Field Work in Thane District, Maharashtra

Two weeks into my work at an NGO in Mumbai, I finally got a chance to embark on a field visit. My NGO works in the education sector to provide social and financial skills to children, especially those from underprivileged families. One of the key sites we head to is the municipal school, which is a public school that caters to children from the lower-income bracket in India. I had not been to a municipal school before and did not know what to expect.

It was to be a day of many firsts. I took the local train (aka the local) for the first time (having subsisted on the metro and auto all this while, after warnings by local Indians themselves to stay away from the local trains as far as I could). This time however, there was no alternative as Thane is a district that lies adjacent to Mumbai, and the only reasonable and affordable way of transport was to take the local. If not for our local colleague who accompanied us, we might not have had been able to distinguish which platform to be on, and which train to hop onto. Our second-class carriage tickets cost us 10 rupees each, and it was relatively empty as we were journeying out of the city (whereas most were streaming into Mumbai). The train was relatively empty, and the seats were hard but comfortable enough for the twenty minutes ride. It was quite a pleasant experience, contrary to what I had heard.

During peak hours, it is common for passengers to stand on the edge (literally). Living life vicariously taken to whole new level here.

We called on two schools, and in each, we interacted with more than one hundred students around the ages of fourteen and fifteen. We were launching our programs in these schools for the first time, and I was there to capture the moments on video that would be featured in a corporate video I am currently producing for the office. There were more than one hundred students packed into a class, and the kids were a boisterous, curious and lovely bunch. They were genuinely excited by our presence, and peppered us constantly with questions — where do you come from? What is your country famous for? Do you have your currency with you ? — that I struggled to keep up. At one point, one boy got me to sign my name on his notebook, which elicited a flood of similar requests from the class, and the staff had to implement crowd control measures!

I was amused, and found the children endearing. At the same time, I was also aware of the disparities that existed between my own academic experiences and theirs. This is not to say that theirs was, and will be, less meaningful and fulfilling. In fact, they have exhibited an inquisitiveness because of their circumstances. The lack of ready technology, of smart phones, of internet access and more, have not dampened their thirst for knowledge, but merely heightened it. I cannot say the same for some children I have interacted with back at home, where such luxuries and privileges are taken for granted and squandered. Instead, the presence of NGOs is to address a gap that has not been readily satisfied by the government. Where the government fails, NGOs have to come in to tackle the problems and issues at hand. Is the ideal India one where NGOs no longer have to exist because the government is able to fulfill its responsibility to its people? Or should NGOs continue its work as a check against the government? The current relationship my NGO shares with the state is a collaborative yet conflictual one. While it aims to address the government’s shortfall, it has to collaborate with the state in order to tap on existing resources and manpower that will make its work more effective and productive. This is especially true for NGOs that are cash-strapped or/and short-handed. There are many lessons that can be learnt from the work of NGOs in India, and I am keen to see how I can adopt some of these practices when I head back home.

My field visit would not be complete without mentioning a particular Ms. Jyoti Nikte, who has been teaching in one of the municipal schools for 32 years, and will be retiring come June when she turns 58 years old. Dressed in an emerald green sari, with a shock of greying hair, and wielding a wooden bamboo cane, she cuts a formidable figure despite walking with a discernable limp. She reminded me of my discipline mistress back in secondary school, and as we introduced ourselves over cups of sweet sweet masala chai, I grew to become very fond of Jyoti, and grateful for the inspirational, kind and caring teachers I have had in my life.

In the ladies compartment.

The train journey back to Mumbai was memorable, as we squeezed into the ladies compartment with a horde of women, some carrying luggages, some balancing items wrapped in cloth on their heads, some holding on to plastic wraps of fake jewelry to be sold. It was stuffy so a lady by the door slid open the hatch and a cool breeze blew in, peppered with drops of rain. Clinging on to the handrail to keep my balance, I felt a little joy in that brief moment where the wind brushed across my face and ruffled my hair, before the train halted and we hopped off, ready to face the city once again.

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