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  who's who >> Verve >> Farida Lambay


Lessons For Life

Every child must go to school regularly and learn well Legendary actress, Waheeda Rehman, recently joined Pratham as its goodwill ambassador. "They wanted me to help them further the cause of primary education, and I could not refuse," she reveals. "My responsibility is to create an awareness about their various campaigns, get Bollywood stars to support their cause and help the organisation raise the funds they need."

When Rehman, in her new avatar, visited the poor colonies in Jaipur, she was moved beyond words. "It was an enriching experience and made me decide to devote my time to educate children who have been deprived of schooling. I have made it my life mission. On screen, my roles were dictated by the directors but here I do whatever my heart wants me to do. And my real life role and involvement in Pratham is much more satisfying."

Rehman led a fund-raising drive in the US in May 2003, where she raised over $100,000 for Pratham at a gala organised by the American India Foundation. Back in India, she convinced stars like Aamir Khan, Amitabh Bachchan, Abhishek Bachchan, Anil Kapoor and Rishi Kapoor to participate in a fund-raiser. Says Rehman, "Just one phone call and they all agreed to offer their support to the cause. It is my way of helping some kids to achieve their dreams."

"Every child must go to school regularly and learn well." Farida Lambay, Pratham’s founder-director, envisages the spread of universal education in slums and shanties in India. DEEPALI NANDWANI profiles the Mumbai-based unassuming social worker who has spearheaded a learning revolution
Ameena Syed didn’t know what a school looked like till she was about five years old. She probably would never have known even then – her father is a daily wage earner who treks every morning to the suburban Bandra station to wait for anyone who can offer him a job – of a painter, a mason or a labourer on a construction site. Her mother, Ayesha Begum, can’t even read Urdu, a language most from her community are familiar with.

But, a year ago, this tiny resident of the Nargis Dutt slum colony in Bandra, got the opportunity to study. Activists from Pratham, who have been working in the shanty settlement, encouraging parents to send their children to school, gave her this chance of a lifetime. She grabbed it and now the tiny six-year-old girl would like to be an astronaut, ‘like Kalpana Chawla’. "Our teacher told us about her," she says.

Ayesha Begum reveals that her relatives constantly harangue her for sending her little one to the Pratham centre. But she believes, "Muslims are backward because we are not educated. How can our children get good jobs and money if they don’t know how to read and write?"

Farida Lambay, founder-director, Pratham, too is a Muslim. She and Ayesha Begum belong to different socio-economic groups, but are joined together by their religious identity.

Normally, this fact should not matter in a profile about a woman responsible for kick-starting a huge number of NGOs – including Pratham, which she heads with Madhav Chavan, and one that has touched the life of 60,000 children in Mumbai’s burgeoning slum colonies through its primary education projects – in her three-decade long career.

But, unfortunately, it does. It mattered in the aftermath of the riots of 1992-93 that seared Mumbai’s conscience a decade ago. The bespectacled lady, dressed in her trademark white cotton sari, says, "I constantly interact with the city authorities and the police, and find that there are biases at work here. After the riots, especially, I have noticed the change in the way people look at me. There are times when I am made to feel that I belong to a particular religion."

To know how the dawning awareness of her religious identity has affected her in subtle ways – to which, in a way, the setting up of Pratham is linked – we need to go back into her past. A South Mumbaikar at heart (she has lived all her life in ‘town’ and studied at St Columba School in central Mumbai), Lambay grew up in a family where academics was worshipped, and religious identities were of no consequence. "My father was an IAS officer, who stressed the importance of education," she says. "My mother, barely educated, would encourage cousins from back home in Ratnagiri to live with us and pursue their higher studies. Ratnagiri Muslims are considered the most progressive and modern."

So, like most others in her community, she studied sociology at Elphinstone College, even as she toured Maharashtra with her bureaucrat father. "He was with the Khar (Saline Land) Development Board, and dealt constantly with small farmers, struggling to make their land productive. Their dismal condition made me want to take up social work."

A sudden crisis in the family – the death of an elder brother, and a sister’s accident – forced Lambay to grow up, almost overnight. "It was very traumatic for my parents, and since my other brothers were studying abroad, I had to bear the burden." She completed postgraduation in social work from Nirmala Niketan, and joined the college as a professor.

It was here that she realised that teaching social work made no real sense unless it was backed by actual grass root level projects. "I helped my students set up NGOs dealing with children, prisoners and women," she recalls. But, that was before Pratham happened, an organisation in which she is ‘intensely involved’. The seeds for the NGO were sown somewhere in the traumatic days of the soul-wrenching 1992 riots. "I felt we had failed in protecting the city from burning. You cannot do much about the way adults think. But you can influence the thought processes of children. To do this we would have to enable kids who live in the slums merge with the mainstream by offering them access to a viable education system – a process that would help them grow as balanced individuals. Every child must go to school regularly and learn well."

When UNICEF asked Lambay to implement a project that would look at primary education, she joined hands with Chavan, who was involved in adult education, to start Pratham. "Our aim is to ascertain that no child will remain uneducated in Mumbai in the next two years. Every child will not only get basic education, but will also complete school," she reveals. "We want to spread the movement to other parts of India." They already have centres in 30 cities across the country.

It’s about 11:00 in the afternoon, and kids are streaming into the Malad centre of Pratham, located within a municipal school. There is eight-year-old Akash, who can’t understand why he needs to sit in a corner, when he has the entire centre to run across. "Tai, can I play?" he frets, looking up at the cream sari-clad harried matron, trying to keep the kids in control. There is seven-year-old Durga, poring over her black slate, attempting to decipher the letters that her teacher has taught her the day before. Chaos reigns as kids cry, laugh, study, do their homework and chat. Like any normal children would do on any given day in any ordinary school.

Except, some of these children could not spell the word ‘school’ till last year, and a lot of them are still struggling to catch on, but enjoying the experience immensely.

Lambay’s survey across Mumbai, done eight years ago as a precursor for establishing Pratham, threw up some startling statistics: two lakh students had never been to a school. And 40 per cent of those in there, dropped out before they completed their primary education. The idea, then, was to get every child into school, and keep them there. "The municipal corporation thought we had lost it," she grins. Yet, the sceptical corporation gave a go-ahead and the pilot project – pre-school centres for children between three and six years of age – was set up in municipal schools. Pratham trained teachers from within the shanty communities, who motivated their neighbours and friends to send their children to the centres. From over 100 such centres in 1995, the network has grown to 3,000 within Mumbai. You are most likely to find a Pratham centre in the middle of a bustling slum colony, located within a municipal school building, or in a shack, or in one of the grey buildings that are the hallmark of shanties. Walk inside, and you will find a lot of colour, cheerful spaces and loads of kids, running around, playing or bending over their books.

Among their success stories, the most heart-warming has been that of Nirma Manohare, who rose from being a student to a trainer in a Pratham centre to a city co-ordinator for the NGO in Amravati. She convinces reluctant, orthodox parents to let their daughters come to school and complete their education.

While initially, Lambay was involved with setting up of the centres, training teachers and seeing that Mumbai’s disfranchised children get a shot at education, now she deals with policy decisions, funding and garnering support from all quarters.

Besides, their venture to give the bonded child labourers of zari units a life beyond the hellish one, keeps her busy. In February this year, the police rescued 13 children bonded to zari units in the Govandi slums. Recognising a need here, Pratham embarked on an ambitious project to educate these child slaves, and, if possible, stop them from coming into Mumbai.

The children are taught for two hours every day and every week, they go for an excursion, their time out in the city. "In the next phase, we plan to target fashion designers. They should be the ones to put pressure on unscrupulous unit owners to eliminate bonded child labour," feels Lambay. "If European exporters can help eliminate child labour in the Indian carpet weaving industry, why can’t the Indian designers do their bit for bonded childhood in the zari industry, on which they depend for all their embroidery work?"

Already, Bollywood and the corporate sector are more than ready to put their might behind the cause of primary education. What else explains actress Waheeda Rehman’s association with Pratham as its goodwill ambassador? Or that every big star, from Amitabh Bachchan to Aamir Khan has helped the organisation raise the much needed funds? Or that they have a board of directors crammed with India’s corporate heads? Amitabh Bachchan, an ardent supporter says, "The work Pratham is doing is unbelievable. They are setting an example to the country and I hope more people wake up to what they are trying to achieve. I will help them every time they ask me to do so."

Pratham, Y. B. Chavan Centre,
Gen. J. Bhosale Marg,
Nariman Point,
Mumbai 400 021.