Magic Bus – Lifting Children Out of Extreme Poverty

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The Magic Bus programme is one of the largest poverty alleviation programmes in India working with nearly 400,000 children and 9000 trained volunteer mentors in 22 States of the country. Magic Bus works with some of the world’s poorest children and young people, taking them from a childhood full of challenges to a life with meaningful livelihoods. Founded 20 years ago, Magic Bus works in the poorest communities to help children and young people transform their lives by working on shaping them today. In the last two decades, Magic Bus has seen outstanding results through the programmes by using sports and activity-based curriculum to break the cycle of poverty. Magic Bus is currently impacting 3.75 lakh children and 10,000 young people in 22 States across 77 districts with 7000 Community Youth Leaders and 42 Livelihood Centres. In 2019, Magic Bus celebrated 20 years of making a difference. The effort is an ongoing one. Dhanashri Brahme – Chief of Programmes, Magic Bus, talks to CSR Mandate, about their journey of pulling young people out of poverty through nourishment, education, hygiene and health care and bringing them close to the realisation of their dreams through completing education, gaining skills and knowledge they need to increase employability and engaging into sustainable livelihoods.

What’s the history behind the name ‘Magic Bus’?

The story of Matthew Spacie started with sports! Matthew is a British entrepreneur, humanitarian, and a former international rugby player, who is based in India. While playing rugby at the Bombay Gymkhana way back in 1999, he noticed a group of boys hanging around its premises, watching the game with interest. Unable to resist, knowing more about their keen interest from afar, he called them over, to hop over the fence and play some rugby. Soon, this became a routine, and over the next few months, Matthew began coaching them as a team. And, Magic Bus was born.

Magic Bus equips children and young people in the age group of 12 to 18, with the skills and knowledge they need, and thus, takes them from a childhood full of challenges to a life with meaningful livelihoods. Magic Bus has transformed the lives of more than one million children and young people, so far. 

How did your journey begin in Magic Bus and what are its current activities?

After having worked in the social sector for 25 years, there has been an opportunity to work on diverse issues; on integrating rural development at the grassroots to women’s empowerment and micro-finance with the government, health, gender and rights concerns with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). This experience has enriched me with a journey from implementation to policy advocacy. It seemed like the right time to shift gears to organisation building and driving attention to on-ground challenges as we hope to achieve the SDGs (Self Development Goals) by 2030. Magic Bus provides space to do that meaningfully in benefitting the adolescents and young people; roughly a third of India’s population today.

The Foundation with its long-standing commitment to enabling children to complete secondary education, and skilling young people to be in jobs, acts as a bridge between their dreams and achievement of life goals. In moving a generation out of poverty, Magic Bus equips children and young people in the age group of 12 to 18, with the skills and knowledge they need, and thus, takes them from a childhood full of challenges to a life with meaningful livelihoods. Magic Bus has transformed the lives of more than one million children and young people, so far.

Since many communities have to start from scratch by satiating immediate needs for shelter and food to generate income through livelihood programmes, how are you planning to support those communities?

We have been working with children and youth from marginalised communities for over two decades now. We equip them with life skills that they use to fend off the various destabilisers in their life. Through continuous engagement in our sessions, they now understand the importance of education and are very eager to complete school. The discussions with parents are not easy at first, as in some cases, children help the family with household chores or work to augment the family income, but eventually, they begin to understand their children’s aspirations. We have had instances where a Panchayat has been able to consider a resolution where families were asked not to involve children in agricultural work in the fields, during school times. Informing families of health and other facilities provided by the government also helps them fulfil some of their basic needs. Recently, the COVID-19-induced lockdown has further compromised people’s livelihoods. During this time, Magic Bus field teams have enabled some families to get access to ration cards.

There is greater faith and support on the ground for Magic Bus’ efforts when parents see their children progress. They begin to understand how to focus on life skills, information on career pathways and skilling opportunities enable a school to work transition. Several adolescents have even earned government scholarships for higher education and are now well on their way to become first-generation learners and earners in the organised sector, contributing to their family income.

Magic Bus is currently working in 81 districts and 22 States of India where several of the districts are in rural locations. The communities we work within these districts are remote and tribal, with adverse education and health indicators. In 2019-20, we reached out to more than 3,15,000 adolescents and more than 12,000 young people through the 53 livelihood centres across the country.

How do you take up each community development programme and children’s education and employability from start to finish? What are the areas being covered in rural India?

Magic Bus is currently working in 81 districts and 22 States of India where several of the districts are in rural locations. The communities we work within these districts are remote and tribal, with adverse education and health indicators. In 2019-20, we reached out to more than 3,15,000 adolescents and more than 12,000 young people through the 53 livelihood centres across the country. The goal of the Magic Bus Childhood to Livelihood programme is to enable the first generation, adolescent learners, from marginalised households to complete their formal education with a high level of life skills like problem-solving, communication, managing self and emotions, critical thinking and decision-making, among several others. This increases the probability of these young people completing their education or vocational skilling, and thereon, moving into sustainable employment, thus taking themselves and their family out of poverty.

As a part of this journey, we equally work with the adolescent’s family to enable them to see the value of education, the pathway to gainful employment and encourage them to invest in the well-being of their daughters and sons alike. We engage in sessions with parents and community members, including the Panchayat, to build a supportive ecosystem for girls and boys to be able to fulfil their aspirations and reach their full potential. We build employability skills and map job potential based on individual strengths and mobility. The Magic Bus Livelihood programme meets the youth’s diverse leadership, employment, and training needs and fills critical gaps in the current value chain. We attempt to ensure young people from marginalised communities have the employability skills and knowledge that prepares them for the world of work.

Please share a few data points and figures to define the COVID-19 impact on education, employability and livelihood all over India?

The pandemic has been particularly harsh on marginalised people in India and this has led to a cascading effect across all aspects of life, starting with the loss of livelihoods to affecting children’s education, and a whole lot of issues in between. To build a post-COVID-19 plan, we wanted to understand the ripple effects on school education and livelihood among the marginalised families who are a part of our programme. To develop response strategies that can be implemented in the post-lockdown recovery period, we conducted a telephonic survey in April 2020 with adolescents and their parents, spread across 39 districts and 21 States in India, representing the four regions of East, West, North and South where Magic Bus is present. The representative sample was determined via the Probability Proportional to Size (PPS) method.

After interviewing the 3700 families, we can now address a critical question: How might the parents/adult income-earners in the household continue to provide for their families, thereby ensuring the well-being of children and the continuity of learning.

Here are the key findings from the survey, on the impact on livelihood and education:

  • According to the survey, households reported a 73 per cent decrease in monthly income. More than half of the parents interviewed (55 per cent) reported having no income during the lockdown – highest in the East (63 per cent) and lowest in the West (40 per cent).
  • 92 per cent of parents want to send their children to school or college after the lockdown ends. However, 41 per cent of parents admitted to not being in a position to afford education, which clearly shows the intent versus their ability.
  • The survey also shows that women are more vulnerable with higher unemployment (18 per cent as compared to 10 per cent in men) and higher illiteracy (27 per cent when compared to 14 per cent in men).
  • The loss of livelihoods, coupled with the increase in unpaid, domestic caregiving work, may put women at a distinct disadvantage in the ongoing pandemic and beyond. A large proportion of parents interviewed reported wage loss (63 per cent) as a major effect of the lockdown.

How is Magic Bus helping these children close the gaps that have emerged due to closure of schools to ensure that the children’s interest in education is kept alive?  

The communities we work with are facing uncertain times. Their struggles are exacerbated with the loss of wages, food shortage and the lack of information and awareness regarding infection prevention practices. We are using every possible method to keep children engaged while maintaining a connection with their parents.

In some instances, online learning is not possible due to the lack of electricity in some areas or limited access to computers or television to access government-run educational channels. In these scenarios, we have been exploring storytelling via mobile phones as a means to teach them in novel ways during this time. We have also created WhatsApp groups to conduct sessions with the children. In some locations, we have started adding teachers into the groups, those who have been trained by us and follow our adapted curriculum, in line with the post-pandemic situation.

We also aim to create 1000 micro-entrepreneurs in the next three years. This includes identification of aspiring entrepreneurs from the marginalised sections of peri-urban and rural areas, running ideation boot camps, training them on necessary life skills as well as technical entrepreneurship training, business plan creation, seed money support, business set-up support. Further, support is also provided to access capital and market linkages with ongoing mentoring and handholding. 

The curriculum focuses on addressing the emerging needs highlighted by the survey we conducted. Children have shared fears and anxieties of not returning to school or playing with friends, the economic distress at home and also the fear of infection. The sessions cover COVID-19 prevention practices, mental health, gender issues (discrimination that girls might face as our survey also found the increased burden of household chores), as well as a continued focus on building resilience to address emerging concerns and the crisis itself.

Through our nearly 70 community learning centres, which in some cases are operating virtually, we have ensured that connect with learning in a fun and joyful ways, is not lost and children do return to schools when they re-open. We have tried to pair children who do not have access to phones, with children who do. We have also begun some face-to-face, on-field sessions wherever there are no restrictions on mobility. Our efforts have been appreciated by teachers and schools alike and they remain hopeful that children will not drop out of school owing to the learning lag they have suffered during the closure. We are using our reach and strength to help all those most in need across communities and trying our best to ensure uninterrupted education for the children on our programme.

A Priceless Gift

Sulekha studies in the eighth standard of a school in her village. Maulana Buddhu Chak where she lives with her three siblings – one elder sister and two brothers – and her parents, is a village two hours away from the capital city of Patna in Bihar. Pooja Verma, Magic Bus Youth Mentor who has been working in this community, says that most families in the village survive on a meagre income. Some work as agricultural labourers while others are into rag-picking and selling of scraps. Maulana Buddhu Chak is home to the marginalised and landless Musahar community of Bihar, a Scheduled Caste group characterised by extreme poverty and social stigma.

Despite poverty, Pooja who works with 170 children in this village found them to be ‘eager to learn but without a suitable platform that could help them do so.’ She refers to the lack of quality schools in the area that seems to be the one of the major reasons for low learning outcomes among children.

Sulekha’s father does odd jobs while her mother works in the field. After schools closed, while Sulekha and her elder sister stayed at home, managing the household chores and taking care of the younger brother, their parents went out to work and took their brother along. “On a month where both her parents had work, their income would be around Rs 7000. During the lockdown, it was reduced to a bare minimum,” says Pooja.

COVID-19 pandemic has been the hardest for families like Sulekha’s. It has also been a difficult time for children. With schools closed, they have been confined within homes in inadequate spaces. Since Sulekha is a part of the Magic Bus programme, Pooja ensured she is included in the telephonic interactions she would have with all the children on the programme. “Our sessions were between 12 and 1 in the afternoon. I used call on Sulekha’s father’s phone. He would be at work and would have to immediately rush home to give Sulekha the phone so that she could be a part of the session,” explains Pooja. A Magic Bus Impact Survey on COVID-19 found that only 33 per cent of children in our communities had access to online learning. Sulekha is clearly among the majority of children who don’t.

Explaining why Magic Bus planned for daily calls with children, Pooja says, “The lockdown brought lives to a standstill. None of us had seen something like this. Our children were full of questions: How will we keep safe? When will schools re-open? When can we start going out to play? When can we meet our friends? The calls helped us listen to our children and address their fears. We talked about COVID-19 and the different prevention measures. We talked about life skills that would help us overcome our fears. We also informed children about nutritious food and hygienic practices.”

Sulekha’s father had asked Pooja about Magic Bus and what his daughter would gain from these regular telephonic sessions. Pooja’s explanations had convinced him that his daughter could learn from these sessions. Sulekha referred to Pooja as ‘phone-wali didi’ (a phone friend) and her excitement at being able to speak to Pooja would be evident to her parents. So, he spent a part of his hard-earned money on getting Sulekha a phone! Sulekha was overjoyed. She rang Pooja up the moment her father surprised her with this gift. “She was so excited and relieved,” says Pooja. 

Sulekha is determined to make the most of her gift. While her parents do longer hours of work to keep the family well-fed, Sulekha dreams of a better future for all of them.

Now that the unlocking process has begun and the Prime Minister’s Atmanirbhar Bharat is the new mantra for restoring India’s economy and self-dependence, how do you propose to link it up with the young people to address poverty and malnutrition, education and health? 

During the most dreaded times of the pandemic, Magic Bus adapted its programme and introduced innovative solutions to engage with youth to ensure life and employability skilling continues. As lockdowns were imposed and our livelihood centres closed, the only way to engage was through virtual mode. An interim curriculum was developed and caters to the training needs of both – students with smartphones and those without. The training content was customised to include assignments, learning confirmations, case stories, scenarios and video links to be able to suit the needs of the online content delivery.

Since April 2020, the Magic Bus Livelihood programme has placed 2510 youth in jobs during the lockdown. 1442 youth got offer letters and will join work after lockdown. This was facilitated with nearly 7000 online interviews between employers and the youth. The programme continues with 16,790 youth in virtual training on employability skills, making them work-ready.

We also aim to create 1000 micro-entrepreneurs in the next three years. This includes identification of aspiring entrepreneurs from the marginalised sections of peri-urban and rural areas, running ideation boot camps, training them on necessary life skills as well as technical entrepreneurship training, business plan creation, seed money support, business set-up support. Further, support is also provided to access capital and market linkages with ongoing mentoring and handholding.

Through its digitally-run employment exchange programme, Magic Bus connects thousands of job seekers (both fresh job seekers as well as those who lost jobs during the pandemic) with confirmed job opportunities available locally within the organised sector including the MSMEs. Special focus will be given to supporting MSMEs, as a lot of them have been impacted due to the reverse migration of workers, but are now looking to re-hire a skilled workforce.

By ensuring young people find gainful employment, we can restore family incomes. The idea is to enable households to make choices they made – before the COVID-19-induced distress – choices pertaining to food, health and education. Once livelihoods are stabilised and children are supported to continue education, there will be some dent in addressing the distress families face today, in both rural and urban areas.

Our COVID-19 Crisis Recovery programme is a ‘Secure Livelihood – Save Childhood’ programme that aims to secure livelihoods of 2,00,000 families in rural and urban areas through access to entitlements and government schemes, programmes and placement in jobs in the organised sector in urban areas. This in turn will ensure 3,00,000 children from these families facing economic distress, who are at risk of dropping out, are back in school; regular and intent on completing formal education. 

We recently celebrated the graduation of 60 aspiring entrepreneurs who were a part of the Magic Bus Entrepreneurship Development Programme. The first cohort received seed money to start their businesses. The programme has been conceptualised to support aspiring entrepreneurs and help to struggle/stagnant micro-businesses to survive/grow and become job creators shortly.

I would like to share the example of a 22-year-old boy named Rakesh Naresh Chauhan, a resident of Laxminagar, a small town which is 2 km away from Kudus in Maharashtra. His family business of garland making and selling, of more than 15 years, combined with his brother’s income as an electrician, earns them an income of merely Rs. 12,000. With this, they have to manage the expenses of a family of seven. A very hard-working and passionate Rakesh enrolled in the Magic Bus Entrepreneurship Development Programme and completed all the training stages. The training helped him in conceiving the idea of being self-reliant. That was when he came up with the Soda Shop business idea. He studied profitability and sustainability of his business idea and after completing his studies and research, reached a stage to start his pilot project. After overcoming various problems initially, Rakesh finally started his first shop at Kudus on January 17, 2020.

In the first month of his business, he paid off all his debts. He earned well from the second month onwards. The global pandemic in March this year halted his progress. Now, as India continues to enter different Unlock phases, Rakesh’s business is picking up as well. His perseverance and hard work earned him an income to contribute to his family at such a trying time.

Please elaborate on your Crisis Recovery Programme. 

If we are to ensure the families we work with can cope with the crisis, we need to secure their livelihood, as findings from our survey highlighted. Thus, our COVID-19 Crisis Recovery programme is a ‘Secure Livelihood – Save Childhood’ programme that aims to secure livelihoods of 2,00,000 families in rural and urban areas through access to entitlements and government schemes, programmes and placement in jobs in the organised sector in urban areas. This in turn will ensure 3,00,000 children from these families facing economic distress, who are at risk of dropping out, are back in school; regular and intent on completing formal education.