Tuesday, November 22

Turning Tables: Priyanka’s journey to becoming a young leader in her community

16-year-old Priyanka Kumari lives with her family of six members in Tughlaqabad village, a slum cluster that grew on a disputed land and still continues to bear the brunt of fear and dispossession. People living here are mostly migrants, employed in daily wage work and devoid of access to basic necessities like clean, drinking water.

This is Priyanka Kumari

Priyanka, her four siblings, and parents live here, in a one-room house overlooking a makeshift bathroom. “We pay Rs 1600 plus electricity per month for this space,” she explains. A 60-watt bulb hangs from the corner of a dilapidated wall. Priyanka’s mother, Pratima Kumari, switches that on whenever visitors come to her house. It is just enough to light up the stove where she cooks. When she is at work in a nearby garment factory, the sisters huddle together under this light to go over their lessons and textbooks.

Priyanka's mother, Pratima Kumari.

Pratima Kumari firmly believes in educating her daughters. 

“Only education can make them independent,” she says emphatically. 

She studied till the tenth standard. After her marriage, she gave birth to three girls. “No one values a girl in our community. They are looked down upon as a burden. Each time I gave birth to a girl, my in-laws tortured me, reminding me of my duty to bear a boy,” she shares. Unable to bear the torture any further, she ran away from her in-laws house in Bihar. 

She had the support of one of her uncle. He found her a single room in Tughlaqabad’s Kamgar Mohalla with a rent of Rs. 1100 per month. “After all that he had done for me, I couldn’t ask for more help. I stayed hungry for the first 17 days here. I managed to find work in a nearby garment factory. I was paid Rs 1800 per month on my first job,” she recollects.

Her mother’s experience left a deep impression in the mind of young Priyanka. Back home, she saw her father’s nonchalance towards her mother and his conviction that it was “all her fault that the family is broken up”. When her mother visited them after six months, she was accused of deserting her family. “No one understood my mother’s plight. No one took her side. Only I decided to come to Delhi with her. I was in the sixth standard when I came to Delhi with my mother,” she says. Her father followed them after seven months.

“It was unbearable to live with both of them under the same roof. My father would regularly beat her up in front of me. We lived in a small one-room house. Even if I tried to shut the images out of my mind, I couldn’t,” she says. 

Meanwhile her two younger sisters were brought up in their native village by her maternal grandmother. It was only two years ago that the entire family reunited in Delhi. With her father getting a job in a factory as a guard, the monthly income has increased to Rs. 10,800 to sustain a family of six.

When Magic Bus sessions first started in the area, no one was willing to send their daughters for it. “It is so common for girls of my age to be teased and groped in our neighbourhood,” Priyanka shares. But when Anurag bhaiya (local word to refer to a Magic Bus Community Youth Leader) approached parents with a request to send their children to the sessions, Priyanka’s mother relented. 

Anurag Bhaiya speaks to Priyanka's mother.

“On my first day, I felt alone and nervous. I had never seen much beyond my home and neighbourhood. In the sessions, I was supposed to interact with so many other children. As days went by, I relaxed, made friends, and actually started to enjoy the sessions.”

Her happiness was short lived. Soon her neighbors started gossiping about her friendship with boys of her age during the Magic Bus sessions. “It is so unfortunate that boys and girls of my age cannot interact with each other without raising eyebrows and questions on character and morality. It is true that my community sees no value in bringing their girls up to be independent, free, and confident. It is as if they want us to be mute and demure in all that we do.” Priyanka says.

Her mother was repeatedly harassed with threats and insults about her daughter’s character. Fed up of all the allegations, she asked Priyanka to stop going to the Magic Bus sessions. “I struggled. I cried and pleaded with her. I appealed to her better sense of judgement. But my mother did not budge from her decision.”

After almost three years, Priyanka’s mother realized her mistake. She understood that her daughters could only flourish if she supported them in all that they wanted to do. Priyanka had leadership qualities and always wanted to work towards the betterment of women and girls in her community. 

Priyanka with her sister

She decided to stand by that dream and asked Priyanka to take up the role of a Community Youth Leader.

“When Arif came home and explained what a Magic Bus leader is, I was convinced that my eldest daughter could be one. I also realized that my earlier decision of stopping my daughter from doing what she really liked was actually wrong. Mothers should not cave in to societal pressures. They should stand by and support their daughter’s dreams. I am so proud to see Priyanka scaling new heights with each passing day.” Pratima Kumari explains.

Priyanka’s vision is clear. “I want my community to value women and girls and not to look down upon them, or restrict them from following their heart. I want to resist any effort to deny girls equal rights.” she signs off.

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Wednesday, November 2

Where there is will: Pooja Kashyap from Bhalswa, Delhi

Pooja started working the day she completed her higher secondary. “I had no option but to earn. The entire family of seven was dependant on my mother. She works as a cook in Nizamuddin.” 

Nizamuddin is at a distance of 27 kms from Bhalaswa, a resettlement colony in north-west Delhi where Pooja lives. “She earns Rs 9000 a month. It is simply not enough to feed a family of seven let alone paying for each of our education. I didn’t want my little siblings to stop going to school. As the eldest daughter, I wanted them to have the basic education I had.” Pooja explains.

On asking what her father did, she takes us back to the days when her family lived in a makeshift settlement (locally known as a ‘juggi’) in Nizamuddin. The family lived the longest there ever since Pooja’s grandparents moved to the city from Uttar Pradesh, in search of work. “I don’t remember my grandparents at all. They passed away when my father was young. When they died, he was in the sixth standard. He quit school and started looking after my grandparent’s vegetable stall in the locality. He married early and continued with the family business till we were asked to leave our home one day,” she narrates. 

A flyover was coming up and residents of Nizamuddin’s squatter colonies were given a piece of land for Rs. 7000 in Bhalaswa. “It looked like an attractive offer at first. To have some land of our own for such a little price. We had some savings to pay from. Father was optimistic that he can continue his business even in Bhalaswa. Just before we left Nizamuddin, father had begun making and selling papad and it was quite a successful venture. He would make the papad in the morning and sell at India Gate in the evenings. Business would pick up during late evenings and he would return home late in the night.”

With the family moving to Bhalaswa, Pooja’s father had to abandon the papad business. The distance was a deterrent.

 “We had no idea of Bhalaswa. Initially, we were just happy to own a piece of land at such a low cost. The conditions were appalling. There was a huge dumping ground nearby, and the entire area was this vast, marshy, land. But we had no place to go back. We were doomed to live here.” Pooja was in the third standard when the family moved to Bhalaswa. 

Although she could barely make sense of the new development in her life, the first thing she acutely missed was a play space. Meanwhile, Her father struggled to find work. He tried running a vegetable stall with his wife’s help. It failed. Their savings ran out. 

The family of eight was on the brink of a serious crisis.This is when her mother started working in Nizamuddin. She would cook in people’s homes and manage to put together some money to feed her children. Frustrated by repeated failures, Pooja’s father took to tobacco and gambling. When Pooja completed her 12th standard, her father left the family and disappeared.

“My elder brother had just finished secondary school. There were no jobs for him. It is here when Santosh bhaiya told me about this vacancy at Magic Bus,” she recalls.

It was not this crisis that brought Pooja to Magic Bus. Their association dates back almost six years ago when Magic Bus began working with children of Bhalaswa. It was a difficult area – a resettlement colony of migrants facing some of the harshest conditions of living. Children were exposed to an unhygienic environment and lack of basic necessities like clean, drinking water and a space to play and learn. As families struggled to make ends meet, children would be pulled out of school and sent to do odd jobs.

“I am grateful to my parents to have never taken me or my siblings off school. We struggled but my mother was very clear never to compromise on our education,” she says. Pooja became one of the earliest girls to be selected as a youth leader in her community.

“Initially, it didn’t mean anything. I thought it to be an opportunity to get out of my home and do something new. I loved teaching children. When I went through the Magic Bus training and curriculum, I was plumbed. There were so many things in it even I didn’t know. I was worried I would never be able to teach children. I was so grateful to have Santosh bhaiya guiding me through the entire process.” For Pooja, her proudest moment as a youth leader was when she would lead a group of girls from a minority community in her neighbourhood who would never be allowed to step out of their homes otherwise. 

“Ask a girl in Bhalaswa what freedom means? They would say, to be able to see the world outside their little homes, to be able to make friends without being asked questions about their character. Magic Bus gave us this sense of freedom. And purpose.” Pooja points out.

Before long, mindsets were shifting at the home front too. “My parents were conservative. While growing up, my sisters and I were not encouraged to interact with people outside our relatives. It was mostly safety that my parents were worried of. After I decided to become a Community Youth Leader and lead a bunch of children, both boys and girls, their reservations gave way. They saw how well-respected I was in the community because of my work,” Pooja explains.

“When I see myself now, I am surprised at how confident I have become,” she breaks into a smile. Four years ago when Pooja got an opportunity to work at Magic Bus, she was thrilled and relieved. 

“Relieved that the family wouldn’t have to go hungry and thrilled because it was Magic Bus – it was like working with people I know and cared for,” she explains. However, she did not get to be the Youth Mentor of Bhalaswa. Instead, she was supposed to take charge of Timarpur, 10 kms away from her community. “I was ready for the challenge,” she says, giving away a certain firmness in her voice, a character she feels guided her through the difficult times in her life.

In the last four years, Pooja has worked with 750 children and mentored more than 27 youth leaders in Timarpur. She has also completed her Bachelors in Social Work and has enrolled in a Masters course with IGNOU. 

She pays for her education and also contributes to the family income. Her father has returned. But few months ago, his right leg had to be amputated because of gangrene. Pooja and her brother Madan, who works as a Centre Coordinator in Magic Bus’ Livelihoods Centre, stood by their mother during this entire phase. They continue to do so.

Pooja plans to build her career as a development professional. “If you have lived the life of an underprivileged, how can you not work for and with them?” her parting answer is an inspiration in itself.