Read here December’s newsletter
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.