NEWSLETTER — April 2000
Report on how work and development at the residential school continues in Orissa, India.
By Malcolm Harper
I was able to visit PUSS again in April. The post-cyclone rebuilding is proceeding apace, and the signs of the devastation are rapidly being concealed under new growth; it will be many years, however, before the large trees which were lost are replaced. While I was there one afternoon the village was struck by a brief but violent wind and hail storm; the girls gathered handfuls of enormous hail stones, the electricity went out, it became totally dark in the middle of the afternoon and whole branches of trees blew by in the gale. I was convinced that another cyclone had come, but was assured that this was nothing compared to the October storm.
Repairs and reconstruction
I was able to spend some time with Kadambini and with Patra, her right hand man, and to discuss their future plans and financial needs in some detail. They need a total of some £8,000 to complete the rebuilding, which will include a permanent replacement for the lean-to shed which used to house the handicraft workshop. This is vital, since the school itself depends almost entirely on the income earned from the sale of these goods. The money will also cover the cost of a new water system and complete rewiring; both these facilities were woefully inadequate before, and PUSS are taking advantage of the cyclone to make major improvements all round.
I was able to hand over a cheque for £5285; this, added to the balance of the funds we gave them in January, will cover the cost of reconstruction, and the balance will remain to pay for the upkeep of 'our' children, at least until I go again in July.
Visits home by children
The cyclone has, paradoxically, temporarily reduced the number of girls in residence from seventy five to sixty three. Some mothers and other family members, from leprosy colonies and other slums, took twelve of the most recently arrived girls back 'home' a few weeks ago, because they had heard that cyclone relief and rehabilitation funds were being doled out to families on the basis of how many children they could muster. Children have thus become a valuable commodity, as long as donor funds last. PUSS have always tried to ensure that as many of the children as possible have a link with some sort of family. This of course means that the families retain contact and a legal right over the children's future, however tenuous. Kadambini is nevertheless confident that most of these children will soon return, and that PUSS will be accommodating a total of some ninety girls by 22 July, when the new school year begins.
We also discussed the longer term future of the children. Some girls have been at PUSS since we started the programme in 1993, and we have to think about their long-term future. It is very difficult for any young girl to live on her own in India, and although they have been spared child marriage, which is still all too common in Orissa, it is hard for a girl with no dowry to find a husband. I rather cruelly asked if we are doing anything more than producing better educated sexworkers or beggars ?
K, as one might have expected, has long been aware of the need to think beyond the girls' time at school, and she was able to tell me about some of the girls whom you have been supporting and who have now left PUSS. S, for example, returned to the sexworkers's colony in Tikarapara last year at the age of fifteen. She persuaded her mother and the man who 'managed' her to give up the business and to open a tea shop. It is apparently doing well, and S is keeping the books and helping with the management.
Degree and marriage
S S has also returned to Tikarapara; she gives tuition to school children and also has her own small tailoring business. S is studying for her .BA in commerce in Bhubaneswar. She is living at a girl's hostel in the town, and supports herself by offering tutorials for young children and by making handicrafts as she learned at PUSS.
Minakshi is married to a young man who was introduced to her by PUSS, and S, who was the first child to arrive in Naharkanta, is also married. Her mother found the husband, who is one of the few 'tribals' from the interior of the State who have moved to the coastal areas to make a better life for himself. He has a full time job as a security guard, and was delighted to be able to marry a well-educated girl; tribal people are less concerned about dowry, so its absence was no problem.
Kadambini and Patra realise that there will be some failures; some girls may lose touch with PUSS, and others may revert to the background from which they came. All the girls who have left PUSS thus far, however, maintain regular contact. Some will undoubtedly return to PUSS as school teachers or in other positions, and Kadambini is talking to some other charities in other parts of the State about the eventual possibility of their starting similar boarding sections themselves. 'Graduates' of PUSS will be ideal candidates for running such initiatives.