Site visit report to APSA, Bangalore.
by Ananth Chikkatur, Asha-Boston
I visited APSA (Association for Promoting Social Action) on the 28th of December 2001. I called up Dr. Kshithij Urs a few days before and he mentioned that he would be available on the 28th and asked me to visit then. He gave me directions to his place from the airport bus-stand. I took a bus from Jayanagar to Richmond Circle and then took a bus 333 to airport. From the airport, I walked a mile and half or so, periodically asking people about the location of APSA or Namma Mane. They were more familiar with Namma Mane. The area in which Namma Mane is located is interesting mix of Hindu and Muslim culture. There seemed to be plenty of people from both religions. The area in fact is called Islampura and/or Annasandrapalya. I passed by a large mosque and a temple. The area is a mixture of slum and pukka houses. I was not sure if the area would be classified as a slum area or not.
Eventually after about a mile and a half, I turned left from the mainroad and walk down the block to Namma Mane. The road has about 10-15 houses, all pukka ones. I went in and was surprised by the architecture of Namma mane, however, I was soon taken into a room and asked to wait for Dr. Urs. Kshithij walked in a simple T-shirt, proclaiming an end to child labor, and jeans. It seemed like it could be anywhere in the US. After a few formalities, where I introduced myself, we discussed his role in APSA and the work that APSA has done in Bangalore. It was only later on that I did find out that APSA has also an organization in Hyderabad, which also does similar work (Hyderabad has all the components of APSA except for Namma Mane).
Dr. Urs went to Bangalore Medical College and became a medical doctor. As with many of fellow doctors, he went off to the US, Seattle, to settle down. However, he discovered a calling in himself to come back to India. This "calling was too great" for him ignore. Kshithij tried a couple times of settle in the US, but was dissatisfied and came back to India in 1993 permanently. He worked in Namma Mane as a medical doctor for the kids. However, he life was soon changed upon the "Anita" incident in 1994. He moved out of the clinic and decided to work on social issues.
Anita was a girl from one of the Banashankari slums. She worked as a domestic worker and an agarbathi roller (Rs. 6 for 1000 rolled, Rs 10-12 per day). Hence she had no opportunity for schooling, and besides the quality of schools in her area was terrible. Her father was an alcoholic, which did not help either. Her parents one day forced her to go to Bombay for "better work". They all knew that this "better work" is prostitution, but psychologically they don’t want to accept to it, and believe that their daughter is going to Bombay for better wages as a domestic worker, etc. If asked, they would claim that they don’t know what she was doing there. In 1994, the Bombay police ‘rescued’ her and sent her back by train. This was done in conjunction with a Nepalese NGO, which was ‘rescuing’ Nepalese who were working in Bombay prostitution rings. She was sent to Namma Mane, where Kshithij discovered that she had AIDS, tuberculosis, and pelvic inflammation. It was clear what work she was being forced to do in Bombay.
Kshithij was moved by Anita story and started to wonder what he could do to help people like Anita. The key paradigm shift was getting out of the clinic and into the field, so to speak.
APSA, is a child rights and urban development organization, closely related with child centered community development. APSA has 12 projects aiming at a holistic approach at eradicating child labor. These 12 projects involve working with various organizations and gov’t departments and each of them take a very professional approach. Each have then own legal framework, within which APSA operates. Simply focusing on taking kids out of work is not a solution. One needs to look at the conditions that allow for child labor, especially the urban slums. The three main issues around child labor are child laborers, street children and urban economic poverty.
Child laborers – who live in slums and work, and street children – a) those who work on the streets, but have communication with their family and may even live with them, and b) those with little communication with their parents, and c) abandoned with no communication or knowledge of their parents.
Urban economic poverty is primary cause of child labor. The urban slum is a complex beast, with many issues intertwined, such as land rights, housing, water, electricity, crime, sanitation, etc. Bangalore has about 750 slums with 1.6 million people in it. There is much ignorance among the elite and the middle class about slum dwellers; they are considered as criminals, and perhaps even considered inhuman. For example, the top cop today in Bangalore, Sangliana has decided that in order to reduce crime in Bangalore, he will now finger print people living in the slums and create database of slum dwellers, because of course they are ones who commit crime. This is tantamount to serious violation of human rights of these people, and at worst is similar to the British Criminal Tribes Act, which declared the nomadic tribals as criminals. The life of an Adivasi became criminal overnight, despite the fact that this was their lifestyle for millennia [See many talks, for example by Dr. Ganesh Devy, and information about de-notified tribals]. Similarly, slum dwellers have now become criminals overnight, thanks to zealous politicians and police who don’t understand the true cause of crime and urban poverty in the slums.
One way in which APSA attempts to bridge the gap of understanding between the higher income people with the slum dwellers is under the Vikas program, which was started 4 years ago. This is a college-based program, where rich college kids spend a year learning about urban poverty and slums. Many of them have never been to a slum, nor do they know anyone from a slum. They are exposed to their ignorance and eventually learn about the causes for poverty and child labor. When I asked if this work was similar to NSS, Kshithij told me that NSS is an obsolete program and does not really work as it was intended. About 200 of Mount Carmel and Christ College students have gone through this program each year. Initially, they are exposed to their ignorance about slums via statistics and numbers, such as that Bangalore has 1.6 million people living in 750 slums, etc. [Even I did not know that the numbers were so large, although I lived near a slum growing up in Bangalore, and had to walk through it everyday for school]. After exposing them to numbers, the next few weeks are spent doing case studies, showing how they themselves are indirectly responsible for the good and bad in the slum. They are taken to the slums and learn about the why and how. For a lot of them, it is like visiting a zoo. The slum people are like the animals in the zoo, passive. Yet, it is very important for both the college kids and the slum dwellers to be exposed to this. . The slum dwellers may get to know the students as people, rather than as their masters. The students learn to identify the issues and learn about the three issues mentioned above. They are then taken to NGOs and learn about the various initiatives undertaken by them to help ease child labor. At the end of this year, they develop an ability to question their own attitudes, and understand the role of migrations and problems in the slums. Christ College has started a Center for Social Action, which has now become an NGO. APSA provides the guidance, training, etc. for the program, and the colleges provide the rest of the monetary aid for Vikas. Over the past four years, about 1000 students have been exposed through Vikas and other similar models. This is apparently the first time in which colleges are involved in long-term social progress in India. The UGC is apparently looking into Vikas as a possible model for implementing such programs throughout the country. In fact, a student Asha, who went through the program 4 years ago, is now employed by APSA for working in the Vikas program.
Kshithij then described the slums near Cantonment Railway station as an example. He called the slum an eyesore with no basic facilities, but it has 120 child laborers in it. So, where to send these 120 children to school? There are simply no schools around. And besides, even if there were a school, the kids need a home address, which they don’t legally have. The first thing that the Slum Outreach Project team (with 5 people) will do is to work with the Karnataka Slum Clearance Board to get the slum legally recognized. This will enormously improve the economic conditions of the slum, they are provided with basic amenities: water, sanitation, housing, etc. For example, the slums with pukka houses and some infrastructure are usually legally recognized slums. The Cantonment slums are not, and they basically contain makeshift houses made with plastic sheets. The Slum Project team uses the laws that already exist to fight for the people in the slums. They inform the people of their rights and the law. And they are also involved in improving the law, making it more people-friendly. The work is done alongside professional lawyers, such as those in the National Law School in Bangalore.
Apart from the Slum Outreach Project team and Vikas, the other projects are:
During the months of December and January, APSA is involved in a review of the past year’s activities and planning for the next year. There are presentations about the work and there is an external review of their performance and future plans by about 24-36 members in January. Between 5:30 and 6, the staff including Kshithij was involved in setting up a timetable for the review process. The staff argued with Kshithij to get their points across and were not afraid of speaking up to him I felt they did not have much hierarchical structure in the group, and expressed their views freely. APSA also helps its internal people start new organizations by giving them all the info they need in their endeavors.
My visit to APSA ended with a ride to the nearest bus stop, where I got on another bus going further up the airport with Balaraj to Marathalli. Balaraj, along with Subramanya are the coordinators for all of the child labor activities including PCLCs. The Marathalli PCLC is run by two teachers, both with M.Ed., Shivaji and Malthesh. There are 25 kids registered in the 10th standard class and about 17-18 come regularly, in the 7th 42 are registered and about 30-35 come regularly. The kids who come to the PCLC are mainly SC/ST: Adi-Karnatakas, Adi-Dravida, Gollas (a backward tribe) and a few Christians and Muslims. In the second PCLC in Koremangala there are two teachers as well, one with B.Ed. and M.A. and another with B.Sc. In the 10th standard, there are 10 registered students and about 8 show up regularly, and in the 7th, 20 are registered and 16 show up regularly. [I got the above info from Balaraj]
From the main road, we walked about a kilometer or so, and reached the school grounds. Although it was dark, I was able to make out that the building had about 5-6 rooms and a large playground in front of it. The two classes were held in two of the classrooms. During the day the building serves as the primary school for the area. The school is located in the Sanjaynagara slums of Marathalli. Given the pukka structure for the school and working blackboards, it seems that the funding from the gov’t school is adequate. However, I failed to ask them why there was no compound for the school property and if there were any toilets. In addition, I don’t know if the school has water supply. In slum area, there was a mixture of pukka houses and makeshift houses, however there was a borewell, electricity and a school, all of which implies that the slum is legally recognized. Marathalli and the surrounding areas have about 80-85% Dalit, SC/ST, Muslim and Christians, and the rest 15-20% belong to the upper castes.
The 7th standard students were very interested in talking to me. We discussed the world trade center collapse. I asked them what and how they knew about it. All of them told me that they were saddened by it, and they watched it on TV. It is interesting that they were more aware of the WTC crash due to the media hype, whereas their own conditions are as worse and their oppression has lasted for millennia. Perhaps some of them were just telling me that to impress me about what they know. I asked them if they felt that the classes were helpful, all of them nodded a yes. The girls were much more curious here than the boys.
The 10th standard students were much bolder. The teacher had a harder time disciplining them. The boys considered my visit to be a time to fool around. The boys were quite rude to him and the girls, and were playing around most of the time. Some of them asked me how I had gone to the US, and why I was here. After explaining, one of them asked me how he can come there as well and asked me if I take him with me. The US, it seems, is as much in their minds as in any middle class student at their age. The girls in the class seemed much smarter and I was impressed by their ambitions. One of them wanted to become a doctor; another just wanted to go to college. They asked me what I do for hobbies and I mentioned that I am learning Danka, a martial arts from Jharkhand. While I expected them not to know about Danka, I was a bit surprised to learn that they had no idea where or what Jharkhand was. Even the teacher seemed a bit puzzled to hear the name. I explained to them that it was state in the Indian Union, and drew a rough map of India locating Jharkhand, explaining to them that it was formed recently (8-10 years ago). The teacher then nodded his head. Perhaps Jharkhand was only mentioned in their history or civics classes quite casually without any connection to the people or the culture there. This is indicative of a disconnect between the syllabus and its relevance to their lives. When asked about the usefulness of the PCLCs, they told me that they all might have passed without the PCLC, but now with it they can get first class. They were quite confident of this view. Strangely, some of the boys and the teacher also wanted my autograph and address. I tried my best to get out this predicament, but eventually had to oblige them by signing my name in their notebooks, and gave my name and address to the teacher, Malthesh.
Finally, I took leave of the classes and walked back to the bus stop. On the way, we stopped into the CLC, located in Manjunathnagara slum. The teacher for the CLC is Prabhu, who is a SSLC pass from Marathalli. He is also a former student at APSA and is now currently working for APSA part time at the CLC and in the electronics section. The children were actually kept there longer than usual, expecting my visit. I was a bit saddened to hear this: the consequences of a visitor are greater than I initially appreciated. Unfortunately, I could not stay for long. I talked to kids about the CLC and asked if they liked it. Some of them nodded their heads. All of the kids there ranged from ages 7-14 or so, and they all worked! I asked a few of them what they do; some of the work in a hotel, as a mechanic, as a domestic worker, etc. And all of them without exception told me that the reason was "difficulty at home". One of the kids really moved me. He was a little boy of maybe 7-8 years old and he worked in a hotel nearby. He was so tired and his eyes were deep and melancholy. It was depressing the blackness around his eyes. I couldn’t help but contrast his life with what my, or my cousins’, life at his age. While we in the middle class were living out our childhood, here is this little boy earning wages for his survival to abate the "difficulties" in his home. The contrast between middle class India (or the US) and the poor India is bleak.
Balaraj and I discussed APSA and his life there during the bus ride. He told me that he has a M.S.W. and is paid Rs. 3000 per month including transportation costs. Subramanya, the other coordinator, is paid Rs. 2300. He travels about 1.5 hours each way everyday to this area to work. He works with the local community and encourages the parents to send their kids to school and impresses upon them that education is important. He does homevisits. He told me that the parents’ main occupation is coolie work. We parted at Richmond Circle and I took a rickshaw home.
APSA is doing very impressive work. It was more of an educational experience for me. I would like to spend some more time with the kids the next time I visit. Their interactions with Asha and their alignment with Asha principles are excellent. Given that Asha is only their second funding source, we have a good chance for building a long-term relationship with them. I would highly encourage further funding for APSA and in addition, we can learn a lot from their work. There are lots of child labor projects that Asha is funding; we can use APSA as a standard and as a resource for other projects to look into.