NGO-In-Focus : Karm Marg, A home for the homeless

The little girl is all smiles and happy sitting in the courtyard of her beautiful new home. It wasn’t the same for her a few months ago when her family abandoned her. She was lost, dejected and afraid. Then by her good fortune, she was rescued and brought to Karm Marg. (photo of the little girl)

Edward Breathitt finds out how abandoned children have found a home and life at KarmGaon, as he interviews Ms. VeenaLal, Founder & President of KarmMarg, which literally meaning the Path of Work & Action. True to its name, the driving force behind KarmMarg’s functioning has been the desire to be self-sustaining

KarmMarg is an Indian Non-Governmental Organization started by Ms. VeenaLal. It supports disadvantaged children and young adults. Set in the outskirts of New Delhi, KarmMarg runs a home, KarmGaon, which provides a loving space for such children to live, study, work and play together, leading a life of empowerment and preparation for a hopeful future.


NGO Express: What is the success rate as individuals, once they leave KarmMarg?

VeenaLal: Around 70-80% go on to become successful living a life on their own independently. By success VeenaLal means both successful in leading a family life (knowing their displaced background) and successful in getting jobs and taking care of themselves outside of Karma Marg.


NGO Express: What happens if a child wants to return home, go back to his/her family (incase of runaway children)?

VeenaLal: We have rehabilitation programme. If a child wants to meet the family, we help them reunite and settle down.


NGO Express: What is your volunteer programme like?

VeenaLal: We always welcome volunteers, however we appreciate if they are here for longer period of time. As it takes time to understand the how the system works here. For local volunteers, we prefer a weekly commitment, of specific time and days, so that the routine of children is not disturbed. For volunteers form out of the city or abroad, we prefer 3 to 6 months commitment. We have had good volunteers now, who stayed with us and imparted computer education, taught English language, arts etc. Most volunteers find us through word of mouth and some find us through our website.


NGO Express: What are the sources of your funds for KarmMarg?

VeenaLal: We generate funds from income generating projects. Also we get funds from friends and family who collect donations. The donors often come and stay with us, they meet and talk to the children and see what we are doing. It is very transparent. We have never applied to big funding agencies nor taken any government assistance. Even the children know the source of our funds. For example they know who is funding the education programme so that when the donor visits the children have a direct interaction with them.


NGO Express: So rather than having an authoritarian structure of adults telling them what to do, you let them resolve it?

VeenaLal: Yes, but if there is a bigger problem they can ask the adults. Even if they have problem with some staff, they can ask that staff member to sit in the meeting and discuss the issue with them. The children buy their vegetables; soaps and such daily need articles. Its very empowering model, it gives them tools that they can use in every aspect of their life.


NGO Express: Tell us more about children’s participation indeciding for themselves?

VeenaLal: Children have a weekly meeting in which adults are not allowed. They talk about each and every issue. All the older children take care of managing activities. They divide themselves into 5 groups. 1 group takes care of washing utensils, cleaning the space, gardening, how to dispose of garbage. Apart from that they also take care of each other, say if two children had a disagreement amongst themselves, the others will mediate and resolve. Now we can see there is no physical violence in Karm Marg.


NGO Express: What about visual arts? Do you teach them painting, crafts etc.?

VeenaLal: VeenaLal: Yes of course. Lots of volunteers come from various creative background and they spend time with the children. We always take long-term volunteers, who can commit 3 to 6 months. So they spend lots of time with the children and can really teach them. They have learnt about jewelry making, film-making, paintings etc.


NGO Express: Most of these children, I believe have come from harsh backgrounds, for them to develop their creative skills and be appreciated, must be quiet a transformational process.

VeenaLal: At KarmMarg, we really focus on the creative part of the children. We give them opportunity to not have fixated ideas, like “you have to study and get a job”. Even if you are not good at studies, there are still lots of opportunities you can grab and go for.


NGO Express: Do you have any programme for creative training and development for the children?

VeenaLal: Yes we do lots of theater, but mostly street theater. Now we are also doing the stage performance. Theater is used as an educational tool. Most of the scripts are written by children themselves, which are issue based, like environmental issues etc. It gives them confidence. Through the theater they also get to meet many people, therefore, personality development is strong. (The children have also performed in the amphitheater at India Habitat Center and at Dastkaar Nature’s Bazaar at DilliHaat).


NGO Express: So there’s not much gender separation, there’s respect?

VeenaLal: Yes there is respect. Children don’t see each other as sexual object; they see each other more as human beings. Also the girls are not dependent on boys all the time. They do the harder chores like maintenance that traditionally boys do, as a social condition and boys also do the work that is typically associated to girls like cooking, washing utensils, cleaning etc. Gender equality is very high here. It helps children become independent.


NGO Express: Please tell us more about the benefits of children living together?

VeenaLal: We keep boys and girls together; society doesn’t understand this model. Its different from the social norm. it is often noticed when boys grow into teenagers, they tease girls and have a different behavior or attitude towards girls. However here at Karmgaon, there’s no such behavioural pattern. The boys here don’t even use offensive language.


NGO Express: Earlier in the initial days, you used to make paper bags out of old newspapers and also export them. Are you still doing similar activities?

VeenaLal: Yes, we are. Also most of our products are made out of waste and recycled material. We are conscious about the environment. We still make lots of paper bags. So when people ask us what to give to our organization or how to help us? We just tell them to give us their old newspaper and old clothes. So, the newspaper goes into making paper bags, while old clothes and fabrics are used for manufacturing bags. Also we have recycled, bottles, CDs and tyres for furniture. So the majority of the material, almost 80% is waste material being recycled. Some things we also source from “kabadiwala” while certain things like newspapers and bottles we collect from different corporate groups.


NGO Express: Tell us more about the vocational training?

VeenaLal: Our vocational training is an “income-generating programme”. We make paper bags, cloth bags, teach embroidery and other vocational courses. It is the backbone of the “Karm” here we train the youth. Few of the “alumni” are then taken as trainers at Karm Marg. In addition to the children of KarmGaon, the local women and youth from neighboring villages come to learn here. We impart the training to them. Those who come here to learn the skills, learn to make the product while simultaneously they also get to keep part of the money from the sale of that product and the rest goes to running the organization. So rather than paying to learn, they earn while they learn. We not only train them we also help them in product design and marketing. The aim is to teach them not only how to produce but also how to sell the product. All our training programs focus at financial independence for the trainee from the point of learning itself.


NGO Express: What kind of Vocational Training is provided by KarmMarg?

VeenaLal: All the children have to do compulsory vocational training after 16 years of age. Even the children with special needs are eventually introduced to work that they can learn and do to make them financially independent. Once a child becomes adult at the age of 18, they have to start moving out and become independent. We help them find jobs, and to start their own small business etc. we assist them to settle outside and offer continuous vocational training help with their career.


NGO Express: How does KarmMarg help in the schooling of children?

VeenaLal: When we started it was difficult to send them to school. So we gave them informal education and they went for open-school examination. Now, almost 98% go to school and only 2% who don’t have much interest in education (after the age of 16), they go for open-schooling (distance learning). Along with that they work for KarmMarg and also do vocational training. So, they get the flexibility to study and simultaneously learn more.


NGO Express: How do the children come to you?

VeenaLal: Initially, we did our own field visits, like rescuing kids from railway stations etc. Now, children come to us through child helpline, police, other NGOs and through people who know us. These are children who are abandoned, runaways, rescued or orphaned.


NGO Express: When did you start KarmMarg?

VeenaLal: We started KarmMarg in 1997 with around 25 children living at the back courtyard of a house in challenging conditions. Eventually we found this place in Faridabad. Currently we have 60 children, which is our maximum capacity. Though, in 15 years KarmMarg has had over 500 children.


NGO Express: Do the children who are going for distance learning, get any academic help at KarmMarg?

VeenaLal: Yes. Infact all the children receive extra tuitions in evening, whether they attend regular day-schools or are doing open-learning.