Archive for May, 2012


AMDG

Chandra Observatory launched in 1991, at the time the heaviest payload, designed for 5 years, still going strong …pic from NASA

It is striking how well drilled Indian students are in learning and knowing about the lives of the towering figures of Indian History. Gandhi, Ambedkar (the Dalit author of the constitution), Roy, Nehru, the list goes on and on.  I was surprised yesterday in the Hostel with a conversation I had with a very bright student who has just returned. I had put up a display of images of the Solar System, rockets, astronauts, observatories and satellites, with a special focus on Indian hardware.  One of the three space observatories left is the Chandra X Ray Satellite.  NASA named this satellite after a great Indian physicist Chandraseka and it allows us to collect data from deep space.  I was trying to explain this to a gaggle of students who were pressing around, and one older girl knew all about him. I was surprised and very impressed.  Knowledge of these great figures serves to instill national pride and shared identity, a unifying factor to combat communal violence.  However as one of the Jesuits said to me, the education system, still heavily based on rote learning is not geared to encouraging a similar creativity and ingenuity in the majority of students.  Widespread corruption in the examination system is also preventing good practice and good schools to be identified and copied, especially in areas far from the metropolis.

My favourite among these Indian giants is the poet and educationalist, and author of the National Anthem,  Rabindrath Tagore (right).  He is known in India as ‘gurudeb’ – the great teacher.  I remember discovering his poetry at university and at once being mesmerised by its beauty and mysticism.  Tagore won the Nobel  Prize for Literature in 1913 after  Yeats did a lot to get translations of his work published and promoted on a visit to London.   He was knighted in 1915 but repudiated the honour four years later after a terrible massacre by British troops.  Like Ghandi his thoughts on Christ have always fascinated me, although remaining a Hindu he admired Christ greatly. However he did not admire Christians whom he identified with the British Imperial power he was working to overthrow.  In a letter to E J Thompson he said  ‘Do you know I have often felt that if we were not Hindus…I should like my people to be Christians? Indeed, it is a great pity that Europeans have come to us as imperialists rather than as Christians and so have deprived our people of their true contact with the religion of Jesus Christ…What a mental torture it is to know that men are capable of loving each other and adding to one another’s joy, and yet would not!”

I am currently reading a biography of his – so imagine my delight when I found out that he was sent to a Jesuit school - St Xavier’s in Kolkota. It would be nice to say he loved school, this was by no means the case. He hated formal education and being a ‘mere pupil’.  In fact he was sent to St Xaviers as a last desperate attempt by his mother after other institutions had failed. At least it had some impact on him, in a previous school ‘the presidency college’  he only lasted one day! When his mother died he gave up school for good at the age of 13. Ironically he became one of Indias greatest educationalists setting up his own school in Santiniketan. In his memoirs, however I have discovered one reminiscence which I find beautiful ….

2010 – 150 year anniversary

One precious memory of St. Xavier’s I still hold fresh and pure—the memory of its teachers……. This is the memory of Father DePeneranda. He had very little to do with us—if I remember right he had only for a while taken the place of one of the masters of our class. He was a Spaniard and seemed to have an impediment in speaking English. It was perhaps for this reason that the boys paid but little heed to what he was saying. It seemed to me that this inattentiveness of his pupils hurt him, but he bore it meekly day after day. I know not why, but my heart went out to him in sympathy. His features were not handsome, but his countenance had for me a strange attraction. Whenever I looked on him his spirit seemed to be in prayer, a deep peace to pervade him within and without.We had half-an-hour for writing our copybooks; that was a time when, pen in hand, I used to become absent-minded and my thoughts wandered hither and thither. One day Father DePeneranda was in charge of this class. He was pacing up and down behind our benches. He must have noticed more than once that my pen was not moving. All of a sudden he stopped behind my seat. Bending over me he gently laid his hand on my shoulder and tenderly inquired: “Are you not well, Tagore?” It was only a simple question, but one I have never been able to forget. I cannot speak for the other boys but I felt in him the presence of a great soul, and even to-day the recollection of it seems to give me a passport into the silent seclusion of the temple of God.

Teachers often do not realise the impact they are having for good or ill, and what we think is success or failure might turn out different in the grand scheme of things!

——————

Educating Tribals

AMDG

The school and college are buzzing again as term started yesterday. It will take a few days for all the children to return, time keeping and calendars do not exert a big influence in village life.  The Jesuits have been pleasantly surprised by the numbers of new students and there are talking about opening a fourth class for the youngest children – we will have to find a temporary classroom somewhere.  All of this is a great sign that the value and importance of education is beginning to take root in families that have been illiterate for generations.  What has been particularly striking for me, as the parents accompany their children into school for the first days, is the amount of Lambadi women.  As you can see by the photograph their dress, with the mirrors, long hair and jewellery is very striking, easy to notice amongst the throng of parents.  When I asked the headmaster, Fr Rohan, he told with a proud smile that over a hundred of the students are from Lambadi families.  The Lambadis are one of 645 ‘Scheduled’ tribes in India. These are indigenous people who now account for nearly 8% of India’s population, and along with Dalits are the poorest people in India.  A nomadic people, the Lambadis where originally forest dwellers, when India had extensive forests, deforestation has forced them out and now many are nomadic cattle grazers.

Some of our proud Lambadi students on culture day

I have to confess when I first stumbled upon some local Lambadi villages on my evening cycle ride I was a little scared. Their appearance makes quite an impression, particularly with the mirrors glinting in the sun.  I asked one of our social workers  about the mirrors and she said it was to do with warding of evil spirits.  However this now seems untrue, the mirrors are actually to protect the women when they stumbled upon wild animals in the forests.  With the men folk often away hunting – the women could not call them for help, however the many mirrors would reflect multiple images of wild animals thus scaring them away. During the British Rule both the Dalits and the Tribals were known as the ‘Depressed Classes’ however things are changing. Much of what we know about these tribal cultures is due to the pioneering work of a Jesuit, Fr Lawrence Desouza, living and working with them, often under the auspices of UNESCO, he published many books about the different tribes, his obituary is here – click.  Now in India there is a big movement to protect their cultures, in school we have a Culture Day once a year where students are encouraged to dress in their costumes and they take pride in their beautiful and distinctive music and dancing.

When I asked how they were doing in school, their performance is average.  Having been told that their parents have a reputation for being very loving of their children ( as they are not tainted by any sense of inferiority from the caste system) I was also surprised to be told that they are often getting into fights, and many complaints have been made about their filthy language.  Surely this doesn’t add up with coming from these loving families – I though to myself. Ah – I was told – with a grin, they are not Hindus, in fact their religious beliefs are animist.  There is no taboo about drinking alcohol, so they brew it themselves and the men and women often get drunk and end up fighting.  The children are just copying that behaviour.  I suppose that the light and the shadows of tribal life!  A good note to end on is what Fr Eric told me about a Lambadi women who came into his office this week.  She wanted to enrol her daughter into school, and was prepared to pay what it took, passionately she said, I want to give her a chance, I don’t want her to be like me!

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AMDG

Jeans or Sari? In the cities the growing use of Western Style dress is a hot topic for debate

I have just spent a busy 24 hours in Bangalore accompanying one of students who may be getting surgery to straighten her spine.  As I had other jobs to do, we took one of her teachers with us so that they wouldn’t be alone.  It was a bit hectic, we had to rush around the city in rickshaws, meeting the doctor, getting an x-ray, going to a hospital to sort out the post-op care.  Both the teacher and the student were only visiting Bangalore for the second time,  and it was clear they preferred small town or village India to big city in India.  What was particularly interesting was their commentaries and chatting about the amount of girls and young women they saw in Jeans or western style dress.  There was a big discussion about Sari v Jeans and Sari definitely came out top in their eyes. This lead to a few long conversations about the role of women in India and it certainly was sobering and the question of fashion soon seemed to become irrelevant.

Back in March 2010, the Economist ran a striking cover story about what it called ‘Gendercide‘ responding the famous Indian Economist Amartya Sen claim that 100million baby girls have been killed through sex-selective abortions.  Because of a variety of factors, the dowry system, traditional prejudices, need for physical labour, inheritance law, girls are clearly seen as less preferable to boys. As well as this ancient preference for a son, there is a modern desire for smaller families and cheap and widespread availability of ultrasound technology. This combined factors has led to a dramatic rise in sex selective abortions.

Unlike China, India’s democratic roots  and civil service have set up an impressive infrastructure for elections and also data gathering, particularly through the 10-year census.  The data is seen as reliable and detailed.  It also very revealing.    Currently in India the sex ratio according to 2011 census is 914 women per 1,000 men. It was 927 women per 1,000 men in 2001. According to The World Factbook this is the third most distorted sex ratio in the world after China and Armenia and it seems to be growing.   The census data also reveals how cultural prejudices affect this.  In both rural and urban India the Sikh community has the most distorted ratio (895  girls per 1000 boys).  This is followed by Hindus (935),  Muslim and Jains (940),   Buddhist (955).  It is only the Christian community that has more girls than boys (1009), but indications suggest that even that may be dropping.

Obviously the effects of this ‘gendercide’ could be profound on the community.  In Northern States in India where the practice of sex selective abortion and also infanticide seems most common, they are already having to ‘import’ brides from other states.  Son preference is most prevalent in an arc of countries from East Asia through South Asia to the Middle East and North Africa – however it seems highest in Asia. In fact it is only South Korea that seems to have recovered it sex ratio to from that equivalent to India in 1990 to approaching a more normal level today. The economic rise of South Korea, the only country to go from being an aid recipient to an aid donor in one generation, is well known. But is a change of culture that is leading to girls to be valued more.

This is another reason why education is so important, and the work being done here in Manvi so impressive.  But there is still a lot to do, the Jesuits here have set up an impressive network of womens groups in the villages, such as the Devadasis pictured on the right.  They value education more and will encourage the girls to go to school.  But still there are deep problems.  In a dramatic incident last week our social workers who have been developing a malnutrition programme had to rush a seriously malnourished baby girl to hospital.  There is a lot of confusion around the case, they suspect food provided for her had been sold on, that the child may have HIV, and that the grandmother seemed to be blocking any effort to help her survive. From the (foriegn) social workers perspective, the family seemed happy to let her die.  There is no proof to any of this, but it would not be a surprise in a culture where the difference between a boy and a girl can have a big effect in the lives of the poor. What is needed is faithful presence and the slow continuous work of changing hearts and minds.  The British Governments arm for development (DFID) are offering large amounts of funding targeted at getting girls into and keeping them in education. It is called the Girls Education Challenge, and in a new departure funds that would usually go into government budgets and be wasted due to corruption are now being offered to the private sector.  The Jesuits who already educate over 9,000 girls in Karnataka state, with over two thirds of them being from low caste and vulnerable backgrounds are well placed to use this funding to expand their educational work.  In fact that was my other business in Bangalore.

I couldn’t stop laughing

AMDG

The nearby city of Hubli here in Karnataka held a unique competition last week ”An Abuse without Offending Contest”.  Its goal  – to judge intelligent and inventive ways of abusing each other.    I had to check the date of the newspaper – it wasn’t April the First!  350 participants took to the stage either solo or as a duo (husband-wife, friends or brother-sister). The type of abuse was strictly controlled – participants were not allowed to use filthy language or hurt others with regard to caste, creed, religion or sex but could insult others using  English, Hindi, Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam or any other Indian language. Evidently the aim of the competition was ‘to find a peaceful language in today’s troubled times.’ The winners were an elderly couple, Savita and Gangadhar Hiremath, married for more than five decades. They argued, quarreled and abused each other – and had the audience in gales of laughter with their inventive and witty insults, and they walked away with the first prize. Their prize – a garland of flowers.”We’re happy to win the first prize. On the stage we stayed natural and used language which we use in our daily life,” said the couple in unison at the end of the event.

When I was a teenager we used to learn Monty Python scripts off by heart and recite them at the back of the coach on the way back from sporting fixtures (its a bit embarrassing to admit this now).  One of our favorite sketches was the ‘I’d like to have an argument’ sketch, where the hapless Michael Palin, wanders into the wrong room, and gets a volley of abuse.  When he looks bewildered – his assailant realises he is lost and tells him, ‘oh this is abuse you want room 12a for an argument.’ Never did I think I would come across this in real life.

Maybe….. and this is a very tentative maybe….. there is some point to this bizarre contest. The organisers claimed   “Most often a verbal duel turns offensive and leads to physical fights. Thus we want to encourage people to make their habit of abusing or scolding fellow human beings without any malice and thereby also enjoy and have fun in the process. Friendly bantering should be encouraged between people to vent their anger.”   Having worked in all boys school, I used to find the majority of banter tiresome, especially in the staff room, but recognise that it could be an important way to let of steam. I have to acknowledge there were some geniuses at it – especially the students.  Some of their observations and use of language could make me crack up, which could be a bit embarrassing, especially when trying to teach a lesson. I perfected the trick of writing on the whiteboard with my back to the class when I was battling to keep a straight face.

Wonderful …………………   Only in India!


Inspiring Commitment

AMDG

When I reflect on different places I have worked in my life, the greatest memories I have are when I have worked alongside people who inspire me, whether it was my boss or colleagues.  It is great to be involved in something that you believe in, and that you go into work every day with people who share that same passion, especially if they are more intelligent than you or more creative, and you learn so much of them. Sadly the opposite is also true, how sad it is to hear so many people who go into a job where cynicism, selfishness, power or greed become the dominant values. It drags you down. Even worse if your boss is a bully, or you are lead by someone who is less talented than you, knows this and it makes them insecure and vindictive. Luckily in my life I have experienced more of the former that the latter, or at least I remember more of the former energy rather than the latter.  I have fond memories of  St Igs in Enfield.  As I come to my final couple of weeks here in India, I am beginning to reflect on what it has meant to me living and working alongside the Jesuits here.

There is something about the mission here in Manvi that epitomises for me something very important to Saint Ignatius, it is what we call the ‘Magis’.  Magis means simply ‘the more’ . doing more for others because you believe what you are doing is what Christ has asked you to do.  Magis is about choosing wisely, discerning, what we do, how we use our energy.  As Jesuits it is taken for granted we all (at least most of us) want to do good, the magis is choosing between different ‘goods’ to doing what is the best.

Walking to work in the fields – lunch carried on the head!

I will share one example of where I see the Magis at work in this mission.  After 9 or 10 years work here in Manvi the school is established, it is thriving, all the locals rich and poor want to send their children, we have Hindus, Muslims and Christians in the school.  But are resources are limited, so we have to turn away someone, who? The wealthy, the higher castes… their wealth and influence means they can choose to go to other local schools. So the poorest, the Dalits, the Devadasi, and girls always get priority here.  Now with the establishment of the School, the PUC and the soon the University, you could forgive the Jesuits for relaxing, consolidating the institutions, and staying here in Manvi.  It is a very poor area, the locals themselves admit it is ‘backward’, but a town of 40,000 affords certain luxuries, there is a cinema, we get electricity here maybe for 14 hours a day, water is available, there are shops, doctors etc.  But no, what has inspired me recently is how, the students, social workers, our Slovak Doctor and Fr Eric, keep going out into the villages. The temperature is reaching the mid 40’s here regularly at the moment, the villages are hot and dusty, when you come back you are covered in sweat, grit, sand. People are often  late, don’t show up for meetings or appointments. But they still go, to monitor and extend the malnutrition programme, and to convince those in more remote villages to bring their children to our schools.

Now school can come to them – courtesy of Jessica from Switzerland

In the villages there are now a network of 12 kindergartens and a few primary schools that have been built or in planning.  A few weeks ago a very generous donor from Switzerland bought the mission two new school buses.  This means that Eric and some hand-picked students  go regularly to the remoter villages and invite families to send their children to school.  The villagers are very impressed by the students  but they still need some persuasion. How much will it cost – as much as you can pay is the answer, which is usually rupees a year (just over a pound!).  But how will they get there?  Now we have two buses we can come and pick them up every day – for free!  The school comes to them.  This dedication and commitment of Eric and the students is inspiring for me…. refusing to rest on their laurels, they are reaching out for more and more marginalized children.   However this intensity of work also needs to be balanced with good rest, and a good community and prayer life.  Because I have been inspired – I would like to share that inspiration with you too!  Thanks for reading, don’t forget to leave a comment if you have a few minutes – the Jesuits and children here are delighted when I pass on your comments.

Cricket and Scandals

AMDG

A photo of a match between Chennai SuperKings ...

A photo of a match between Chennai SuperKings and Kolkata Knightriders during the DLF IPL T20 tournament (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Indian Premier League (IPL),  the most lucrative form of domestic cricket in the world, is reaching its climax.  Its stars are ubiquitous on advertising hoardings, its games have been watched every night for the last six weeks, with people crowding round televisions in dusty villages, by the side of the road, in cafes, houses everywhere.  I have become used the incongruous sight of simple shacks with a satellite dish precariously balanced on the roof at the back.  It may be coincidental that the timing of the 6 week long tournament seems to fit nicely with the school holidays.  So India is full of boys trying to emulate their local heroes.  Here in Manvi the hero is the Jamaican Chris Gayle who has hit an incredible 56 ‘super sixes’ during the tournament for the local team, Bangalore Royal Challenges, putting them on the threshold of the semi-finals.

But in a clever marketing strategy the IPL is not just about sport it is also glamour.  Remarkably, around 45% of viewers are women attracted not only to the IPL’s breathless sort of cricket but also to the glamour that attends it.  Teams owned by Bollywood Stars, cheerleaders (mainly caucasian) cheering every boundary,  much of the crowds are dominated by young, middle-class city-dwellers,  India’s most free-spending consumers.As the season is coming to a climax I confess that I am being caught up in the enthusiasm (football has definately taken the back seat after a miserable season….Chelsea who? )  But apart from the cricket I am fascinated by what the IPL reveals about India. The last three nights news has been dominated by off-field scandals.  Five minor players being suspended for match-fixing, a megastar owner being banned from Mumbais Cricket ground after a brawl and the arrest of an Australian Cricketer after an alledged molestation incident in an after-match party.  These scandals have off course sidelined more important news, like the two Italian marines in Indian custody after shooting  Keralan Fisherman, droughts and regular shocking incidents of the infanticide of young girls.  I think the IPL also encapsulates a tension and a fissure that runs right down the middle of India.  The fast growing minority of wealthy middle class, urbane and western, who wield the power and influence. And the majority who are impoverished, rural, but still obsessed by cricket.

The Megastar owner – Mr Shah Rukh Kahn, is the King of Bollywood.  One of the few Indian film stars who has cross-over potential, presenting Golden Globes, , charity campaigner, owner of the Kolkata Knight Riders (my favourite team name – Bangalores Royal Challengers are named after a brand of whisky belonging to their owner in a way to get around a strict advertising ban!).  He is also a great actor, in a recent film he played an autistic Muslim in America  and won plaudits from the Autistic Society. He is also guilty of bewildering levels of hubris, which is not surprising when you see how he is deified here.  He was shocked at having been frisked at an American airport, obviously celebrities are above the security concerns of us mere mortals and he is the first celebrity to register a tattoo in his name. It seems that the hubris hit again when he tried to enter the pitch in Mumbai to celebrate a famous victory, he drunkenly brawled with security earning him a five year ban from the stadium. This has had political repercussions already, as he did last year when he asked why no Pakastani Cricketers had been signed up for the IPL.  A soap opera that will no doubt continue as India struggles in a transition to a consumerist and liberal society.  There is a lot of unease in this transition, and so there should be, there are many values that are being pushed aside and being replaced by ….. nothing really, just a soul-destroying celebrity hedonism .  So for celebrity hubris Mr Kahn has suprised even a jaded Englishmen.  It maybe a good time to remind him on the feast of the Ascension that only one man, who really was God, is able to ascend to heaven, and he was drawn up by the love of the Father not ephemeral fame.

Success against the odds

AMDG

Yesterday was a day of celebration here in Manvi as the school received the first set of exam results.  The SSLC exams are the equivalent of GCSE‘s (public exams for 16 year olds).  Taken at the state level. The school achieved a remarkable 100% pass rate, making it top out of more than 60 schools in Manvi District.  Fr Rohan Almeida S.J. the Director of the school has written today about what this achievement means and putting it into perspective.  

Fr Rohan :  Yet again our students who appeared for the SSLC examinations have come out with flying colours. All who sat the examination from our school have passed with good marks. It gives me immense joy to tell you that some of them were grazing cows and sheep few years ago. For them to come to school and achieve this, especially in English medium is a great thing. According to me it is mainly because of the high motivation of these children that come from the remote villages and are mainly Dalits have. They have a great desire to prove that they too can achieve great things in their lives.  I thank all the teaching and non–teaching staff for motivating and encouraging these children and helping them achieve this great feat. This is a message from one of our boys, (Manesh).

 I am very delighted that I have got good marks in board exams. I am thankful to Loyola school, all the fathers and teachers who have given me an opportunity to study and encouraged me to write the exams. I want to continue my studies here in this institution and want to be an Engineer. Few years ago I was grazing cows in my village and now because of Loyola school I can dream of becoming an engineer.

The SSLC is a public examination, formulated by the regional board of education that the school is affiliated with ( i.e not an internal exam set by members of the faculty of the school).  The performance of a student in the SSLC examination is one of the factors in admission to Pre University Courses in India. Therefore, the SSLC is often regarded as the first important examination that a student undertakes. After successful completion of SSLC, a student wishing to pursue his education further would join a course based on the specialization he chooses and which gives him knowledge sufficient for him to enter an university which is sometimes called a Pre-University Course (PUC), for two years. After this a student may enter a university for undergraduate studies. Alternatively, after obtaining the SSLC, a student may choose to attend an industrial training institute where one can be trained in skills necessary for technical occupations. The other options include joining a polytechnic for a three year course of diploma in engineering and then further pursing degree in engineering after the completion of diploma. Many of our students want to do their PUC and go for the engineering and medical studies.

Many Dalit children are left to a life of illiteracy and looking after sheep or goats

Mustur Rayappa one of the parents says “Really you have brought the light to our children by starting Loyola school in Manvi. You have given us a ray of hope that even our Dalit children can study and stand equal to other children. I am grateful to Jesuit fathers who started this school and brought the best education to the poor and downtrodden in the society.”

I thank almighty God for giving us strength to carry out this Mission to educate the poorest of the poor and the marginalized in the society. I thank all the teaching and non–teaching staff for motivating and encouraging these children and helping them achieve this great feat. I thank all the benefactors and the well wishers without whose support these children would have been still grazing cows and sheep or might be working as child labourers in their villages.

New website of the school – just launched – click here www.xaviermanvi.in

To support these children – click here www.supportingdalitchildren.com

AMDG

In my opinion the transformative power of hope is not given enough credit . The population of India is an incredible 1.2billion and growing by 17 million a year.  The majority of Indians (70%) live in rural villages.  The recent census showed that majority of these rural dwellers survive on less than 35 rupees a day (or 40pence / 60cents).    Talking to some of the families in the villages here, and students and teachers it is very clear that an absence of optimism is one of the most debilitating factors in peoples lives.  Of course it understandable – rates of malnutriton, illiteracy, infant mortality and a lack of clean water are all at shameful levels in rural India. The biggest ministry in India’s Government is that for Rural Development, and to their credit they have instigated important schemes such as subsidised grain and a guaranteed programme of 100 days paid work a year for unskilled labour.

Both schemes, well meant, are crippled by corruption.  Many of the grain is pocketed by middle men, and much of the Public Works Scheme money is siphoned off by ‘ghost workers’ – invented by corrupt local officials in order to pocket their wages. This is the biggest flaw in India’s politics – that so many see it as legitimate to exploit the state in order to redistribute patronage to their kin.  Plundering the state is terrible for development.  So those worst effected, at the bottom of the pile,  feel hopeless and helpless. When you have no mental space to see beyond day-to day-survival it can lead to a certain listlessness, lack of motivation and depression. This also manifests itself in a kind of chronic conservatism, often culturally expressed, and jealousy of anyone who dares to be too successful from your village.

However there is hope…. just the witness of our children when they go back to their villages, speaking English, clean, confident, well fed seems to be having a big impact on changing this mindset.  This week many parents are bringing their children in to seek for admission for the next school year. The Jesuits are giving priority to those from the poorest families, the Dalits, the Devadasis.  At the early stages of the mission, much time and energy was put into forming womens groups in the villages, with the belief that they value education more, and more likely to ensure that the girls will not lose out.  The picture on the right shows the leaders from a womens group in a local village who brought in a large group of children to register for admission this year. Maybe they wouldn’t have come had it just been left to their families. The dynamic leaders of the women’s cooperative are ensuring that education is starting to be valued more. However this is on a macro level –  I believe change is also coming to India at a macro level.

The worlds biggest biometric database is being set up in India.  This is based on the realisation that the rural poor have no identity – no drivers licence, no passport,no bank account,  many live in villages shared by so many people with the same surname.  This makes it impossible for them to open a bank account.  If they want to migrate to work in another state, in the dead time between harvest and replanting,  they have to spend hours queuing in the sun, to pay bribes to get papers.

Things are changing: the UID (Universal Id) or Aadhar number is drastically improving rural welfare.  With iris, fingerprint and face scanners, their identity is robust, it means that they can open bank accounts, state support goes straight to them, cutting out the middleman and the loss of so much due to corruption.  Their medical and school records can become mobile. As a voluntary scheme it has been embraced enthusiastically by the poor with already 400 million enrolled into it. Observers have suggested the changes are already evident with more land coming under cultivation, dietary habits slowly changing. Sadly we have not seen this in Karnataka, when I ask the villages here they shrug and shake their heads. The sad truth is that the schemes spread is being blocked by powerful forces including the Home Minister. Why? some claim arguments that would be more familiar in the developed world, data protection, civil liberties, privacy – these all seem out of place when you share a one roomed hut with 10 others!! I suspect the real reason it is being blocked is because it is so effective at cutting out the middle man and reducing corruption.

Temple Prostitutes

AMDG

Picture courtesy of Rachel Robichaux – the necklace is a symbol of their being ‘wedded’ to a Goddess

96 Girls in our school come from the Devadasi community.  Their mothers were dedicated or ‘married’ to the Hindu Godess Yellamma at a young age.  They are not allowed to marry a mortal but ones they reach puberty they are bound to give service to the temple.  It is ancient tradition that requires them to serve the temple with song, music or dance but most of them are effectively temple prostitutes. Higher caste men come and have sex with them for as little as 20 rupees (25pence or 40cents).  This ‘dedication’ was outlawed in Karnataka in 1982, and in all of India in 1988, but as one of the Jesuits puts it ‘ it still flourishes under the carpet,’.  With their mothers having children from multiple fathers, the girls can easily be abandoned and without intervention they follow the same pattern of life of their mothers. Sometimes higher castes will ensure a girl goes into devadasi service instead of the family paying debts that are owed. It is effectively a form of child trafficking and child bonded labour.

The girls are often brought to the school here by concerned neighbours who request for admission on their behalf.  The devadasi girls stay in the Hostel here during the school year  which removes them from the toxic environment of prostitution at home. Interestingly the Jesuits claim that they are among the higher achieving students.  When we discussed why this was – whether they are more intelligent or more motivated – the consensus was that they had a burning desire to escape the life that they have seen their mothers having.  The Jesuits and staff treat these girls with great sensitivity, their identity as devedasi is not known by most of the teachers and other students. This anonymity is ensured at parents meetings or evenings as the Jesuits ask for only one parent to come for all the families.

Older Devadasi woman begging outside a temple dedicated to Yellama. Photo courtesy of Julia Cumes

This is a striking case of how education brings liberation and social transformation.  The help provided to the Devadasi community is not just restricted to education.  One of the cruel facts of Devadasi life is as the women age quickly they become less sexually desirable and are abandoned.  The Jesuits have been encouraging the founding of womens-cooperatives, realising that on a village level it is the women who are more likely to use small loans wisely and who vlaue education more.  One such group in a nearby village is constituted of Devadasis who have turned away from prostitution. A very impressive group, led by strong women, well organised, with support they have  built 26 houses and have become a strong influence in the community. I remember visiting them in the community in 2006 and being impressed by their bold spirit.  I have since learned that they have become influential on the local political level. In fact officials were outbidding each other at the last elections to secure their votes.  Political corruption of course is endemic!

If you would like to know more about this tradition – I have discovered a very informative short film called saving the Devadasi by American Campaigner Julia Cumes. Below is a short trailer – if you wish to see the whole film click on this link.

India’s Digital Divide

AMDG

“The future is here …… it is just not evenly distributed”  William Gibson

Amit Singhal, Google

Amit Singhal, Google (Photo credit: niallkennedy)

It may be that Silicon Valley in California is the most influential place on earth. As a high tech center – it is the working home of the most influential people driving forward the Digital Age.  It is fascinating to see the success and influence that Indian immigrants have had there. The role call is impressive – Pradeep Sindhu who some claim is responsible for broadband, Nikesh Arora and Amit Singhal at Google, Salman Khan the inventor of an incredible online academy recently putting him into Time magazines most influential list.  It is clear that the immigrants who have the most clout in Silicon Valley and who are the largest group are Indians.  15% of startups in Silicon Valley are of Indian origin according to this commentator.  Many of them come from the six IIT’s  (Indian Institutes of Technology), created in the 1940s by Prime Minister Nehru. These elite institutions produce some of the world’s smartest techies. They are more competitive than most of the West elite universities. Last year about 3% of the students who applied to anIIT got in.

Pre digital India….. in 2012

However the situation here in Manvi couldn’t be further from the case. If you go into the villages apart from sporadic electricity the only think that reminds you that we have entered a digital age are the ubiquitous mobile phone.  I have spent the last couple of weeks opening email accounts for the older and brighter students.  They are keen to have them but they do not know how to use them.  So when I explain how it will be necessary at college, for finding out job opportunities it is a strange experience for me, I feel like I have landed on another planet.  Even this Christmas in the remote mountains of the Phillipines I was amazed to find out that many of the villagers (who had only been persuaded to put aside their headhunting traditions 20 years ago)  had facebook accounts.  Many of them would walk up to 24 hours to get to the nearest internet cafe – something that amazed me.  But here in rural India, people are definitely not plugged in.

From an educational point of view, there is a great danger of  creating a digital divide.  The Digital Economy, the Knowledge Economy all seem to indicate that digital skills are very important for kids.  Marj Prensky calls them Digital Natives, children born after the internet.  If anything we digital immigrants, born before, are only just becoming aware of the dark side of the digital revolution – addiction, pornography, isolation etc.  Despite of all this I get a sense that many of the students are just being left behind.  So there are two challenged here in Manvi. Not only is it the first generation of students – they will quickly need to become digitally savvy.  The world is changing at a bewildering pace. If anything Digital Technology – the internet, projectors, allows access to greater educational resources, like the fabulous Kahn Academy. No longer does a teacher have to be in the same physical location as their students. There has also been some talk of the Jesuits creating a virtual university, as we probably have the greatest international educational network, why not get some of the best teachers / lecturers giving one day a month on-line tutoring to children in refugee camps or the school here?

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