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Bhola’s Story

Bhola is 16 years old. He lives in the Topsia canalside squatters, a row of shacks built on a spit of land in the middle of an open sewer in central Kolkata. There are two fresh water taps for the 710 families in this community. The water flows for a couple of hours twice a day. Keeping clean and having access to clean drinking water involves queuing and frequent arguments.

 

Bhola collects food rations for bhis family who are suffering in lockdown

Bhola’s family are destitute. His mother earns Rs500 (less than £5) a month as a tailor and his father, normally a driver, recently broke his leg and has lost his job. The family of 4 has depended on food parcels from Tiljala SHED through lockdown.

It would be regarded as normal for a boy in Bhola’s circumstances to have dropped out of school and found some low paid labouring work to support the family. But Bhola is a bright boy and is determined to do better for his family.

 

Bhola with new school books
This week Bhola was able to buy books so that he can continue his studies

It would be regarded as normal for a boy in Bhola’s circumstances to have dropped out of school and found some low paid labouring work to support the family. But Bhola is a bright boy and is determined to do better for his family. He is a member of Tiljala SHED’s “Topsia Evening Class”, set up 3 years ago to provide educational support and encouragement to youngsters at risk of dropping out of education.

This cohort of young people has become a close knit, hard-working, socially aware and determined group. Bhola and four others passed their class X public exams this year. This is unheard of in a community like this. He wants to become an accountant.

It is a commonplace in the aid world that donor money is best spent on the girl child or on empowering women. And there is good reason for this.  However, I have known many many young men who have embraced the help they have received and have gone on to play important roles in civil society. They are financially independent, good fathers and often give back to the aid sector that helped them. And as one researcher reminded me about these communities, these are the boys that the girls will marry.

I also observe the children’s parents. The fathers are often broken by poverty: hard labour as rickshaw drivers, in factories and on building sites ruins their bodies. Soon they cannot work and are unable to support their families. Many turn to cheap hooch and domestic violence ensues. Family breakdown is common. The women work tirelessly to hold the family together. It’s a depressing story that repeats and repeats.

Bhola aims to break the cycle, but he is in a terrible position. School is closed because of COVID. He wants to learn but can’t even access the online classes. The family is hungry – it must be terrible for him.

But we can help. In September, through Global Giving’s Little by Little campaign, we raised enough funds to provide Bhola and 19 other members of the Topsia Evening class with smartphones and data packs.   A small monthly contribution will provide Bhola with the school uniform, books and stationery that he needs. It will help keep the Evening Class going and give Bhola access to teachers, career counselling, extra tuition, food rations and moral support.

If you would like to sponsor a young person like Bhola, a monthly donation of £30 covers all his education expenses. A further £15 provides a food parcel for his whole family.  Knowing he has a sponsor in a far-off land will give a youngster like Bhola tremendous motivation to keep going. It is terribly difficult to resist the downward pull of poverty in a marginalised community like this. But I know it is possible.

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Taking Emergency Relief to the Sundarbans

Team assembled at the Ashram ahead of food distribution

Cyclone Amphan Relief Campaign for Global Giving August 2020

On 27th July 2020 Global Giving awarded Tiljala SHED USD3750 for relief for those caught up in Cyclone Amphan.  These funds were donated by private individuals through Facebook as a response to news of the disaster.

Tiljala SHED decided to take emergency food rations to a remote area of West Bengal on the edge of the Sundarbans. 50% of the population of Pather Protima G Plot live below the poverty line at the best of times but in the wake of the COVID lockdown and the destruction of home and livelihoods by the cyclone, many families found themselves facing homelessness, destitution and starvation.  Government grants to repair dwellings were too small; families used up their savings repairing their homes and feeding themselves.  Many of our beneficiaries belong to scheduled tribes: crab fishing is the main local industry. Normally winter is the fishing season so what is earned in winter needs to last through the rest of the year.  Other sources of income are mostly from daily labour. In the COVID lockdown, these people lost their ability to earn a day’s wage and therefore fell quickly to destitution.

We took food rations for 270 families

Working closely with the staff at the Ashram in Pather Protima, 270 of the neediest families were identified and generous packages of dry rations were distributed to each family. Each package will have provided at least enough food for a week for an average family of 6 people. We also took donated clothing for 100 families and further supplies of 100kg and rice and 90kg dal to be distributed by the Ashram. Other agencies have provided food relief since the double crises occurred, but continued support is required..

Case Studies

ABIJUL
“Even if we don’t die of coronavirus, surely we will die of hunger and poverty.”

Ajibul lives in one of the small villages in Pather Protima G Plot. He is a daily wage earner. He has 3 children: his two daughters study in Class VIII and V respectively. His son studies in class III. His monthly income was Rs.3000 (USD40 GBP30) approx. before the crisis. Since lockdown started it has been the biggest challenge of his life to find work. All his savings are finished. His family survives on the relief provided by social organizations and sometimes by the government. The lockdown has taken away his livelihood. Ajibul has been searching for a regular work like before but to his surprise he could not find any except a few working days of the month.

It has been a big challenge to survive with this family in such a condition. According to him, lockdown has done more damage than good. He says, “Even if we don’t die of coronavirus, surely we will die of hunger and poverty.”

“The ration provided by Tiljala SHED in joint collaboration with the Ashram helped us a lot. At least we will not have to starve a few days. The quantity and quality of the ration is commendable. We hope that organization like Tiljala SHED come to us and distribute the rations among the most needy. We are very grateful to the people and the organization who took this initiative and came so far to help us out in this crisis situation.”

Zahida "It was a relief sent from God"

Zahida is a widow and lives with her disabled daughter. Two sons are daily labourers but now out of work. Another son was a construction worker and sometimes helped his mother and sister. He has not worked since lockdown and can no longer help out.

Since her husband’s death Zahida has been struggling to run her family. She sells duck/chicken eggs to survive and sometimes is also able to sell a duck or a chicken. With such a meagre income it is very difficult to run the family and also to look after her daughter.

The lockdown has added to her already existing problems only to get worst. She could hardly sell eggs and run her small business. Sometimes she had to sleep empty stomach. Sometimes she gets ration support from the government and at times from the Ashram.

Cyclone Amphan also destroyed their homes and their roof was severely damaged.

She became emotional after receiving ration. “It was a relief sent from God” she said. “God has answered my prayers.” The reason was none of the organisations who had come before to distribute rations had given very little. “We were very disheartened last time when an NGO distributed hardly a few kgs of Rice, Dal and muri.” But this time was a new experience and she gave all her blessings to the team.

Debi "Our life savings are gone"

Debi lives in of the small villages in Pather Protima G Plot. Her husband Sanjay goes to catch fish. She has 1 son and 2 daughters. The son is in class IV and one daughter has just passed Class XII Board exams making her family proud.

Due to lockdown the husband was not able to go to catch the fish in the boat which resulted in zero income and all their lifetime savings were exhausted because of the lockdown. The business momentum has also gone down even after the lockdown was lifted. It was very difficult for Debi and her family to survive with their family.

With the ration distributed the family was very happy and content. They said they were not expecting the rations to be in such a good quantity as other organizations had given them very small quantity which made no sense to come so far and give away rations in such small quantities.  Cyclone Amphan also destroyed their homes 60% damage. The govt. support was not adequate to build the houses for which they had to take loans from money lenders.

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We need a new vehicle

Tiljala SHED’s 12 year old car seriously needs to be replaced

Tiljala SHED’s faithful workhorse – a grey Maruti Suzuki Eeco – is almost beyond use. We desperately need to find a replacement.

Bought in 2008 this 7 seater van has been essential to all of Tiljala SHED’s activities. But right now it is absolutely central: since India’s lockdown began, this vehicle has enabled Tiljala SHED to deliver 5650 food parcels. It has collected sacks of rice, flour, onions and daal from the cash and carry. Delivered the supplies to our distribution centres and carried staff to and from the field.

But the car is falling apart. There are great holes in the bodywork – large enough for rats to move in overnight.

So we desperately need to find a new car so that we can continue to help the 10s of 1000s of vulnerable men, women and children who depend on Tiljala SHED to deliver food rations to save them from starvation.

Distributing food rations to the destitute of Central Kolkata during COVID-19 lockdown
Distributing rations from the car…
damaged car
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Distributing Emergency Rations During COVID19

Supplies and funds were made available by generous donors. But the transportation, storage, packaging, and distribution were all handled by this small group under the most challenging circumstances.

the transportation, storage, packaging, and distribution were all handled by this small group under the most challenging circumstances.

It is Ramadan, the temperature is in the 30s and this little team has distributed emergency food parcels to 1650 families (almost 10,000 people) over the last month.

Keeping records

Supplies and funds were made available by generous donors. But the transportation, storage, packaging, and distribution were all handled by this small group under the most challenging circumstances. They had to manage the crowds, keep everyone at a safe distance, assess their needs and keep detailed records. And all the while, more and more hungry and desperate people are asking for help.  5000 chits have been posted through Shafkat’s postbox – every single chit representing the desperate need of another hungry family. Huge numbers of people also come in person to ask for help.  The team are doing everything they can – and all the while they are fasting, unable to eat or drink during the heat of the day and even at Iftar they continue to work, breaking their fast with one another rather than at home with their families.

So please spare a thought today for all NGO workers, and volunteers, working under difficult conditions, emotionally and physically exhausted in the front line.

Funds are still desperately needed. India’s lockdown has been extended to 17th May for now, but the hardship for these people will go on much longer.

Please donate here to provide food rations for Kolkata’s destitute, unemployed and hungry slum dwellers.  https://fundraisers.giveindia.org/projects/emergency-relief-for-500-of-kolkatas-ultrapoor-families-during-covid-lockdown

 

To support Tiljala SHED and enable this tough little organisation to weather the storm, to be able to pay its staff and look after its volunteers, please donate here  https://cafdonate.cafonline.org/12619

Supplies and funds were made available by generous donors. But the transportation, storage, packaging, and distribution were all handled by this small group under the most challenging circumstances.

They had to manage the crowds, keep everyone at a safe distance, assess their needs and keep detailed records. And all the while, more and more hungry and desperate people are asking for help.

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News from Kolkata during COVID19 lockdown crisis

I was last in Kolkata in January. One woman who has become a friend over the years is Razia. She lives with her disabled husband and 3 children in a shelter beside the Topsia nullah (a stinking open sewer or canal). She is illiterate and terribly poor but determined to make a better life for herself and her family. Her daughter has just taken her class 10 exams and has great ambitions to continue her education. I always drop in to see Razia when I’m in Topsia and if don’t find her, she’ll come and find me. It’s an odd sort of friendship but one I value. She is the human face of Tiljala SHED’s work. So I was very shocked to be send some footage of a delegation from Topsia, who had come to visit Shafkat at home to explain how desperate the community is for food. There was Razia. I shouldn’t be surprised – she is a community leader in the Topsia canalside squatters and would absolutely stand up for her neighbours. 

The Indian Government announced an immediate 21-day lock down on 24th March 2020, when there were only 500 reported cases of the disease in a population of 1.3 billion. It was hailed as “early, far-sighted and courageous … better than waiting for another 3 or 4 weeks” by WHO’s David Nabarro on April 3rd. An Oxford University research group counted India’s lockdown as the most stringent in the world, scoring it 100 out of 100 on their tracker. It remains too early to know how successful India’s lock down has been in combating the pandemic.

So, whilst the virus is a distant though very real fear, the immediate issue for India’s most vulnerable communities is hunger.  I have been receiving first-hand news from Shafkat at Tiljala SHED and from other staff members and volunteers.The lockdown means that all Tiljala SHED’s programmes have been suspended. The office is closed and the majority of staff are staying at home. The 600 children we normally bring into our centres every day are at home in their huts with their parents. These parents, rag pickers, maidservants, daily labourers, rickshaw wallahs, factory workers, piece workers, are all without work. Without a day’s work there is no day’s pay and therefore no food.  In desperation, hundreds of people are coming to Tiljala SHED to ask for help. Over the years we have run an emergency food programme to help out a few of the most vulnerable families of all. But our main programmes have always been about education and empowerment – helping the poorest to lift themselves out of poverty. But in a time of crisis like this lock down, Tiljala SHED becomes a refuge for the desperate and relief of hunger has become our main concern.

We were hugely helped last week by a delivery of food rations from Kolkata Gives Foundation. Our staff (the ones who live in the community) distributed coupons to the neediest and invited them to come and collect bags of rice, daal, oil, onions and potatoes. 600 families received enough to last them a week.  But it isn’t enough. We don’t know if there will be any more such deliveries.The food distribution is difficult because of the need for social distancing and the very real risk of the coronavirus spreading dramatically in these very densely populated areas. Our staff and volunteers are putting themselves in the way of harm not only from the virus but also from the crowds of hungry and desperate people. Shafkat reports that he has had to call in the police on a number of occasions to calm things down. We are fortunate that he has a friend in the police force who has promised to send in support whenever it is needed.

Many agencies are making use of the fact that even the poorest of the poor in India often have bank accounts – thanks to an earlier government initiative to allow even the poorest to open zero balance bank accounts. And this is how we hope to support our beneficiaries over the next few weeks. Shafkat reckons that a cash transfer of about Rs1500 (about £17) per household of 6 people per month, should help get them through this crisis. It falls well short of what a family would normally eat but it will certainly help. For those who don’t have bank accounts we will continue to distribute rations, but individually. We estimate there may be as many as 3000 families in need and we cannot know how long this will last.
I have been using various channels to appeal for help. I hope this hasn’t caused any confusion – especially as I am going to add another!

About my Fundraising
Over the past 5 years I have been raising funds for Tiljala SHED exclusively through GlobalGiving, a US based crowdfunding platform. It has been highly effective and has led to donations from well beyond my own network.  However, since last July GlobalGiving has been unable to remit funds to any of its Indian partners owing to a problem with the Home Ministry in Delhi. This means that funds have been accumulating in the US until such time as another route has been found.

In order to provide a “fiscal sponsor” to act as a conduit for Global Giving funds, I have set up a new UK charitable trust, The ShantyTrust. This trust is principally a partner to Tiljala SHED – and its most important function to start with is to remit $20,000 of stuck funds. I am delighted that those funds have arrived and will be in India as soon as possible. All future funds raised through Global Giving will now come to Shanty Trust on behalf of Tiljala SHED. I am also looking forward to raising funds directly for Shanty Trust as this gives more flexibility in terms of timing and also the purpose of the funds.

Meanwhile, Tiljala SHED was recently invited to join GiveIndia, India’s foremost crowdfunding platform. This is great news as we can raise funds in Indian rupees, US dollars and GB pounds on the same platform. I have been promoting this on Facebook recently.In addition to this Global Giving enables me to create appeals so if you have been a supporter at any time through Global Giving you may have received an appeal from me last week.Both these two campaigns are going very well and I thank you all for such swift and generous response. I am very pleased that Tiljala SHED will be receiving generous funds from supporters all over the world.

Thank you very much
If you’d like to make a donation through one of these platforms, you’ll find the details below. All donations, however delivered, will go to Tiljala SHED’s COVID19 Emergency Fund.

How to Donate

  1. We can accept tax efficient donations in USD, INR and GBP though the GiveIndia link.
  2. The Shanty Trust CAF link is only tax efficient in GBP 
  3. Global Giving accepts many currencies but I only know they are tax efficient for USD and GBP
  4. Funds can be remitted directly to Tiljala SHED for organisations and other entities for which Gift Aid etc do not apply

Tiljala SHED’s Bank details are as follows:

Union Bank of India
Dr S M Avenue Branch
33/1 Dr SM Avenue
Kolkata 700 014
West Bengal
India

A/C No: 301402010007078

SWIFT/BIC Code: UBININBBOCL

Branch Code: 530140

IFSC CODE: UBIN0530140

MICR CODE: 700026008

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New Charitable Trust established to support Tiljala SHED

The trustees very pleased to announce the establishment of a new UK registered charitable trust dedicated to supporting Tiljala SHED and other organisations committed to the relief of poverty in India and around the world.

The Shanty Trust is U.K registered Charitable Trust (Registration No. 1188154) raising funds to support the work of partner organization TILJALA SHED which works with the rag pickers and ultra-poor of central Kolkata, India. The Shanty Trust’s mission is to relieve poverty through the empowerment of women and the protection and education of children.

The Shanty Trust was founded by Jane Manson in December 2019 and registered as charity no 1188154 with the UK Charity Commission in January 2020. Other trustees are Jane’s sister, Emma Boot, Maggie Cassidy, Charlie (Chantal) McMurdie and Helen Bratchell.

Donations to the Shanty Trust can be made here

Emergency COVID19 Fund: https://cafdonate.cafonline.org/12623

General donations: https://cafdonate.cafonline.org/12619

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Rehana: from success to despair to renewed hope

Back in Kolkata at last!
Yesterday  I went to visit some of our beneficiaries – redoubtable women from the Topsia Squatter camp who are making a success out of lives lived perched over a sewage canal.

Rehana at home in her better days.

Rehana at home in her better days.

Rehana is one of our star performers: with a tiny loan of about £200 she bought a rickshaw, then 9 more. Sold them all and bought a godown (warehouse) from which she deals in waste, selling on the rubbish collected by ragpickers. All was going well and I expected to be congratulating her. But when she arrived it was clear all was not well. She is sick: thin and pale. She is also pregnant and bleeding constantly. The doctor has told her she must be admitted to hospital immediately – but she doesn’t know who will look after her children. As the conversation proceeds it transpires that the husband has run off with another woman taking the contents of the godown with them. Rehana has lost her valuable stock and doesn’t know how she will repay her loans. She is in despair and doesn’t know which way to turn. Thanks to Tiljala SHED, Rehana was able to consult with our staff. Her loan repayments can be put on hold while she gets back in her feet. A staff member will accompany Rehana to the hospital where Tiljala SHED can cover medical expenses from donations to our Global Giving Project (https://goto.gg/23676).  Rehana’s mother has been called in to stay and look after the children.

Rehana in her godown.

Rehana in her godown.

Rehana smiled at last. « When I am well again I can continue my business.

We are so proud of the women empowered by access to small loans through the Global Giving Livelihood Programme (https://goto.gg/21941)

Aware that life’s knocks can completely derail these vulnerable lives we are also relieved that we have the means to step in and prevent a temporary setback becoming a disaster. And she’s probably best off without that husband

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“I’m very much excited for the future”

The Saloni Beauty Salon.

Ayesha is 32 and, unusually in communities like the Topsia slum where she lives, she is unmarried. Instead, her family depends on her to supplement their tiny income. Seven of them have to live on just Rs4000  (£44) per month. Ayesha is a graduate from the Tuilajal SHED “Saloni” Beauty Training Parlour.   It is clear from the girls’ experiences that the beauty industry is highly exploitative expecting 9 or 10 hour working days for just £20 or £25 a month.  She told us her story:“Because of financial problems I could not complete my education. When I finished the beauty training course, I searched for a job in a parlour and went to around ten salons for interviews but I decided not to work in any of them as the pay and growth was minimal and long working hours. So, I started freelancing and with some small parlour kits I arranged to buy from my own pocket and now I do freelancing and have a handful of clients. If I have a client, I earn a minimum of Rs.500 for that day at least. For more clients, I need more kits and need publicity but because of lack of funds I’m unable to do it.Now, I am able to earn around between Rs.3000 to 3500 per month roughly. My income goes up during festivals and the wedding season.

A purpose built training saloon beside the Park Circus slum.

Tiljala SHED Beauty Training Centre is a unique, offering free of cost to students like us.The Parlour doesn’t just offer advanced course but also Henna designing along with health and hygiene. But I feel that if we can have more additional courses in the parlour it will helps us in the future. Nail Art should also be introduced in the parlour which will help us in earning more incomes.I aspire to open my own Parlour one day. I already have a professional business card and I’m very much excited for the future.”
It costs just £120 to train a young woman like Ayesha.  A £35 donation buys a kit to help a newly qualified girl go freelance. 

The first Cohort of trainees in 2017.

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My Experience of Kolkata’s Rag Picker Communities and Tiljala SHED’s Amazing Work there

I visit Kolkata and Tiljala SHED two or three times a year. I love to catch up with old friends and spend time exploring my favourite city.  But most of all I love to be part of the great work Tiljala SHED is doing amongst the city’s most vulnerable communities.  


Those who live in the canal-side and railway squatter camps of East and East Central Kolkata lead the most difficult lives.  Originally landless poor from rural Bihar and West Bengal, these families would have come to the big city for a better life. And in some respects, that’s what they have: the chance to collect, sort and sell other people’s waste enables them to eat.  They build illegal shelters on government owned land but are mostly left alone.  Occasional home-destroying fires, disease, lack of toilets and sanitation, drinking water rationed to a few hours a day are probably seen as a reasonable trade-off for leaving the hunger and backwardness of their former rural lives. 

But for a family to move out of rag picking, rickshaw-driving or exploitative piecework is very difficult.  The imperatives of such a hand-to-mouth existence mean that filling stomachs today takes precedence over planning for tomorrow and families remain illiterate, undocumented and poor.


Tiljala SHED began over thirty years ago, established out of the compassion of a young man for members of his own community.  Mohammed Alamgir’s father came from Bihar, a landless Muslim, who made a meagre living for his family by selling meat from a tray he carried door-to-door on his head.  A proud and enlightened man, he ensured his children attended school and then university. Alamgir and his brother went on to have successful careers, Alamgir as a school teacher and his brother as a businessman.  Alamgir, with a group of friends, set up Tiljala SHED in 1987, a society dedicated to the welfare of his local community. They wanted to provide opportunity for others to lift themselves out of the slum and into mainstream society as Alamgir had done.  He still lives in that community, now retired from teaching, with his wife and son, Shafkat, and Shafkat’ s young family. Shafkat has taken on his father’s mantle and now works tirelessly for Tiljala SHED and for the good of this community.

Very early on Alamgir was approached by two European organisations who saw his work.  They understood the importance of partnering with a grassroots organisation that really understood and experienced the sufferings of these vulnerable communities. MISEREOR is the main charitable arm of the Roman Catholic Church in Germany.  For 20 years Misereor has partnered Tiljala SHED, providing funding, guidance and support to this tiny organisation.   AIDOS, an Italian women’s organisation, also discovered Tiljala SHED: impressed by its work empowering girls and women in the most deprived and patriarchal of communities, they too have provided support over 20 years. 

With Misereor’s help Tiljala SHED has worked with thousands of rag picker families.  The community has been empowered by the establishment of the Association of Rag Pickers. The ARP is run by and for the rag pickers of Kolkata.  It helps them to assert their rights and entitlements, identity papers and other documentation (birth certificates, Aadhaar cards, voter cards, ration cards) which enable them to access vital government schemes. In the last 18 months the ARP has won government recognition for rag picking as a profession which provides access to SASPFUW (the catchily-named “State Assisted Scheme of Provident Fund for Unorganized Workers”).  Pensions, in other words. 

Misereor partnered Tiljala SHED as the rag picking community has struggled with a new threat: the introduction of waste compactors by the KMC (Kolkata Municipal Corporation) since 2013.  While visitors to Kolkata remark how much cleaner the city is these days (and it really is transformed) the rag pickers have seen their incomes cut in half.  Waste is now collected by the municipality and thrown, unsorted, into huge compactors which are then carried out and emptied at the city’s vast Dhapa dumping ground.  To find enough dry recyclable waste to be able to feed a family, a rag picker (most likely to be a woman) starts work at 2 am.  And even then, incomes have become very unstable.

Over the last two years, T SHED has been running a very successful alternative livelihoods programme.  Misereor has funded the staffing, training and day-today running of the scheme. Seed money has been raised elsewhere (mostly private donors) to provide very small micro-loans to help rag pickers to establish new businesses.  These loans go only to women who operate in CIGs (credit interest groups) Each group, consisting of 5 members, manages the loans and repayments collectively. If one member defaults, it is the responsibility of the whole group.  The scheme works wonderfully well: we already have over 200 beneficiaries and many on the waiting list for loans. The loans are conditional upon the beneficiaries undertaking to keep their children in school, to prioritise good nutrition for their families, to reinvest in the business, and to develop a savings habit. The outcomes of this programme are excellent. Repayment rates are over 98% and the RSGF or Revolving Savings Group Fund (another catchy name) can make new loans every month.  Much more seed funding is required to meet demand and to help this scheme become fully self-sustaining.

Education and Child Protection is the third pillar of Tiljala SHED’s work.  Here AIDOS has provided sponsorship over the years for as many as 80 – 100 girls from the community at any one time. These girls, all from desperately poor families, can remain in education and delay early marriage.  We have seen hundreds of smart young women graduate from school and college.  With education comes economic power and the power to make decisions about their own lives.  A working woman with economic power will marry later, keep her own children in education and is far less likely to suffer domestic violence and family breakdown.  AIDOS also helped Tiljala SHED to build and run a library just for girls right in the heart of the Dara Para slum.  There are 800 members for this wonderful little facility, the Gyan Azhar Library, where girls (who often share single room homes with large extended families) can study in peace, hang out together in safety, borrow books and use the computers.

Tiljala SHED works with local government schools and with the communities to ensure that all children access their right to education (RTE).  The organisation aims that all school age children attend school and also provides after school remedial classes in community centres across all the five areas in which it works.  Until recently the after-school facility was available only up to class 5, which is in fact the most vulnerable stage for school drop-out. Since May 2017 Tiljala SHED has run a pilot project offering evening classes for children in class 6 and upwards in the Topsia community centre. It has been a great success with 100% attendance and all the participants have remained in school and graduated to the next class.

Alongside the education programme runs child protection. Through regular meetings, workshops, street theatre and other interventions all children and their parents are made aware of child rights.  Child Protection Committees comprising adults of the community take responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of the community’s children.  Child Clubs are the equivalent organisations for the youngsters.  I recently met one of these clubs and was deeply impressed by their campaigning zeal.  They were proud that they had just a few weeks before identified and stopped (by alerting the correct authorities) a child marriage. Each one of these young people (all around 15 years old) had big ambitions and all intended to go on to higher education, to become scientists, journalists, police officers. 

Tiljala SHED’s support is the hope of these young people.
These three pillars – rights/entitlements, livelihood and education/Child Protection – are the framework for these vulnerable people to lift themselves from the daily hand-to-mouth existence to being participants in mainstream society.  It is not the work of a few months or even years.  It is generational.  I see in those Child Club members – Resham, Saika, Rehan  the outcome of a generation of intervention: these young people are ready to fly. Their parents may be illiterate, but they, together with Tiljala SHED are enabling the next generation to change the story.
I’m sorry to have to report that Misereor’s funding to T SHED has been dramatically cut over 2018 -2019 and that it will cease altogether after that.  Much has been done to change these communities for good.  There is indeed sustainable development embedded in these communities.  But they remain vulnerable: their voice is there but it is not a loud voice.  The children will not thrive in government schools without the extra tuition they need to keep them in school and on track. The livelihood programme is not yet sufficiently funded to become a sustainable microfinance institution.  Tiljala SHED’s staff, many of them from the community itself and many who have been dedicated to this work for 10, 15, 20 years, still need to be paid.  They see that there are other communities trapped in poverty, families living on the streets, under the flyovers. There are children all over central Kolkata selling balloons to keep their families fed: children out of school, vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, abduction and prostitution.  There are rag picker communities in other parts of the city which have had little or no intervention from NGOs like Tiljala SHED.  Tiljala SHED is as much needed today as it was in 1987. 
So where do I come into all this?  In the two and a half years I have been visiting this organisation I have slowly come to understand the communities.  I have met dozens and dozens of people, Tiljala SHED’s “target” groups.  I have asked a lot of questions and been closely involved with a lot of the programmes.  

My first task was to start to raise the seed funding for the Livelihood Programme at the end of 2015. I have been following the programme closely ever since as the T SHED team set up the scheme and the adjusted it. It has been fascinating to see the scheme evolve and grow into such a successful programme.  Access to financial services I realise now is real empowerment.  The Indian Government has laid the foundations for this through a number of reforms, most notably Aadhaar cards and zero balance bank accounts for the poor (Jan Dan Yogana).  With small loans (none more than Rs20,000 and many of much less) these women have either set up new businesses or expanded existing operations.  They have increased their incomes, paid off their loans, kept their children in school and applied for further funding. When I interview these women some are talking about buying their own homes, sending their children to private schools.  They show me their savings pass books.  Such amazing entrepreneurs: they are cheerful and optimistic. And of course every Rs20,000 lent to one of them is repaid with a small amount of interest and can be lent out again to another hard working woman.

My current preoccupation is with education and child protection. The reduction in Misereor funding means that those crucial after-school remedial classes are no longer funded. We need to find the money to pay our teachers, provide tiffin (snacks) uniform, stationery and other classroom equipment.  We want to extend those vital evening classes to all our community centres.  We want to guarantee a quality education, regular sport, dance classes, computer classes, occasional excursions, parents’ meetings and all those other elements of a holistic education that any of us would want for our own children.  I KNOW that the Tiljala SHED staff and the programmes are effective, that those children are getting a real opportunity to change the story and lift themselves out of poverty. And I know it because I can see it.  And all it will cost is about Rs1000 per child per month to keep the education programme running and growing.

 

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The importance of a good education

Education is one of the most effective agents of change in society. When a child is able to go to school today, he or she sets off a cycle of positive change. But, thousands of children in India lack access to education and can’t even write their own names. (CRY India)

Rehan wants to be a software engineer

This is Rehan. He is 14 years old and lives with his parents in a makeshift shelter in the Topsia Canalside Squatter Camp, a narrow strip of land with huge open sewers running down either side.  There is no proper sanitation, no toilets and the 2 drinking water taps (for 710 families) operate for just a few hours a day.  Many of the residents here are rag pickers but all work in the informal economy: rickshaw drivers, fruit sellers, daily labourers.  Illiteracy, child marriage, child labour, domestic abuse, alcoholism and substance abuse are rife. Rehan’s father is a rickshaw driver earning Rs3000 – 4000 (£33 – £44) per month. His mother is a housewife. Rehan’s older siblings have all married and moved away.
I met Rehan in Tiljala SHED’s Topsia community centre where he and 37 other youngsters gather after school every day for computer classes, remedial education evening classes and to meet as members of the Child Club.  This group of young people astonished me: they explained how they are guardians of child protection in the community, how they recently had a child marriage stopped by going to the right authorities, how they know which children are labouring rather than going to school, that they know where abuse is happening.  I asked them about themselves.  Rehan told me he wants to be a software engineer. His friend Afsar is a talented dancer and would like to make a living from dancing. “If that doesn’t work” he told me “I want to be a policeman”.  The girls laughed when I asked about marriage. Their mothers were married in their mid-teens, but the girls have bigger ambitions.  Resham wants to be a journalist and Saika a scientist.  Marriage is definitely not in the plan yet. All of them asked for English lessons. 

Resham wants to be a journalist

Tiljala SHED is doing such amazing work in these desperately deprived communities and the ambitions of these young people are, to me, a potent sign of what can be done to lift society’s most vulnerable communities.  There has never been, as far as we know, a single university graduate come out of the Topsia Squatter camp.   Rehan and the others are determined to change that. There is one more hero in this story. Rehan’s father. From his meagre earnings he sends his son to a private English Medium School.  It costs Rs600 (£6.70) per month and must be a huge sacrifice for the parents.  But this is their investment in the future.    It is such a commonplace that the men in these communities are so broken by hard physical labour and the shame of poverty that they turn to drink and violence. “Oh, the husband is a useless fellow” my colleagues often say when I interview the women.  Rehan’s father breaks the mould.Tiljala SHED wants to do everything possible to support Rehan, his father’s dreams and all the bright ambitious young people in Topsia and the other rag picker communities where we work.  But we need help desperately.To provide each of the 600 children with remedial education, the child protection activities, nutrition, sport, computer classes, occasional excursions, access to healthcare etc. costs just Rs 1000 per month. Or £11per month per child