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Against all odds

First generation learners, whose parents never had the benefit of an education, are enthusiastically attending school despite so many disadvantages

Of the many factors that define India as a ‘developing country’, one of the most marked and significant changes has been that of underprivileged children being exposed to education. There seems to have been a shift in the understanding of education in these families that sustain themselves below the poverty line. Where earlier, the importance was given to income alone, of late, these families have been taking literacy equally seriously.

As a force of habit, when I see children doing odd jobs, or helping out at street-side shops, I tend to ask them if they go to school as well. In the past couple of years, the answers have gone from the negative to the affirmative. On asking such children today, the majority answer rather indignantly that yes, they do in fact go to school. The motivations for them going to school may be varied — some go because they get at least one assured meal a day, others go because they are forced to, and some go because they genuinely take an interest in being the first generation of their family to be educated.

Smile Foundation’s Seema Kumar weighs in on the issue, saying that these families mainly come to the city in search of better livelihood opportunities, and for these families sending their children to school was never a priority because they themselves never set foot in a school. The Smile Foundation has a national level programme called Mission Education, which is committed to provide basic education and healthcare to underprivileged children. As a part of this programme they held door-to-door meetings and group counselling sessions to create awareness amongst the parents, “once the child starts coming to school and gets into the regularity mode, their gradual progress thereafter acts as a major boost for both the parents and the children,” she says.

Kiran Devi Mathur’s family for instance, are an excellent example of this phenomenon. Kiran works as domestic help in some of the houses in her area in Saket, and the father is a security guard in an apartment building. With odd jobs like these, it is easy to imagine the extent of the family’s income.

However, at seven in the evening, a peek into their household paints a warm and happy picture. The mother cooks at the stove while the kids sit around. One with a school book, one at the cheap television. Their father is yet to come home from work, so dinner is being prepared. The oldest daughter bustles around the house, helping her mother with the chores. The singular bed in the family that houses five, looks makeshift at best, but the lounging children look utterly at ease. They’ve managed to find a comfort in their less than ideal setting, and they seem to be making the most of it.

The lack of extravagance and flair in lifestyle has not dulled their minds.

BAG AND BAGGAGE: Deepak attends school without fail

Despite the obvious difficulties, they have managed to send all three of their children to a school in the Saidulajab neighbourhood. The eldest daughter, in class 11, the older son in the eighth and their youngest son in the fifth. All proudly declared that they have been attending school since nursery and thoroughly enjoy the five hours they spend there.

Deepak, the youngest did not hesitate to add that his favourite subject is English, and he plans on shifting to a different school when he is older. During the hours when he is not at school, Deepak is mostly seen tagging around with his mother or aunt and accompanying them to the houses where they work —occasionally communicating on behalf of the women since he has a better grasp over the language. While the children are surging forward the best that they can, their parents still do not know how to sign their own names. Deepak does not have too many friends in school, he confesses, but his world is busy enough as it is. When not with his mother he is playing with the children in the neighbourhood in the parking lot.

He is one of the very few children in Saidulajab who go to school, and most of the other children in his class are from a different neighbourhood. There are others, too, in the alleys of Saket, who have taken on the dual responsibility in their families to help out with the current source of income for the family as well as become the first generation of literate children in their family.

The three brothers who run a stall for knick-knacks and trinkets, for example, the youngest of who is Arjun, helps out with the shop in the evenings after he returns from school in the afernoons. His brothers did not go to school, and he is the first in the family to have the opportunity. Arjun is a proud boy, who speaks of fifth standard like the achievement of a lifetime – which in his case, it certainly is. More and more families who have not had a job with a steady pay for decades, are making the decision to educate their children. Not only ensuring a future with multiple possibilities for themselves, but introducing more potential into the world as well.

Contrary to this, there are other families like Manisha’s, who were not able to escape their difficulties, and as a result education had to take a backseat. Manisha has two older sisters and one younger sister. The youngest is currently in school in the sixth standard, however unfortunately, Manisha and her older sister Sandhya had to drop out, since after their father passed, their mother was unable to provide for the entire family. Manisha and her mother now work as domestic help, while the older sister stays home to take care of their youngest.

Unfortunately for them, circumstances are not as easily overcome as they are for those from affluent homes. They hail from a tiny alley off IGNOU Road and are currently a happy and hardworking family of four women.

What was refreshing about the all the conversations with these families was that, they all collectively acknowledged the importance of education. The recognition that to not be educated is in some ways similar to opting out of a race before it begins. Illiteracy is a disadvantage in today’s world, and they know it. Whether they were expressing pride or regret, the sentiment remained the same.