Vivekananda Suryavanshi, 13, is an inspired student of the New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) school on Pandara Road. He stood first in Class 5 this year. The source of his inspiration is none other than the President of India, Dr A P J Abdul Kalam.
The son of a casual laborer, Suryavanshi sometimes goes to school on an empty stomach. He lives in Gyaspur basti (an unauthorized colony of makeshift homes) in east Delhi. "His father sits at home; for the past four months he hasn't got any work. We are surviving on credit. Sometimes, I don't have money to make the morning tea for my family," says Champa, his mother. The boy however, hasn't let poverty or the lack of adequate food, come in the way of his education ever since he was given an opportunity. In 2003, he was awarded a scholarship of Rs 700 (1US$= Rs 46) for the year.
Up until he completed Class 3, Suryavanshi attended the Mahapandit Rahul Vidyalaya (MRV), a school that functions under a tree in Gyaspur. Currently, there are three MR Vidyalayas (schools) in and around Delhi, managed by the Rahul Multidisciplinary Research Centre (RMRC), an NGO based in the capital. And Suryavanshi is one of the 800 students of MRVs who have been admitted into government-run (or municipal) schools in the past few years.
Currently, there are 330 children (122 girls and 208 boys) studying in the MRVs. Apart from the school in Gyaspur basti, there is one near the NOIDA toll bridge on the outskirts of Delhi and another in Ghaziabad (Uttar Pradesh) near Delhi. Most people living in these bastis are migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttaranchal. While many of them work on construction sites, others earn a living by pulling a cycle-rickshaw, selling vegetables or fish.
RMRC started its education program in 1996. "We have a special concern for the children of poor migrants. We intervene in pockets where they live, where no government school or NGO has responded to the need for education. After we have worked in the area for a while, we approach government agencies to step in so that we can move to another area," says Dr Anil Pandey, RMRC Member-Secretary.
RMRC began its work with an adult education program (for women and men) in Dallupura village in east Delhi. During this period, women felt that it was no use teaching them when their children were not going to school. They wanted to see their children educated but government schools denied them admission because they were migrants and did not have any official proof of residence. At a loose end, their children often got involved in antisocial activities, the women complained.
For RMRC, the perceptions of these women marked a turning point; soon it started a non-formal school in one room. By 1997, there were 250 children who wanted to attend school and it became difficult to manage in one room. "We had very limited resources, so we contacted the Education Department of the Delhi Government to make some arrangement for their studies. But with no positive response, we shifted to the community centre of Vasundhara Enclave very close to Dallupura village," says RMRC President Govind Chaturvedi.
At the community centre, classes were held in tents and the student strength increased to 300. "We continued to build pressure on the authorities, and in 2000, the Delhi Government opened a primary school in Dallupura, where 300 of our students got admission," says Chaturvedi with pride.
In the year 2000, RMRC conducted a survey in Gyaspur basti; the staff found that none of the children from the 342 jhuggis (huts) were attending school. Says Suraj Dev Basant, supervisor of the project, "Some children were making tea on the roadside, some were selling vegetables and some would go regularly to the Yamuna river (and dive) to retrieve coins and coconuts people immerse as offerings."
When RMRC started the school in the basti in May 2000, there were 10 students; by the end of the year, there were 150. "The scene in my basti has changed completely - the teachers are so approachable. My daughter has studied up to Class 3 in this school, and my youngest son is going to the government school at Pandara Road," says Abdul Qaueem, 60.
Currently, the three MRVs have nine teachers. While the monthly fee is Rs 20 per child, the students pay whatever their family can afford. Each RMRC school offers teaching only up to the Class 5 level because the aim is to help children get admission in municipal schools. Students get free textbooks, notebooks and stationery. Significantly, 40 per cent of the parents attend regular parent-teacher meetings. The teachers are trusted both by the parents and the children.
A child may be admitted at any time during the year; and once s/he has completed a year's syllabus (in eight months for example), and cleared the exam, is promoted to the next class. When it is time for students to seek admission into municipal schools, the NGO also provides them with the required affidavit.
Each year, a fresh batch of students is admitted into municipal schools. Over the years, the RMRC staff has observed that while a number of boys go in for further study to the government-run schools, the few girls who do, tend to drop out soon. "Because of sexual harassment in buses and on the roads, the parents are reluctant to send their daughters. We are doing another survey in Gyaspur, and are planning to start higher classes (up to Class 8) for girls in the basti itself," says Chaturvedi. These classes will also be open to older boys who do not go to the municipal schools for one reason or another. Besides, RMRC also plans to introduce vocational training for these boys so that they can earn a living.
When RMRC began its work in 1996, it had only 12 members all of whom contributed money for its activities. Today, the NGO has seven executive members and 17 life members. Over the years it has been financially supported by small grants from individuals and organizations in the US, and by the Punjab National Bank in Delhi. In 2004, it has received a grant from Action Aid, an international NGO. Pandey says that a program like this is easy to start but difficult to sustain. "Thirty per cent of my energy is spent in fund-raising so that these children can get an education without a break."
But for the likes of Laxman Kumar, a Class 3 student at an MRV, his school is a boon. He says, "I like to come to school and want to study. My future depends on this school, as my parents are poor and have no idea about education."
(Rahul Multidisciplinary Research Centre (RMRC) can be contacted at: B 3 Cel Apartments, Vasundhara Enclave, Delhi 110 096. Tel: 22618064, 98711-71695; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)