Sakina’s future hangs in the balance. I first met her in Kolkata in May 2022. Tiljala SHED staff brought her to my attention at a meeting of all the evening class students at the Mir Meher Ali Lane centre in Tangra. What struck me first was how thin she is.
Two and a half years ago Sakina’s little family was poor but complete. Her father worked in a factory and her mother was a maidservant. She had a brother and a sister and all 3 attended school.
Then her father died. Sakina decided to drop out of school so that she could help at home – even though she was about to sit her class X board exams. We persuaded her to return to her studies but then her mother fell sick. When I visited last May, Sakina’s mother was bedridden in their hut with terrible breathing difficulties. She had stopped work and Sakina was once again out of school so she could take on her mother’s work. Finding money for medicines was impossible and they depended on food rations from Tiljala SHED.
I visited the family again in January and it was clear that the mother was seriously ill. Sakina was thinner than ever and very distressed. She had decided to return to education and sit her class XI exams, thanks to food rations and contributions for medicines from Tiljala SHED.
Then in February 2023 her mother died. Sakina is orphaned, aged 18, malnourished and destitute. The hut she and her family lived in is in need of repair. Her sister has become a maidservant (the most exploitative underpaid work) and her brother is able to contribute just a small sum out of his wages. It is Sakina’s education that will make the difference.
Tiljala SHED will continue to provide Sakina with encouragement, support and advice. She’ll receive food rations as long as she needs them and will continue to attend school and the Tiljala SHED evening classes. We are actively looking for vocational training so that she can move into good paid work as soon as she completes her schooling. But this comes at a price. You can save a girl like Sakina from a life of drudgery. £40 a month makes the difference between staying in education or training and being forced into labour.
To provide educational support for a girl like Sakina…..
Create beautiful pots using the Japanese raku technique to create an unusual iridescent finish and crackle glaze effect
Session 1 Camilla will guide you through three methods of hand-building a pot: slab, pinch and coil. You leave the pots with us for their first “biscuit” firing.
Session 2 About a week later, your pots will be ready for you to glaze and fire outside in our raku kiln. You choose the glaze and design to give your pots their unique colour and finish. At the end of this session you will have 3 beautiful pots finished and ready to take home.
Each session is 3 – 4 hours. Includes tea, coffee, cold drinks and homemade cakes
I hope to run a class for up to 10 people in early August: Session 1 between 1st and 7th August and Session 2 between the 8th and 18th August. If you are interested in joining us please contact me email@example.com or 07743 955665 (by text) giving your availability.
Price is £100 per person for the 2 sessions. This includes all materials, the firing, the finished pots and of course refreshments. There is parking for everyone.
We have all watched India’s second COVID wave crash across the continent, exposing the terrible chasm between rich and poor, the deficiencies of the health system there and the wonderful power of human beings to reach out and help one another when disaster strikes.
Amna is over 60 and runs a small grocery stall on the roadside to support her large extended family. She also sells snacks in the evening to supplement her income. But business is very slow and the family is hungry. She is receiving emergency food parcels from Tiljala SHED.
As the casualties rose exponentially all we could do was look on – I was begging the staff at Tiljala SHED to stay at home, arrange vaccines and keep themselves and their families safe. We couldn’t have our staff going into the field and inadvertently infecting our beneficiaries (or indeed being infected by them). Shafkat, who runs Tiljala SHED, was busy tapping up all his contacts to raise funds to be able to feed our beneficiaries at the same time as using his own personal network to ensure that oxygen bottles, oxygen concentrators and hospital beds were found for the neediest. Meanwhile in the slums, squatter camps and shanty towns, where once again all daily labourers had to down tools and stay at home, money and food were becoming scarcer and scarcer.
Conducting a community survey.
A handful of our staff ventured out to survey the levels of need, to find out how much illness in our beneficiary areas but perhaps more importantly how much hunger. Food parcels were distributed to the most vulnerable families, elderly and disabled. Masks, sanitiser and health advice were also dispensed.
Meanwhile, the rate of vaccination remains low. Some of our staff are vaccinated but not all. Almost no one in the communities we serve is vaccinated. We do not know the levels of virus. No one is being tested. At this time of year as the dry hot summer gives way to the monsoon it is common to find high levels of fever and other diseases. So no one really knows whether they are sick with malaria, dengue fever or with COVID. There is also rising crime in the communities. Of course there is: everyone is hungry.
I am especially concerned about the youngsters who have decided, often against their families’ wishes and certainly against community norms, to remain in education. We support them through our evening classes and have supplied smartphones and remote classes for them. But their families are hungry so we are prioritising this group for food rations. I see these youngsters as the hope for the whole community – they are the first in their families and in the community to remain at school. I believe that one of these children will be Topsia’s first ever college student. And more will follow…
But there is good news too. We are not aware of much severe COVID in our communities – we don’t really know why but I’m guessing it is significant that this is a relatively young population (life expectancy is not high in places like this) which by necessity lives a well-ventilated life in the open air, queuing for water, washing clothes, cooking and trimming chappals.
So once again, it is lockdown and the attendant poverty and hunger which affects our communities. The schools are closed once again and I fear for the children’s future. They are so disadvantaged even at the best of times.
But we can help. The groups who received smartphones last year are now doing well – they are accessing their schools online and we are providing lots of remote support: careers advice, encouragement, English lessons and regular contact. Earlier this week we distributed food parcels to their families and we are now distributing a further 2000 (each one supplies a family of 6 with basic rations for a month). There is more to come. Thanks to your generosity we can afford to keep providing essential relief for some weeks. More children will receive smartphones in the next few days.
As ever, thank you for your generosity. You are changing lives.
I am in regular touch with Parveen our programme co-ordinator and who has taken a special interest in this cohort of young people. This is what she tells me:
Our centres are open and the vulnerable children from our communities are coming in for daily classes. As you see from the photos social distancing is minimal, but then their living conditions also make it impossible. There is a very low instance of the virus in these communities (very young population… make your own conclusions)
We have recently started dedicated English lessons for the Topsia Evening Class (something they have been clamouring for). Aftab has been with Tiljala SHED for many years, speaks and writes beautiful English after spending time in London as a young man. He never saw himself as a teacher – but as with so many in the pandemic, he has found a new role for himself. He teaches every weekday – the kids are very lucky and thrilled to have formal English teaching.
We distributed 20 smartphones after a fundraising push in September. These enable the children to access their schoolteachers and to engage in online learning. They are finding this extremely helpful. It really is a leveller in a society where middle-class kids have phones as a matter of course. There are more youngsters who need phones – we will distribute phones as funds come in
We were able to buy a bicycle for Saika. She attends extra tuition classes and needs the bike to travel. I have also received requests from Suman and Bhola. Both these boys also attend distant tuition. Suman collects large bundles of slippers to bring home for his mother to trim (she will earn less than £1 a day for this). He carries the bundle on his head at the moment, but the bike would make it easier and he could carry more. Bhola also wants to cycle to keep fit. He is very keen to join the army or police force. The bikes cost about £48 each. Thanks to your sponsorship, they will get their bikes.
Rina had a medical issue in December, but thanks to her sponsor, her expenses were paid. Our oldest and most experienced staff member, Heera-di, accompanies Rina to her medical appointments. Rina received her smartphone in November and is happily getting on with her online schoolwork. She attends Aftab’s English classes as well as external tuitions. She is studying for her class X board exams in May.
Last week the Evening Class were paid a visit by the new Deputy Commissioner of Police Mr Faiyez Ahmed. He was there to give a motivational speech and encourage the youngsters to think about a career in public service. The youngsters were enthralled. Bhola and Qumrun among others were particularly interested. Mr Ahmed will continue to offer moral support. With your sponsorship, the children’s enthusiasm and hard work, Mr Ahmed’s support and Tiljala SHED’s facilitation, there is a very exciting future for these children. Do please follow Tiljala SHED on Facebook. You can read about the event there.
Qumrun and Rohit are very hardworking young people. They are both working towards their class X exams this summer. Because they have a sponsor, they are able to attend external coaching classes. We expect these two to do very well.
Parveen also asked me to authorise the provision of dry rations (flour, rice, onions, lentils etc) for the families of Rina, Suman, Bhola and Neha. Thanks to our sponsors, this will happen. All these children are from destitute families which have suffered very badly during the lockdown. Many families will need this kind of support – especially as we are asking them to keep their children in education and out of paid work for many years longer than they had expected.
There are total 20 young people in this Topsia Evening Class group at the moment. 6 of them have named sponsors. There are anonymous sponsors for 4 more. I am looking for another 10 sponsors to sign up for £30 a month. After that there are about 40 more young people in secondary education who need the same kind of help. We are paying for teachers’ salaries and other basic expenses out of general donations, but to ensure the long-term success of the project we need a substantial list of regular donors who can commit to monthly contributions. If you know of anyone who might like to get involved, do please let me know.
Meanwhile, thank you so much for your amazing support. You are changing lives and giving hope for a better future.
This is Fahem. Yesterday his mother was crushed to death by a truck.
This week Fahem and 19 other young people from our Topsia Evening Class are due to receive smartphones to enable them to continue their education online. Fahem is 17 years old and wants to be a lawyer.
Fahem lives in a shelter beside the Topsia Canal (actually a huge open sewer). His father used to work in a garage but ill health means he is now a rag picker, subsisting on collecting and selling on other people’s rubbish. Fahem’s mother held the family together with her Rs2000 (less than £20) per month income as a maidservant.
Her death leaves Fahem and two younger brothers aged 10 and 13 without a mother, looked after by a father who is himself sick and unable to earn enough to feed the family. Not to mention their broken hearts.
Today he is sitting in the Tiljala SHED office, inconsolable. He was asking for £75 to pay for his mother’s funeral.
This is not the way I intended to launch our new educational sponsorship scheme, but Fahem’s plight highlights why promising, ambitious and hardworking youngsters from these desperately poor families need the extra help to keep them in education. Without their mother’s income, Fahem and his brothers will be forced to drop out of school and find work. Fahem’s dreams of going to college and becoming a lawyer will be dashed.
For £30 a month and perhaps a little extra to buy food, Fahem and his brothers can stay in education and have the opportunity to make something more of their lives. If you think you could help a youngster like Fahem, please get in touch. No need to have direct contact or even be connected to a specific person, but every £30 keeps a young person in education for a month.
It has been an especially difficult year for India’s most vulnerable communities. But with the support of our wonderful donors and with Tiljala SHED’s hard work, we have been able to provide huge amounts of food relief, educational support and disaster relief. Read on…
When India locked down on 25th March, no one was able to go out to work. In the marginalised communities of Kolkata, families live hand -to-mouth on the daily wages of one or two family members. Rickshaw drivers, street vendors, stall holders, beggars, rag pickers, factory workers, maidservants suddenly lost their incomes. Where families had bank accounts and savings these were soon run down and desperate people crept out of the shanty towns to find help. Crowds of desperate people came to Tiljala SHED.
Distributing Food Rations during COVID 19 Lockdown
Local groups and individuals mobilised to supply sacks of rice, dal, onions, flour, biscuits, oil. We converted the beauty training salon to a warehouse and distribution point. Staff members who were able to come in got busy, registering applicants, handing out food vouchers and then organising COVID safe distribution. Funds and in-kind donations flowed in from all over Kolkata, from across India and around the world. Our team of around 10 staff and volunteers have managed to provide food rations to upwards of 35,000 hungry people over the course of the last few months. Your donations made a huge contribution to this effort. Read more
Worse was to come when Cyclone Amphan blasted across the Bay of Bengal sweeping away many thousands of homes. People who had been on the edge of survival now lost their homes as well. A Facebook appeal led, via Global Giving—to Tiljala SHED. We were offered funds to help in the relief effort, so our small team headed by truck, car and boat out to a very remote and deprived part of the Sundarbans (in the Ganges Delta, where the tigers live) with a large delivery of food rations and tarpaulins for a highly vulnerable community that had been destroyed by the Cyclone. Read more here
Repairing the Tiljala SHED Vehicle
All the heavy work required of Tiljala SHED’s single vehicle, a 12 year old Suzuki van, was too much for it. Rats had also moved in through holes in the bodywork and the suspension was gone. I sent out an appeal for help—and although not enough to replace the vehicle, sufficient funds were raised to repair it. It is now back in service, driven by Aslam, one of our most hard working and thoroughly dependable staff members. Tiljala SHED can do little without this car and driver—and your generosity have kept both on the road. Thank you. Read more
Back to Education though not yet to School
As India’s lockdown came to an end and people, especially those of our beneficiaries who work in India’s vast informal economy, were able to resume work and our attention needed to turn back to our core concerns: education, women’s empowerment and livelihoods. Schools remain closed in Kolkata. Many children have access to online learning but in these communities, it is rare even to have a smartphone, let along a laptop. These children, already severely disadvantaged, have fallen months behind. But, thanks to the generosity of our donors, once again responding to my appeals, funds were raised to buy smartphones and data packs for 20 of our neediest secondary school pupils. This is currently a pilot scheme, but I anticipate we will need to find funds for many more. Read Bhola’s Story
The Topsia Evening Class
I have written before about the Topsia Evening Class and how impressed I am by this group of highly vulnerable but driven and ambitious young people. They are working hard to lift themselves and their families (and their community) out of poverty. With our help they will make it. I truly believe this little group can transform their entire community with a small amount of support from us. They are now returning to evening classes 5 days a week and learning to use their smart phones to access their schools and online education. They also seem to have mastered Facebook. Read about Saika
The Smaller Children
Meanwhile the smaller primary age children have returned to our centres for daily classes. With the help of masks, hand sanitizer (especially important where there is no safe running water 18 hours of the day) and maintaining social distance by halving the class size and doubling frequency we have been able to resume our vital work with this group too.
Just when everything seemed to be returning to a new normal and the children were once again engaging with their education, 2 disasters rocked the Topsia community……..
First, one of our lads in the Topsia Evening Class, Fahim, lost his mother in a horrific road accident. The poor boy is heartbroken. He is 17 and left to look after his sick father and two younger brothers. He wants to be a lawyer but the loss of his mother, the main breadwinner, a maidservant earning just Rs2000 (£20) a week, means that he will be under huge pressure to leave education and get a menial job, just so that the family can eat. Thankfully, Tiljala SHED , with the help of our donors, will be able to help support the family whilst Fahim and his brothers remain in education.
On 9th November we distributed smartphones to 20 young people to help them access their education online. They were so thrilled – even Fahim raised a smile. But the very next day, their neighbourhood went up in flames. 110 homes were destroyed leaving 110 homeless families. I just couldn’t believe that this deprived little community could have had so much bad luck this year. We are still working on the relief effort. Local organisations, other NGOs and many private citizens came forward with tarpaulins, mosquito nets, solar lamps, food, cash donations and offers of help. And as I write the resilient residents of the Topsia Canalside Squatter settlement will quietly rebuild their homes and get on with the harsh business of carving out a livelihood, feeding their families and getting an education.
You can see how vulnerable these communities are, but there is real hope for those who want to change their future. I am especially interested in education and how small donations can help keep children in education, keep them safe from abuse and child labour.
Saika is 17 years old and lives in a a shelter beside the open sewers of Topsia in Kolkata. She lives with her father, who is a street vendor selling puffed rice and gram; her mother, a homemaker; a sister and brother. The family struggles to survive on her father’s tiny income. Yet all three children attend school and have real hopes for a better future.
I have long been impressed by Saika. She is a founder member of the marvellous Topsia Evening Class. Along with around 50 others she attends this class every weekday evening after school*. Here they receive additional academic support from Tiljala SHED’s tutors. They have an opportunity and the space to complete their homework. They are also part of a “Child Club” dedicated to child protection. It is important for youngsters in very deprived and illiterate communities like this to understand and to assert their rights: child labour and child marriage are common. This group now actively campaigns for children’s rights and have prevented child marriages within the community. They also rehearse and then perform street dramas highlighting child protection issues. They also have self defence lessons – an activity they all enjoy and skills that, sadly, they need.
Saika is a confident and outspoken girl who has taken this public role further. She fought on behalf of the whole community to receive food rations when India’s lockdown began. On Independence Day this year, she initiated a flag raising ceremony for the community and requested funding to be able to provide snacks. Last Tuesday 10th November when fire tore through 70 homes in Topsia, it was Saika who raised the alarm. And Saika and friends were in the forefront of the relief operation when Tiljala SHED’s staff were distributing food, tarpaulins and mosquito nets in the days that followed.
It was fortunate that Saika had been issued with a smartphone just the day before. These phones have been given to 20 members of the Topsia Evening Class to enable them to access their education online whilst the schools are closed. We had no idea that one of these phones would be used to save lives and homes.
Of all the young people in Topsia, Saika strikes me as being most likely and determined to change her story. She wants to be an airline pilot. But, being a girl, she faces huge cultural pressure to marry. Marriage would end her hopes of any serious career. She told me when I saw her in January that her mother wants to send her back to the family’s ancestral village to get married. So far Saika has resisted. Her very best chance lies in her education. We want to give every one of the young people in the Topsia Evening Class but it would be a particular tragedy to lose Saika. If I can find a sponsor for her, we can provide enough support to persuade her family to let her remain in school and go on to further education. And knowing she has been sponsored would give Saika a huge boost.
£30 a month would provide all the educational support Saika needs: books, stationery, travel expenses, extra tuition, shoes, uniform.
I don’t really know how to report this. Disaster has struck. Again.
I have, for better or worse, tied myself to the fate of a handful of destitute communities in central Kolkata. For five years I have been raising funds to support a little grassroots NGO (Tiljala SHED) working to help the members of these communities lift themselves out of the margins of society. Women’s empowerment; children’s education; livelihood training; microfinance; ensuring that everyone is properly documented so that they can assert their rights and access government schemes. These are the fundamentals. In tiny increments we see families improving their lives, children advancing through education, women setting up small businesses. It’s a privilege to be part of this and to see the good that can be done.
But it is all so precarious. First, COVID19 arrived in March. Lockdown drove everyone off the streets, depriving most of our target families of the means to survive. So we went to our benefactors and provided food rations. Then Cyclone Amphan swept through West Bengal and we went back to you and asked for more help. We distributed more food as well as tarpaulins and building materials so that they could repair their shattered homes. Our 12-year-old vehicle fell apart under the sheer strain of carrying tonnes of rice, staff, tarpaulins. So I came to you again and asked for help. You helped. And schools remained closed. The children had no access to education, so we came back to you again and asked for funds to buy smartphones so they can reach their teachers online. And still we distribute food, because hungry children can’t study. Last week I told you the terrible story of 16 year old Fahim whose mother was crushed by a truck on her way home from work as a maidservant. Again, you responded with such compassion. This week we distributed the phones and planned an exciting new sponsorship programme for the Topsia Evening Class. They were so happy. And all of this was because you responded so generously. Despite the terrible times we are all living through, this wonderful network of donors, friends, well-wishers, benefactors from all over the world, you dug deep and helped out.
Yesterday, literally the day after the Topsia Evening Class kids got their phones, a fire broke out in the Topsia squatter camp – their home. It ripped through their shelters, destroying the few possessions these vulnerable people had, including many vital documents. Around 70 homes were destroyed. The relief effort continues: immediate needs are food, tarpaulins and mosquito nets. All of this will come, I am certain, from local sources.
Unfortunately, this isn’t an unusual occurrence. These families live in illegal shelters. There is no running water. Electricity arrives via a spaghetti of cables wired up to little fans and light fittings, every one a fire hazard. This fire started in a shop which sold chemicals and fuel – an accident waiting to happen. But this community lies on the margins: the shelters are illegal but tolerated. No one is interested in their health and safety. And they are too poor to do anything about it. But I know they worry about their safety all the time. Few outsiders venture over the bridge into the community. The sewer below stinks – no one crosses it unless they have to. But for 710 families it is home and much of it is now destroyed. I don’t want to ask you again. I am pretty sure that this community is resilient and experienced enough to rebuild itself. You’ve got to be tough when you are this poor. Local help is now pouring in. Mosquito nets, food, tarpaulins are all arriving. Everyone will set to work again and we will continue to educate the children, empower the women and show that there IS, beyond the stinking bridge, a world that cares. So please think about Fahim and all the others in Topsia who are picking themselves up, yet again, and trying to move forward, to lift themselves out of poverty, to stay well, to eat every day…
Please continue to support these families. I am especially concerned about the children’s education –as this is the route out. The whole family’s hopes for a better future depend on the children being literate, confident and determined. Any one of you who has visited the Topsia centre with me and met the children will know that this is more than possible. £11 a month enables us to keep a primary child in education. For the secondary school kids £30 a month covers all the necessary books, stationery, extra tuition to ensure that he or she can advance through to higher education, gainful employment and a chance to change their community. I am convinced that the real change for the whole of this community won’t come from government, an NGO or any outside agency. It’s going to come from Saika, Rehan, Saheba, Suman, Bhola, Rina and all the other amazing youngsters of the Topsia Evening Class, present and future. Support them and they will change the world.
This is Bhola. He is 16 years old and 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’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.
He is a member of Tiljala SHED’s “Topsia Evening Class”, set up 3 years ago to provide educational support and encouragement to secondary school 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 all the 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.
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.