Slum Act for Plum CV

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Why do some rich kids help the poor? Social service is good for the resume, especially if you want to study abroad

Sherbanu Patel and Mumtaz Sheikh have an old enemy. The two teenagers know her only as Rajni didi. For a year, several times a week, their 19-year-old, college-going nemesis taught them a smattering of subjects at the Pavement School in South Mumbai, a Presbyterian church-run NGO that provides after-school care to street children.

As students, Sherbanu and Mumtaz are not difficult customers. The ambitious girls have attended Pavement School for years and, as pavement dwellers, they are happy for the stability and promise afforded by the organisation. But Rajni didi, the volunteer teacher, is a sour point. “She was not interested in teaching us,” says Mumtaz. “She would flirt with the boys and yell at us whenever we made a mistake and never pay attention to us girls. And at the end of it, she would get a signature from Lata didi in her book, and run off,” says Sherbanu.

Like most NGOs in the country—and there are about 2 million of them—Pavement School depends on volunteers to bridge the systemic gaps their low-paid employees cannot fill. It needs tutors to teach the children details that their municipal schools cannot afford to get into. But Lawrence Hardinge, the manager of Pavement School, doesn’t have to canvass for free labour. There are plenty who want in.

Most of these unpaid teachers are either students who, like Rajni didi, volunteer because of mandatory community service programmes in their colleges, or prospective post-graduation applicants on the lookout for that perfect essay topic. It turns out that young Indians, even those not involved in the social service sector, are discovering the uses of being good samaritans. But there’s a contemporary twist to social service in urban India: it’s often done with an ulterior motive. A mention of a helping hand to the underprivileged can plump up a bland CV, even round off the personality of a precocious schoolchild.

M Patel, 27, an employee in a mid-sized investment firm in Mumbai, plans to apply to a management school in France next year. The finance graduate is looking to add that all-important social leadership experience to his CV. “It’s padding. Schools are cognizant of the fact that if you’ve done some community work, then you’re better-rounded. Everyone does it, some even make it sound as though they’re Mother Teresa,” says Patel. “I’m sadly a part of the rat race.”

Till a few months ago, Patel was all set to simply lie, and even formed the words that would describe his ideal social service adventure: the tsunami. “It would have said something like, ‘Following the devastating tsunami in December 2004, I went to the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu to work with an NGO that helped fishing folk restore their homes. I found the experience challenging and it was an opportunity to see up close the lives of at least a few out of the 456 million Indians who live on less than $1.25 a day’.”

After unsuccessfully shopping for a make-believe recommendation letter, Patel decided to actually do some community service. He’s sounded out NGOs and been promised a call-to-arms soon. “Fact is, no one would know if I didn’t do it. I could say I’m the CEO of an NGO, and they wouldn’t be on to it,” he says. (Patel is a law-abiding individual otherwise, and in the days following the Mumbai terror attack, he donated 350 ml of blood.)

Bina Sheth Lashkari, director of Doorstep School, an NGO that educates marginalised children, entered the field because she was interested in social work as a profession and in helping people. She knows intentions are not always so deep these days. “You can’t depend on volunteers,” she says. “But something’s better than nothing.”

MB is that ‘something’. At 19, she has spent 40 of the 8,784 hours of 2008 trying to befriend street children in a South Mumbai NGO. An undergraduate student, she religiously tracks her hours, as she steadily gets closer to 60 hours. When the NGO goes on a picnic, it takes care of at least 10 hours, and she’s up from 30 hours to 40.

Well-endowed city schools and colleges believe their good-hearted social science projects bridge differences, but it also produces chain gangs of privileged social workers who speed-date their way through causes, going from street children to the visually-challenged, before landing in a Maharashtrian village building toilets. “Some of them can be more trouble than good,” says Hardinge. “They come for a bit, then go round the corner, talk on the phone or have a cigarette. Now I’m selective in accepting volunteers...”

MB’s college has a mandatory community service programme called the Social Involvement Programme (SIP), which requires students to serve 60 hours a year. This earns them 20 marks. In spirit, SIP is meant to ensure elite college students pay society back for their subsidised education. And as evidence of their good deeds, students have to keep a journal of their activities, observations and experiences during their service. But “when you have to record what happened each day, you don’t always have a lot to say so, sometimes we fudge it”, says MB.

In reality, it’s usually a numbers game and most kids resent the diktat. “If the college wants us to do social work then they should make it a part of college time, not have us give up our free time for it. After all, I have a life,” says MB, though she admits she plans to mention her community service experience in future admission applications.

For many schoolchildren, if they can’t go to the cause, the cause comes to them. Every month, the children who attend Doorstep School go to the tony South Mumbai school for peer-to-peer interaction. “Both groups of kids get to see another side of life,” says Lashkari. “It takes time for the ice to melt, and yes, it’s more useful for them than us.” However, well-intentioned educational institutions could bestow another, more beneficial gift to the underpriviledged: “We need real teachers,”she says. “Most of the municipal schools we work in have no teachers at all and volunteer students can only do so much.”

On an early Wednesday morning in November, two young girls, one playing teacher, the other her student, showed both the desperation of our education system and the earnestness of some volunteers. In an activity room inside the Jaganath Shanker Sheth Municipal School in South Mumbai, 18-year-old Foram Rach (a first year bachelor’s student of microbiology at KC College) was tutoring 17-year-old Fatima Mulla (11th grade science student at the city’s Wilson College) in educative physics. “Even if you don’t know the answer and just attempt it or even draw a diagram of the formula, you’ll get half a mark,” said Rach, giving her the practical wisdom of a tuition teacher. “Kuch bhi karo (Whatever you do) don’t leave it blank.”

Mulla lives in an NGO-run hostel and has spent the last several years in Mumbai without her parents. But she scored 81 per cent marks in her class 10 exams (Rach only got 65 per cent) and she’s serious about her education. “I studied in a Hindi-medium school, so in college I don’t always understand what the professors are saying and I’m scared to ask,” she says. Since she didn’t have Rs 8,000 for private classes, Doorstep put her in touch with the more-approachable Rach, a street-smart kid from a middle-class family. Rach is a member of her college’s National Service Scheme (students get marks for their work but participation is not compulsory), but there’s nothing perfunctory in her teaching process. “I’ll take the books from my college library and study them again before we meet,” she tells Mulla.

Despite her amateur role as a tutor explaining the formula to derive average speed, or the difference between scalar and vector quantities, Rach is also just a teenager who wants to become a dentist so she can wear the all-important ‘white coat’. About teaching, she says, “I’ve never done public speaking or anything on stage because my English is weak. But teaching makes me feel self-confident and happy.” As the two girls finish their morning session, Rach tasks Mulla with memorising the formulae and promises her, “There are lots of shortcuts I’ll teach you, so don’t worry.”

Sherbanu and Mumtaz’s Rajni didi now works with a bank and looks back at her year with the children quite satisfactorily; she considers herself a tough but fair teacher. In contrast with the way the two young girls saw her conduct, Rajni says she had to pay extra attention to the boys at Pavement School because, unlike the girls, they weren’t interested in studying. “I visit the school on my birthday,” she says. Her former students now have new young tutors, and are fully aware that they’re part-time projects. Asked if they feel bad about it, Mumtaz says, “Only when we like someone and we don’t see them again.”