Monday, May 24, 2010

The Amazing Sikhya School

I've recently become quite interested in the non-profit sector's work in combating the crushing poverty here in India. My aunt suggested I check out an old friend of her's school. So my wife and I spent some time with the principal, my aunt's friend, and toured the school. Sikhya is a non-profit school providing a high quality education and nurturing environment exclusively to slum dwellers and other extremely poor children for free.

While the government offers an almost free education, the quality is significantly below that of the education offered at myriad private schools. Many of the government school's are grossly underfunded and mismanaged. There are an amazing number of stories about teachers that never show up to class, standardized test scores that are simply manufactured, or the answers are distributed to the kids by corrupt principals ahead of time so school incompetence cannot be effectively measured. I'll save chatting in more depth about the public schools, as, despite all of this, there has been some improvement the past few years in Punjab, in part due to private money from the west arriving most often in the form of NRI (Non-Resident Indians) money given directly to school projects.

Sikhya strives to match the standards of the elite private schools in the city. Sikhya also provides a nurturing and loving environment for these kids who come from extremely difficult backgrounds. All schoolwork is performed in school; this is because, according to the school teachers I chatted with, it is simply impractical for the kids to do work at home -- most do not have electricity in the slums and many are required to work long hours. Another challenge is abuse; many kids are abused at home, and tragically, there simply is not an effective social service system in India which can help. Despite all these difficulties, it is obvious from the photos below, that the kids are thriving.

The computer labs are quite extensive at Sikhya, complete with broadband Internet connectivity.

When Slumdog Millionaire came out, many friends of mine asked me if the slums are really like that in India. I said, well yeah, in fact, they're even worse. Its tough to convey just how stinking hot it is here on the big screen, not to mention, how stinking stinky it can be. I also hear from friends and family traveling or living here that everyone is corrupt, and there's not much anyone can do. This is patently false, Sikhya school was set up by one man who simply wanted to do some good.
There is no doubt corruption is rampant in India, but it is also true that everywhere you look there are examples of honest, caring locals striving to improve the situation.

We were so inspired with the Sikhya school that we started volunteering a few days a week. Our first assignment was to paint murals. The school is broken into 5 groups, one for each of the basic "elements," which according to eastern philosophy and religions, are the base materials from which the universe is made.

It costs 200 US$ to educate one child for one year at Sikhya. The school can arrange for you to sponsor a specific child, or children, and track their progress through school and life.

My favorite part of working on the murals was meeting the curious kids wandering about.

If you wish to donate to Sikhya school, please drop an email to: and mention you are friends of Deep and Ameen. Unfortunately they don't have PayPal set up, but you can either wire money to the school's bank or send some along with a relative visiting India.

Drop me a note if you are interested in setting up a letter writing exchange with students of a particular grade.

Drop me a note if you have any trouble donating or volunteering.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Rockin Rikshawala

My son and I flagged down a bicycle rickshaw for our journey home tonight. As I stepped onto the rickshaw, I noticed it was brand spankin' new -- cardboard and plastic still wrapped much of the cycle's tubing. After the many hundreds, perhaps thousands of rickshaw rides I've taken in India, not once have I ever ridden on a brand new one. So I said to Gopal, "Vah, your rickshaw is absolutely fantastic!" He smiled and said, "No Sahib, this one is already a month and a half old. Its simply okay."

As we were cruising home, Gopal was totally cranking -- I've never seen someone pull a rickshaw this fast. It was obvious something was different about Gopal. It turns out, Gopal owns 14 rickshaws; he himself rides 7 days a week, 18 hours a day -- from pre-dawn, through the searing summer heat, and late into the night. He keeps a brand new rickshaw for himself, once it gets a little old, he adds it to his collection of rentals. According to Gopal, the average Chandigarh rikshawala will earn between 2500 and 5000 rupees a month (that's between 58 and 116$US). Gopal makes about 900 rupees per month on each rickshaw he rents out. A brand new rickshaw costs 9000 rupees. Now according to Gopal, each rented rickshaw comes with significant overhead, there's the occasional worn out tire, a broken chain, and other bike maintenance related problems, but his biggest expense has more to do with his riders, who can require a fair amount of money for things like a marriage (for their daughters), a funeral, medical bills, etc. So all in all, Gopal says he grosses about 15000 rupees a month, and after all his expenses, pulls home around 11000. I asked him how he manages 13 other rikshawalas. Gopal says he has a cell phone in his pocket, they call him if there are any problems. All his riders return their bikes to him at the end of the day, where they all sleep on their rickshaws together. He said he has no problems with the government and hence no need to pay any bribes. There is a one time license fee of 500 rupees per bicycle. I also asked if he had any problems with riders running off with his bikes. He said no, he has all their paperwork in order, they have to sign for the bikes, and he learns all their family history before hand. I asked Gopal why he doesn't upgrade to an auto-rickshaw. He laughed and said, "Never. That is the worst business ever. For them it is just a status symbol, that they don't have to work hard like us." Apparently autos have many maintenance expenses, petrol expenses, license fees, taxes, penalties (tickets for things like too many passengers, traffic violations, etc.), money for bribes and more. Gopal says his business is good, hard work for sure, but good.

I asked him where his wife and kids are. He says he owns a house in Delhi, has 3 kids, 1 of marriageable age. His daughter's marriage will cost him 1.5 to 2 lakhs (3500$US to 4650$US). He has 3 rickshaws running in Delhi, he visits once a month or so, otherwise he sleeps on his bike, and keeps growing his business.

I must say, I was totally blown away by my conversation with Gopal. Before Gopal, like most others, I thought of rikshawalas as men to feel sorry for, men with few options, no education, and little money. While 11000 rupees per month doesn't sound like much to a westerner ( a mere 256$US) its almost twice as much as a teacher makes here, and more than 6 times what a farm laborer makes. And most importantly, Gopal's income is growing. I asked how many more rickshaws he thinks he could handle. He felt he could double the number without many problems. I asked how many rikshawalas are entrepreneurs like him -- he kept peddling, and just laughed.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Nature's Business

This porcelain pair of hemorrhoids sparing squat toilets offer a deluxe view of the magnificent Chandigarh Rose Garden park.

For you art lovers and mountaineers, here is a colorful stand up work designed to offer fresh air, as well as a nice view.

And my personal favorite, a rather endangered species, which never fails to bring back childhood memories of crickets chirping, wheat stalks swaying, and the scent of a new day.

Monday, May 10, 2010

I Love the Rain

No AC buzz. No whirling fans. No reason to squint. Black sky cracks open, and dumps a bucket of bliss. The searing heat subsides, at least for the moment.

And the sun returns, though the rain is not forgotten.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Salesmanship: No MBA Required

"Oh sahib, you're such a budda sahib, please help an old man. Here, hold him, hold him, he'll give you good luck sahib. Oh chota sahib, yes, he likes you, here take him, yes bring the camera mehim sahib, yes please shoot, yes take the picture, oh budda sahib, why are you backing away, chota sahib is not afraid, he is a brave sahib, yes mehim sahib, take the picture, go on take it, yes take more, go on, yes, good, it is a good picture. Oh bless my sahib, you're such a budda sahib, praise be to God, may he bless you day after day after day."

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

From Dust to Dust

We were walking along a dusty road in the beautiful mountains this past weekend and ran across a rather gruesome site. In classic Indian style, the contrast was dramatic. Marlin Perkins, host of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, might have read: as the radiant red sun slowly set across the Himalayan skyline, two gentlemen casually sip chai and chat while a sweet street dog gnaws industriously on the victim of a traffic mishap.


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