“We Need to Look at Child Poverty as a Crisis”: Geeta Dharmarajan

As India's iconic publishing house Katha turns 30 years old, its founder Geeta Dharmarajan shares notes from its legacy.

By Neha Kirpal

Award-winning writer, social entrepreneur and educationist, Geeta Dharmarajan wears many hats. Executive director of Katha, a nonprofit organisation that she founded in 1988, her work over the years has focused primarily on education, especially of children from poor families.

She speaks to us about Katha’s three-decade old long journey, how children can be encouraged to read more in the age of the internet, and her personal solution for urban poverty.

As Katha completes its 30-year long journey, what have been its main highs and lows?

One of the huge highs have been every time we have had a book of translations for adults published, from the first Katha Prize stories that went out.

Tamasha! has given me a huge high every time—the kind of responses we got from villages, and children from different Hindi-speaking parts of our country. I liked the way in which the Katha Lab School has grown from one slum cluster to others as well.

The lows have mainly come from the lack of money. As a nonprofit, we have always been very ethical and frugal. I have sometimes felt that since we work so much with children in areas of poverty, we ourselves should not be extravagant in our expenditures, nor do we ask for more. So, not having enough money for growth has been one of the major lows.

Tell us how you manage to juggle the roles of a writer, editor, educator and social entrepreneur so seamlessly?

I just love doing everything. I move from one thing to another when I’m tired. Editing is something that I dread the most. So, when I get tired of that, I do finance or HR or admin or anything else.

wizard of khizir eng front.jpgTell us about some of Katha’s recent books for children.

The global climate change series has been extremely interesting to do. It really allowed me to learn what will plague our children in the years to come and how we need to prepare them for it. Another nice book that’s coming up is called The Wizard of Khizr, illustrated by an Iranian, which is bound to be fabulous.

Do you feel children today are reading more than before? If not, why, and how can we encourage them to do so?

Children have always been reading and children always have not been reading. I think they are reading in their own ways. The reason why children are not reading is, of course, due to the usual culprits—television, Whatsapp, apps and mobile phones—for those who can afford it. For children who can’t afford it, it’s still the lack of libraries, still the fact that the only book they would see is a textbook—these come in the way of reading.

The solution is more libraries for children, more books that are relevant for children. We don’t treat children as if they can speak, which is a major problem. We just give children books that will stop them from thinking for themselves, asking questions, debating ideas and moving from that to action. Children are capable of doing all these things. So, we should make more books that are relevant to children and provide book-rich environments.

Earthsong coverIn this day and age of YouTube and social media, what kind of literary heroes / role models do children look up to?

I don’t think they have any Indian role models. Role models have the black and white as well as the grey areas. The fact that today’s role models are fun doesn’t mean that we forget the black or grey areas they have. I’m talking about an ethical lifestyle that we all need to have. Hindi film stars do advertisements about eating more, drinking more and everything more. Our role models are coming up for more rather than sustainable.

As someone who has been in the field for so many decades, do you feel there is enough public and corporate interest in funding/sponsoring children’s books? If not, how can we make this happen?

Books have never been seen in our culture as very important—maybe because we were just moving from an oral to a written tradition when the tech revolution took over. The tech that has taken over is not available for most people in our country. Further, there is a disregard for the value of the book, specifically storybooks, in learning. The government puts a lot of money into textbooks. Children may learn for a test from a textbook, but they don’t learn lifelong values, skills or ethics from a textbook.

Does Katha make a conscious effort to encourage women writers from various backgrounds from time to time?

Katha started off with a big gender bias. We are very sexist in our own way, because we only look at women! The pendulum has been swinging so long in this direction. With such comfort, we use “she” for a person when the gender is unknown.

In Katha, we believe that girls and women hold up 50 per cent of the sky, so we need to have strong women protagonists, strong stories that portray girls as breaking stereotypes. So, we do have a lot of women illustrators, writers, poets. We don’t always look at who is writing so much as the value of the story itself. Many times, men are very feminist or humanist in the way they look at stories.

I-love-earth-eng_gd-1024x1024 (1) (1).jpgWhat, according to you, is the solution for urban poverty that will help underprivileged children lead better lives?

I think the answer lies in upward mobility, opportunity, choices, reading skills—the ability to not wake up at 2 am to fetch water for the family, to be able to get through eight hours of sleep so that one can go fresh to school in the morning, to have enough food in one’s belly so that one doesn’t have to keep thinking about their hunger.

As individuals living in urban India, it is incumbent on each one of us to say that we are going to do something about child poverty and equal quality for all children—a street child and one from a rich family should both get quality learning tools, stories, schools and teachers. Much of the early learning that has to happen can happen when each child teaches a child.

Since our country has 50 per cent of the 300 million in schools today not able to read at grade level, the other 50 per cent can help in the way of sharing, caring, learning and laughing together. If that can happen, we can be the first country to have equitable learning opportunities. ECTC (Each Child Teach a Child) is a very simple tool for getting over poverty.

DSC_0313What’s next in store for Katha? Your vision for the next three decades?

Unless there is a political will and we, as citizens of this country, care, I don’t see any major, sustainable changes. That can only happen if we come together, which would be the next step Katha needs to take. We need to look at child poverty as a crisis. I’m sure people will come out in the millions and say that they will not tolerate child poverty. Katha should be in that advocacy, partnership area to leverage people’s interest and bring them together. If we continue living in the periphery, I don’t think change can happen.

Now that you recently completed the age of 70, what are some of your personal goals?

I feel happy. I always feel like I’m 17 going on 71. I just love looking at an ant, at a leaf falling, the breeze in my hair. I’m loving spending time with my parents, who are both in their nineties and still treat me like a little baby.

Syndicated to CNBCTV18

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