Friday, August 4

An entrepreneur-in-the-making: Shashikant Jaiswal’s story

Shashikant Jaiswal

Twenty-year-old Shashikant Jaiswal can tell you the exact date when Mahatma Phule Nagar, a slum cluster adjacent to IIT Bombay, came up. “It was in 1991 that migrants living near the Powai Lake were moved here following a beautification drive of the city,” he explains, adding “A large number of our neighbours are migrants from Maharashtra, mostly from Satara and Aurangabad. Those from UP and Bihar are in a minority like us,” he adds with a smile. Mahatma Phule Nagar has a large population of Dalits. “I follow Babasaheb’s writings. They are remarkably insightful especially when all around people are so strongly divided by caste.”

Shashikant’s grandfather came to Mumbai sixty years ago. He spent almost his entire life as a daily wage worker. He put all his savings in setting up a cloth shop in Wadala. He married twice. Shashikant’s father is the son of his first wife. Due to domestic feuds, Shashikant’s father was not allowed to participate in the family business. He found himself in the same place as his father - selling peanuts in the day and working as a guard in the night till he joined a mill as a daily wage worker with a salary of Rs 3000 per month.

“My father’s income went in buying food for a family of four. We had to borrow money in case any of us fell ill or had to buy books for school,” Shashikant shares. With no extra income to support his education after the seventh standard, Shashikant took to doing odd jobs like distributing newspapers, helping political parties set up their billboards, to make money. “I would earn Rs. 500 a month and give it to my mother. All of it went to pay my school fees,” he says.

There were insurmountable hardships. There were also some eye-opening lessons. “Despite extreme poverty, my mother was not expected to step out to work. Women stepping out in public to work and earn is still looked down upon in my family. When my elder sister finished her Bachelors, I negotiated with my parents to let her get a B.Ed degree. In reality, I fought with them and their mindsets. My sister always wanted to be a teacher. She is married now but I am happy that she is still keen on getting a job,” he observes.

Shashikant believes that a gender equal society is possible but the change has to begin at home. This conviction had its roots in the training he underwent in Magic Bus as a Youth Leader. “In my tenth standard, I felt this strong urge to do something for my community. I wanted children here to go to school and learn well. It might seem to be a most ordinary, achievable dream outside Mahatma Phule Nagar but it is not so in a community of so many out-of-work youth taking to substance abuse, a community that is yet to wake up to importance of education. As a Community Youth Leader I get to mentor these children using a deeply engaging activity-based curriculum. I also run support classes for children in my neighbourhood so that they can keep up with the pace of learning at school,” he shares. Shashikant dreams to open a school in his neighbourhood for underprivileged children – a learning environment modeled after the gurukul system of education. “Every child nurses a dream. Poverty stifles that very dream. My education will hold a light to those who are fighting to save their dreams from the clutches of poverty,” he explains.

Shashikant has other dreams and most of them concern his family. He wants to buy land in Allahabad, his home town, and build a house of their own. “We have always lived in other people’s homes. We could never afford a house of our own,” he reasons.

Although he started working since the eighth standard, Shashikant was aware that only a salaried job can put an end to the financial distress at home and also support his dream for further education.

“I was in the first batch of Magic Bus’ Livelihoods programme at Vikhroli. Back then, I was certain I could be an entrepreneur. Through the Livelihoods training, I actually got an insight into my skill sets and drawbacks. They helped me develop a roadmap for my career, “he says, adding, “It has been three years since I completed my livelihoods training. Yet I still fall back on my mentors from the Centre to guide me on my career decisions. I have firm faith in their ability to suggest the best way for me.” At present, Shashikant works as an Account Representative in a multi-national software company, Accenture, earning Rs 25,000 per month.

Most of his income goes in paying off the family’s debts but he saves enough to support his further education and also his dream to have a house of their own in their hometown. 

Apart from balancing a demanding work life with education, Shahshikant is still Magic Bus ‘bhaiya’ for numerous children in his locality – someone they laugh with, share their sorrows, anxieties, and listen to.

If you were to pass Mahatma Phule Nagar on a Saturday and Sunday, you might meet an enthusiastic 20-year-old, surrounded by an excited bunch of children much younger and smaller than him, matching him in step and energy. 

Thursday, July 20

The girl with big dreams and a bigger determination to fulfill them: Sravya Madasu from Telangana

Sravya Madasu

14-year-old Sravya Madasu wants to be a doctor. “There are no hospitals in the radius of 10 km of our village. It is so difficult to get a doctor during emergencies. I want to be the first doctor of Pudur village and open a hospital in my community.”

Sravya goes to a government school in Bollaram and is ‘happy’ that her mother cannot afford to send her to a private school. “Would I have met Magic Bus had I been studying in a private school?” she asks innocently.

She lives with her maternal grandparents. “We live in a kuchcha house – the one which is made out of mud,” she explains. “I live with my elder sister, mother, and grandparents,” she says. After a small pause, as if out of habit, she adds, “My father does not live with us. He left my mother just when I was born. He did not want two daughters. My father believes that daughters are of no use. I have never seen his face since.”

“My mother has been an inspiration to both of us sisters. She was married at 17 and really struggled to educate herself. She is a graduate and wants to study further. She works as a computer operator at the Gram Panchayat office with a salary of Rs. 5000 a month. She wants to complete her B. Ed. so that she can be a teacher. Teaching pays better.”

Her mother learnt from life. She was forced to marry early because her parents – both of them were agricultural labourers – had barely enough money to educate three children. She works hard so that both her daughters study further and build their own careers. “My mother never speaks about marrying any of us. My elder sister is studying electronics. I want to be a doctor. She is forever supportive of all our dreams,” she says proudly.

With Rs. 5000 a month, a day-to-day struggle to have enough to eat, is inevitable. “There have been so many days that we have slept hungry. Sometimes we just have rice with a little bit of pickle. But that is fine as long as the family is together and supportive of each other,” she says. There are times when Sravya’s uncle steps up to support the family financially.

So what brought Sravya to Magic Bus?

“Actually it was the other way around – Magic Bus came to my school. Initially we were all hesitant to participate. Is it another P.T. class? We used to wonder. Gradually, we understood that Magic Bus was less about the balls and cones, and more about application, drawing parallels and inferences with our real life,” she explains. Sravya joined Magic Bus two-and-half years ago.

Sravya at her school

“None of us at school ate healthy, nutritious food. In fact, we used to pick and separate the vegetables and eat rice alone. Through the sessions, we came to know how important it is to have nutritious food. Similarly, we have learnt so many new ways of taking care of ourselves, of leading healthy and hygienic lives,” she says.

Doesn’t her mother tell her about everything she needs to know?

“Even if she wanted to, she barely has time to do that. In Pudur village, every other person is engaged in daily wage work that keeps them out for long hours. They cannot give their children the attention they require. There are so many children in my school who are irregular; there are others who do not pay attention in class. All of us need mentors in our life to guide and inform us. Our Magic Bus didi is just like that to us,” she explains.

While underlying the immense value of mentors in each of our lives, Sravya also promises that if she ever gets an opportunity to mentor someone else, she would take it up happily just like those who made a difference in hers.

Monday, July 17

Learn at leisure: Learnings from the DISHA programme

DISHA programme is funded by HDFC bank and implemented by Magic Bus, Life Labs,
 and Learning Links Foundation, in partnership with the State governments of Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Maharashtra. The programme aims to build life skills of adolescents, improve their learning levels in numeracy, reading, and science, and ensure first-generation learners complete their formal education. The programme works in 172 schools across four states impacting the lives of 17,500 adolescents.

One of the challenges in school-based interventions is the discontinuity that takes place when the schools are closed during vacations. Disha being such a school-based intervention, we were concerned about the long summer vacation in the months of April to May. We wanted to continue the learning process despite the school being on vacation. We wanted to ensure that nothing interrupts the learning process that Disha has fueled. This gave birth to the idea of a Summer Camp!

While summer camps are a fairly common urban phenomenon, it is unheard of in the back and beyond areas where the Disha project operates. The children living in these remote regions have never experienced anything like this. Summer vacations for these children mean visiting relatives, playing with friends; some children, especially in tribal belts, accompany parents to the forest to collect forest produce such as tendu leaves, selling the produce at weekly markets, making brick kilns. Girls end up helping with household chores. Sometimes children even start gambling, playing cards with small sums of money. Being first generation learners and with no support system at home, children start disengaging from the learning process.

We put our heads together to make it a different summer experience for our children, one that would be joyful and full of learning. The focus remained on developing life skills and improving their numeracy and literacy skills. The underlying principle was to make learning fun and engaging. We worked with the children and not with their teachers.

The camp was called Masti-ki-Pathshala in Madhya Pradesh and Dhoom Dhadaka in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra. Not all children who attend the Disha programme came for the camps due to lack of resources to cover all the schools under the programme. There were many children who had left for their native villages during the summer holidays.

Masti Ki Pathshala

Under life skills education, some of the innovative activities included Best out of Waste, Community Mapping, Collage Making, and Treasure Hunt.  These activities encouraged children to work in groups, think out-of-the-box, get creative, solve problems by engaging with others, negotiate, and take decisions.  Science-based activities and projects were also undertaken to ensure children have more clarity on science-related concepts that they learn in schools. To improve language and numeracy skills, innovative activities and Teaching Learning Material (TLM) was used. For example, building vocabulary related to daily life through a game of dumb charades, using story boards to narrate stories, using pebbles to teach counting, number line, learning about shapes through everyday objects.

Best out of waste
Learning to count using pebbles

Masti-ki-Pathshala received wonderful support from the community. Parents, Gram Panchayat members and SMC members have supported it wholeheartedly. In Chhattisgarh, 643 children attended the Summer Camp. SMCs were actively engaged in planning and organizing them. In one of the locations where the Resource Person (RP) was finding it a challenge to reach on time, the Sarpanch provided temporary accommodation to support the camp. Seeing the success of the camp, the Chhattisgarh government has recommended that in the coming year, we organize a camp across all of Disha’s schools!

In Rajasthan, 150-200 children were attending the camp every day. Those who were marked as absentees in school were found to be a regular at these camps.  They have now promised to be regular in school in the new academic year. In fact, some of the schools not covered by the Disha programme have also requested for the camps to be organised in their schools’ coverage area. The camp will end with an exhibition to showcase the work done by children where community leaders and other stakeholders groups will be invited.

In Maharashtra, the Summer Camps were organized within the school premises. This was a wonderful opportunity for us to build rapport with children and school stakeholders as the Disha programme is in its inception phase here. We started the Camp in 15 schools out of the 28 schools where Disha is functioning at present. We reached out to as many as 423 children! In Nagpur, the Principal of a school was so impressed with this initiative that he purchased a cricket bat and ball along with a football for the children in his school.  Teachers said that the students who would never come to the school started coming regularly for the Camps. In some schools there were no cupboards for the Science programme but post the Camp, the Panchayat resolved to pool in money for its purchase.

In Madhya Pradesh, the Camp was conducted in 10 schools. One of the biggest highlights is the role played by the Community Coordinators in getting children for the Camps. They conducted door-to-door visit, informing and involving the parents in the process. They worked really hard to develop a link between the project and the community.


By: Team Disha

Friday, June 23

Magic Bus - Changing and moulding lives of thousands!

"Maybe, not everyone is blessed enough to live a life they actually dream of.”
But maybe, there yet exists a bunch of people who  are busy spreading humanity around.

“Magic Bus”, mere a 8 letter word seemed worth exploring when I first heard it. There exists super man with super powers and then there exists some hearts who just can’t resist spreading good. Indeed, Magic Bus is a latter one.  

This Non Governmental Foundation,  with a worldwide reach is really changing lives around. The words “Childhood to Livelihood”  are not mere the words they give, but something they get into action, changing and molding lives of thousands. Running in almost 22 states of India with a strong base of about 4 lakh children already enrolled, today Magic Bus has been ridiculously changing lives.

Getting an opportunity to spend a day out with a few kids was actually a great thing. It was around 10:30 in the morning and I saw a bus coming from far.  As it stopped, kids ran out, carrying their bags, with a real happy face. Actually, this made me smile. What was next? From the way they greeted their mentors to the thought process they have developed, they got me wondering, how in every broken lane of our country, lies a talent, an art, and a true self.

From getting them enrolled in schools, counseling and helping them design their lives, the organization is really giving the best they could. the staff and the mentors engaged, are really doing a job worth a loud applause.

Just in their primary schools, these kids dream  something even we lack to! They want to be a police and save girls from eve teasing. They want to be a doctor, cause they saw some one dying, merely cause a doctor in their slums could not be approached. They want to be cricketer, because they saw Captain Dhoni getting awarded and that they want to be one.

And yet we see them with a different perception? They think the same as we all do or maybe a step ahead. And what’s worth wondering again is the fact that they actually want to learn, to grow and to prosper. Just because they don’t get what they want, and hence lag behind, we take our eyes off them?

But as mentioned, there yet exists pure hearts and fragile souls, and no doubt Magic Bus is a bundle of them.

It takes huge effort and a great wisdom to come ahead and dream of changing lives. And yes, Magic Bus is doing this. An appreciable effort and obviously a salute deserving team!

By: Khushali Shah

Thank you Khushali! Your lens has beautifully captured the happiness and zeal of children and youth associated with Magic Bus Programme. 

Magic Bus stands true to its name

Who am I? I am someone who chose his parents & pin code wisely.

How far you go in India depends on the parents you were born to & the pin code. I call it the ovarian lottery. I have been lucky, I chose my parents and my pin code wisely. 300 million didn’t and therefore are reeling under abject poverty.

Magic Bus stands true to its name and is symbolic of the work they are doing in the area of educating & empowering children right from childhood to livelihood.

I have been to several NGO’s across India, so much so that I have lost count, but I have never ever visited a slum.

Today, courtesy Magic Bus, I visited a slum in Milind Nagar, Mumbai, my first reaction was that of bewilderment, small dingy cobbled roads, heavily populated with shanties on either side, garbage dumped in pompous display, even the dogs don’t move, so you have to be an amateur steeplechase athlete to jump over both the dog and the pipes. I managed it all three times with panache. Welcome to Mumbai - Welcome to India because true India lives here.

I was extremely impressed by the dedication and sincerity of the Community Youth Leaders, Babu & Supriya. Babu had spent 9 years with Magic Bus -  The way they went about their work, enthused me, the children had one thing in common, dreamy eyes and a flashing smile. The children were being exhorted to a small interesting game under the simple principle of “each one teaches one “.
Babu’s & Supriya’s  impact on these young children is profound & long lasting. They shape the character, curiosity level & intellectual potential of these children. In other words, they help shape our society.

Hats off Supriya & Babu - It’s not easy what you are doing, that’s the reason why you are doing it. You are the chosen one.

As Gabriela Mistral has so poignantly said. “We are guilty of many crimes, but our worst sin is abandoning the child; neglecting the foundation of life. May of the things we need can wait; The child cannot. We cannot answer tomorrow. Her name is Today “
Education is also a basic component of social cohesion & national identity. The foundations for a conscious & active citizenship are often laid in school.

What Magic Bus does to a nicety is, it gives shape to children’s dreams, gives the child a sense of belonging – making him/her feeling wanted. The schools where these children go are not particularly great, therefore a dovetailing of situational awareness coupled with a basic understanding such as washing hands before eating goes a long way in eliminating the vulnerability.

Another unique feature of Magic Bus is that it uses a robust learning model ABC (Activity Based Curriculum ) that uses activities and games to change attitudes and behaviours. 40 sessions per year - each with a key message, teach children important life skills around education, gender, and health.

My message to the children was simple “Don’t worry about where you are now, focus on where you want to go “ Embrace these challenges & hardships, they will make you strong & keep you rooted.
Working at the bottom of the pyramid is a daunting task, but this is where a radical transformation must happen. These 300 million people must enter mainstream for India to stand any chance of stamping its prowess on the global arena. In a country where we have more cell phone’s than loos, we don’t even realize what we need. That is what poverty can do to you.

But our dreams are more powerful than our memories & life is lived forward but understood backwards.

As I made my way outside the dwindling path – to the more comfortable surroundings, I thanked the Lord Almighty & Magic Bus for giving me this opportunity to see the blatant reality of life.

By: Shajan Samuel

Thank you Shajan! Your lens has beautifully captured the happiness and zeal of children and youth associated with Magic Bus Programme. 

Tuesday, June 20

She finds her feet

After years of domestic abuse, this 29-year-old not only decides to break out of it but also finds a way to be independent while fighting those mindsets that subjugate women in all societies.

“I did not know I could be anything apart from a daily wager, just like my parents,” says 29-year-old Sashwati (name changed to protect identity) At Ambadi village in rural Bhandara district of Maharashtra, almost every other person is an agricultural worker. “Some have land. The majority don’t. The ones who don’t have land work for those who have,” she explains.

Sashwati went to school. She completed 12th standard and was married immediately after. “It did not matter that I finished my secondary schooling. I was not allowed to go to college because it was at a distance. There is a lot of fear about young, unmarried girls stepping out of their homes. And so, I was married off at 21,” she says with a hint of sarcasm in her voice. “My parents thought that marriage would protect me and help me have a small world of my own. Little did any of us that it would actually push me towards my own destruction,” her voice trails off and she can continue no longer.

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“It was painful. I thought I will get a lot of love and respect after marriage. I was let down repeatedly. I was abused day after day. Suddenly home was no longer what I expected it to be. I was scared, stunned that this could happen to me,” her voice carries the weight of pain and betrayal. Sashwati never shared a word about the abuse and beatings at home. She never told her sisters or her brothers that she was unhappy. Her in-laws kept torturing her for dowry. “I almost started living with the pain and humiliation. I was unhappy but I knew there was no way out,” she accepts.

After the birth of her first child, she hoped to take refuge in the new relationship. She also hoped that her husband would change his behaviour. But it was not to be so. The violence continued and grew worse since her in-laws knew she could be threatened with her son. “When my son was 3 years old, they beat me up so badly that I had blood streaming down my head. My son saw it and was scared of even approaching me. That was the moment I realised I am not in this alone. He would be suffering with me. I picked up my child and went to the nearest police station to file a complaint against my husband and in- laws. That night, I went to live with my sister. I told her the entire story and spoke to my brother. My husband and I were called to the Nagpur police station the next week. In the presence of the police and my brothers, he threatened to kill me if I went ahead with the complaint,” she narrates.

Sashwati refused to give in to her husband’s threats. “After a point, I stopped caring about what he could do to me. I had to make him stop somehow. I knew I had to live for my son.” She returned home and became a target of gossip by her neighbours. Even her sisters-in-law appeared hostile when they learnt she would never go back to her husband. 

“They were afraid that I would claim my share of the property. I had no such plans. My parents are so poor that they have barely anything to stake my claim on,” she shares with a laugh. Isolated in her own home, Sashwati decided to work twice as hard as before. “To forget my past and to earn so that no one would blame me for being a burden on my brothers,” she sighs.

She went back to doing what her parents did – long and hard hours of sowing and harvesting in the fields, under the merciless sun, for Rs 100 a day.

It was around this time that Vaishali, a Magic Bus staff, came to visit her house. She was enrolling children on the Magic Bus programme and asked if Sashwati’s niece would like to join them for a session. Her brother wasn’t willing to send his daughter out to play with people he barely knew. Vaishali assured him that it would be safe for his daughter and invited him to come for a session too. Sashwati appealed to her brother to let her niece participate and promised she would watch over.

During the two hours that she watched her niece play with 24 other young children, Sashwati momentarily forgot the nightmarish life she had lived in the last several years.“I laughed. I cheered. I listened. I realised how little of this I did in the last eight years of my life,” she shares.

Her interest in the sessions and about those who conducted them (the Community Youth Leaders or CYLs) brought her to Priyanka Patil, another staff in charge of mentoring those who deliver these sessions. Priyanka was looking to involve more enthusiastic Community Youth Leaders, as the number of children attending the sessions grew each month. Sashwati volunteered. When Priyanka told her about a five-day-long offsite for the training of CYLs, she was perplexed. She shared with her family and they reminded her that she was a mother of a five-year-old. “You can’t go just like that. Who will take care of your son?” they asked her. Sashwati prevailed with them. “It was an opportunity for me to do something that I wanted to. I did not want to let go of it,” she says.

Her family supported her decision grudgingly; and Sashwati found herself on board her first journey to a place far away from home, with people who were as similar as they were different. “It was all so new and exciting,” her voice quivers with excitement.

Things started falling into place faster than she had assumed. Months after she started her work as a Community Youth Leader, she was spotted by the Programme Manager, delivering a session to children. “Her confidence and enthusiasm drew our attention,” says Prashant, recollecting the first time he saw her. Later he came to know all about Sashwati. “They knew my financial problems. They were happy with my work and so they offered me a job: I could be a Youth Mentor at Magic Bus!” she beams.

“As young girls, we never had the freedom to step outside our homes. We moved between school and home. We were asked not to loiter, not to be loud. It was almost as if we learnt to remain unheard. Magic Bus is breaking this mindset and I am happy to be doing that for a living. I understand the value of helping each girl to grow up to be resilient and independent,” her resolute words linger on as she takes a brief pause. “More than anything, this job has helped me win back my self-esteem. I am no longer destined to live anonymously. I have a name within my community. I am not the subject of pity or derision. I am loved by my children and more by my son. He says he wants to be a District Magistrate one day and not let me work at all,” she laughs.

“I am 29 years old but my life seems to have just begun,” she sound buoyed with newfound energy and hope.

She was quiet for the longest time.
Till a point when,
Her unsaid words gathered and
Washing out all:

A clean slate, once again.

Wednesday, May 17

Paving her way towards her dreams: Asma from Mysore city

“All my siblings are married. My brothers continue to work odd jobs after marriage. My sisters are homemakers. My father was never in favour of girls’ working outside their homes. That way, my siblings are living to our father’s wishes,” Asma (21) says with a shy smile.

Asma lives at Rajiv Nagar in Mysore City with her family. She has seven siblings. Earlier they used to live together in a rented house. The rent was Rs. 3000 per month. With time, as her siblings married and started their own family, they moved away to live on their own.

Asma is the only girl in her family to have completed a pre-University course and work as an insurance agent, earning Rs.4000 per month. Her father is a scrap-dealer. “He is 65 years old now. When he had just entered the profession, he would make Rs. 300 per day. Now he barely manages to make Rs 100 a day,” she explains. 

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“Girls in my community are married off before they reach 18 years of age. Throughout our childhood we are taught household chores. Our aspirations to work and earn are never encouraged. It took me a great deal of convincing to get my father to agree to a job for me. None of my five sisters were allowed this freedom,” she explains.

She remembers the time her mother used to roll beedis to pay for school fees. “Somewhere deep down, my mother knew that I dreamt of working one day,” she remarks.
Convincing her parents to let her study and work wasn’t Asma’s only challenge.

I have not done much walking and running around since a polio attack at the age of five. It made people around me look at me with a lot of pity. No one likes to be pitied,” her voice grows serious. Asma’s family perpetually fell short of the money required for her many surgeries. They borrowed from the relatives. The burden of debt followed them around like their own shadows.

“When I heard about the Magic Bus' Livelihoods Centre from a friend in my neighbourhood, I was eager to join,” she says. “The Centre appeared to be the only way I could get a job, be independent and support my family financially." The Centre was 5kms away from her house. She would hop on to the tri-cycle she had received from the government and drive down to her classes.

At the Centre, Asma devoted herself to picking up skills that would help her find a job. “Since my childhood I wanted to stand on my own feet. With this job I am a little closer to my dreams,” she says.

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Her determination paid off. She was rejected multiple times, all on account of her disability. But these experiences made her more determined to give her best to each interview she faced.

There is a difference in believing in yourself and getting the world to believe in you. With this job, I have done the latter. I want to go on. One day, I will have a business of my own,” she shares.