I FIRST JOINED the Action Aid sponsorship scheme in 1976 paying $9 a month and started corresponding with Pushpa, a little Indian girl. Gradually I built up a picture of her family. Mostly she wrote about their health, their animals, and described Bihar to me in words and drawings. I read other reports and had pictures of lively, healthy children. But I knew from discussions with Indian friends that Bihar was one of the poorer states, so I also imagined very small, poor houses, and ragged-clothed people.
Then in 1980 I had the opportunity to make two visits to see Pushpa She lives in the southern part of Bihar, in the hilly Chota Nagpur Plateau, inland from Calcutta, and south of the Ganges plain. It is an area of severe poverty. Land-holdings are small, and rented out among several tenants.
When I got there, however, I realised that poverty was even more severe than I had imagined. People were thinner and weaker, and the land was drier and housing poorer, than I had seen before. The child lives in a small hamlet next to a market town and goes to a Convent School. There are now 1,600 girls at the school; of whom 349 are sponsored. The sisters have a compound of 15 acres, including a day nursery, school, orphanage, dispensary, a small farm with crops, pigs, cattle and hens, wash-house and the convent itself. The girls receive an academic education with some training in crafts, agriculture and health.
On each school day, which in India includes Saturday morning, the girls had breakfast of milk and cereals, lunch of rice, beans or dahl (lentil stew) and vegetables, and were given bread and fruit to take home in the evening. The sponsorship money was also used to buy clothes, books, blankets for the cold season and umbrellas for the rainy season. A little of the money is saved up to help each girl when she leaves school — to finance a marriage or to enable her to set up a small business. One of the nuns works full-time organising the sponsorship scheme — buying provisions, checking on the children’s progress and translating their letters.
I stayed at the Convent and saw the child at school every day. She was quite shy at first, but we managed to communicate by a mixture of my broken Hindi and her broken English, miming and drawing, and soon became friends. I went several times to visit her home, taking one of the nuns as interpreter. She, her parents and seven brothers and sisters, lived in a two-roomed mud hut, with no water or electricity. They had a few small calves and goats and rented five acres of land.
Despite the shortage of food, the family treated me with all the traditional Indian hospitality. On my arrival at the convent, Pushpa and her sister brought me milk and eggs. And when I went to the house they prepared a ‘baira khana’ (big meal), killing one of their few chickens and sending the children out to buy Indian sweets. I felt as though I were robbing the family; I had always managed to have sufficient food, whereas they often went short, and they were giving me the things the children most needed and the luxuries they probably very rarely tasted.
The father greeted me by ‘taking the dust off my feet’, bending down to touch my feet, a ceremonial greeting usually reserved for very respected old people and gurus. I was embarrassed by this, because I wanted the family to realise that I respected them as equals and did not expect any deference either as a foreigner or as a sponsor.
The mother of the family seemed very thin and exhausted, two of the children were sick and all were wearing ragged and dirty clothes. I bought some rice, beans and cotton, but it would only help them for a few weeks.
I wondered how far sponsoring the child was helping to solve the local problems. My little girl seemed to have three or four new dresses as well as her school uniform. They all had a far better chance than at the state school, where half the time apparently the teachers did not turn up. The nurse at the neat, well-run dispensary kept a regular check-up on their health.
However, I discovered that the underlying problems of the area limited the effectiveness of the scheme. My sponsored child was healthy, and seemed fairly intelligent, but she was not making as much progress as she might. This was because often she had to stay away from school to mind the neighbours’ cattle and earn some money for the rest of the family. She would come to school for food, but not to study.
I doubt if she will be very successful academically. She will probably not get a lucrative government post or go on to further study as a nurse or teacher. But the sisters are laying by some money for her, to arrange a marriage.
I questioned how fair it was to sponsor only one child in the family. Why should she benefit while nine others went hungry? The sisters told me that the scheme only allowed sponsorship for one child in each family, so that the benefits were spread around more people.
In time the scheme may bring better health, hygiene and child care in the area. But I thought the education at school was too much geared towards the Secondary School Certificate, a rather academic qualification. The children all learned English, for example, although very few would use it. They spent only a small proportion of their time on agriculture, in contrast to some Gandhian schools I visited later, where each child spent one hour each morning and late afternoon in the fields.
I could see that, for each child strong and healthy at the Convent School, there were still innumerable hungry and ill. Money was needed for several projects besides education, one of the most urgent being a better water supply — because farming here depends on the capricious monsoon.
Action Aid also runs schemes to sponsor villages. This I think would be better because it is possible to take a more comprehensive approach to the problems of the village and achieve more in the long-term than the rather piecemeal child sponsorship.