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Philanthropy and Social Activism in India - 2003-10-02

Hunger and stomach pain are common in the lives of these fifty or so children, huddling on the floor of a poorly-lit shack in the northeastern outskirts of Calcutta. The small windowless structure belongs to the Narkeldanga Police Unit, housed in the large bright red-and-white building next door.

Sutapa Chakraborty is coordinator for the Nabadisha Education Program, designed to provide basic education for street children of Calcutta and prepare them to enter mainstream society: "They are from the local slum. Q: And how do you find them? A: Before staring a center, we conduct a survey through police and through this process, we find all these children.”

The program is a result of combined efforts of the Indian government and non-governmental groups. Calcutta police helps locate the children and provides space for their training. The non-governmental group Vikramshila Education Resource Society designs the curriculum and trains the teachers. The program runs with the financial assistance of the group called Child Relief and You, food support from Catholic Relief Service and involvement of the local community.

Ms. Chakraborty says the program aims to prepare the children, aged 4 to 14, to enter the public school system. For a variety of reasons, these children have never attended school or have dropped out and many of them have to work to help maintain their families. So Nabadisha centers help them adjust to the mainstream.

Children are divided into groups according to their learning levels, not according to age as in regular schools. In addition to academics, they learn hygiene, discipline and positive work habits. Ms. Chakraborty says her work also includes dealing with parents, most of whom have never attended school: "Not all, but we talk with the grocery shopkeepers of all this and we request: 'Please send the children to school, leave the children for three hours. After school they will join in your shop or in your factory."

Calcutta police currently runs about 15 educational centers in 13 stations in the most densely populated slums and squatter settlements. These centers give classes to approximately 1,000 children at a time. Sutapa Chakraborty admits it is a relatively small number for a country where half of all the children are undernourished and more than half of the women cannot read. But she says the program is effective.

Dipankar Mazumder heads the Calcutta office of Child Relief and You, the organization that finances the program: "All the projects that we support are basically working towards restoration of child rights, providing rights to the children, in terms of right to survival, right to development, right to participation and right to protection."

While these basic children's rights may be taken for granted in developed countries, in much of the developing world they are not. "It is the state's responsibility to secure these rights for the children as per the U.N. convention, actually the CRC (The Convention on the Rights of the Child), but unfortunately, that is not happening,” says Mr. Mazumdar. “So, it has to be the endeavor of all citizens and the government and non-government organizations --all of us -- to ensure that children get their rights."

During the 56th anniversary of Indian independence this summer, the government of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee renewed its pledge to turn India into a developed country by 2020. Few Indians expect the government alone can reach that ambitious goal.

"I wish Vajpayee's dream comes true. I wish, I pray for it. And definitely all Indians should try for that,” says Javed Ahmed Khan, an elected member of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation.

His constituency, about 200,000 poor and low-income citizens, receive only the most basic services from the state: some health care, access to clean drinking water and some elementary school education. Not nearly enough, says Mr. Khan, who has raised money to build about 350 bamboo shelters for the homeless: "We spent around half a million rupees here to build this. They are very poor people, they pull rickshaws and such. They get water ration cards, everything."

The bamboo shelters have no floors and no windows. But for the families lucky enough to get them, they provide a sense of community, a place with an address: Mazur Pala, Calcutta.

Most philanthropic and volunteer efforts in India focus on children. Others support a host of causes including human rights, women's issues, rural population, people with disabilities, community building, environmental protection and crime prevention.

For example, after the 1993 riots in Bombay, neighborhood groups joined forces with local police units to help curb street violence and crime. Satish Sahaney, chief executive of Bombay's Nehru Center, was a police commissioner at the time: "The relationship between Hindus and Muslims in Bombay was bitter and even worse was the relationship between the Muslims and the police. The Muslims were very unhappy with the police. They felt that the police acted in a partisan manner."

Mr. Sahaney says the police found they could not enforce the law without citizens' support. So they opened a dialogue with representatives of the communities they were trying to protect - groups known as mohalla committees:

"And through this process of dialog, an idea emerged that the local leadership takes care of a small locality. Mohalla is a small locality (a street). The idea is that ten people of that street, or that mohalla, come together and they keep in touch with residents of their mohalla, where there may be people of all religions, people of all castes and communities. But they say: within our mohalla we will not allow any disturbance to take place."

Satish Sahaney says during the past decade, mohalla committees have had a major role in maintaining peace in Bombay's poor neighborhoods. Most recently, the groups have been commended for preventing the outburst of ethnic violence after the August bombing in Bombay.

Many private social organizations in India start with little more than enthusiasm of a few individuals.

Shahanshah Jehangir, the founder of Bengal Service Society, says he formed the group in 1968 with a handful of friends and a budget of 20 rupees -- less than half a dollar: "I had a big function in a famous historical hall here in Calcutta and a poet came and sang a song from our poet Rabindranath Tagore and it (the verse) was: 'Go ahead. If nobody comes, you walk alone and people will come and follow you.'"

And if it can help their community, many Indians are ready to follow.