LUCKNOW – The land of Elephants

I was recently in Lucknow – Lucknow is the State Capital of one of India’s backward States Uttar Pradesh. I was visiting the Drop in Centers supported by ADM Capital Foundation which cater to the child labourers living in the most vulnerable communities in Lucknow city. The visit started early morning of the 7th of November: Obama had just won the elections in the United States of America. It was a beginning of a great day for USA and for US. People were exhilarated because USA had a President who was pro people and their development. Indians were excited because long ago Obama mentioned that he admires Gandhi and our admiration towards him grew after that comment.

One of the communities where our center was located lives literally on a dumping ground, it is surrounded by flies and dirt all over. There were a few commonalities across these communities: Lack of water, electricity, toilets, a clean and safe environment. People did not have the most important and the most basic things needed to survive.

Another commonality across these communities was the smiles and enthusiasm of children who came to the center. I love working with children for this reason. No matter how they live and where they live, they DREAM BIG. The pride in the eyes of the teachers proved that there are still very many young Indians who want to strive hard to work with children in these difficult circumstances.  It was educational and insightful.

Having worked across marginalized communities in India, I was aware of the challenges faced by the teams on the ground. What was interesting to note was that the teams came up with a few creative solutions during our discussions. The teachers in the center were not Oxford graduates – they also belong to the nearby communities, some of them get paid less than 100US Dollars in a month. However the spirit and enthusiasm among them and the fire inside them to bring about a change in that community was inspirational. There was no proper space in the community to run the centers. Children needed better seating arrangements, better rooms, toilets, warm clothes in winter.

I was thinking about the children and their DREAMS on my way back to lunch. Suddenly my mind reflected on another DREAM that made headlines in India a few months ago. The dream project of the Ex Chief Minister Mayawati who built a park and Dalit memorial to immortalize the sacrifices made by National leaders for uplifting the Dalit community. There are too many angles to this story  and a lot has been said about the parks. Close to Rs.7,000 crores (1.43 Billion US Dollars) of public money have been spent to make marble statues of elephants, national leaders and Mayawati herself. 4 parks have been built in the heart of Lucknow city.

That evening we decided to visit the park – just to witness the extent of this huge project. I was gutted when I entered the park. A HUGE gate with guards (to protect the Elephant statues) all we could see was ELEPHANTS, ELEPHANTS and more ELEPHANTS. There were no trees inside the park – very few saplings and some grass in some parts of the park. I can’t even describe how big the park is – all I remember was walking endlessly to reach one corner of the park.

We laughed when we saw two BIG statues of Mayawati (with her purse in her hand) and her mentor Kashiram (with a branded watch) with folded hands welcoming the visitors. These statues were  tallest among all the other statues in the park – taller than the statue of doctor B.R. Ambedkar who wrote the constitution of India. Mayawati’s name was written in a bigger font size than anyone else in that park.

I had witnessed two sides of India in less than 10 hours.

On one hand we saw the Dalit community and children struggling for space, on the other hand we witnessed a Dalit leader’s megalomania which led to wastage of acres of land in the heart of Lucknow city.

There is no electricity in the communities – the park is illuminated with thousands of lights. Every elephant has a special light exclusively for himself or herself.

The communities have no protection from the mafia and goons. Individual guards protect the lifeless statues at the parks. Sometimes they hold an umbrella to ensure the statues don’t feel hot or don’t get wet during rains.

There are not enough public schools in Lucknow – I bet the number of elephants are more than the number of schools. The cost of an elephant is 10 times compared to the running costs of a public school.

I am not sure how to end this post. I don’t know what to say because I wonder if anyone is bothered about the dreams of those children at our centers. They are invisible but there are huge numbers of these invisible Indians who have been denied their basic human rights.

Mayawati came to power because she played her DALIT & WOMAN card. However what she did after she became the chief minister is perhaps worst than the atrocities that the Dalits have faced in India. She missed out on a big opportunity to change lives of the millions of Dalits in UP. She misused public money to ensure SHE is immortalized in those lifeless statues. People died of hunger and malnutrition in the State, but thousands were spent on her party celebrations.

This is the reality of Lucknow and of India – it is indeed a place where Elephant statues have more respect than human beings.

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