Category: Media

A Tale of Two Libraries: Prison inmates raise funds for a slum library for girls in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, with a sponsored 700 km static row

15 prisoners at HMP The Mount, Bovingdon, a British prison, rowed for 12 hours straight from 7 am onwards on Monday 24th April this year raising over £1200 (1 lakh) for the Gyan Azhar Library.

Sean, the prisoner who organised the row, says: “The girls in the slums in Kolkata only want the opportunity to educate themselves so they can better their lives.  It made me think that it is a shame that the place you are born can dictate how your life will be. Having been in jail a long time myself I have had the benefit of educating myself and gaining skills which will help me on release.  So I thought it would be good to raise some money to help the girls better themselves.  These small but worthwhile charities need support as they really make a difference to people’s lives.”

Sean and the other prisoners and staff have been inspired by Helen , the prison librarian. Helen has worked at The Mount for 18 years, providing educational support to prisoners and guiding them through Open University degrees as well as encouraging recreational reading. Helen went to India on holiday in January this year and visited the library run by NGO, Tiljala SHED. She met some of the 700 girls who use the library and was invited into some of their homes in the slum afterwards.

Helen says, “In January this year I was privileged to visit a pretty amazing library.  The Gyan Azhar library was set up in 2008 in one of the poorest slums in Kolkata by a local charity, Tiljala SHED, to provide a safe place for girls to go to study, borrow books, use computers, take part in activities such as health education and crafts and to meet their friends.  One of the charity’s main aims is to help girls to stay in education to give themselves the best chance of avoiding a life of extreme poverty and early marriage.  With a good education girls can gain financial independence and support themselves and their families and the library plays a big part in this. 

The girls I met at Gyan Azhar were so proud of their library and really enjoyed showing me around.  It’s not big by any means – the library is in a room measuring about 12 feet square – but it has 700 members from the ages of five to twenty!  The library is desperately short of books, computers and craft materials and I came back from my trip determined to raise some money to buy some more.

The girls in the slum are trapped in poverty, living in rooms no bigger than a typical prison cell, often with five or six family members. Like the prisoners at The Mount, the girls know that education and skills are their best hope of a better life.  I was amazed when Sean said he wanted to organise this fundraiser: I was only telling them about my holiday.  As manager of the library at the Mount I know what a difference libraries can make. As well as being vital for learning, books can offer a real release from the problems of everyday life.  We can all escape with a book!” 

The funds the prisoners have raised  will be used to supply books, computers and craft materials for girls to use when they visit the library.

Donations are being collected here   www. justgiving.com/crowdfunding/helen-bratchell

Subir Roy: What does life hold for a rag picker?

– Subir Roy-New Delhi-Business Standard-January 23, 2015

The shanties along the railway line for local trains near Park Circus station in east Kolkata are not so different from similar encroachments across the country. Many of them are home to rag pickers, who occupy perhaps the lowest rung in urban India’s social ladder. They are mostly Scheduled Caste and Muslim landless labourers who have migrated from nearby districts in search of work. Across the country rural scavengers often escape to a better life in a city as rag pickers.

This colony of rag pickers, who forage into garbage dumps across the city to fish out recyclables, has been there for decades now. One kindly light for some of them though is the Tiljala Society for Human and Educational Development, Tiljala SHED for short. Founded by a retired government schoolteacher, Muhammad Alamgir, it has for over two decades worked among rag pickers in mostly deprived slum-ridden east Kolkata, which has a large concentration of Muslims.

Tiljala SHED was one of the 30 NGOs selected to participate in a daylong event in one of the nicer hotels in south Kolkata by Kolkata Gives. In the second such event in a couple of years, NGOs who make the cut (one criterion is a low expense ratio) were invited to man kiosks and the rich and the good of the city invited to come, see, select a worthy cause and be generous to its NGO backer. Mudar Patherya, one of the organisers, says immediate commitments of Rs 4 crore have been made and more is expected to come in with time.

Tiljala SHED runs several programmes, but the flagship is one that covers 350 rag pickers and 50 ultra-poor families. It is supported by the German Roman Catholic charity Misereor. Just next to the shanties lining the railway line is a one-room school for rag pickers’ children in a proper “recognised” slum. They all go to government schools earlier in the day and in the afternoon come to this one which is more like a “coaching” class. They need this additionality as their parents are all illiterate and working most of the day.

As we enter they all say in unison unprompted “Good morning, sir”, to have a teacher correct them to say “good afternoon”. It is a mixed age and ability setup with children forming several clusters pursuing different tasks. A teacher has a handful of children standing near the blackboard with him explaining simple arithmetic: “If I have four bananas and two oranges and want to distribute it to two of you equally…”

The shanties are as makeshift as they come – but even then, some of them are two-storied! You enter and go to the upper level by a ladder. The clearance for both levels is low, you bend a little to get in, to sit or lie down. Sometimes two families share such a shanty.

Levels of well-being differ greatly between shanties. Clearly at the top of the heap is Munni Molla, a grandmother and secretary of a self-help group. Her husband does paint jobs at Rs 400 per day. There is electricity to power a couple of lights, fans and a TV, at Rs 360 a month, plus Rs 200 per month for a cable connection to a dish antenna.

Easily the apple of her eye is Nazia Khatun, her granddaughter of eight who has stood first in her class. All proudly point to a picture on the wall drawn by the little girl showing the teacher in her class holding a pointer to the blackboard. Munni Molla has an Aadhaar card and a bank account. The big recent event at the shanty town was a nationalised bank setting up camp to open around 250 Jan Dhan Yojana accounts.

But the lot of the average rag picker is far different. A full family of grownups and children earns around Rs 300 a day by selling to aggregators what they collect. They don’t save and spend all they earn right away. Addiction is widespread. The monsoon months are particularly bad as rain washes away the waste paper, a major recyclable, in the garbage heaps.

One of the biggest disappointments of Tiljala SHED is the result of their attempt to teach rag picker women vocational skills like tailoring, making paper bags and processing spices. Rag pickers don’t like regular routine like attending training classes and will refuse a cleaner job than what they do if it earns them the same as rag pickers. MNCs like Cognizant give away a lot of waste paper but it is a headache getting the rag pickers to land up at an office at the appointed hour to collect it. Even then, it is difficult to sell what the training centre produces. Shops say consumers prefer to buy branded packaged spices.

It is a humbling moment for any upper middle class do-gooder when the realisation dawns that, unless the very poor have a stake in the future, they do not become aspirational.

Kolkata Gives- Celebrate the joy of giving

-Mudar Patherya, The Telegraph Saturday , February 6 , 2016

• Shafkat’s NGO Tiljala SHED needs a year-long funding for a weekend langar for 450 residents of a canal-side squatter’s development in Topsia.

• Babar Ali’s NGO Anand Shiksha Niketan in Murshidabad needs to add facilities that can help his school take in more students than he can otherwise address.

• Deshopriyo Mahapatra of NGO Amitie needs to provide as many people the opportunity to meet transgenders so that they may be treated as human beings first and needy individuals thereafter.

• Arjan Basu-Roy of NGO Nature Mates needs to reach out to environment-supporting donors who can help his NGO meet rent expenses and the recruitment of two butterfly-farmers.

Kolkata Gives is hosting the city’s largest philanthropic event on Sunday, February 7 at hotel Park Plaza, Gariahat, between 10am and 7pm.

The express intention of the event is to bring prospective donors eyebrow-to-eyebrow with 30 credible NGOs across a variety of disciplines – with the objective to enhance an NGO’s access to resources on the one hand and a donor’s access to honest NGOs on the other.

The event represents an idea whose time has come for a number of reasons.

One, in modern India, unprecedented wealth has been created adjacent to extensive poverty, enhancing a sense of guilt. An annual event like Kolkata Gives makes it possible for these constituencies to engage with each other and facilitate a transfer of needed resources.

Two, there is a growing feeling that a number of the less-privileged communities are lacking not native intelligence or enthusiasm, but opportunity. An annual engagement like Kolkata Gives makes it possible for the affluent to network among themselves and provide the disadvantaged with a kickstart in life.

Three, not all necessary interventions by the affluent need be large or enduring. In a number of cases, the blockers can be addressed with modest support – as simple as a toilet for girl students, rent funding, nominal increase in volunteer remuneration – that could graduate the NGOs into their next orbit of growth. An event like Kolkata Gives makes it possible for prospective donors to engage extensively with NGO executives and identify these hydraulic opportunities.

Four, not all NGOs are confident and optimistic, even while the causes they represent continue to be critical and credible. An event like Kolkata Gives draws observers, commentators, analysts and resource providers who could provide these NGOs with precious resources (cash, contacts and clarity) to take their movement ahead.

So the big question: have these improvements transpired in any of the previous Kolkata Gives annual events?

Yes, they have.

Jyoti Development Trust ran a school for tribal children on the IIT Kharagpur campus. Following its presence at the inaugural 2013 event, the NGO received an unprecedented commitment of Rs 40 million to build a new educational facility.

Mamoon Akhtar’s school in Tikiapara comprised 1,400 students when he was invited to the inaugural Kolkata Gives event in 2013; today, supported extensively by Kolkata Gives, his student count has increased to 3,400, making him arguably Kolkata’s fastest growing educational institution.

Kolkata Swasthya Sankalp’s mission to provide the lowest cost diagnostic service in India received a shot in the arm following the donation of an expensive dialysis machine during the 2015 event.

Leprosy Mission’s objective to provide one of the lowest cost leprosy treatment in remote Bengal was reinforced by the donation of an X-ray machine following the 2015 Kolkata Gives event.

Which brings us to the big question: what if someone has no money to contribute?

The answer: for them, there could always be pre-used clothes, unused medicines, old toys and even well-worn school books.

Emphasising the point that when it comes to giving, no amount, no thought and no word is too small or inconsequential.

Which is why, the Kolkata Gives event on Sunday promises to be more than a networking event; it promises to be a celebration of the spirit of giving.