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Anouradha Bakshi, Founder of Project Why, an NGO in India, discusses how the ‘whys’ she had to answer led to her work with the underprivileged.
By Aparna V. Singh
Project Why describes itself as ‘a New Delhi (India) based non-profit organisation engaged in education support and life skill enhancement of slum children and their families.’ Founded in 1998 by Anouradha Bakshi, their activities today span education, special education and healthcare initiatives. (This interview was originally conducted in October 2009).
Aparna V. Singh (AS): Before we get to your work with Project Why, please tell us a little about yourself, in particular your life when younger. Did you ever see yourself working in the social sector or did that come much later?
Anouradha Bakshi (AB): I was born in Prague and grew up in Beijing, Paris, Rabat, Saigon, Algiers and Ankara, my father being a diplomat. I did all my schooling in French. My father retired and we returned to India where I did my BA (Hons) in Philosophy from LSR Delhi and my Masters in French from JNU. An only child of very doting parents, I was spoilt silly but at the same time taught the right values. I bless my parents for having sent me to local schools in the countries we were posted in. That way, I grew up in a real world.
I don’t think there was a conscious desire to work for the social sector but I remember two incidents that marked me. The first was when I was a little girl spending holidays with my maternal grandparents in Meerut. My Nani had a bear show organized for me. When the bear owner was given his money, he asked for a coat, as it was very cold. He was sent away but I burst into tears and did not stop wailing till a servant was sent to find the man and give him the coat.
Many years later in Saigon, we were taken one week to an orphanage by our school. There each of us was made responsible for a child. Mine was a little girl called An. For the next two years all pocket money was spent to fulfil little An’s needs. And till today I have never forgotten her little face.
Maybe these were the genesis of what was to come.
AS: When and how did Project Why begin? What were your feelings when you started? Did you hold other jobs before starting Project Why?
AB: Let me start with the later part of your question. I held many jobs before starting Project Why. My life as a working woman began when I was doing my MA. I used to work part time at the French Unit of All India Radio as a Translator/Announcer. After my MA, I worked for a few years at the Belgium Embassy. I then joined JNU as an Assistant Professor in French. I left JNU in 1981 to work as Advisor Protocol for the IX Asian games and then went on to work for International Conferences as an Interpreter and Conference Manager.
Project Why began in my head in 1985 when I visited the village from which my ancestors had migrated to Mauritius as indentured labour in 1881. It was when I saw the plight of the women in this village that I realised how a simple accident of history had made me an Ambassador’s daughter when I should have been an illiterate village woman. It was at that moment that I realized that I had a huge debt to pay and that I would do it one day.
But Project Why actually began in 1998 after the death of my parents. My children had grown and I realised that time had come to pay the debt back. It would take two years of groping and looking before Project Why as it is now came to be.
The task never seemed daunting as I told myself that if I changed even one life for the better, I would have succeeded.
AS: What are the core areas that Project Why works in? How do you organize your funding?
AB: The first deafening why that needed an answer was Manu. I used to go to the street where he lived to meet a healer. Manu was a mentally and physically challenged young man who had been pushed to the streets after his mother’s death. He was ill treated and abused in every way possible. I initially wanted to find him a place in a home but found to my horror that there were no homes for males above 14! It was then that I made myself a silent promise: to one day ensure that Manu slept in a proper bed and ate at a table with friends and well wishers. It took nine years to get there but today he is part of our tiny residential programme.
To help Manu we had to be accepted by the community he lived in. We started spoken English classes for children, as that was what the community asked us to do. We began with 40 kids in two shifts. A few months later we realized that there was little or no study in municipal and government schools and that children were dropping out at alarming rates. We began our after school support programme and today reach out to 700 kids. That is also when we realised that the smaller children were often left to roam the streets, as the 0 to 6 years were not part of the free education programme. That is when we started our early education programme. We also run a day care for mentally and physically challenged children and young adults.
Funding has been the greatest challenge, as we do not have government or institutional funding. In the beginning, I put in part of my inheritance and that kept us going for the initial years. Slowly we built a network of friends and well wishers who helped us. Today we have friends who have set up organisations in France, Germany and Belgium that help Project Why.
AS: Tell us a little about the major milestones and achievements.
AB: Over the past years we have had many achievements big and small. Since we began, no child has dropped out and all our children have passed their examinations. Many of our ex students are now in college or working in good jobs.
Our initial decision to employ only people from within the community, and hence create almost fifty jobs, has been validated. Project Why is run by a vibrant team of empowered women and men.
AS: What are the main challenges that you face in your work with children? Any setbacks you have faced?
AB: Working with children is joyful, humbling and overwhelming. We have never had any problems with them. They motivate us and keep us going. We have had a few setbacks particularly in the initial days when local politicos tried to push us away and even threatened us. But we stayed put and simply wore them away. We have had some financial problems but these too have been temporary. Actually such small impediments keep us on our toes and ensure that we do not take things for granted.
AS: Do these challenges ever make you feel frustrated or like giving up?
AB: Never. There is no question of giving up. There maybe some frustration but it is temporary. The best way to cope is to think of the larger picture, of the children, of the dreams and hopes that are in our custody and then problems become manageable.
AS: We noticed that you have also started a centre for women. Tell us how you are progressing in this area.
AB: The women’s centre emerged as an answer to a very specific need. A few years ago a little child named Utpal came my way. He accidentally fell in a boiling karhai and sustained severe third degree burns. Everyone had given up on him; even the hospital sent him home to die. We decided to nurse him back to health and he lived. Today he is in boarding school and doing very well.
With Utpal came his mom. We soon discovered she was an alcoholic and later found out that she was also bipolar. Her plight made us aware of the condition of slum women who drink or have severe psychological problems. They are ill treated and abused in every conceivable way. Utpal’s mom was gang raped by the local cops. This is when we decided to have a women’s centre where we would offer short, medium or long-term refuge to women in distress. Not having our own premises, we at present can only accommodate a maximum of 4 women, but we hope to have our own building one-day. We faced a lot of difficulties finding rented space for this centre, as no one was willing to give their premises on rent for such women.
Our women’s centre also imparts vocational skills to over 60 women. We have tailoring and beauty classes. We also have awareness programmes with these women on issues like nutrition, gender equality, HIV Aids, immunisation, legal rights etc.
AS: What are your future plans for Project Why?
AB: At present we have a very fragile funding model and it is imperative that we become sustainable. We have opted for a plan based on a successful model running in Cusco Peru, the Ninos hotel. The idea is to dovetail hospitality and development. We intend to build a guest house and a children and women’s centre. The proceeds of the guesthouse will fund our activities. This project is called Planet Why. We have purchased the land and are now raising funds for the building. Planet Why will be a green building with solar and geothermal energy. It will also be a centre for vocational training for Project Why students who have finished their schooling.
AS: For those who are starting work in the social sector, what advice do you have?
AB: One must realise that the social sector is extremely challenging and very rewarding. To succeed in this sector one must have the ability to look with one’s heart. One must not feel daunted by the task but take it one step at a time, one day at a time.
AS: Running an organization like Project Why must be an emotionally and physically draining task. How do you prepare and maintain yourself?
AB: Quite the contrary! When you deal with other people’s problems you forget your own. For me it has been 24/7 for almost ten years now and for the past ten years I have forgotten all the ailments that once plagued me. I wake up very early and lead a disciplined life. I do yoga thrice a week and exercise thrice a week. Every morning as I work, I listen to the Chandi Path. This helps me remain grounded and at peace with myself.
AS: You use social media such as blogging. What is your objective in using such media?
AB: It began quite perchance. I used to send individual emails to all my mailing list when a friend suggested that I blog instead. That was in 2005. Since then, I blog regularly and have got a lot of support from people I have never met but who read my blog. I never looked back and will soon be posting my 1000th blogpost!
AS: If you had to do it all again, would you do it any differently?
AB: I have been blessed and I am very aware of this. If I were to do it again I would do it in the exactly the same way.
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