Geeta Dharmarajan, founder of Katha, which has just completed 25 years of reaching out to the unreached in the National Capital.

Scrolling down the students’ blog of Katha, the non-profit organisation in the National Capital which runs schools for underprivileged children living in 248 slums, I come across a complaint letter by a child addressed to the Chairman, Municipal Corporation of Delhi. The child wants to bring to his notice the insanitary condition of an MCD park in Govindpuri because of which he and other children are not able to play there. Many of his peers fall ill too because the park has become a breeding ground for mosquitoes. At a time when dengue is intimidating us, one can only hope that the MCD Chairman has already addressed the child’s complaint. But what comes out through this letter is a speck of a certainty, that Katha’s mission to empower the disadvantaged — so that they can stand up and get counted — is beginning to show its colours. An ever smiling Geeta Dharmarajan, the founder of this movement to educate street and slum children of Delhi, is a face of utter delight when she counts the achievements for me in terms of numbers.

“We started with just five children in Govindpuri in 1988. Today, we teach 80,000 children in 122 slums of Delhi. This year, we have started working in 120 more slums; our aim is to include 30-40 thousand kids more from these areas.” Besides, Katha works in 75 MCD schools and is in the process of adding 10 more. “It means we also reach out to 3000 to 4000 children through these schools,” adds Dharmarajan, awarded the Padma Shri this year for her contribution to the field of education.

In its silver jubilee year, Katha’s journey for Dharmarajan has been the one from “a dream” to “sheer delight.” At the Katha office on Aurobindo Marg, sitting under a mud plastered roof — a rarity in the city, Dharmarajan reverts to the time when Katha was just a shimmer in her eyes. She had recently returned from America, after being on the publishing committee of The Pennsylvania Gazette, the magazine of the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League varsity. “It was 1987-88. I had a lot of work assignments already with me, a publisher sitting in the U.S. I still had some free time, so I began to utilise it by giving some of my time to a government school near our house in South Delhi,” she recalls.

Back then, the one thing she was sure about was that she should look at translations. Little did she know then that it would become an important limb of Katha one day, would involve a large number of translators who would pluck out stories from across the country and link various language communities. “The idea grew from a sense of greed. I just love stories since childhood. At that time I was reading a lot of American fiction. But India, I realised, is not like any other country. Though we are a repository of stories, I could read only those in Tamil and English. I felt I don’t know my country well and I can do that by reading stories from different languages. So I thought why not translate them?”

She began with a children’s magazine, Tamasha (it closed down some time ago.) and went on to translate individual stories, novels, etc. Dharmarajan notes, “You often hear that translations don’t measure up to the originals. So what do people like me do? I thought what if we can do journal quality translation and started looking at translating terms of abuse, kinship, endearment, etc. into English.” She notes here importantly, “We do need a different kind of translation for our country. India probably is the only country that translates into English for itself.”

In time, Dharmarajan’s childhood thirst for stories played a ground-breaking role in spreading literacy among underprivileged children. Keeping aside the textbooks, Dharmarajan, when she began a Katha school in 1990, chose to teach children through the pedagogy of stories. She says, “I was always intrigued by stories. Since childhood, I have been taught to question stories, and the stories answered the questions. So I thought, maybe our children need an education which is not based on textbooks. The National Sample Survey of 1988 noted too that many poor children dropped out of school not because they were poor but because they found the textbooks boring.”

She reflects with regret, “Somehow in our country, education has lost its active meaning of enquiry, of questioning things.”

The first time she walked into a slum in South Delhi, she remembers feeling appalled. “It is a shame that our country allows our children to live in such a degraded environment. So you can say, Katha was built on a dream, a strong belief and also built on a sense of outrage.”

The first hurdle to cross was to “ensure that a child’s mother has Rs.800 on the first day of every month so that she can get the provisions when the ration shop opens.”

“We know every child is curious, they will come to the school, but they need to be healthy to be regular. So if they have food at home, they will be alright,” she felt.

The second hurdle was training teachers to educate children through stories. She zeroed in on “the German way of giving three training sessions a month to the teachers.” Katha began with 20 teachers, drawn from the slums. The minimum requirement was Class 8th pass. With a laugh, she adds, “To give an impression of formality, we even held interviews for them.” The number of teachers has risen to 200 now and Dharmarajan adds, “Since 2000, our teachers meet two Saturdays a month to discuss the problems they face in the classroom and learn from each other. Special knowledge does not come from outside but from the inside. We are all leaders.”

Funds, she states, have always been an issue at Katha, like most non-profit ventures, but adds, “Every year, we somehow manage it. I thank my mother for giving me the talent to stretch a rupee. I also thank the family for giving the space which has given stability to Katha.” Katha has just won the coveted Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award and Dharmarajan is happy that “some money will come.” But what concerns her is that “many of our teachers don’t feel the need to reach out to these children.” What saddens her is also “the lack of concern and commitment of the larger civil society to equity.”

She states, “I know everyone is busy but if we try we can give an hour every week to bring about a better society. I sincerely believe that if people decide to keep poverty out of Delhi, whether there is political will or not, they can. After all, it is the nation’s Capital.”

“I am not finding fault in others but only saying that if every RWA takes the responsibility of educating the street children who are near the crossing of their colony, if every college decides to educate the children loitering around its nearest bus stop, we can achieve a better country.”

She also wonders, “If our Prime Minister, the Chief Minister, or even the secretaries in the Government know what these children are thinking, what is in their minds.” She knows that “they know what IITs and IIMs and Delhi University is thinking.” At the recent silver jubilee function of Katha, she says, “Tears came to my eyes when children sang a song that said if we want something, we can achieve it. These children are full of potential, how can we fail them?” Here, she relates an incident. “In 2010, we were asked by the Government of India to give it a project proposal. We told it we wanted to work in 50 slums in South Delhi. The adjoining slums, on coming to know about it, approached us asking, why were they not included? I felt stupid telling them we have no money. Thereupon, Katha children from other slums offered to teach the younger ones in those slums. Isn’t it beautiful?”

Comparing the days Katha began with what she observes now, she feels the children have undergone a change. “I remember 20 years ago, taking a few Katha students to a five star hotel in Delhi to meet a foreign donor. They were amazed at the lift and I had to go up and down with them just for fun. Some 10 years ago, when I took a batch of children to Nirula’s, they were amazed at the size of its toilet, a luxury for them. Today, that has changed though they are yet to become as tech savvy as privileged children and we are now about to address it.”

Looking back at her journey through Katha, Dharmarajan makes an important statement, “You know we move in the same city but we choose not to see things. I don’t want to sound pious but at the same time I don’t want to regret in my 80s that I didn’t do anything to make my country better.”

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