Serving during the Pandemic Year I: At my Host Organisation

Balsena meeting at the community centres
Balsena meeting at the community centres.

My AIF Fellowship host organisation Shaishav has been working with underprivileged children in the marginalised communities of Bhavnagar, Gujarat for more than two decades. Shaishav recognises that a child who brings about a change in himself has the potential to change society for generations to come. So, to empower children, Shaishav has embedded a participatory approach in all its programs to ensure children’s developmental needs are met through life skills activities and are likewise sensitized on gender-based issues.

The organisation has formed ‘Balsena’ groups (children’s collectives) across 20 marginalised communities. During the fellowship program, I primarily focused on designing, implementing and evaluating life skills and sports activities for Balsena children. After the virtual orientation, I worked from home the first month on designing sports modules for the annual sports meet which was scheduled right after the celebrations of Uttarayan.

Kite flying experience with Balsena children
Kite flying experience with Balsena children.

By mid-December 2020, I moved to my host organisation as the COVID-19 situation had considerably improved in Bhavnagar and after two weeks of home quarantine, I started going to my workplace. During the first week of my joining the organisation, I was given orientation of the various programs running at Shaishav in the morning hours, whereas in the afternoons, I visited the Balsena communities to participate in the kite flying festival.

Two migrant children displaying their collection of colorful kites which they have gathered from the roadside
Migrant children displaying their collection of colourful kites.

Previously, I have never learnt how to fly a kite, however this time, the local children taught me the art of holding the manja in such an adept manner that I was able to eventually keep the kite afloat all by myself for some time. I couldn’t have possibly imagined a better way of building my first rapport with Balsena children than learning to fly kites from them. During the festival of Uttarayan, while I was walking down the streets of Bhavnagar, I noticed many migrant children collecting kites that fell by the roadside. These children also wished to partake in the colourful festival, however, given the extreme poverty in the family, their parents could not afford to buy them kites. Instead, they reused the fallen kites and also distributed them among their counterparts who lived in the same jhoper pattis (urban slums). I have documented my experience of partaking in the colourful festivals of Uttarayan and Holi at my host community in the publication titled ‘The Adventures of Jugaadu Jaadu’.

Children participating in physical education activities such as group skipping and juggling.
Children engaged in various activities during the annual sports meet.

In the subsequent weeks, I was given the responsibility of organising four zonal sports’ meets which witnessed collective participation of more than 300 children from across all the 20 Balsena communities. I was tasked with designing sports modules, training the field team, coordinating and executing the activities across different venues to finally reviewing children’s overall learning and feedback. The physical education activities such as relay races, group juggling, paired skipping and pyramids fostered teamwork, coordination and athleticism in children. On the whole, the experience was overwhelming because children were enthusiastic all through to explore more challenging activities which required them to step out of their comfort zones and strive to develop greater physical capabilities. Personally, I enjoyed the challenge as I was given the autonomy to organise the event right from designing to implementing all the activities.

A display on how to make different sizes of paper hats from one newspaper
Various sizes of paper hats from one newspaper are in the making.

After the sports meet, I dedicated the morning hours to strengthening the organisation’s reporting, documentation and communication practice whereas, in the afternoons, I regularly visited the ‘Balsena’ communities to facilitate life skills activities as well as sessions on art and craft. In the beginning, I found it difficult to communicate the instructions because of the language barrier, however, as the sessions were attended by children of mixed age groups, I resorted to peer learning as that helped bridge the language constraint and also allowed older children to develop leadership skills.

During this time, I attended several active council meetings in which ‘Balsena’ leaders who represented their respective communities came together to review and plan activities for the month. In this platform, children openly discuss challenges which they might have experienced during the weekly point sessions in their communities to any issues pertaining to child labour, physical abuse and gender discrimination.

(T) Girls involved in stonework on sarees (B) Boys spinning tops with friends
(T) Girls engaged in stonework (B) Boys playing spinning tops.

The community home visits informed me that prolong closure of schools led to a bourgeoning of makeshift tuition centres because online learning on WhatsApp did not quite reassure parents that children were indeed learning. Moreover, a sudden fees reduction only further encouraged parents to send their children for tuition classes. I also observed little girls engaging in stonework to help their mothers’ complete the given quota of sarees for the week in addition to assisting with other household chores; whereas boys enjoyed their leisure time playing games on the mobile phones or spinning tops (lattu) with friends in the locality. On average it takes a member in the family about 5 to 6 hours to complete a sari for which she gets paid around 30 to 40 rupees depending on the intricacy of the designs.

Hand embroidery designs & artwork made of recycled materials
(L) Local hand-embroidered designs (R) Artwork from recycled materials.

Besides, stonework, I found several ‘Balsena’ girls to have developed an interest in creating artistic work out of waste materials as well as in knitting and embroidery work which are popularly known as ‘Bharat Gunthan’ in the Kathiyawadi region of Gujarat.

Process of making Nawar plastic Patti at a local workshop in Bhavnagar
Process of making Nawar plastic Patti
Profession of a betel nut cracker slicing the seeds into finer morsels that would later be used in the preparation of pan.
Documenting the life story of a betel nutcracker.

Furthermore, I documented the occupation of a betel nutcracker and the challenges he experienced during the lockdown months as well as the entire process of making Nawar Plastic Patti right from procuring worn-out ropes from the world’s largest ship-breaking yard in Alang to recycling them into roll straps or plastic patti, which are then used for making foldable cots and durable market bags.

Celebration of Holi with children from the Sindhi community
Celebrating Holi with children from the Sindhi community.

A couple of weeks before the devastating second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, I celebrated my first ever Holi with children from the Sindhi community in Bhavnagar. In the evenings, I regularly played badminton with them as well as experimented with some art and craft activities because they often complained to me of how boring it was to attend online classes.

By mid-April 2021, I returned back home to Kolkata given the rising number of COVID-19 cases in my host community. The four months stay at my host organisation helped me acquire a first-hand understanding of how Shaishav used a participatory approach across all its programs to empower children from disadvantaged backgrounds, as well as build a healthy rapport with staff members. I thoroughly enjoyed the cultural immersion at my host community and the memories from the colourful festive season still continue to remain vivid in my mind.

Utsarga is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Shaishav in Bhavnagar, Gujarat. For his fellowship project, he is supporting and strengthening life skills training, self-designed learning techniques, and sustainable living practices for children and locals of vulnerable tribal communities. The self-paced, student-centric approach fostered at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education (SAICE) provided Utsarga with ample opportunities to develop his interest in the field of alternative education. After his graduation from SAICE in Arts and Humanities, he pursued his Master’s in Education from Azim Premji University. During his Master's programme, Utsarga learnt about various issues plaguing the public education system and acquired a first-hand understanding of some of the challenges pushing children out of elementary schools in rural communities. His latest engagement has been a research internship with the Central Himalayan Rural Action Group, where he studied school leadership in the context of organisational culture and community participation and its effect on children’s overall learning outcome. He contributed in strengthening the physical education program and raising funds for the school apart from conducting household surveys to understand the socio-economic condition of families, sources of livelihood and management of natural resources. In 2019, he participated in a 15-day entrepreneurial train journey to interact with social change-makers and explore alternative practices to bring quality education in the government schools of rural India. Utsarga is grateful to be serving as an AIF Clinton Fellow; he is looking forward to broaden his understanding of the education sector and experiment alternative practices in the public school system by fostering an all-round development in children.

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