Friday, 30 August 2013

Meet the parents

Working through our analysis and starting to create the final report we felt we needed to meet some of the parents to get a better perspective of the environment in which the children are brought up.

According to our clients, the best place for this would be the local medical centre and when we arrived there we got a little tour around the facility.
For 6 years, Essar has been running this centre in Jakhar, one of the villages in the vicinity of the refinery, and provides free medical services to anyone who needs it. There is no registration fee, consultation with one of the 3 doctors as well as any medication handed out is free of charge. The centre also runs a lab to conduct blood tests (e.g. for malaria or dengue) and operates two ambulances which can be called – again, free of charge – 24/7. Basic medical services are provided at the centre (and Gica tried it and had the bandaging on his poor toe changed and was very pleased with the service he received); only the more serious cases are referred to one of the two local hospitals.

It’s really impressive and encouraging to see places like this in what is a very poor part of the country. Since opening in 2007, the centre has been able to serve more than 250,000 people and it was clear how much the local communities value the facility and the difference it makes -> since the centre opened, the death rate for malaria in the area is zero!


We were able to talk to 3 sets of parents during our visit to the centre and got a much better view of their priorities.

We asked why the children dropped out of the education system after 8th standard (none of the parents we spoke to send their children to school after 8th standard, i.e. when the children are 13 or 14 years). The main reasons cited for this were that the children were unable to travel to the nearest 9th-12th standard school (too far away, no means of transportation,…), the parents required their children to support the family; particularly girls were expected to help with child care and/or got married at an early age (and the daughters of the families we spoke to, had left school in 6th standard already), but boys also drop out frequently after 8th standard in order to get a job. Parents also confirmed that they would prefer the public education over government schools, but that they simply could not afford to send their children to these schools. All the parents we spoke to would first and foremost stress the fact that they had no money to keep their children in education, pay for their food or clothes (officially, school uniforms should be provided for free to all children, but this does not seem to be the case for all the schools around the Vadinar refinery). Midday meals are given out in all the schools we visited and we were told that in some cases, this is the only meal a child would get each day.

Despite all of this, the parents we spoke to said that they felt is was important for their children to have a good education and said they were not satisfied with the education provided at the public schools and the skill levels attained by their children. Some parents send their children to some sort of tuition (in the case of the parents we met today, this was an after-school club run by the local Muslim community) and we will try to find out more about these additional opportunities for education and learning.

In addition to talking to the parents, we were also able to meet with the district representative responsible for the 1,371 (!) primary schools in the Jamnagar district. From this meeting, it is clear though that the ability (or willingness) to improve the situation through the district is limited. Most of the education is apparently regulated by the state government and can not be influenced by the district. Also, the district official rarely engages directly with any of the schools (given the number of schools in his remit this is understandable) and only gets involved in payroll and any serious issues (such as sexual harassment). But even then, his room for manoeuvre was limited, as according to him he can not fire but only transfer teachers to other schools. There are currently ca. 2,000 teacher posts vacant in the Jamnagar district (which does not seem to be an attractive place for teachers, so they prefer postings in other areas) and there was no initiative/plan to address this and/or use positive recognition to reward outstanding teachers.

While this may sound depressing it really helps us to understand the environment in which the schools operate much better and will enable us to develop recommendations that are likely to work in the setting here in Vadinar.

When we are not working, we try to get together as a team and yesterday had the brilliant excuse to do so in order to celebrate Anton’s birthday
In India, birthdays are apparently not a big deal, so the hotel was surprised when we mentioned that we wanted to organise a little party. They then fully embraced the idea though and went out of their way to organise a delicious birthday cake (chocolate!) and decorated the room beautifully! They also found a place were we could order “non-veg” take-away (i.e. chicken) and Elyse and Gica ventured to the “alcohol place” during lunch break to ensure our supplies were stocked up, so we indulged in a really nice meal yesterday evening!

This weekend we are invited to Essar’s 1-year of volunteering celebration and will also take part in a mural-painting volunteering activity at one of the local schools. Hopefully you also have great plans for the weekend and a nice time!

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Did you know - Safety comes in cans!

While we are working away on our project (thanks to you all for the terrific suggestions on improving English at the local schools – very useful and greatly appreciated; keep them coming!), I thought I’d share some insight into the Health & Safety culture here.

Being a large oil company, Health & Safety is taken very seriously at Essar and the methods implemented are comparable to what I’ve seen in the UK; on our first day we attended a mandatory health & safety training, followed a strict health & safety procedure during our refinery visit (didn't we all look very cool in our hard hats and safety shoes..?!  :-)

and know the health and safety slogans by heart:

  • Safety rules are your best tools.
  • Safety is not a job. It's a way of life.
  • Normal speed meets every need.
  • Safety first. Avoid the worst.
  • Safety is a full time job. Don't make it a part time habit.
  • Don't be hasty when it comes to safety.
  • And my favourite: "Safety comes in cans. I can. You can. We can."

Essar has a great health & safety track record and received many awards for this, so you would be forgiven to think that this is something deeply embedded in the Indian culture.

Let me put that into context with some pictures of day-to-day life outside the office though…

Clearly, safety helmets, ropes and safety nets are for beginners…

…electricity is not dangerous and access to it should be provided freely…

…and gas canisters should always be carried in as large numbers as possible:

As for travelling, we found that while most Indians prefer to drive on the left side of the road, this seems to be rather more of a guideline than a rule. So if you don’t feel that driving on the left is good for your karma, no one will force their opinion on you and you may happily chose to drive against the general direction of traffic and you will find that the other (oncoming) drivers will acknowledge your drive for personal fulfilment with happy honking and waving… (both of the pictures below were taken on what would be considered a 2 lane one-way highway in most countries… - see if you can spot the problem…):

Also, who needs seat belts – being able to decide where and how you sit/stand/lie on a vehicle is probably one of the basic human rights in India and forcing people via seat belts to only sit in one exact space would clearly violate this fundamental right…

And finally – isn’t it nice that the railway people put these lovely steel bars across the country to provide orientation for the lost traveller on how to get from A to B?

Despite these rather unusual experiences I have to say that I have rarely felt as safe anywhere as in India. Everyone is extremely helpful and friendly and with us being foreigners (and a rather unusual sight) they look out for us and make sure we are alright all the time. 

We hope to make good progress on our project over the coming days and I hope you all also have a great and exciting week!

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Dwarka and some “insider tips” on shopping in Jamnagar

This weekend, some of us headed to the seaside-ressort at Diu while others (including myself) opted for a temple-sightseeing trip to Dwarka.

Dwarka is one of the four holy sites for Hindus and the Dwarakadheesh temple was - in an earlier form - build some 5,000 years ago in honor of Lord Krishna.

When we arrived in Dwarka, we were met by our guide who gave us an excellent overview of the temple and Hindu religion. Lord Krishna is the seventh incarnation of Lord Vishnu (I’ve since learned on the internet, that there may be more incarnations – Avatars – but 7th is what our guide told us) and the temple not only had a dedicated shrine for him, but also for a number of his wives, teachers and other people important in his life. Coming from a Christian background it is quite interesting how the gods are portrayed and seen as actual people (small puppets in the case of the Dwarka temple) and how they seem to follow a daily routine. For example when we arrived we were told that the main temple was closed as Lord Krishna was having his breakfast and in another room we saw a bed made up for him in case he wanted to rest. Also, the clothes on the gods are changed daily and there is always some food around in case they get hungry.

Unfortunately it is not allowed to take pictures inside the temple, so you have to come and see it for yourself.

An interesting ritual is that 5 times per day the flag flying over the temple is changed and a person or family (who had a wish granted by Lord Krishna) will sponsor each flag. In case anyone wants to become a sponsor we were told that the next available slots are free in 2016…. Quite amazing! We actually got to see the flag changing ceremony and it was really impressive how this is done by one man, standing on a tiny platform in 150 feet height.

As there is - apart from the temple - not a lot else to see in Dwarka, we decided to head to Nageshwar Temple (dedicated to Shiva) where a huge statue greets visitors long before you reach the actual temple (which features a lovely Ganesh statue over the entrance porch).


After a quick stop for lunch at a TATA chemicals canteen, we headed for Bet Dwarka which is famous for its temples dedicated to Lord Krishna. When we got there we realised that Bet Dwarka could only be reached by boat, which was a fun experience.

Apparently the boat is build for 60 people but the captain clearly has different views (and was probably a risksha driver before taking on this role)…. The picture below only shows the people on the front third of the boat and I think here alone you can easily count a good 60+ people…

But the water was calm(ish) and didn’t look too deep, so we decided to take a chance and went onboard.

The boatride was actually be best part of the journey, as the temple in Bet Dwarka was closed and there is not a lot else to see on the island. But the trip was great fun and we certainly enjoyed it.

On our way back we also passed a herd of camels and although I have seen a lot of wild camels by now, I still don’t cease to be amazed by these majestic animals!

I had promised you in a previous blog some insight into (alcohol) shopping in Gujarat, which is quite different to anything I’d experienced before.

As Gujarat is a “dry” state, locals can’t (officially...) buy or consume alcohol but there are exceptions for foreigners (and apparently for Indians from other states). When we arrived in Jamnagar we were asked by the hotel if we wanted to get a liquor license (which is free), so we all (surprise, surprise :-) signed up. In order to get the license we had to go to the “Hotel Vishna International” (just in case you are wondering – it's not a hotel I’d recommend on Tripadvisor, partrly because they seem to have forgotten to build anything above the 1st floor apart from concrete walls…)

and were let through a very smelly, dark, long corridor in the basement to some kind of store room.

Some government officials asked us to hand over our passports (!)  and some other documents and we were told to come back when they were ready… After ca. 20mins waiting in the hotel “lobby”, we were asked to go back to the dodgy room and received our passports (which had been stamped with a liquor permit, now making it clearly visible to everyone that we are probably alcoholics...) and the official liquor permit tracking sheet (where every purchase is recorded).

We could then select which kind of drinks we wanted (there was very limited choice – two types of beer, some spirits and wine, which we later discovered had no resemblance whatsoever to any kind of wine any of us had ever tasted…) and once paid for, we could leave.

It all felt really surreal and the rules are still not yet quite clear to us. Some of us were “made” to buy a certain amount of drinks (e.g. you have to buy exactly 3 bottles of wine), others could chose the amount up to a certain limit (e.g. 2 bottles of gin) and for others a time limit until they could come back (no sooner than 10 days) was imposed…. Very strange and it felt almost as if we were committing some kind of crime. So if you ever get to Gujarat, don’t worry – this is how alcohol purchases are supposed to work :-)
Shopping for other goods is more fun yet equally surreal. When going to a clothes shop

you will be inundated with choice and it seems the shop owner wants to make sure you see every last piece of clothing they have, so they will pile it all up in front of you (not really listening to anything you may have said about what you actually want to buy or which colours you (do not) like and refusing to give you a price until you have made it very clear that you are actually interested in a purchase). Haggling doesn't seem to be the way to go (maybe that's different in the street markets, but in the shops the price is pretty much what you are told in the beginning).

Most clothes are also not ready to wear but need to be tailored, so you either go to some back-room or across the road to a tailor (who only takes some rough measures and does not speak any English but has some books where you can point on the kind of design you like) and then pick up your purchases a couple days later. I’ve bought a Kurta and hope to wear it next weekend for an event, so watch this space for some interesting pictures :-)

Enjoy your bank holiday weekend in England and hope you all have a great start to the new week!

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Back to School

This blog is dedicated to Andreas, a friend from school, who sadly died on Sunday in a gliding plane accident. You are missed!

Andreas’ motto was “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift - that's why it's called present”, so in this spirit, I’ll today tell you some more about our experiences visiting the local schools as part of our CSC project.

Working with the Essar foundation, our project objective is to improve English capability at government schools in local villages around the Jamnagar refinery. The foundation engages in a number of activities to improve the standard and quality of living in these villages but so far had not had the opportunity to concentrate on education. With our help they hope to change this and – given that English is more and more important in order to find employment – had asked us to assess the current level of English and develop recommendations on how to improve this.

Throughout the last week we have been visiting as many local schools as possible and were able to talk to teachers, headmasters and students.

While the schools may look very similar from the outside (see picture below),

no one school is the same and there is a great variety in the children’s education, e.g

  • Some schools have to run “shifts”, as there are not enough classrooms (and/or teachers) available which means that the teachers have to give lessons from 7.30 in the morning to 5.30 in the evening;
  • Sometimes, 70 children are taught by one teacher while in other schools one teacher looks after 25 children;
  •  We were also surprised to see that some schools have really well equipped IT labs with internet access and videoconferencing facilities

while in others there is one (broken) PC available for the head teacher (and almost all schools lack the skills to maintain the IT infrastructure).

What was similar in almost every school we visited so far is the energy and enthusiasm of the teachers and students. The students seemed like sponges soaking up any new learning and piece of information. Although the learning conditions are more than basic (with most classrooms lacking chairs & desks), the students were very engaged and sooooooooo eager to learn, it was unbelievable.

With regards to English, the situation seems dire. We often learned that there either was no English teacher (so the other teachers try their best to teach English based on the books provided, without actually having an understanding of the language) or were introduced to English teachers who hardly spoke or understood the language. English also seems to be – besides maths – the subject the children struggle with most, part of the reason being that it’s only introduced in 5th grade and with it, the Latin alphabet (until then, the children read and write in Hindi/Gujarati).

We also looked at the local communities surrounding the schools and almost everywhere the support and value for education seems to be an issue. In many cases, parents are illiterate or have only attended 4 or 5 years of school and therefore can’t support their children with their studies (let alone English). In addition, many parents rely on their eldest children to take care of the younger ones, so daughters frequently drop out of school (and in some Muslim communities, women are not allowed to continue to study beyond the age of 12).

On the good news front though, we heard that most village elders are very supportive of the schools and stress the value of education within the community. So in some – typically comparatively affluent – villages, the drop out rates have decreased in recent years and a high percentage of students (both boys and girls) are able to continue their education beyond 8th grade (which is when the mandatory education at government schools ends and students typically need to go to a school outside their home village to continue their studies). There are also government programmes which provide children with bikes, where the nearest 9/10th grade school is not in walking distance and a number of organisations (such as the foundation), are providing additional support and scholoarships for students.

Also, we were encouraged to find a number of “beacons” where an individual teacher or school had done some amazing work, completely self-motivated, to improve learning and education (e.g. by running after-school clubs, using games and songs to teach English or experimenting with other fun activities to make learning a better experience).

This afternoon we were invited to visit the local public school and thought we’d arrived at another planet. Education there is amazing – every subject is taught in English from pre-school using latest methodology and techniques, the students have a 50% say in their education (the other 50% is decided by the school board) and the whole atmosphere was full of energy and passion for education & learning.

Wow – we are still completely amazed by the experience and now even more keen to make a difference to the government schools, seeing what can be achieved by the right setting!

Based on the school visits and talking to our colleagues from the foundation, we’ve already come up with some initial ideas on what could be done to address the issues we saw and will add to this over the coming weeks. If you have any ideas and suggestions, please send these across as well (maybe some of you have worked as English teachers abroad or know of projects that help deprived schools etc.?).

We’ll continue with more visits this week (as the schools will be closed next week due to a national holiday on the 28th) and I’ll keep you posted on our progress.

We are also starting to plan what we’ll do over the weekend and it looks as if we’ll do some “temple-spotting”; so watch this space for some updates on this (as well as some insight into the Indian way to do shopping – quite different from what I’ve ever experienced).

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Holy Cow!

Like probably most people, I knew that cows are sacred animals in India and that they can pretty much do as they please without getting into trouble. However, seeing this in reality is quite a thing – there are cows EVERYWHERE here and even our hosts from other regions of India say that Jamnagar seems to be somewhat of a cow-heaven and that the selfish behaviour of Jamnagar Cows would not be acceptable in other cities ;-)

Take a look at some cow snapshots…



As we’re on the subject, I thought to dedicate today’s blog to the various animals we have so far encountered during our trip to India as I’ve found this to be very exciting and I hope you also enjoy it.

Here are some interesting critters we spotted today (both were about the size of half a hand!)

We went to the Khijadiya bird sanctuary today and saw some lovely wildlife:

Sadly though, I didn’t manage to take a picture of the ca. 4 foot (!) long snake crossing our path. Some people maintain it was a python but I’m not convinced as our guide tried to run after it to catch it as he found it soooo exciting; he said all he’d ever see was birds… (I am wondering if he understands that that’s supposed to happen when you work in a bird sanctuary…?)

And here’s a picture of a little squirrel (?) which is regularly running around the hotel garden (luckily its not as big as the one I was warned about before going to India which apparently had the size of a small dog… :-)

Even more fun though are the camels! Here in Jamnagar they are used to carry all sorts of loads and we’ve so far seen at least 6 different camels (one regularly comes past our hotel in the morning!), some domesticated and others seem to be “wild camels”.

My favourite picture is this of the two “kissing camels” – aren’t they cute?!

Besides “animal spotting”, we spend yesterday exploring the local market (fun!) and were treated by our clients to a lovely dinner at the “Oil club” where the resident chef did wonders to our spice-infected bodies and created a very delicious meal without ANY chillies!!! Needless to say that we thought this was the best meal we’ve had so far!

After our trip to the bird sanctuary we also went to the local (very, very, very dirty) beach (although that didn't deter the locals to go for a "swim") and some of us were brave enough to go for a little boat ride.

 I stayed on shore though (true to our clients’ motto “Safety first, avoid the worst”).

To end the weekend on another “first” experience, we headed to the movies to see the latest Bollywood Blockbuster “Chennai Express” tonight which was great fun (it was in Hindhi and there were no subtitles but as the plot was not exactly rocket science we managed to figure out who the good and bad guys were and even understood that there was a happy end :-)

Hope you all also had a great weekend and tomorrow a good start to the new week!