In a desolate part of Delhi, a group of volunteer teachers is doing its bit to address the appalling quality of education in government schools.
New Delhi: For five-year-old Hifza, ‘school’ means a concrete wall for her writing board, an uneven floor for her bench and a metro overbridge as the only roof to protect her from the scorching sun, bitter cold or heavy rain. This is true not just for Hifza, but for the more than 60 students from the slums near the Yamuna Bank metro station in New Delhi. Despite the bleak setting, these children gather here to let their imaginations take over reality.
Helping them is Rajesh Kumar Sharma from Shakarpur, a shopkeeper by profession. He spends a couple of hours every morning, teaching these children for free, without any government or private support.
Sharma, a 43-year-old father of three from Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, dropped out of college in his final year because of financial constraints. “I wanted to study further, but unfortunately could not, therefore I try helping these children in initiating their education, so that they don’t face the same difficulties I had to face,” he said.
It all started with a morning walk along the Yamuna river a few years ago, when Sharma was disturbed by the sight of children playing and working instead of attending school. He asked their parents, who were working at the nearby metro construction site, whether they could afford to send their children to school.
“It was not easy convincing the parents. They were a little dubious about whether to trust me and my idea of setting up a school, but after days of discussions, I managed to convince them,” he added.
Subsequently, his classroom was born between pillars, beneath the metro overbridge.
Every morning, 50 to 70 students aged between three and 14 fill the space with chants of the English alphabet and numerical tables, sometimes overpowering the rumble of the metro trains passing overhead. Sharma hopes this two-hour class will equip the children with the tools necessary to overcome poverty.
Since 2007, Sharma has been offering free education to the local children of farmers, construction workers, rickshaw pullers and rag pickers. He believes that education is not only about making the children read and write, but also about inculcating good habits and manners in them.
He has been able to attract the attention of others to his noble cause. K.K. Gupta, a home appliance businessman and resident of west Delhi, decided to volunteer to teach after coming to know about the school.
“Taking out time is the most difficult job but to start the day trying to make these kids more knowledgeable makes me proud to be a part-time teacher,” he says. The children are taught alphabets, mathematical skills, the names of fruits and vegetables and the names of the months in both Hindi and English.
Sharma has now managed to find a few more teachers, who are voluntarily devoting their time to the cause.
Several volunteers have contributed to the school by donating stationery, school bags and other items. One such volunteer sends a bag full of biscuits and juice for the children every day.
A step in the right direction
Sharma started the school to provide basic education to these children. However, with the introduction of the Right to Education Act in 2009, which made schooling for children between the ages of six and 14 free, Sharma decided to prepare those children not yet in school for entrance exams so that they can enrol, while helping those already enrolled with their ongoing studies.
“I get a lot of help in my homework and get to learn from the teachers when I come here,” said Monu Kumar, a standard five student of Nagar Nigam Bal Vidyalaya Secondary School, a school run by the government.
From his experience, these children have the desire to study if encouraged. They need support from society. “No money can buy the respect that I get from these children and their parents. That’s all I want,” he said.
A local NGO once approached Sharma but he refused to take its help. “Their terms were just unacceptable, they wanted to use this school for their own promotion.” He fears that any intervention may not be philanthropic. Instead, the children might be exploited.
According to the 2011 census, there has been an increase of around 25% in the population over the last 10 years, whereas the literacy rate grew marginally by about 8% from 2001 to 2011.
The Annual Status of Education report for 2012 suggests the quality of education and government schools in India is in a crisis. The report says that unless the infrastructure and quality of government schools improves substantially, the gap between the children who attend schools and those who do not will widen.
When asked whether metro officials have asked him to vacate the premises, Sharma played down the question. “They haven’t said anything to me in the last two years, I am doing a good work, why would they stop me.”
In a desolate corner of Delhi, Sharma and his co-volunteers are nurturing the spirit of these children, making them confident and knowledgeable, capable of facing the world and hopeful of a good future.
Armaan Ali, 13, could not go to a good school because of the high fees charged. He now dreams of becoming a doctor and giving his parents a better life.
Uzair Rizvi is an independent multimedia journalist based in Lucknow. He tweets @rizviuzair.