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Bhola’s Story

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Taking Emergency Relief to the Sundarbans

Team assembled at the Ashram ahead of food distribution

Cyclone Amphan Relief Campaign for Global Giving August 2020

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

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

We took food rations for 270 families

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

Case Studies

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

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

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

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

Zahida "It was a relief sent from God"

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

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

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

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

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

Debi "Our life savings are gone"

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

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

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

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We need a new vehicle

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

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

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

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

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

Distributing food rations to the destitute of Central Kolkata during COVID-19 lockdown
Distributing rations from the car…
damaged car
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News from Kolkata during COVID19 lockdown crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Donate

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

Tiljala SHED’s Bank details are as follows:

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

A/C No: 301402010007078


Branch Code: 530140


MICR CODE: 700026008

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“The girls from Tiljala SHED lost all three of their matches but they played their hearts out. They kept practising even during the break”

Rina lives in Topsia Canalside Squatter Community where 710 families live in illegal makeshift shelters beside a stinking open sewer.

Rina is 13 years old.  She is a member of Tiljala SHED’s newly formed girls’ football squad. Her father is a rickshaw puller who drinks and smokes most of his earnings.  Her mother supplements the family income by working as a domestic servant.  She earns just Rs1600 (£20 or $35) a month. Rina and her three siblings are malnourished and often go hungry.Rina’s mother wants more for her children: she ensures they attend school as she knows that education is their best hope for the future.  Rina also attends evening classes at Tiljala SHED’s community centre in Topsia. Beside the homework support and computer classes, Tiljala SHED is promoting sports for all the youngsters. We have no sports ground, no budget and no coaches – but we do have a wonderful crowd of 22 enthusiastic girls who want to play.And they made quite an impression at a recent tournament ….
Just before the World Cup final kicked off on Sunday, another tournament got underway in Kolkata: the  Kolkata Gives five-a-side inaugural GirlRising Football Championship.  And for those participants, vulnerable girls like Rina from across Kolkata, participation in this sport and this tournament can be life changing.

‘The organisers…were appreciative of the efforts of Tiljala SHED, the NGO that has just started practising football and still doesn’t have a coach “The girls from Tiljala SHED lost all three of their matches but they played their hearts out. They kept practising even during the break” ‘

This article was published on Monday in Kolkata’s Telegraph newspaper.  But look at the article on the left. Shockingly over 40% of girls in West Bengal are married off under the age of 18. Girls routinely drop out of education at puberty and are then married off as young as 14.  Babies then follow, one after the other, leading to poverty, poor health, extreme stress, and, tragically, domestic violence and abandonment.  These illiterate girls have very little power to change their lives.  Whilst we are working hard (and successfully) to give these married women & girls a second chance through business training and microloans, we are also working hard to keep their daughters safe and to help them remain in education and delay marriage.  Our greatest supporters for the young girls are their mothers – they do not want their daughters to suffer the same fate.

So how does football come into this?
The juxtaposition of these two articles is no accident.  The Kolkata Telegraph publishes hundreds of stories every year showing how sport is a redemptive force amongst impoverished and vulnerable young people, how sport transcends India’s highly stratified society.   Paul Walsh’s Khelo Rugby and his formidable team, the Jungle Crows, have been transforming the lives of the rural poor for many years.  Future Hope takes care of Kolkata’s street children –and at the heart of their rehabilitation lies sport.  Rugby, football, hockey, athletics bring together young people rich and poor, from NGOs and private schools alike.  Imagine how it feels to be part of a team trouncing the private school softies when you were born to believe you were nothing.

So it is for these girls. Or so it should be… when they have proper football boots, a coach, somewhere to train.

Tiljala SHED aims to keep all the children in the marginalised “rag picker” communities of central Kolkata in education.  They do this by running after school clubs in the heart of the communities.  The children get remedial help with schoolwork, they sing, they play games; they enjoy occasional excursions, computer classes and so on.  And where possible, they play sport.  Girls’ football is new (as you see from the article).  They have started with nothing – not even a team football shirt.  Tiljala SHED is a tiny NGO with a huge heart and runs on a shoestring. With your help we can give these girls the chance to run, to compete, to be part of a team and to have the strength to resist the pressure to drop out of education and to marry whilst they are still children.

They have the drive … can you help us give them the opportunity?

£8.70 or $13.60 a month covers the cost of one girl in the football team
£18 or $23 pays for the full kit for one girl
£620 or $870 pays for coaching for the whole team for a year
£550 or $725 covers all the drinks and snacks for a year for the whole team

Total cost of empowering 22 young women through fitness, teamwork and the joy of sport 
£2300  or  $3000 per year

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Visiting the Park Circus Children’s Club

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).

Maths sessions.

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).

Mehnaz teaches bengali.

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“I’m very much excited for the future”

The Saloni Beauty Salon.

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

A purpose built training saloon beside the Park Circus slum.

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

The first Cohort of trainees in 2017.