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.
I don’t know where to begin. I have been visiting Tiljala SHED for 5 years and thought I couldn’t be surprised by anything. Yesterday I was invited to attend school. Local children from the Park Circus Railway Squatters (mostly the children of ragpickers) attend our community centre 5 days a week. This group attends government schools in the afternoon so their supplementary/remedial classes are in the morning. Well – I assumed this was mostly a babysitting exercise. Games, songs and a safe place whilst parents are working. But no.
It was a Bengali lesson when I arrived. 26 children lined up according to their school class. The year ones at the front and 5s at the back. Mehnaz the teacher, a girl from the community herself and a qualified teacher, was handling all groups at once. Letter recognition for the year 1s and 2s up to full story telling for the 5s. Every child engaged and working. This is skilled teaching and she was clearly fully in command. We had a short interlude for Jane to do some English with the children – colours, numbers, days of the week, months of the year, greetings – they knew it all. And then showed off their English with some songs/actions. Maths followed. Older kids doing proper arithmetic whilst the little ones were forming numbers in both English and Bengali (humbling). An engaging discussion with the children about water – and not wasting it. None of them lives in a home with running water: every drop needs to be collected from a standpipe the other side of the railway which only flows twice a day. Then they discussed plastic waste and how to avoid single-use plastic (whilst I hastily decanted the sweets I had bought them from an incriminating plastic bag to my virtue-signalling Waitrose nylon pocket bag). I did wonder how they squared all this with the fact that their family incomes mostly derive from the collection, sorting and sale of discarded single-use plastic, but if it did come up I wasn’t aware. Then it was time to go – off to proper school (where class sizes can be over 100).
Very moved by the whole experience. Tiljala SHED calls itself grassroots – and now I really know what this means. The founders and staff are of this community. Those who do manage to survive this very traditional community’s pressure to marry (for the girls) and drop out to work (for the boys) are committed to helping more to access opportunity through education.
Exercises and meditation before going off to proper school.
When the morning session finishes, Mehnaz doesn’t slope off for a much-deserved rest before the next session: she visits the homes of the children who haven’t attended in the morning. She wants to check all is OK and encourage them to come along tomorrow. And she earns Rs5000 (just over £50) a month for this. With the various groups in the afternoon, 122 children pass through this centre every single weekday. Tiljala SHED runs 5 such centres, all of them in the most deprived parts of central Kolkata, populated by the ultra-poor, rag pickers living in illegal shelters. Homeless really. Funds are desperately needed to keep this vital programme running. Please message me if you are in Kolkata and can help. In UK/US/EU/Aus you can donate online. Rs1000/USD15 a month keeps a child in education (and more).
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.
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