You received the National Award for Child Welfare in November and now the Republic Day Award by the UT Administration for your work in education for children. What do these awards mean to you as an individual and as the Chairperson of the Vatsal Chaya Trust?
Awards are happy milestones because they are recognition of work done and you set forth on this journey with renewed vigour. They bring prestige and validation to the organisation and place a solemn responsibility on us to keep up the standards of commitment and dedication on this journey. I am happy that Chandigarh made a mark in the national sphere in child welfare. The Republic Day award is special too, for this is where I work and I respect this validation. It is my heartfelt wish to contribute in making Chandigarh an exemplary place for inclusion and empowerment.
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You began Vatsal Chaya under a tree in Sector 8, with a few children. What was the inspiration or motivation for you to begin your journey in education for children and their empowerment?
My mother was a gentle force who was loved by all her students and she instilled in me the passion for ownership of social causes especially illiteracy and discrimination. It was a constant calling to work for vulnerable children, in a direct way, not through donations or occasional events. Secondly, I wanted to devise learning pathways to children excluded from the school system.
I took some time to do this because I thought I needed a built place but a group of children who begged in Sector 8 market changed all that. My interactions with them developed into an open, informal classroom under a tree with mats, stationery, hot food and my laptop.
What is the model of Vatsal Chaya and its philosophy?
The name is inspired by the earth and how it nurtures and shelters us. Each of us can act with a sense of ownership in contributing to make our communities equitable, empathetic and sustainable. The core of our mission is marginalised and vulnerable children and their betterment. School access is not enough. The context of children is key and a one-size-fits-all approach leaves many behind.
So our model comprises components like finding children who are out of the school system, never enrolled, failed or dropped out, bringing them into schooling and providing them multi-layered support like free transport, close family outreach, health, hygiene, scholastic material, sibling care.
Since 2008, we have brought nearly 3,000 children into schooling from the lowest socio-economic segments of Chandigarh and helped to get them into the mainstream and several hundred continued to get support after mainstreaming.
What were the roadblocks and odds that you had to face in your work?
The odds we faced were high as the barriers to inclusion of children in difficult circumstances come from many quarters. The children are used to an environment of illiteracy, poor health, abysmal hygiene, habitation, physical, emotional, sexual abuse, and violence, easy access to drugs and psycho active substances and risky habits. Adversity creates distortions in the children themselves as they have low social competencies, they are quick to fight, hit, lie and most of all, give up on themselves.
The formal school system seems alien to them. Literacy is just one part of what we do; the social and emotional enabling, healthy personal habits, building self-esteem and self-regulation is significant. Parental disengagement is a constant problem which we tackle. Chandigarh has a very large number of migrants in the lowest income percentile and harmful practices like child marriage, child labour are accepted and practised.
You chose a government school to reach out to children and develop a unique model of education. Please elaborate.
Actually, it was the other way round. The open classroom under the Kusum Tree grew rather fast and soon we had over 40 children gathered for a few hours with mothers and siblings in tow. There was an on-going program of SSA Chandigarh which had a number of NGOs already working with them but none for children in beggary and child labour. We were given an SSA classroom in the nearby school so that our children could gain a school environment and a mid-day meal. After that the numbers grew exponentially and we were bringing children from slums in Chandigarh, who otherwise preferred not to go to school.
I found the collaboration to be of great value because we were able to add our own resources to the existing government programme which brought much benefit to the children.
The welfare and security of girl children is an area that you also involve yourself in. Please talk about it.
Gender empowerment is one of the most powerful levers available to make society equitable and progressive. Enabling girls is a key aspect of our work. We provide many kinds of support to mitigate the circumstances inhibiting their education like sibling care, flexible alternative study options, skill training for income generation, personality development and life skills. We have girls rehabilitated from child marriage, domestic labour, dropout or failed status, many have completed Class X and Class XII, a few have gone to college, some are working from home and some are running self-help groups in their communities.
How can the public be involved in social causes and contribute?
If more people were to individually or in groups connect with socially responsible activities or programmes as a conscious choice not an occasional tokenism, it would create a great pool of like-minded people.
It doesn’t have to be money, it could be volunteering your time or talent or supporting a cause. It could be animals in distress or trees to be planted or spending time with elderly people in care… Anything which speaks to you. If it is an organisation, it is important that it is registered and gives you a utilisation update.
What are the future plans for Vatsal Chaya, and how do you envision its growth and reach to other areas of the city and maybe other cities as well?
Currently in Chandigarh, we are working with Rotary India in providing learning support to 1,000 children from the out-of-school, drop-out or lagging behind categories.
We have enfolded many more categories of children in our efforts like vending families, children in care and protection, first generation learners, rehabilitated children with learning gaps and so on. Skill development for youth, early learning modules, school readiness programs and digital applications for vulnerable segments are what we have in the offing. Gender training for teens from economically challenged segments, which builds capacity though key skills that adolescents need to facilitate their empowerment now and for life-like self-awareness, self-esteem, problem solving, communication, critical thinking, decision making, financial literacy, career guidance etc.
What are the areas which concern you as a social development practitioner?
Youth violence has been steadily on the rise, there are a few thousand drop-outs and many more disengaged students who are going astray in the lower income areas. There are more juvenile crimes, more heinous than ever before. Chandigarh already ranks second in the country for recidivism.
Academic outcomes of disadvantaged students remains stuck in low expectation, low outcome trajectories. There is an urgent need to bring gainful skills for income generation to those with lower academic gains. There are no easily available second-chance options for those who fall out of the system. The challenge of delivering an education that is vital not only for literacy alone, but for the transmission of values, attitudes, integrating those outside mainstream groups and encouraging building national character remains.