Due to their nomadic nature, the ragpickers of Rohtak were not able to send their kids to school. Children as young as three years old were engaged in the hazardous profession of rag picking. Since they could not go to school, a professor took the school to them.
Mamela, an eight-year-old-girl from Rohtak was three years old when she started rag picking with her father. Every morning the father-daughter duo would leave to scavenge and bring back the waste they could sell in exchange for money. Her mother would segregate the waste and make it ready to sell it to the scrap dealer.
Mamela and her family migrated from Assam several years ago in search of employment. Here, they manage to earn a rough Rs 2,000 per month, which is far less than what the family needs for their basic survival. In between the hustle to fulfill the basic necessity of food and shelter, education was a far-fetched dream for Mamela.
But things changed for Mamela when an encounter with Mr. Venkatesh Murthy, an IIM Rohtak professor, gave her an opportunity to pursue her dreams of education through a makeshift school called Purna Siksha. She does not go rag picking with her father anymore. Instead, she recites poetry and solves math problems.
Mamela is now the star of a classroom with students squatted on torn sacks in hot temperatures under the open sky. The humble school is located at Vishal Nagar colony in Rohtak, Haryana, and houses about 20 children of ragpickers.
But not many children from slums get the opportunity which Mamela got. The district administration has no official figures of the rag picking population either. According to Anar Hussain however, who manages local issues of rag pickers, 300 residents of Rohtak are engaged in this profession. Of them, around 40 are children who engage in rag picking with their parents – barring these 20 children who have now become sensitive towards education.
Apart from financial constraints, these families do not send their kids to school because of their profession. All the children’s parents are migrants from Assam and nomadic in lifestyle. They relocate to different locations after spending some time at one place. This constant relocation makes it difficult for these kids to attend a regular school.
These 20 kids would still be spending their lives in dumps had they not met Murthy. It all started when Murthy met a small child picking waste at the Kabir Colony. The kid was accompanied by a dozen such kids and Murthy realized that they are being deprived of education.
This is when he decided that if kids can’t go to a school then he will take the school to them. Purna Siksha was opened right next to the ragpickers’ slum in 2014. Seven like-minded people joined him and now support the initiative financially for a regular operation.
The hands that used to lift filth from garbage to support their rag picking fathers now wield books, pencils, and solve complex mathematical problems.
Rain or shine, the show goes on throughout the year for these 20 children, aged 5 to 14 years, from 10 am to 1 pm.
Soon after spotting this reporter intruding the classroom to break conversation, Mamela took lead and asked the other children to stop chattering. She then started reciting poems eloquently. When asked what she wanted to become, all the children shouted “Teacher!”.
“They have developed the ability to read and write which they completely lacked previously. They can understand, write and communicate in Hindi. Earlier they knew only Assamese. They can even do basic mathematics effortlessly now,” Murthy said.
Vedepal Kumar, an instructor at Purna Siksha, introduced other students including Sabikul Islam, Sahida, Kamsul, Ainul – all children of Assam migrants.
“Mamela was among the first students who had engaged in rag picking along with other children at Kabir Colony to join us. Today she can read and write Hindi, the English alphabet and solve basic math calculations,” revealed Vedpal.
Before Vedpal could say something else, Mamela, who was keenly listening to the conversation, jumped in between to show her notebook with maths sums and read out Hindi text written on the front wall.
Vedpal pointed out that Sabikul is shifting to Uttar Pradesh, but leaving with a promise that he would continue his studies there.
Sabikul, who was eagerly waiting for his turn to speak, said that he was a full-time rag picker but has now shunned it after joining this temporary school.
“Kuch bhi karunga par kuda nahi chugunga. Koi kaam sikhunga, apna ghar banunga, par pehlay padunga man laga kar.”
“I will do anything but would not pick up rags. I will learn some craft, build my own house, but before that, I would continue study with dedication,” Sabikul said.
Ekta Devi, another instructor, added that the idea of rag picking children being laggard in studies and not sincere about their life is baseless. With regular intervention, these kids have shown immense improvement. They are quick learners and their catching power is amazing.
“We will teach them English, Hindi, and Maths in two groups at the same place and whatever we teach them, they memorise it and are quick in their responses during the mock tests,” Ekta said who is also pursuing his graduation from a local college.
The beautiful bond between the teachers and the kids can be seen by in small gestures. The kids try to show appreciation for their teachers by bringing them useful items from their precious rag collection.
Getting busy in studies has also resulted in the children staying clear from the influence of drugs, unlike other kids in this field.
“I never see any one of them using drugs or being engaged in other harmful habits, as perceived by outsiders. In fact, they are honest and their parents are too simple to know about drugs or alcohol,” she said.
Nine-year-old Sahida’s father Shah Ali is also a rag picker and wants to see his daughter study and choose a better occupation for her other than rag picking.
“My daughter’s teachers are good people and she is impressed by them. She wants to be like them,” Shah Ali said.
“Earlier, I had to beg parents to make their child free in the evening for studies. Now, they voluntarily send them to this school. They do not force their children to help them in rag picking,” Murthy said.
It wasn’t easy to bring these kids to school, especially when these kids were providing two extra hands to earn a monthly income for their family. It took Murthy several months to convince the kids’ parents.
“Ideally, the parents should admit their wards into government school but ragpickers lack awareness. Due to their nomadic nature, they bring them along to work. Even minor children as young as two to three years get into this hazardous profession,” Murthy said.
In Kansul’s case, her father does not support her attending classes here, but her maternal uncle wants her to study and choose a better profession in future.
Murthy added that the ragpicking community often remains unconcerned about the importance of education.
Murthy tried to admit some of the students to local government schools but they dropped out in a few months.
“They complained that they do not like the idea of going to a school bounded by four walls and where they were treated differently for their identity,” he said.
Also, the children had little knowledge of Hindi at that time, and teachers and peers conversed in the local language only. “Probably, neither the school nor these children accepted each other and later dropped going to school after some time,”Murthy said.
Keeping the children’s future in mind, he said that they continued classes by forming an NGO named Purna Siksha.
Denying making efforts to reach out to local administration, Murthy said, “Children are a collective responsibility. They have no caste, colour, creed, religion, and state-hood. They are innocent flowers and need to be made to bloom with the help of education.”
On asking how his idea could be replicated at other places, he said that a person has to have passion and compassion to teach them not like teachers but like family members.
“Don’t try to teach the children using conventional school curriculum. Use pictures, poems, dance and visuals that engage them. Books bore them and they desert the classes if books are imposed on them,” he said.
Murthy also believes that forcing these kids to attend school won’t work. Only taking the school to their colony and engaging with them shows immense impact. “Making a difference is not about the resources. Passion and dedication for change is what work wonders here,” he concluded.
SOLUTION: Instead of forcing kids to come to school, take the school to them. Set up small learning labs, classrooms near their settlements and engage them.
Photos: Sat Singh