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  • Writer's picturesanjhisikhiya

When “I” become “We” for transforming Punjab

Updated: Jan 3, 2019

An NRI comes back to the roots to explore some stories of hope and possibilities in her Punjab!

Who I am

I am a final year International Development student at King’s College London with a keen interest in poverty, inequality and social policy, particularly within the Indian context.

I am very interested in looking at how “development” is conceptualized and carried out across the world. From this, I was therefore very fascinated in learning more about the work of Sanjhi Sikhiya — an organisation aiming to initiate positive change within the public education system of Punjab — a system which is crippled by a variety of complex problems. I participated in Sanjhi Sikhiya’s groundwork in the village primary schools of Fatehgarh Sahib over the Summer of 2018.

Time with PYLP fellows

Fieldwork involved observing and interacting with pupils, teachers, parents and wider community members, in order to better understand the constraints that each individual school was struggling with. During my time in Fatehgarh Sahib, I worked together with the ground team in order to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the schools and what they needed for their improvement.

I initially observed the interactions of Sanjhi Sikhiya’s ground team during school visits. As I gradually gained the confidence to interact and lead discussions and interviews independently, I feel that it was at this point that I truly began to understand the complexities of the problems that these schools were faced with. It was a common occurrence that many problems upon being uncovered, would often expose many more complexities lying beneath them, thus making it very hard to find solutions to the initial issues. For example, many teachers found that the reasons as to why many children were struggling to perform well at school was often due to situations outside of their control, such as alcoholism within their home environments. Understandably in such cases teachers felt helpless that there was much scope to change the circumstances that these children were exposed to.

My takeaways and learnings

The importance of looking at problems in depth and going to the root of its causes, instead of looking for quick solutions

A key learning from this experience was the realisation of just how crucial it is to have a real depth of understanding and knowledge of local areas and communities in order to achieve sustainable and legitimate changes within them. For example, a prominent issue across mostly all schools that we visited was the lack of sufficient nutrition amongst pupils. We found that many children were not given breakfast before attending school, or in the case that they were, it was usually very inadequate and lacking in nutritional density. This meant that children found it extremely difficult to concentrate in lessons due to their preoccupation with, and pain of, their own hunger. From my initial perspective and distress at witnessing this, my key response to this issue was to implement a breakfast system into each school through which each child would receive food in the morning via funds from donations.

However, I soon learned the importance of the need to raise questions in order to get to the root of any problem — why were so many children coming to school unfed? Upon raising this question to teachers, the general response was the lack of attention and knowledge on behalf of parents to their children. With my initial idea and response to implement a breakfast system on behalf of donors, I soon realised that, though this would prevent the problem, it would not be legitimate in solving the underlying root of it.

My initial approach and perception of development projects within schools: that problems were visible and infrastructural

My initial idea and approach towards development projects within schools was challenged through my naive preconception that the problems within schools would usually be visible, such as poor school physical infrastructure. Though poor infrastructure was a problem across all schools, I realised that some of the biggest problems were those that were not clearly visible.

For example, I observed a child who had a noticeable detachment from the classroom and displayed complete unresponsiveness to his teacher’s repeated questions as to why he never completed his homework. He was widely ignored by his fellow pupils and generally in lessons. Through talking to his elder sister who was studying at the same school, we later learned that this particular boy was going home to a household where he was heavily beaten daily by his alcoholic father. After learning this, I tried to approach him gently and help him with the school work that he didn’t do and we sat together working our way through sets of maths problems. I was gradually able to break down the external barrier of unresponsiveness through a calm and soft approach of patience and praise — something it seemed he was rarely exposed to. Soon, the smiles of this little boy finally began to radiate through.

This encounter alone made me realise that the problems within these schools were not just those that were visible — that these schools could not simply be fixed by a coat of paint or upgraded items inside, but rather that they required a much more in-depth understanding and meaningful interaction with the subjects that comprised it — the pupils and the community that they were embedded in. Through my lack of understanding, my initial observation of these schools was the lack of quality infrastructure within them; therefore my general idea for solutions to the problems within schools seemed relatively straightforward — that simply more and better quality infrastructure was necessary to improve the situation. This encounter made me realise that this was not necessarily the case at all.

In many of these situations and more generally, we found that there was a lack of parental involvement with the schooling system despite attempts to bring schools closer to communities. Sanjhi Sikhiya’s groundwork team, thus, saw this as an opportunity and worked relentlessly to establish better links between schools and parents in order to generate greater enthusiasm and support for their children’s education and general well-being. Once learning how closely involved, or completely uninvolved, parents were to the schools in their areas made me realise the magnitude of the effect that parents and communities have on children.

It is difficult to pin point exactly what this experience gave me as I feel that it changed my perspectives and enriched many aspects of how I look at things. However, I have tried to summarise it below:

Peoples’ attitudes facing adversity

I found it difficult to see private-school buses drive past me in the morning full of well-dressed, smart-looking children; whilst only a short distance away, children in government schools were walking to school in worn out, ripped uniforms and, in some cases, some children didn’t have a uniform at all. Seeing the children at these government schools, who were not wealthy enough to go to private ones; constrained by the lack of resources and funding from the government; constrained by their (often) lower caste; and constrained by their own hunger, as very few were given breakfast before school…yet observing their eagerness to learn, their happiness to see you and their warmth towards you, in spite of all this, was incredibly inspiring.

A particular story which highlighted this was when I met an extremely tiny and timid school girl wearing a dirty, ripped uniform and no shoes. Her head-teacher pointed out the severe scarring on her ear, explaining that she was regularly beaten by her alcoholic father at home. In addition to this, she had a skin pigmentation disorder developing on her arms and neck, but her teacher told me that her parents would not take her to see a doctor despite having urged them to do so multiple times. In spite all of this, you would find this little girl in the classroom smiling and joking, whilst displaying great eagerness and attentiveness to her studies. Observations in these schools made it very clear that these children were facing many adversities from a very young age and through no fault of their own; however the spirit, happiness and mischievous smiles radiating from them in spite of this was truly inspiring.

The power of inclusivity and the perspectives that people of different backgrounds can bring

The ground team that I worked with were people from diverse backgrounds, interests and with very different stories — we had all grown up in different places and had subsequently faced very different experiences within our own life-courses. From this, it was therefore very interesting to see how we each perceived situations and solutions when working through each school profile. Observing my own thoughts on a situation and observing the same situation through the lens of a different person, again, made me realise the power of inclusivity, as everybody has something to contribute and could change the angle on how to look at things.

The power of connecting the desire to achieve something with the will to do it

All of the schools that we visited were infrastructurally very poor, despite many teachers’ longing for the situation to be improved. However, one government school in particular which left me incredibly moved was …., where the teachers of the school had taken it upon themselves to improve the infrastructure within it. Through their own donations of time, money and effort these teachers worked outside of school hours to paint, decorate and implement positive changes within their schools that the children had asked for. Witnessing the amazing work done voluntarily by these teachers was exhilarating and made me realise the power of connecting the desire to achieve something with the will to do it.

Bittersweet Gratitude

As a Punjabi, who happened to be born and raised in the UK, I realised that many of the opportunities that I have been fortunate enough to have been given throughout my life-course are heavily due to the situations that I was exposed to from birth. Looking at the young girls in these classrooms and seeing how similar some of them looked to me when I was their age; but then realising that they probably would not have access to the same opportunities that I have, due to the social and economic environment that they have been born into is something that humbled me, but in a very bittersweet way. Of course I felt grateful for all of the opportunities and pathways that I have been exposed to; however realising that this was solely due to the luck of where I was born and that another person would not have this (or that it would be significantly harder for them to access), due to where they were born, is something that played on my mind a lot. For this reason I think that it is incredibly important to be involved with, and find ways to contribute to, the amazing work being done to remove the barriers to opportunities that children in Punjab face.

Refocusing me on what I want to do

One of the biggest things that working with Sanjhi Sikhiya gave me was greater clarity over what I want to progress to do after finishing my education. Throughout recent years, I have realised that I would like to work in the development sector, and most importantly, with children. However, many development organisations that I have encountered and learned about tend to intervene to implement the changes that they, themselves, feel are the most necessary in the communities that they work in, without considering the needs and desires of the community itself.

A key highlight was seeing the organisation’s ethos and approach to stemming positive change within these neglected schools, as it truly mirrored its name ‘Sanjhi Sikhiya’ which translates as ‘collective learning’. It was amazing to see how Sanjhi Sikhiya’s strategy valued and incorporated the teachers, pupils and community so closely in its intervention, as oppose to traditional development projects which often impose changes from the top and disregard the views of those who are subject to intervention.

The ground team were extremely open-minded and visited schools with a blank canvas, open for communication with staff, students and parents in order to see what they were struggling with and their views on what needed doing going forward. From this, the team discussed possible intervention strategies with all stakeholders, asking for their thoughts and contributions. This makes the whole process empowering for all actors involved, as oppose to imposing intervention strategies from positions of superiority and authority. Through my studies and practical work, I have realised that this is the key difference when determining whether development projects are successful, meaningful and legitimate. This filled me with great faith and confidence in the positive changes unfolding within the schools that Sanjhi Sikhiya works with.

As a Punjabi born and raised outside of Punjab, I have come back to the UK and found myself questioning how others, also born and raised outside, perceive their identity. I feel that there the is a lot to be learned from going to Punjab and participating in the work being done for its improvement. I think that it is beautiful for a Punjabi to be born and raised abroad, yet feel proud and closely connected to their roots; however I think it is ultimately better to channel this notion of pride into action and go to Punjab to get involved the amazing work being done there to lead to a better one.

Thank you for reading,


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