I wasn’t looking forward to it. Having to pick 50 young children for a scholarship was not the problem. Having to leave out 100 young boys and girls definitely was.
But there it was. We, at Hindustan Times, had decided to give Rs 50,000 each to 50 schoolchildren in Mumbai, 10 each from classes 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9.
A professional agency had shortlisted 150 children from among more than 27,000 applicants after a rigorous screening process in which the principals of the various schools participating were closely involved.
HT Mumbai’s editor, Soumya Bhattacharya, and I had to pick 10 students from each of these five classes for the scholarships. Well before the final interviews, we were handed the short essays the contestants had written about Mumbai. After poring over them, we found we couldn’t make a judgement based on them alone. Was this what the children really thought or wanted to say? A guiding hand was evident in many of the pieces, some more than others.
We decided we would try to draw the children out to find out what they really thought about the world around them, or if they even thought about it at all. The interviews were engrossing. Once they realised that this wasn’t one of those formal interviews but just a chat, admittedly with grown-ups, about the books they read or the sport they played or watched or the movies and movie stars they liked, most of the children opened up.
Some even asked us why we weren’t asking them the regulation general knowledge questions such as who is the mayor of Mumbai. But we weren't looking for coached responses. We wanted original, honest responses. So we didn't ask the obvious questions. Our aim was to reward excellence that went beyond success in examinations.
I think that by the end of the process, we were confident that we were making fair choices. Of course the choices were subjective, as they will be in any interview. At the same time, we had objective, quantifiable parameters. We believe we managed to zero in on children who thought about what they saw or were told, instead of blindly accepting or doing what they were told.
So we decided that as we begin the process of choosing another 50 children for this year’s scholarships, we would bring you short pieces by last year’s winners. Today, eight children of class 5 who won the scholarships last year write about life without TV and video games.