Citizen Engagement Story - Shyama Narendranath

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Through Akshara Foundation's and KLP's Citizen Engagement initiative, we bring you the inspiring story of Shyama Narendranath who tried admitting Monesha, the four-year-old daughter of construction workers, in an anganwadi.The outcome did not turn out as expected, but it is a journey. A journey that has many hurdles, but which can eventually make a change in the thinking and the system. It is stories like these, that we get inspiration from.

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Citizen Engagement Story - Shyama Narendranath

  1. 1. A Story of Citizen Engagement“But you Don’t Give up”We bring you the inspiring story of Shyama Narendranath who tried admitting Monesha, thefour-year-old daughter of construction workers, in an anganwadi. A citizen engagementAkshara is happy to have facilitated.The outcome did not turn out as expected, but then as Ashok Kamath, Chairman, AksharaFoundation, says, “It is a journey. You can’t say you won’t embark on it because there are toomany hurdles. Then who will change the system? And if you don’t have stories like this wheredo you get your inspiration from?”“In my view for too long have people with a voice stayed away from the process, the system.We talk about participatory democracy and never participate. Akshara is a platform to engageeverybody. Can we do it together? There will be successes and failures. But you don’t giveup.”Precisely what Shyama Narendranath will never do – give up. ---------------------------------------The Beginning of Shyama’s Journey • It was a hot afternoon in July. The clouds had not moved in yet to muffle temperatures. Shyama was walking home for lunch from her office at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) where she is a scientist doing research in Planetary Science. The area – Jeevan Bhima Nagar, agog with construction activity. Shyama noticed an infant, about ten months old, sitting on a torn sack on a heap of sand at a construction site. There was no one around. Jyoti, the baby, had somehow put stones into her mouth, which Syama gently removed. Then her mother, Akka Madhavi, came out into the sun. “And I started a conversation,” says Shyama.  That was the beginning of Shyama’s journey, one that she will continue, undeterred by the rubble on the way, the odd stumble, even the dead-end.Akka Madhavi has an older child, Monesha, a plump, grumpy little thing, four years old, utterlypossessive and clinging, never letting her mother out of her sight. Akka Madhavi and herhusband are construction workers. They are from a village near Bellary. • Akka Madhavi told Shyama that she cannot leave Monesha and Jyoti in the village as they are too small and so she is forced to take them along to wherever they find work. There is no one to look after them, she said. “I got them some old clothes and toys from home,” says Shyama, herself the mother of a daughter, eight years old, and an eleven- month-old son.
  2. 2. An Impelling ImperativeThose were Shyama’s initial encounters with the family and it left a deep and profoundimpression, churning up a stirring that could not be denied, nudging her to act. An impellingimperative that generated a pace of its own. • Soon, she was looking up the web for possible day care centres for the children of construction workers. “I didn’t find anything suitable.” Not for ten-month-old Jyoti anyway.  “Then I came upon the web page of Akshara and read about anganwadis. I didn’t know anganwadis existed, I’m sorry to say that,” her self-disparagement palpable. “I contacted Akshara through the email on the web page and there was an immediate response. Gautam John, Head, Karnataka Learning Partnership, got back at once with a list of anganwadis in my area. I went to one of them closest to Akka Madhavi’s place of work and found it to be an apt institution for Monesha. I had no difficulty at all gaining admission for her at the anganwadi.”The First Stumbling Block  But it was not an easy proposition convincing Monesha’s parents to send her to school.  Their reluctance stemmed more from the nature of their work than from any genuine antipathy to education. Their employer, the contractor, tolerated no compromises, permitted no negotiations with time or duration of work. Totally illiterate, Akka Madhavi and her husband’s tepid reaction also arose from an utter eclipse of awareness. What does education mean? They had no idea. What does education mean to them? Nothing much, it seemed, nothing of great significance. • Shyama gave Akka Madhavi and her husband directions to the anganwadi, but they failed to show up. • It never struck Shyama then that she could give up, abandon the project altogether. Her roadmap was clear. “I took mother and child with me and brought them to the anganwadi,” says Shyama.Monesha’s Tears were Unstoppable • They were generous, hospitable and kind at Nanja Reddy Colony Anganwadi. Sulochana, the Nali-Kali teacher at the Government Higher Primary School with which the anganwadi is integrated, recalls Akka Madhavi and Monesha walking in that morning, a small child buried in the mother’s arms. • Shyama was there as intermediary, promoter and change-seeker.
  3. 3. • “I organised food for mother and child,” says Sulochana. “They had had nothing to eat since morning. I told the mother, ‘Let us wait and see. If your daughter doesn’t cry till 3.30 pm when the anganwadi closes she can come tomorrow.’” They did not enter her name in the attendance register; the process was not formalized but it was amply proven that Monesha was welcome there.  Nanja Reddy Colony Anganwadi functions out of a large first-floor room in the school. It has 32 children in the 3-6 age group, and more girls than boys. Six of them are the children of construction workers. The centre is well-provisioned - mats on the cool cement floor; a water filter in the corner; a few small brightly coloured plastic chairs for the children; wide, light-filled windows. The walls are covered with charts and learning instructions. There is a tumult of play material on the floor. Monesha walked tremulously into this happy, often-chaotic set-up and would not stop crying.  Akka Madhavi therefore sat vigil outside the classroom that whole day and the next, and as long as she could see her mother, Monesha was somewhat quiet, though non-participating, and given to frequent teary outbursts. The third day Akka Madhavi slipped away to work and Monesha launched into unstoppable tears. She cried as if her little world had crashed. The anganwadi helper tried diverting her attention but Monesha was inconsolable and, with so many other children to look after and the anganwadi worker, Bharati, away on official work, her hands were full, her hands were tied. Monesha Drops Out  On the fourth day Monesha dropped out. Akka Madhavi stopped bringing her to the anganwadi. Monesha went back to her peaceful routine, drifting around on the constricted sand pile outside her mother’s construction site – no more tearful outrage, no more fear of abandonment, no adjustment crises.“I Have no Solution for That” • Shyama’s intervention did not end as she had hoped it would. “No, I am not disappointed,” she says. “Children of Monesha’s age are too young to appreciate the experience. I am glad Akka Madhavi was honest with me when I asked her why this had happened. She had to take Monesha to the anganwadi before she started work early in the morning. Monesha would cry. She sat with her but the contractor would not allow her to skip work and then pay her as well. I have no solution for that. From what I gather they are not against schooling. But in their current circumstances it didn’t work out. At least they got exposed to a school and know that this is possible. At a later stage when it is viable they can explore this opportunity.”
  4. 4. “I Will Repeat What I have Done….”Shyama believes in a classless society, undivided by the fault lines of poverty, reaching out tocement the irreparable breaches it can sometimes cause in her own small way. She encouragesher daughter to play with Monesha and bond with her every evening in the park opposite theunfinished building. “I am sensitizing her to such issues,” says Shyama. “I think she absorbs it.”  Admitting Monesha to school, Shyama believes, is the least she could do. How it ended is not a setback. “I will repeat what I have done, now that I know from Akshara Foundation that there are schools and anganwadis around. I will do it more often – whatever comes my way.”Beliefs, Convictions, Evolution • For Shyama these are not goals or achievement targets. She seeks no personal high from it, nor from the feel-good factor in selflessness. “People would do something like this. Right? I think it should come naturally to everyone. I didn’t think I have to gain something for myself from it. Why see it in the perspective of it benefitting you?” Action, not the rewards thereof, is her direction-setting beacon. “I just do what I feel is right when a situation arises.” • How did she come to possess these intangible instruments of change – the empathy, the concern for people, the outreach? On the way, as life was traversed? Or from within? Were there specific triggers? “I am inspired by ‘average’ people who make a difference. My thoughts are often guided by what I read. And this I owe to my upbringing. I owe it to my father for introducing me to Swami Vivekananda’s speeches. I find them highly inspiring and relevant for all societies at all times. His personality gives me the courage to put my thoughts into action.” • “India’s problems are always there. Change needs action at every level, starting with the individual. I think we should all become responsible citizens and think in terms of Loka Samastha Sukhino Bhavanthu, Peace Unto this World.”“What are we Going to do with Education?”The sand heap outside Akka Madhavi’s construction site seems like a fixture in a wandering life.Almost a home. A striped, brown blanket and half a sari are strung up like a curtain on its edge –a sun screen waving in the wind. Akka Madhavi and her friend Padma sit companionably on thepile of pale sand on the road in the residential recesses of Jeevan Bhima Nagar. Their place ofwork is a three-storied building that has been coming up for some time now. • Monesha walks in circumscribed circles on territory so familiar, but at the sight of strangers her plump cheeks tighten in non-compromise, ready for mutiny. Jyoti lies on a piece of cloth on the sand, a black bindi on her forehead.
  5. 5. It is difficult to gauge Akka Madhavi’s age. Her face is smooth, unlined by hardship though herstruggle is existential. She is in her workaday clothes – a green-and-brown, long-sleeved shirt, aflower-printed sari and a scarf wound around her head and flowing down her back. She is takinga break from work. How old is she? Akka Madhavi laughs, to the tune of jingling green bangles,partly embarrassed. She lifts an arm as if to calculate and ventures, “Twenty?” More a questionthan an answer. • Akka Madhavi makes around Rs. 200 a day. “My husband’s wages alone are not enough for us. I have to work also.” Part of their earnings goes towards supporting an extended family of indigent parents and relatives left behind in their village – Akka Madhavi could not quite specify which – near Bellary. • The day’s wages predominate all else. And life has the short band width of a day at a time, the future a place they have never dared explore, let alone prepare for. “Because of my work here I could not be with Monesha at the school all through the day.” She adds delightedly, “But the school is very good.”  Is education one of those remote, unfulfilled hopes, like a roof over their heads, a settled way of life, easier, less demanding, more flexible work? Perhaps hope itself is such a luxury, so high-end, that they expunge it from their list of needs, Akka Madhavi at this moment utterly content in the shifting shade she has created for herself and her children on the patch of sand behind the wayward blanket and sari. Frustration does not taint her. She is beaming and envelops you with goodwill. “I should not give you trouble when you have come to meet me. Move to the shade,” she says, pulling you from the hot noon sun into her shelter.  Has Akka Madhavi thought of educating her children? Would she like to? There is ambivalence, contradiction, even a sense of hopelessness. “What can we people do? What are we going to do with education?”  “When Monesha is bigger I will leave her in the village. There is a school there. I have never gone to school, but I would like my children to go to one. I don’t know why I should educate my children. I think that whatever they learn they can put to use at work and earn. I don’t know what they will do later.”“Why Should we People Learn?”Bharati is the anganwadi worker at Nanja Reddy Colony Anganwadi. She was away for MonthlyProject Report meetings all the three days that Monesha was there. The 6 construction workers’children she has in her anganwadi have stories she is all too familiar with. Bharati gives a broadsketch of the patterns of their life, their circumstances, their attitudes, their vulnerability.  The children in the anganwadi are from poor and middle class families. “Our area is like that,” she says. “There is a lot of construction going on in Jeevan Bhima Nagar.” What characterizes the children of construction workers is their extreme
  6. 6. poverty, their poor weight, their malnourishment, she says. “They do not settle into a routine. They come and go as they please.”• In the three years that Bharati has been working at the anganwadi she has been visiting sites and talking to construction workers, trying to persuade them to send their children to the anganwadi. She tells them about the government’s schemes they can avail, the food their children will get, a nourishing midday meal, milk twice a week and eggs on four other days. “I have been taking a lot of trouble. I continue to do so.”  But somehow all the enticements and inducements fall on partially deaf ears. Parents are momentarily swayed by the force of her argument and the prospect of government-gifted entitlements like the Bhagyalakshmi Scheme for the girl child. The retreat is however as swift as the temporary pull. • Why are parents unable to take decisions that support their children’s education? Given the land development around why are there only 6 children of construction workers in the anganwadi? • “Parents do not send their children regularly,” enumerates Bharati. “They have the intention but cannot translate it into action. They think of immediate, short-term gain – their work, their wages. Which is justified. They have to earn a living. They have to be at their site on time.” • “They frequently return to their villages for a function or when they have earned enough. The whole family goes. Then, when they come back the children stop attending the anganwadi.” • “Another reason is that the parents are illiterate. They have no understanding of the importance of education. Parents say to me, ‘Why should we people learn? What are we going to get out of it? At the site we get decent wages, a roof, water. Our children can do the same work.’”

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