problems we encountered in Delhi.
Reflecting upon such an intensely eye-opening trip just emphasised the diversity of the problems that India faces, and also how little it is possible to know about India, as a visitor. Personally, I felt a terrible feeling of being completely unqualified to write about it, although I am not sure whether anyone could ever be in a position to write authoritatively about a subject as broad as â€œDevelopment and Indiaâ€?. India is huge; the country is home to approximately 1.13 billion people and Delhi alone has a population roughly three times that of Ireland. There are so many different aspects of India that it would be impossible to ever fully understand all of them. What the trip to Delhi did do was open my eyes to the enormity of the country and the incredible complexity of the problems that India faces. Having been told that it was a third world country, it came as a surprise to see the abundance of shopping malls and five-star hotels. These showed a very different side to India than the one so often propagated by charitable organisations. The country seems to be comprised out of countless layers, from the amazingly rich to extremely poor and everything in between. India is not only the most poverty-stricken place that I have ever seen, but also the wealthi-
est. From an outsiderâ€™s perspective, it seems incredible that all these different layers manage to co-exist, and that the wealthy and the impoverished live at such close proximity to one another. It is common to find slums directly outside private gated residences, and barefoot children knocking on the darkened windows of expensive, chauffeur-driven cars. While we were in Delhi, we spoke to Amarendra Singh from the World Bank, who explained the structure of Indian society and the imbalances which exist within it, saying that there is still huge inequality between the sexes which sees girls being taken out of school much earlier than their male counterparts, and he also noted the caste system which still survives and creates further divisions. The sheer size of India also means that there is a huge difference in living conditions between regions as each region can vary significantly in everything from customs, language, religion, and even the different food that they cook. There is such extraordinary diversity in India that it is almost impossible to make general observations about the development of the country as a whole. The thing that was most striking was the scale of the problems that Delhi is experiencing. Having seen the head-
quarters of Prayas, and having been shown around several of the schools, it was clear how much of a need there was to incorporate more children into the educational system, and improve the extremely basic facilities that the children who are already in Prayas and state-schools have. In the schools that we saw, there were about forty children of all ages packed into a single classroom, which was roughly the size of the average office in Trinity’s Arts Block. The children had no tables or chairs, and it didn’t seem as if they even had enough books or stationary to go around. Despite the best efforts of their teachers, it seems impossible that they could receive a proper education in such an overcrowded and under-facilitated environment. The efforts of the individual seem
to be merely a drop in the ocean given the enormity of the problems that exist, even in an organisation like Prayas. We only saw a tiny aspect of the challenges that India faces, but it was enough to open our eyes to the magnitude of the overall difficulties that exist within the country. To really understand the problems that India experiences, it is necessary to view them from an Indian rather than a Western perspective, which is extremely difficult as an outsider. India is evolving and changing at a rapid pace, and at the moment has an economy that is thriving as much as our own is struggling. A week spent in Delhi has not provided any definitive answers to the questions that we came with, but it did draw our attention to the scale of the social and economic issues that India is experiencing •
Below: Nightclubs, such as this one in trendy Basant Lok, are part of the rich people’s India, which often backs right onto poor street dwellings. Right: Pahar Ganj’s Main Bazaar never fell silent, even late into the night.
This report was supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Challenge Fund. This grant scheme is funded by Irish Aid and is aimed at assisting and promoting more and better media coverage of development issues in the Irish media. Previous recipients of the grant include RTĂ‰ and the Irish Times. The next application deadline for this grant is 30 April 09. Visit www.connectworld.net or phone 01-4806222 for more information or an application form.
Travelling to developing countries and volunteering your time can be a life-changing experience. There are a number of charities and groups in Ireland that can facilitate short term volunteering trips, of which we mention two below: The Suas Volunteer Programme sends volunteers in teams of 12 to partner schools in India and Kenya. www.suas.ie EIL Intercultural Learning supports teaching, welfare, environment, health, building and sports projects in 15 countries. www.eilireland.org
Read our Delhi blog online at www.trinitynews.ie