More Nonsense Acronyms, or, What We Do Here (MNAOWWDH) by Brian Heilman

Friends, let this post serve as an introduction both to my host NGO and to my individual fellowship project. I’ve been in Katna for a month and a half now, a time period which can very easily be divided into three two-week chunks. The first two weeks were what we might call “Gradually Figuring Stuff Out Time,” or GFSOT for short. GFSOT was followed immediately, after the return to Katna of our organization’s leader and my mentor, by “Ferociously Finishing A Bunch Of Stuff Before Durga Puja Time,” or FFABOSBDPT. And we might call the third time period, which is just now finishing, “Durga Puja Holiday And Planning For The Next Eight Months Time,” DPHAPFTNEMT. And given that we successfully completed the PFTNEM element of DPHAPFTNEMT, I am prepared to discuss my fellowship project in detail. But first let me introduce you to Street Survivors India and some of the discoveries I made during GFSOT.


Short version (for skim-readers):
1. Street Survivors India doesn’t work with street survivors.
2. Street Survivors India is like the palm of a hand, and its five main projects are the fingers.
3. It’s all about the Shakti.

Long version (for lots-of-time-to-kill/eager readers):

1. Street Survivors India (SSI) doesn’t work with street survivors. It isn’t located on or within five kilometers of what one might call a “street,” and it is even farther from the types of streets on which someone in India might need help to survive. SSI is therefore a misnomer, but it wasn’t always that way. The organization started in the Motia Khan slum, very close to the New Delhi railway station. Like Sealdah in Kolkata and dozens of other examples, railway stations in urban India are dropping-off points for villagers seeking new, more economically viable existences. Slums grow on and near railway platforms because these new entrants to cities have no other place to stay. They are desperately poor places, with no physical or social infrastructure (including everything from toilets to clean drinking water to schools, clinics, etc.). SSI, for about eleven years, operated a school and night shelter in Motia Khan, until in 2002 government officials bulldozed the school and its slum neighborhood to make way for a five-star hotel and shopping mall. There was very little anyone could do to stop the demolition; the slumdwellers were, by all “official” considerations, squatting illegally. But thankfully the demolition, which put a stop to SSI’s “street surviving” elements, didn’t extinguish the motivation of the organization’s leaders, Jugnu and Shabnam Ramaswamy.

2. Street Survivors India is like the palm of a hand, and its five main projects are the fingers. The palm links the projects and gives them unity, but the fingers do the actual work. The first and most important project, perhaps the “thumb” to stretch the metaphor, is the Jagriti Public School (JPS). The school is the main headquarters of the organization and the continuation of the educational work the Ramaswamys started in Motia Khan. After the demolition in Delhi, SSI relocated to Shabnam’s family home of Katna, a place where they could purchase land (and thus be free of the nightmare of demolition) and also deliver quality English education to people without a glimpse of India’s recent economic and educational progress. Jagriti, which was also the name of the Delhi school, means “awakening,” and in my opinion “Jagriti” should – if paperwork and bureaucracy didn’t exist – replace Street Survivors India as the official name of this organization (given Discovery #1). Anyway, JPS currently offers English-medium education up to Class Four to students from Katna and several other villages in the area. Every year, the school adds another class and will ultimately teach fourteen total classes (Nursery, Kindergarten, and Classes 1 through 12). The start-up expenses for the school came from individual donors as well as foreign governments (Japan and the Netherlands especially), but within two years it will become self-sufficient, when the students’ tuition fees match and overtake the operating expenses. About two-thirds of the students pay full tuition fees (350 rupees per month – about $9.00), while the remaining one third are subsidized (both by the others’ tuition fees and by donors). The subsidized students pay 50 rupees per month (about $1.25) or nothing at all.

3. It’s all about the Shakti. The power. The power and the awakening both, I guess. The other four main projects of Street Survivors India are: Stree Shakti, Swyam Shakti, the Jagriti Gramin Libraries, and the Shiksha Shakti Centres. The Shiksha Shakti Centres actually don’t exist yet. It is partially my responsibility to make them happen. But more on that later; I’ll go chronologically here. Stree Shakti (Wife Power or Womens’ Strength) provides access to justice to village women. Upon arriving in Katna and building a respected reputation, Shabnam Ramaswamy gradually became a resource for women suffering from domestic disputes. Women in Katna who were abused by their husbands or other family members previously had no outlet for their complaints other than the male-dominated and unsafe local police station (which was staffed, most likely, by their husbands’ friends). And even the few cases that did make it into the infamously sluggish Indian legal system took decades to resolve. So Shabnam pestered the police until they let her sit in the police station during appointed times every week to hear women’s cases. The outlet proved so popular – and necessary – that the system eventually moved to Shabnam’s own porch. Since 2002, Shabnam has – as judge and jury – heard and resolved over 2,000 such domestic cases. It is my site partner Maria’s project to computerize all of these court records and prepare a final report from them (and I will help a bit along the way). Yet while hearing all of these cases, it struck Shabnam that the village women needed long-term economic solutions; by becoming economic contributors to their families, she reasoned, the women would force their husbands/in-laws to respect their place in family life more fully. So she created Swyam Shakti (Power of Independence or Self-Sufficiency), a economic livelihood project for village women. The group, which has expanded now to about 1400 women, engages in traditional weaving, animal husbandry and vegetable cultivation for profit. The signature brand of the 700 traditional weavers of the group is “Katna’s Kanthas,” and their hand-stitched blankets and saris are now sold in bazaars in Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, and Bangalore (as well as overseas as part of the Craftmark catalog). I will be in Delhi after Christmas to greet my mother when she arrives in India because I will be helping to sell our kanthas in a major bazaar there. That leaves the Jagriti Gramin Libraries, which are exactly what you might think they are: small libraries in ten villages (“gram” means village in Bengali, hence “gramin”). This project is funded by the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation and provides after-school access to books, tutoring and games to government school students in the area. This, along with what follows, is what we do here.

* * *

Now I’ll move on to the afore-promised detailed account of my fellowship project, as submitted to AIF earlier this week. These best-laid-plans are almost guaranteed to be revised if not completely changed, but nonetheless the basic framework of my project follows below.

My Fellowship Project:

Short version:

1. I was the head writer on a successful $600,000 educational grant application to a major corporate foundation here in India; this grant will fund #2 and #3.
2. I will help coordinate a huge educational survey in our subdivision, and write a report based on the findings.
3. I will help prepare for and oversee the construction and staffing of the first four Shiksha Shakti Centres.

Long version:

1. I was the head writer on a successful $600,000 educational grant application to a major corporate foundation here in India; this grant will fund #2 and #3.
While the idea wasn’t mine, the vast majority of the writing in our 52-page grant application (which put the FF- ferociously finishing – in FFABOSBDPT) was mine, and I’m very honored by the fact that the foundation to whom we applied almost immediately accepted the proposal. We won’t start receiving the grant money until the first of the next financial year (April 2008), but Shabnam has nonetheless decided to begin the project with SSI funds to be reimbursed in April. The grant will fund two major projects, and I will be a member of the administrative team for both.

2. I will help coordinate a huge educational survey in our subdivision, and write a report based on the findings. Before we can build the Shiksha Shakti Centres (SSCs – see #3), we need to assess the state of educational access and achievement throughout the five blocks of Kandi subdivision, where our organization is located. Within each block we will choose 30 villages with a population of 400 families or less, and conduct a survey in two phases. The first phase will be a basic “house listing,” intending to determine the basics of each family’s socio-economic and educational status. This will include the following pieces of information:

Personal: Names, number of members per household, age, sex
Economic: Household income, main earning members, sources of income, landholdings
Social: Ration card, Voter ID, occupation, religion and/or community
Educational: Qualifications, or degree of education claimed for all members of the household

The second phase of the survey will focus on the twenty “poorest” families in each village. We will meet again with these families, who will likely become beneficiaries of the SSCs, and add qualitative data to the quantitative figures gathered in phase one.

For the first phase of the survey, which requires interviewing some 60,000 families, we will hire 250 temporary field workers, 5 team leaders, and a team of 10 data entry workers. 125 field workers, along with the team leaders and data entry staff, will continue to the second phase of the survey. We will then analyse the data and use it to prepare a final report on educational status in our subdivision, which I will take charge in writing.

3. I will help prepare for and oversee the construction and staffing of the first four Shiksha Shakti Centres. Following the completion of our survey, our grant project will begin in full stead. The major project is the construction and first five years’ operation of ten new learning centres (two in each of the five blocks listed above) intending to serve 100 poor government students each with remedial classes, and their parents with innovative adult learning opportunities (out with the alphabet, in with wealth management and civil action). This proposal is in direct response both to our organization’s personal experiences in the region and the recent Sachar Report on the Status of Muslims in India, which specifically recommends that the government, NGO and private sector collaborate on just such “study centre” projects.

According to the latest plan, the first four centres will be built and inaugurated as soon as possible after we begin receiving funds in March or April. This will likely take until late May or early June. The next three centres will be built and inaugurated by the beginning of the following school year, which starts in April, and the final three by the next April (2010). Prior to the first inauguration, in addition to construction of the centres, we will also need to hire and train the staff of the centres, in addition to building community awareness and support of the projects through various means (traditional cycle prachar ads, meetings with major school officials, etc.). I expect to take a leading role in these preparation projects, especially the training of the teachers.

* * *

Those are the basic facts/motivations/ideas/projects that I’m planning to deal with during my time here. Of course, I am also: teaching computer classes to Class 3 and 4 students, helping Maria with her work, being the random-computer-task go-to-guy at school, taking Bangla lessons, taking Rabindrasangeet singing lessons, attending AIF retreats, playing regular cricket matches with school staff, writing this blog, growing a mustache, staying up on Indian cricket news and scores, reading like a maniac, learning Bangla songs on guitar, planning my mother-and-friends’ trip to India, fighting off hordes of insects in my room, learning to cook simple Indian dishes, dancing at school programmes and staff dinner parties, and sleeping very well.

I think sleeping is the only thing I’m doing “very well” so far, but I’m working to change that. Perhaps these next two weeks will earn the title “Learning To Do Many Things Very Well At The Same Time Time,” or LTDMTVWATSTT. Let’s hope.

Thanks for reading.

Brian Heilman

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