If the story of 10-year-old Anji from Nati Basti, a slum which is located close to the prestigious BITS Pilani institute, does not leave you with a sense of hope about this country’s future, nothing will.
From a tiny under-nourished girl covered in mud, collecting firewood with her sisters, and living in extreme squalor, today, Anji is a Class-3 topper in an English-medium private school.
How did this remarkable transformation happen?
Vipin Sirigiri, the co-founder of Shiksha Ki Ore (SKO), a volunteer-based social project under the BITS Pilani-incubated non-profit, Niramaan Organization, spoke to The Better India about not just Anji’s story, but also about more than 40 children from the same Basti who have immensely benefitted from these initiatives.
Vipin joined BITS in 2010 as a dual-degree student of Civil and Information Systems and founded the SKO project in 2012, alongside his batchmate, Anish Mannam.
“We had discovered that kids from the Basti used to work as dishwashers or cleaners at canteens and restaurants on campus. The initial plan was just to teach them basic maths and inculcate better hygiene in their own community. However, when we discovered the extent of their deprivation, SKO decided to delve deeper,” says Vipin.
From January 2012 to May 2012, the stated aim was to get these children admitted to a school. Student volunteers from BITS would try and convince parents living in the Basti to give their children a chance at formal education for a couple of months instead of making them herd sheep and collect firewood. By August 2012, SKO had managed to admit approximately 20 children from that community to a nearby government school.
“These government schools have buildings but no education. Little surprise that their interest tapered off in school during the year. Instead of getting disheartened, we got more extensively involved with the community—helping their parents with employment schemes, Aadhar cards, bank accounts, building trust, celebrating their festivals and most importantly bringing the education standards of these kids on par with their more fortunate counterparts,” says Vipin.
Finally, in July 2013, SKO had managed to admit approximately 20 children into private English-medium schools around Pilani.
Under the Right to Education Act, all private schools are mandated to allocate 25% of the seats available to children from weaker sections and disadvantaged groups living in their neighbourhoods and offer them free education.
“Since then, a small batch of SKO volunteers have gone in the evenings to give these children tuitions, ensure they continue attending school while trying to recruit other children from the community for a shot at formal education,” says Vipin.
Usually, volunteers conduct a 1-1.5 hour visit to the Basti two-three times a week (Monday-Wednesday-Friday or Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday).
Anji was a beneficiary of these initiatives. In 2013, she was admitted to a government school. The following year, SKO used the RTE provision to get her admission into an English medium private school. Three years later, she has topped her class.
“Since the first evening tuition with our volunteers, who taught her to scribble ‘A’ on a slate to a private school, where she has now attained the first rank in her class, Anji has come a long way in these six years. And so have many other kids in the community like her,” says Vipin.
When one small provision of the RTE Act is successfully implemented by a group of student volunteers, who work maybe just 5-6 hours a week with sufficient semester breaks, it gives locals immense hope. “Yes, the process may seem inefficient, but the results change lives,” adds Vipin.
However, the process of getting these children where they are today wasn’t exactly smooth. In the beginning, it was about convincing parents to send their kids to school instead of working or begging in the nearby mosque to support the family. Then it was dealing with the discrimination these children faced from various institutions.
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In fact, Vipin remembers an incident of how during one SKO-driven campus tour for these children, the guards thought they were beggars trying to sneak into hostel rooms to steal something.
“It took immense teamwork, volunteers batch after batch to continue working with the community. Initially, it was just simple slippers, crayons and books that were shared then it was school bags, uniforms that were taken care of,” says Vipin.
How did they get these children enrolled into private schools?
As explained earlier, the RTE works on a quota system, where all private schools are mandated to reserve 25% of the seats available to children from weaker sections and disadvantaged groups living in their neighbourhoods.
In Rajasthan, there are additional limits set such as the home and school should be within a 2 km radius and in the same municipality.
Around October every year, the volunteers begin with basic requirements such as birth certificates (an onerous task considering many children are born at home in rural Rajasthan), domicile, details of their parents and submit the applications in multiple schools so that it increases their chances of getting selected.
On the day when the lottery results are announced, SKO volunteers are present to ensure each kid gets selected. Thanks to the popular BITS brand, SKO has received “immense support from district/zone education officers who encourage us,” says Vipin. All the children under their project get admission into the various private schools.
Once these children are admitted into these schools, their task doesn’t get any easier. Discrimination against these children come in many forms—from teachers, fellow students and staff members. This isn’t specific to these private schools, but others across in India who are mandated to follow RTE provisions.
With technology developing better learning tools, children from the Basti without the necessary means to purchase them are also often at a disadvantage, but the likes of Anji have thrived irrespective of the situation.
“So, we get in touch with school administrators, teachers and parents of better-off school children to ensure that the Basti child doesn’t face discrimination in such private schools and not drop out,” says Vipin. However, he admits that dealing with these issues is an ongoing challenge.
Having said that, this is an initiative that isn’t going to die down anytime soon with the current batch of student volunteers from BITS Pilani taking the SKO mission forward. Every year, SKO loses some volunteers to graduation, but also receives a fresh batch in return. With them around, these children do have some hope.
At least, they’ve taken the first step—getting these children back to school and away from menial jobs. It also offers a model for other elite institutions in this country to get themselves involved in such endeavours.