As the Delhi Metro Rail pierces through the banks of the river Yamuna to connect the far corners of Delhi city, underneath it’s elevated tracks and in between two unmarked pillars is a “school” for the less privileged. For those not moving along with the 80 kilo meter per hour speed of the Metro rail or the 8.0 percent growth of the India economy, the makeshift three sided enclosure is perhaps their only chance at some form of primary education.
The school was founded in 2011 by Rajesh Kumar, a middle aged shopkeeper residing in west Delhi. “One day, I had come to this area for some work. While walking back towards the train station, I saw a group of kids. It was the middle of the day, and I wondered what they were really upto as it was during school hours” he says. “On talking to them I found out that they are children of labourers or (urban) farmers who live near by and have no place to go to study” he goes on further.
“ A simple thing like that deeply impacted me. Since that day I decided to come and teach them everyday. “
It started off with him making the hour long journey across town daily to teach the kids for a couple of hours. “My brother would initially take care of my shop while I was away, now its fulltime. Now I am here daily as these kids need me.”
Since he started the school over four years ago he has been able to convince the families of most of the kids to free them from working daily to earn money and to attend the school regularly. “The number of kids has been steadily growing, especially girls. Initially they would come in regularly but tend to disappear for a few days, then I would have to go and fight with the families to send them regularly. The problem is the families think working daily is much better than studying” Kumar tells me. ” With the grace of God, we now have 50-60 kids coming in daily” he continues.
” We come here because we like it here. We like to study. All other places where we can study are very far, atleast 1 hour walking distance away. This is right next to our home ” says Raju, a 11 year old boy who has been coming here for about 3 years.
India implemented the Right to Education Act (RTE) in 2009 in a landmark step that mandated free and compulsory education to every child. However a report for the year 2011-12 (Link) , incidentally the same year in which Kumar started his school, highlighted a key statistic- while enrolments had gone up (as high as 98 percent) attendance figures of students was only around 57 percent.
By 2012-13 the Net Enrollment Ratio (NER) at the Primary Level in government schools in India was only 58.3 percent (Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation – MoSPI, 2013) at the same time the RTE had set a deadline of March 2013 for every child in India to be in school. Reasons for low attendance are many and range from corruption and inefficiency in educational administration to poor sanitation and lack of enough quality teachers in schools.
A major reason however is simply geography, i.e. places with sizeable populations that do not technically exist on government maps, as in this case with Kumar’s school. It is situated in the middle of urban farm land inhabited by farmers and day labourers on one side and an important highway linking east and central Delhi on the other side.
Kumar himself is a victim of this reality of India’s education system that is increasingly tilted towards those with better financial means. Kumar was a regular college student but had to drop out midway due to financial constraints. He accepts that his efforts are grounded in his own disappointments. “This school is free, it’s near to where they live, now they have no excuse not to study. I only do this so that they are not disappointed later in life.” Kumar remarks.
“My child would roam around all day, sometimes I would tell him to go and help his father at his shop, but he did not like that. We could not afford to send him to school as it is far away and he cannot walk all the way. We cant afford a daily rickshaw ride to and fro and neither I nor my husband can leave our work to go and drop him or or go and pick him later.” says Rukmani Devi, Raju’s mother. ” I am very happy for him as he is now exposed to all the good things in life that we were not exposed to and were not able to give him before.” she goes on further.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Kumar’s school is that he runs it simply as a school and not as a benefit organization or a not for profit. He does not accept any donations in cash. He is very stern in putting forward the fact that he and his assistant Laxmi Chander do it only for the sole benefit of the kids. Any donations that do come ( in the form of clothes or supplies) are directly passed on to the students.
Kumar’s school was first highlighted in 2012 by Indian Photojournalist Altaf Qadri in a feature that was commissioned by the Associated Press (AP) (link) The feature went on to become one of the honourable mentions at World Photo Press and brought in a considerable donations at that time in the form of educational materials, stationary and clothing for the school. International donations came in with books and mats for the kids to sit on.
Since then regular small donations do come in, in various ways. A few people have been volunteering with teaching the kids. Kumar however accepts that running the school throughout the year is not easy “In summers and winters the kids have to bear the heat and the cold. However the monsoon is the toughest as the metro rail bridge only gives us limited protection from the rain and the bare muddy ground becomes impossible to sit on.”
Kumar teaches children in an age group ranging from 6- 15 years in age with classes for all age groups running simultaneously. The school has three blackboards made by simply painting black paint over the walled surface. The school follows a system of passing on belongings from one batch to another. As children move up a class, the pass on text books to the incoming kids.
Children who are a bit senior and have been studying for a while play a special role in the working. They give Kumar and Laxmi Chander a hand with the younger kids during class and also conduct classes and teach once in a while.
On asking Kumar on what his ultimate goal is, his answer is simple, ” I just want a good life for as many kids as possible.”
Images and text © Kshitij Nagar 2015