The ‘Otherness’ Of Living | Verve Magazine
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August 18, 2008

The ‘Otherness’ Of Living

Text by Mita Kapur. Photograph by Saurabh Dua

Empowering street children in India and making them aware of their rights has been Surina Narula’s life’s mission, resulting in her being awarded the MBE by the Queen of England. Verve meets the unassuming do-gooder, in Delhi, for a chat on her ongoing work

Some things don’t change. Some people don’t change; they bring about changes. She says, “I’m grateful but it’s not a big deal.” Surina Narula has been awarded the MBE by the Queen of England for her work towards the cause of empowering street children in India. She is among 18 Indians who have been honoured but she stands out for the simple reason that it doesn’t change anything for her. “I haven’t done enough to feel a moment of fulfillment. The award has made me feel helpless and inadequate,” she says.

The main focus of Narula’s project on street children is to empower children, making them aware of their rights. “Ideally, I’d like to galvanise all organisations working in this area, to unite and adopt this approach. We have to make people understand they have rights and create a desire among them to want what is due to them.” Currently working on a fund raiser in October to raise money for the Consortium of Street Children, she says with zest, “I wish I wasn’t leading a typical woman’s life; I wish I could only focus on my work…. There’s a whole world out there existing in our backyard, of which we are unaware,” she says, relating the story of a young girl living in Delhi’s Sanjay Colony, which, according to her, is worse than Mumbai’s Dharavi. “I followed her one day and finally understood why she preferred to live on the railway station. This ‘otherness’ of every city exists in its underbelly. I meet up with kids at the Trimurti shelter in Jaipur often. They love their life at the railway station, collecting empty mineral water bottles, selling them at Rs 2 per bottle to be recycled and refilled with tap water. Narula, business woman, Asian of the Year, 2005, may jet-set with the crème de la crème of English and Indian society but she does so with her head firmly balanced and her heart in place. Lord Swraj Paul, Lord Karan Billimoria, Baroness Shreela Flather are some of the luminaries who have received this award before her.

She is busy raising money through Pratham’s Charity Ball to help the government ensure that 200 million children are literate by 2010. She is actively involved with Plan India, which is on a mission to make sure all children realise their full potential in society. She heads the International Children’s Trust, a consortium of NGOs working for street children across the world.  “I’ve been working with street children for the last 15 years. I returned to regular college a year ago to do my Masters in Social Anthropology at UCL to gain a deeper insight of issues that surround street children and how to tackle them better. The main thing in India is the lack of basic education about our own rights. ”

The last five years, Narula states, have seen a boom in education with everyone trying to provide parallel education along with the government’s own action plans. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan is on but very little is known about it. “What does Right to Education mean? No one understands the depth of this core issue. What does it mean for teachers, NGOs, the givers, the takers? We have to empower people to understand what it’s all about. We are providing information and awareness. We’ve done a huge event with lots of stars with Plan India, UNESCO, UNICEF around the basic theme of Right to Education. We have to make the children come back to being children and start learning and that’s a tough task.”

Narula’s kids are as involved in all her fundraising activities. “It’s a humbling experience, it teaches you to value what we take for granted.” Finding the travails of the NGO world and also that of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility), very strange, she observes, “In their effort merely to exist, they all simply replicate their work amongst themselves. We have formed a Consortium for Street Children with 45 member countries to grapple with this problem. Being one of the eight founder members, Narula does all this work purely as a volunteer. “Rather than forming your own foundation, you should be a part of an organisation where you fit in and volunteer for it.”

She is worried about our “economic growth being completely lopsided. This growth is not sustainable if we don’t take our people along with it. The Bill on Education hasn’t been passed yet. They aren’t letting it go through. How come there’s so much money for infrastructural development but when you look around, what are people getting out of this growth? Where is the trickle down effect in Sanjay Colony? Have ‘they’ any idea how these people live? Do they even have basic food, clean water, education? Yes, they have satellite television,” Narula vehemently asserts.

Her passion and her anger mingle: “In India, religious wars often overtake economic factors. All failures are camouflaged behind religion. Rather than a case of the haves and have nots, it becomes a Hindu-Muslim cause. As long as we have a caste system and a this-is-our-fate attitude, we’ll last like this.” A street child, she maintains, is a happy looking child because he’s fatalistic – it’s a hand dealt to them. “But when you see a child carrying a gun in Nairobi, who is ready to shoot at you for a dollar at a red light, they certainly don’t take their condition for granted. Apart from the drug problem and the violence they face, street children are shot at in countries like Guatemala to clear the roads for a visiting dignitary. Girls always dress up as boys in Brazil. In Russia, kids live in sewers because of the cold. Socio-cultural factors do influence the way they are in each country. In Africa, most of them have AIDS; in India, though on the rise, it’s not so overt.”

Simple posters like a Dalit girl saying, “I’ve never been to school,” conveying that it’s their janam sidh adhikar to be educated, will convey the message of awareness, she maintains. Educating people about their rights for them to access those rights, involving every stakeholder at all levels right down to the grassroots, is Narula’s aim. “My sister was murdered and we struggled through that time, becoming aware of how life was for the poor in this country – you might as well be dead or an animal. I never got out of my middle class upbringing and ideas. I live the life I enjoy in my NGO world,” she states.

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