Wednesday, February 12, 2014

How Delhi shopkeeper aims to put an end to poverty with his makeshift school under metro bridge

Delhi shopkeeper uses metro bridge to teach kids from poor backgrounds for a few hours every day
  • By Karuna Madan, Correspondent
  • Published: 21:02 February 10, 2014

  • Image Credit: Karuna Madan/Gulf News
  • Rajesh Kumar and the school
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New Delhi: Under the roof of a rumbling metro bridge, in the open heat and dust, with only a torn rug to sit on, one man is changing this little corner of the world with his missionary zeal to empower poor migrant children.
Undoubtedly, of all the gifts that can be given, education is one that cannot be taken away.
In the heart of Delhi, 43-year-old Rajesh Kumar Sharma runs a makeshift school, bringing hope of a better life for disadvantaged children with few options.
The cost of what he puts in can easily be measured — a temporary shelter and the daily two-hour labour of the teacher. But the output is simply incalculable. Who knows, one of the students may become a Prime Minister, another a bureaucrat and others scientists or renowned doctors?
Class routine
The children turn up early every morning to sweep the floor clean and spread their rugs. School founder Sharma, the owner of a nearby general store, arrives at 9am, leaving his brother behind to tend to his business for the next couple of hours.
The routine, which involves teaching elementary reading, writing, arithmetic and some geometry, sometimes extends to weekends.
Starting with two children five years ago, Sharma has come a long way. His school under the bridge in Shakarpur now has over 150 children between the ages of 3 and 16.
Initially, Sharma had a tough time convincing local labourers to send their children to study. They refused as the children’s labour added to the meagre incomes of their families. But he managed to light the fire of knowledge in the children who now come to school willingly. Most children at his school are later admitted to various government schools.
“Every time I meet the poor families living in the slums, I tell them that only education can make a difference in their lives. If they want their children to do better in life than they did, they must change their mindset and welcome education.
“After a lot of persuasion, I have managed to get local labourers, rickshaw pullers and farmers to allow their children to attend my school. They now very well understand that only education can fight poverty,” Sharma tells Gulf News.
Sharma sees the drastic shift in the attitude of the parents, who now encourage their children to study at his makeshift school, as a big achievement. Most of his students only have notebooks that are sourced from social workers. The notebooks are often later passed on to juniors. Delhi-based social activist Sapna Bhat praised Sharma’s efforts.
“Forget blackboards, Internet, email — it comes down to what happens between a teacher and students. What an amazing duo! People who have little themselves are so often the most generous. This is the new breed of people going out of their way to empower the underprivileged with education. Humanity at its best,” Bhat told Gulf News.
How the idea came
The idea to open a school came to Sharma one morning during a walk along the Yamuna riverbed, when he saw some children whiling away their time for lack of better things to do. Assisted by Laxmi Chandra, a post graduate science teacher, Sharma has now decided to teach needy children in other parts of Delhi too. Since the labourers moved from one location to another in search of work, he decided to set up more such makeshift schools.
“This is heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time. What an inspiration and a lucky community to have these dedicated teachers. I love the enthusiasm that you can see in the children’s eyes. [Sharma’s work] is an example of sheer selflessness and proof that there is still hope in the form of a few good men,” says Kunal Aggarwal, a local resident.
“The kids are lucky to have a good Samaritan like this! This really reaffirms one’s faith in humanity. It is always great to know that there are some spectacular human beings in the world. It shows that money does not need to be thrown at education to make it work. It shows that in difficult circumstances, humans can solve their own problems,” Aggarwal adds.
Donations, volunteers
Initially, Sharma paid all of the costs of the children’s textbooks and stationary from his own pocket, but with volunteers and donations trickling in, he can manage resource much better.
The parents are a happy lot
“I always wonder who these people are; all of a sudden someone comes, changes a little scene, and it becomes a little world with hope inside of it. Sometimes I think they may be angels in disguise sent by the Almighty to show an example of what can be done,” parent Ram Khilawan, a rickshaw puller, told Gulf News.
But Sharma takes each day as it comes. Since he does not have a permit to run such a school, he is prepared to be asked anytime by the authorities to wind it up.
Under the Right to Education Act of 2009, free and compulsory education is guaranteed to all Indian children between the age of six and 14. However, government schools are often accused of offering a poor standard of education.

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