Power in Pondi

Following her return from India, Development in Action’s Emily Wight reflects on the work of NGOs across Pondicherry, as they work to improve the lives of local children. You can read more about Emily’s experiences in India by logging on to her blog –

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British headlines of the past six months have avidly followed the dismantling of the welfare state and the oncoming privatization of our social, health and educational services.

Meanwhile, I have been on the other side of the world, in what was once the most significant outpost of the British Empire: India. Here is a population of which a considerable number rely on something not unlike David Cameron’s vision of a “Big Society” – the crucial work of independent NGOs.

Yes, the distribution of wealth amongst India’s diverse society results in a unique situation for every child. And yes, many parents will be able to afford the best education and training for their children. But despite the “booming economy” tagline so increasingly adopted that it is almost already cliché, India remains, according to the latest UN figures, the poorest country in the world.

Pondicherry is no exception. Alongside the community of French expatriates lurks an underbelly of destitution. Families residing in shop doorways look on as their naked children dance barefoot through the traffic, begging or selling bags designed to allure tourists for the price of a packet of crisps.  What, if any, help is at hand for the most vulnerable people in society? What role do Pondicherry’s NGOs play in the lives of local children?

The most palpable of these NGOs is Kalki Welfare Society, manifest on the sides of the buses and mobile libraries that stream up and down the veins of Pondicherry more frequently than any ambulance or police car.

Kalki is extremely pro-active considering it has existed for just under three years. Its vision is lucid, believing in a world “where all children are protected”; “where no child is left alone, is forced to work or beg.” There is no doubt that the realization of these aims would be the end of Kalki as an association: “Ultimately, we envision a community where Kalki is no longer needed.”

Kalki Welfare Society recognizes that everyone’s situation is exclusive, and tailors its services to meet the needs of individuals. Its Outreach programme travels to wherever homeless families reside – be it under a makeshift shelter, outside the market or on a platform of the bus station – and provides them with the support they need; the next step is encouraging children to be self-sufficient through the use of Kalki’s “Drop-in” facility. This centre is open between 10am and 5pm and offers health check-ups, sanitation, and food: the most immediate needs of the homeless; once a child begins to attend the Drop-in Centre frequently, educational specialists can work with them to organize regular classes.

Volontariat, established by Belgian social worker Madeline de Blic in 1962, is a more long-standing organisation that has, thanks to generous donations over the years, inaugurated various projects throughout Pondicherry. One of these projects is Souriya Home, a shelter for “street boys” aged between 12 and 18 years and run by Frenchman Alain and Soumati, his Tamil wife.

Whilst several of these boys are orphans, many do have parents, for whatever reason deemed “unable” to look after them by Volontariat’s social workers. As well as making sure that they attend school and providing them with shelter and a support network, the link with Volontariat gives the “Souriya Boys” access to extensive vocational training in areas such as mechanics, carpentry or tailoring; such training equips them with invaluable skills that will allow them to work not only at Volontariat, but elsewhere in the community.

I was in no doubt of the scheme’s enterprise, but I couldn’t help wondering what help was at hand for the boys’ female counterparts. What about “street girls”, I ask Alain: can Souriya Home provide shelter for them? He tells me that in the past, women stayed there with the boys, but it only ended in disaster. “In the morning we found them sleeping with the boys. They’d left their rooms in the night.”

However, Alain concedes that homeless girls are more prone than boys to grave dangers such as sex trafficking. When asked about the possibility of Volontariat providing a similar structure for girls, all he could say was, “il devrait.” It should.

Perhaps Alain is unaware of Kalki’s programme for adolescent girls. Some of the most vulnerable members of society, they are at risk of being forced into sex work; many are without parents to protect them from such a fate. Kalki organizes workshops and activities that enable girls from twelve years onwards to discuss the challenges that they face on a daily basis; the organisation claims that “through this programme, the girls gain in their self-belief and are given the strength to take control of their lives.”

Rajkala is most well-known as the director of Sharana, a social development organisation working with vulnerable women and children both in and around Pondicherry. However, she is also on the board for Kalki, where she counsels social workers. When I discuss with her the efficacy of their programme for adolescent girls, she is adamant that the project is “absolutely” successful. Case studies reveal that girls receiving Kalki’s support have managed to thrive in education and employment; furthermore, Rajkala stresses the less “official” benefits, those that cannot be reflected through statistics, such as personal development. She says that the more girls feel at ease with each other, the more workshops they ask for, the more they want to learn. “There is an energy that resonates when they are together in a group.”

Kalki has a strong emphasis on encouraging the girls to think for themselves, to make their own way; it could be said that this self-empowerment provides a contrast to the regime at Souriya Home, where the shelter perhaps serves as more of an emotional one. On my visits to Souriya Home, it was clear that Alain and Soumati act as surrogate parents and provide a coherent familial structure for the boys. The walls are decorated with what are almost family portraits of trips they have taken around Pondicherry – special treats if they have been well behaved.

Souriya Home does organize rare visits between the boys and their biological parents, but is this such a good idea? Alain tells me about a boy named Johnson, whose behaviour and attitude have changed dramatically after visiting his parents for the Christmas holidays and then, only two weeks later, for Tamil Nadu’s Pongal festival. Johnson, once easy-going and sociable, seems to have attempted rebellion. “He refuses to play volleyball with the others”, Alain says. “He refuses to take part in daily chores. It’s difficult to get him up in the morning.”

Could this be a sign that reminding young ones, once integrated within a surrogate family, of their blood relations is psychologically damaging? It’s an issue that social workers face here in the UK, and about which the public can never seem to make up its mind.

It seems that Kalki has managed to avoid this problem. They do not take children away from their families and force them to attend school; instead, through their approach of analysing the particular needs of each family, they appreciate what a struggle it is for parents to afford education for their children, to afford not to force them into work: “It is crucial to understand each child’s family background and situation in order to work with them effectively.” Once Outreach workers feel acquainted with a family, they are able to create tailored plans to meet the needs of each individual child. It may be that they provide them with resources from the Kalki Mobile Library; they may extend their support by encouraging families to make use of the drop-in centre.

Whilst Souriya Home and Touttipakam are remarkable programmes that reach out to the most vulnerable, the majority of Volontariat’s work is through the child sponsorship scheme. Volontariat provides sponsorship for 1,385 children within a 5km radius of Pondicherry; the sponsors are mainly French and Belgian and spend just seventeen euros per month to ensure their sponsored children can attend school. To complete their side of the agreement, children must attend evening school, which consists of extra-curricular activities such as dance or martial arts, extra English tuition, and a homework club. The teachers here will liaise with school teachers about the progress of each student, and report back to the relevant social worker.

Not only does this project allow local children to attend school, it employs several social workers who make regular visits to families’ homes and assess their situations. While I was working at Volontariat, I had several opportunities to speak with Murali, who has been a social worker there for many years.

“If the children weren’t sponsored, their parents would have to send them to work because they would need the money,” Murali said. “Thanks to our child sponsorship programme, they can afford uniform, books and any school fees they have to pay.”

But it’s not only a question of getting children into school. During the rainy season of 2008, the poorly-built huts where many sponsored families live were victim to leaks; Murali and other social workers assessed the damage caused and how they could help: “Volontariat provided tarpaulin for the homes of the sponsored families.”

Sharana provide a similar service for children in and around Pondicherry, but Rajkala, who worked at Volontariat for a number of years before setting up Sharana, is clear that they operate in an entirely different way from Volontariat. She insists that they reach out to different people: “Sharana pick children who have discontinued their studies. Over 96% of children sponsored here have at one point stopped studying, usually because of family pressure to work instead. We provide counselling support before sending them back into education.”

Within the ten years that Sharana has been operating, twelve children have already finished college. Several of them now have well-paid jobs and have donated their first month’s salary to Sharana; Rajkala speaks highly of a girl earning Rs.20,000 in Chennai who did just that. She says, “I would like them all to do this eventually, to realise how they have succeeded and to help children in similar situations. Otherwise there is the danger that they will take it for granted and not give something back.”

Sharana also sustains its help for children into the summer vacation. “It is all very well ensuring a child attends school, but what about the long holiday?” Rajkala asks. “It is dangerous if they get a job because they might find themselves staying there rather than returning to school.” To answer this problem Sharana, with the help of several Indian and French volunteers, offer a resource centre for four weeks during the summer holiday. Between 80 and 90 children take part in various trips around Tamil Nadu, ranging from educational excursions in Chennai’s museums, to Mammallapuram beach, to a breath of fresh air in the hill stations of the Nilgiris. Built around these trips are sporting and extra-curricular activities with volunteers and social workers. Rajkala maintains that it’s the best time of year, saying “even the social workers love it and there is a fun atmosphere in the office.”

The mainstream narrative of all three of Pondicherry’s major NGOs – Kalki, Volontariat, and Sharana – seems to be focused around education. However, whilst nobody can deny the importance of education in the development of children the world over, not everybody is naturally academic; furthermore, children with serious family difficulties may particularly struggle to concentrate in the classroom. I put this to Rajkala, who accepts that this is a problem, telling me about several sponsored children who have run away from school to do low-paid work because they don’t see themselves benefitting from long-term education: “Families don’t want kids to go to school so they take menial jobs in factories, as lorry cleaners, agricultural labourers. Boys as young as twelve and thirteen are lorry cleaners driving all over India, never seeing their families, getting paid as little as Rs.100 per month. I asked one boy what he ate, and he said that for breakfast and lunch he could afford only a cup of chai.”

I ask Rajkala if there are laws against such blatant exploitation of children. She laughs sardonically: “There are plenty of laws, but nothing is implemented – just like the “law” that education is compulsory until the age of fifteen.”

To counter this, Sharana are working on a vocational programme whereby sponsorship money will shift from covering children’s school fees and instead be pumped into vocational training: carpentry, plumbing, mechanics. Thanks to Rajkala’s friends who are experts in these fields, Sharana hopes to equip vulnerable children with skills they can use in both short- and long-term. Rajkala says, “Sometimes it’s better to send a fourteen-year-old to a carpentry workshop than to school.” It is brilliant that Sharana is looking to extend its services beyond mainstream education, to be realistic about the lives and needs of Pondicherry’s most vulnerable children. If this programme turns out to be a success, perhaps other NGOs will follow suit.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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