Their classroom is outdoors in the heat and dust, its roof a rumbling metro line, blackboards painted onto a rough concrete wall but for some children of Delhi’s migrant population its the only school they have. I became aware of this humbling story through a report by photographer Altaf Qadri who re-discovered it in 2012 and brought it back to prominence. In fact the school’s founder, forty two year old Rajesh Kumar Sharma began to teach under privileged children in Delhi in 1997 and this is the third incarnation and location of his jugaad (makeshift) school.
The idea to open a school came to shop owner Sharma on a morning walk along the Yamuna river when he saw some children weeding and picking flowers. “I asked them which school they went to and they looked at me with no answer, it had not occurred to me before that not every child has access to a school’ he said. This resonated with Sharma who himself had been forced to drop out of college in his third year due to financial constraints so he decided to to offer free basic education to the children of the local labourers and farmers.
Surprisingly it was not easy convincing the children’s parents to let them attend a school and it remains one of his biggest and constant challenges today. Because they are poor and mostly illiterate they often see no need for their children to be educated and prefer to put them to work at home and also worry about possible costs involved. Despite this at the current school up to 70 children between four and fourteen years old turn up early each weekday morning, sweep the floor clean and put down foam mats to sit on. Mr Sharma arrives around 9 am having left his shop in his brother’s hands, and with his friend Laxmi Chandra teaches them for two hours, – mainly elementary reading, writing, arithmetic and some geometry.
Rajesh Kumar Sharma (left) and Mr Laxmi Chandra teach children mainly from migrant families in Delhi
The first time I visited the school I found it quite a moving experience to see such a thirst for knowledge, such concentration and happy tolerance of difficult conditions. Then there was a matter of fact statement from one of the children which brought a lump to my throat, “I prefer it at this school because we learn things, at the government school we just get beaten”. Then, after a pause ” Though I wouldn’t mind the beatings if they taught us too”.
After the government enforced the 2009 Right to Education Act last year, which guarantees free schooling for children between the ages of 6 and 14, Mr Sharma decided to focus on preparing the children for admission to government schools and helping them to cope with the curriculum. Parents need only accompany their children to a government school to enrol but most migrant workers are fearful of doing even this as many live in illegal settlements and are therefore loathe to interact with authorities.
After the RTE push, enrolment in state schools has increased from 193 million to 199 million, and the government has invested more than $11 billion extra dollars in upgrading the school system. Despite this schools appear to be getting worse. There remain at least 700,000 teacher vacancies, and many of those who are employed don’t have the proper training and absenteeism is rife. When teachers do turn up to the packed classes children complain they just write a problem on the board and leave. Contrast this with Mr Sharma’s school and you can see why the kids keep coming back.
Initially Mr Sharma paid all of the costs of the children’s textbooks, pencils and exercise books himself but over time donations, sometimes anonymous have started to trickle in though as with the volunteers who come to help, more are needed.
Sharma says he takes each day as it comes as, operating on railway property, he could be told to stop at any time. Until then the school is a beacon of hope for marginalised children with few options, in Mr Sharma’s words:
“To change the future of these children, education is the only weapon. If they go anywhere in the world, if they have education, they can achieve anything. And without education, they can do nothing.”
I was first commissioned to shoot this story by The Times in London (see here) and later by The National (see here). Sources: due acknowledgement to Suryatapa Bhattacharya’s article in The National (mentioned above) and the AP article by Ravi Nessman here.