Thursday, December 29, 2005

Waiting for the Shyam Raghunandan

Hey Folks,
This article is a little offbeat from the technical ones that are posted here, but this is a really nice experience that one of my friends had and I thought I would share this with everyone here. The artcile itself can be found at:

Asha for Education is one of the several voluntary groups started off by grad students in the US who wanted to 'do something worthwhile' in India, and we focus on basic education for underpriviledged children in India. Its a 11 year group with over 500 people volunteering their ti me and well its a lot of fun :-).. anyway.. hopefully in the future, I will have something a little more technical to contribute as well.

This article brought tears to my eyes. (I am Macho and seldom have tears) Hat's off to you for getting involved in such a noble cause at such a young age when most people have other more important priorities.Your parent's must be very PROUD of you. I am and so will most members in this group. Keep up the good work

Waiting for the Shyam Raghunandan IITM 1997

Meet Kailash, Mahadev and Shankar. Kailash - a confident 10-year old who is already financially independent, Mahadev - a 7 year-old whiz kid who can solve any complicated addition/subtraction questions in a jiffy and Shankar, who has been the subject for an American photographer. Sound familiar - could Mahadev be your neighbors’ bright son, or Kailash your nephew who has already found ways to finance his candy without asking his parents for an allowance, or Shankar - that cute little kid on TV!

That might well have been the case, but we met these extraordinary children leading extraordinary lives at Platform No. 4 of Bhubaneswar Railway Station. With ruffled hair and not so clean clothes, they looked no different than the children we see on the streets in any big city in India - those that many of us would try to avoid expecting them to beg or even worse pick pockets. Sure, like millions of other street children in India they don’t have a home, no family that will take care of them, no promise of a meal and no toys to play with. What makes these children special is that they are not only fighting for daily survival, but are self-motivated to get an education. Each one of them has a story to tell-it is not all about their sorrows, their daily struggles-- it is about their hope and dream to become "normal" adults after schooling.

Kailash opened up to us and we would like you all to know this amazing child’s story.

On a bright and sunny Tuesday afternoon in April 2002 we first met Kailash at Bhubaneswar Railway Station. We were visiting the platform schools run by a NGO
called Ruchika in the city. Kailash along with other children was sitting on the platform fully engrossed in what was being said by the instructor, unaware of the loud, crowded and filthy world around him. He seemed unaware maybe because the platform is his school, his playground, his office, and his bedroom. He lives, studies, and earns a living, all at the railway platform. Our presence didn’t bother or disturb the children one bit as they have become used to commuters gathering around and watching them from close quarters. The sight is a peculiar one-well-dressed passengers in a circle around the teacher and the children as if the platform school were a movie and they had been granted front-row seats.

Since we were associated with Ruchika, the children got candid and gave us a peek into their lives. The way each child has ended up at the railway platform is
different-some have run away from their families, some were lost and some have found livelihood at the platform. Kailash has run away from his family in Puri. He has been coming to the platform school for over a year and can read, write and do some basic math. Like some of the other children we met that day, Kailash earns a living by selling water in bottles (not bottled water). These children pick up used water
bottles, fill them up with water and sell the bottles at about Rs. 5 per bottle to the public at train stations (the bottles are not sealed and the customer knows it). Some of them also clean train compartments and then ask passengers for money for their work. On a daily basis, these children work all over the eastern corridor from Andhra Pradesh to West Bengal. For example, they might take an up-train in the morning and then come back later in the evening or next day on a down-train. A few children proudly pointed out they had even been to big cities like Mumbai and New Delhi but weren’t too impressed-too crowded (agree with them on that one!) and people weren’t very nice. In fact, some had left Bhubaneswar for months and eventually made their way back to Bhubaneswar and back to the platform schools.

Kailash cherishes his independence and his ability to earn a livelihood. Hence, when we asked him and his friends whether they’d want to go back to their families or to school full-time, they all emphatically said, "No". They want to earn money. Kailash over the years has become street smart-he said to us "in this environment you have to become shrewd quickly otherwise people take advantage of you". Quite a profound statement from a ten-year old - Kailash has had to mature well beyond his years and if you look closely, his stern face and rough hands give it away. He told us that he had spent some time in Surat, Gujurat learning how to cut gemstones. Although the
money was good he preferred to return to his home state. He now visits his parents in Puri once a month and takes home the money he has been able to save. Kailash has diversified from just selling bottled water. He sells water aggressively in the mornings, earns about 80 rupees and then buys eggs, bread and kerosene for about 40 rupees. He makes toasts and omelets on a borrowed kerosene stove and sells them to
the evening commuters. By selling food Kailash makes another 70 rupees and on a good day he saves approximately 80 rupees.

Kailash’s good business acumen was evident when he told us about how he hoards the plastic bottles he collects and sells the bottles filled with cold water at the right time to maximize his earnings. There is a direct correlation between the bottles you have at your disposal and your daily income. That is why; the children eagerly wait for long distance express trains that pass through or terminate at Bhubaneswar. Even before trains enter the station, the children line up the platform preparing to board them. Like children anywhere they all seemed to get excited at the sight of a train entering the station. This is a sport for the children and winning here ensures a good meal for the day. The children especially get excited about the luxury train Rajdhani, as it is "the train" for empty water bottles. On the day of our visit, as the Rajdhani approached the platform the teacher didn’t
even try to stop the children from leaving the "school" and continued on with few young girls still sitting there. In a few seconds of its arrival, the children had already disappeared into the air-conditioned luxury train of India.

The next day at 10 in the evening we were waiting at the train station to board Purushottam Express going to New Delhi. And guess who we see there selling water-Kailash. Had we not met him earlier he would have passed by us like any other "poor" boy. However, we called out his name and somewhat surprised he recognized us-with a big smile he came towards us (He had got his right ear lobe pierced that morning and
was wearing a thin gold earring!! It had cost him 25 rupees.). He was busy going in and out of different compartments with three bottles of water in his hands. He asked us to wait and said he would be back soon. After about 5 minutes he came back having sold all his bottles. He was happy, as he had earned about Rs. 80 that day. We asked him if he was saving any of his money. Kailash gives his money to one of the Ruchika
teachers for safekeeping. We advised him to open an account just so he can earn some interest on his savings, which he plans to do with the help of the same teacher. When we asked him what he wanted to do in the future, he said, "Not sell bottles of water because as an adult I will be embarrassed to do that".

Our train arrived and soon it was time for us to leave. He wanted to write to us or even try to visit us and we gave him our address. Our meeting that night was special for us and for him too, as we had "connected". We will remember his smile and charming face in the years to come.

Kailash and his friends will be back on Platform No. 4 at Bhubaneswar station, some to learn how to read and write, but all of them definitely to make a living. And as long as that is the case, they will all be eagerly waiting for the Rajdhani…