Education Educational Sponsorship Emergency Relief News

Sakina needs help

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.

When I first met Sakina in May 2022

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.

Sakina at home. Her hut is on the pavement and the city’s waste water runs past the back.

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…..

Education Educational Sponsorship Emergency Relief Livelihood News

December 2022 Newsletter

Read here December’s newsletter

Emergency Relief News

India’s latest surge – News from Kolkata

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.

Emergency Relief News

Thank you for all your support through 2020

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

Packing up food parcels

Food parcel distribution needs to be COVID safe
6 hour journey by truck and boat

Cyclone Amphan

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

The van has been essential for food distributions
In the repair shop
COVID safe studying in our Topsia Centre
Bhola is thrilled with his new smartphone

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

Members of the Topsia Evening class back in January
Suman – has big ambitions
The smaller children in January

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 10th November the Topsia Canalside Squatter Community went up in flames. 110 families lost their homes. Many others, for fear of the fire, threw their belongings into the fetid water to try to save them. But little could be recovered.

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.

Emergency Relief News

Disaster has Struck. Again

I don’t really know how to report this. Disaster has struck. Again.  

The shanties in the Topsia Squatter Community up in flames

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.

Lost homes replaced with tarpaulins

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.

Haibot’s wheelchair is destroyed. A local benefactor has offered to replace it

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.

How to donate…

Outside India….

Inside India:

Emergency Relief News

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
Emergency Relief News

Distributing Emergency Rations During COVID19

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

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.

Keeping records

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.

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

Emergency Relief News

Delivering Food Parcels in Topsia

On a mission to deliver emergency food rations to one very needy family and two very vulnerable elderly women.
This was a difficult day.

First we went to Maya’s home – a shelter down a dark alley between the busy road and the sewage canal. Maya has no toilet facilities, no running water and no means of support other than begging and rag picking. She says she thinks she is about 75. Her husband died just four months ago. She has three daughters but they have their own families and she doesn’t see them – one occasionally visits and give her a hundred rupees or so. She used to do embroidery but her eyes are too weak now. She showed us her glasses which, she said, no longer work.

Then we crossed the road to see Loki. She is over 80 and lives in a space behind a larger building. We clambered through the dark over a high step and slippery mud to reach her. To collect water or use a toilet she has to cross the road. We asked if she has a ration card – she said without even the 2 rupees for subsidised rice she can’t access the benefit. Would she leave and go into an old age home? we asked (not sure if that is even possible). She said no – she wants to stay here with her memories of her husband. Recently she fell over and has hurt her leg – which makes it even more difficult to cross the road. Reminded that she would get free medical attention at the hospital, she said “How can I get to the hospital? I have no money”. She has two sons but they don’t help. I asked about the neighbours. Can they help? They have their own difficulties and their own families to worry about, my colleagues tell me. Because the water is only on for a few hours a day, there is a lot of conflict over access.

Finally we visit Sakina’s shelter. She has four children. There were two teenage girls and their small brother at home. The boy was clearly very unwell and wrapped in a blanket. The girls explain that their mother is out selling aloo chat (spiced potatoes). She will earn about 50p a day. Her husband is dead and she is desperate as she cannot earn enough to feed the family. How terrible she must have felt leaving her little boy at home sick while she went out to work. I hope she was pleased to find the food parcel when she got home. Maybe she can take a few days off.
I don’t know what to say. Life is so cruel here that compassion seems to be absent. I hear myself suggesting that we encourage the young people from the after school coaching classes to get involved. Good idea, say my colleagues brightly… The rations we delivered today were welcome but solve just a small part of the wider problem. I didn’t expect huge smiles of gratitude – and we didn’t get them. Despair squats in every shelter we visit.

Emergency Relief News

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 (  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 (

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

Education Emergency Relief Livelihood News

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.