Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Crash course in curiosity

Think 'research' and what comes to mind is serious, bespectacled individuals - with or without labcoats - obsessed with matters tres importante. Certainly, they must possess PhDs and use long English words in long winding sentences. After all, they cogitate, while mere mortals only think.

Well, think again. This Saturday, I attended the annual exhibition cum graduation ceremony of the PUKAR Youth Fellowship Program and saw another kind of research. 'Barefoot' research.

On display were the projects taken up by a diverse set of youngsters - from Pen to Ghatkopar, Lalbaug to Bainganwadi. Each researching a topic close to its heart.

A young boy - no more than 16 or 17 - earnestly explains to me the problems faced by orphans in choosing a career path.

"Gorment ke jo hostel hain unme attharah saal ke baad nikaal dete hain… is liye ladkon ko chhota mota naukri lena padta hai, padhaai karke kya fayda ho sakta hai wo bhi samajhte nahin."

The best a boy from an orphanage can hope to do, he says, is join an ITI.

"Magar aap batao - khaali ITI se zindagi ban sakti hai kya? Kuch aur chance bhi to milna chahiye… "

But the boys have neither the knowledge, nor the financial capability to dream bigger dreams. To become doctors, CAs or engineers.

Indeed, it's a subject I have never paused to think about. Or read about in the media.

"Why did you choose this topic?" I asked the boy.

"Kyunki main bhi orphan hoon," he said, without hesitation. Just a little luckier than others. This boy is studying in class 12 and also working as an apprentice with Godrej. In fact his entire 'research group' consists of orphaned boys, and they have attacked the subject of their study with vim and vigor.

As have the boys of Bainganwadi, a slum colony in Govandi suffering from severe water problems. This group has put together a poignant photoessay capturing every aspect of the issue - from the hardships caused to men, women and children queueing up for water, to the hypocrisy of the local politicians and religious leaders supposedly 'fasting unto death' to secure water for the residents.

"Unke ghar mein to paani aata hai," they knowingly declare.

Two glass beakers are on display - one filled with grey water, one with yellow.

"The yellow water is what people take out of the ground, by digging a hole inside their kholi…"

The entire colony you see, is built on reclaimed land.

The grey water people buy - and use for bathing and washing. Two rupees a bag. Clear water - Bisleri water - is a most precious commodity.

"People spend almost Rs 60 a day just on water!" says one of the boys.

"Log subah uth kar sochte hain aaj kya karenge… yahan log subah uth kar yehi sochte hain ki paani aaj kahaan se aayega…"

And this is the situation inside Bombay city - not a drought-affected village in some distant taluka. Quite an eye-opener!

Another project which truly stood out was a group of girls from Santacruz (E) who decided to investigate an everyday matter: "Ladke naake par khade hooker chhed-chhad kyun karte hain?"

Why do boys congregate at street corners to ogle and whistle at girls? Results are here, for you to see.

An important conclusion of this research was that 'padhe likhe log bhi chhed chhad karte hain". ie educated men also indulge in this behavior. I don't know if this is a path-breaking finding but what is path-breaking is that girls are no silent victims.

"Jab aap un ladkon ke paas gaye aur aapne kaha ki hum aapse kuch sawaal poochhna chahte hain… to darr nahin laga?" I asked.

They laughed. "Nahin.. sab ne co operate kiya. Aur phir humne focus group discussion kiya na is liye sab ne khul kar aaraam se apne man ki baat keh di."

Of course, the girls' families were a little taken aback initially but now they are proud and happy.

I don't know if any of these projects follows the strict guidelines of 'research'. And the usable output at the end of the project is often unclear. But one thing is for sure, Pukar is an initiative with a difference, and one which makes a difference.

The most wonderful aspect is that it is not restricted to English-speaking elite, college-going youth. A majority of the projects were prepared in Marathi and Hindi, and the participants came from diverse backgrounds. Which is something we rarely see...

At the end of the day I don't know if Pukar projects can really be called 'research' but certainly it is citizen journalism at its best. Curious minds working - with passion and direction - to document the world around them.

The facts and findings are raw and relevant, and I hope they are used by journalists, by sociologists and by the administration - to do their jobs better. As well as inspire students everywhere to put their hearts and souls into any project they take up.

Not wake up the night before and frantically do google 'research'.

Disqus for Youth Curry - Insight on Indian Youth