After navigating the congested and busy lanes and bylanes of Noida’s Sector 44, one is flooded with a sense of relief and positivity when they reach ‘Master Ji ki Haveli,’ and see a classroom full of enthusiastic students sitting in rapt attention.
The classroom is part of a school called ‘Voice of Slums’ that has been founded by Dev Pratap Singh and Chandni Khan.
About ten years ago, Dev was one among the 7 lakh underprivileged children dealing with drug addiction on the streets of Madhya Pradesh.
Meanwhile, Chandni was a street performer and would roam across Delhi, performing dances, acrobatic stunts, and magic tricks for anyone generous enough to hand her a rupee or two.
Today, the duo is in the process of transforming the lives of hundreds of children through vocational education and training.
This is the story of their inspiring journey, and how they overcame an abusive childhood to help hundreds of other children who suffer through similar circumstances.
From drug addict to social worker:
Dev Pratap Singh was 11 when he decided to run away to Gwalior and leave his home and abusive father behind.
Remembering those days in a conversation with The Better India, he says, “The children in my neighbourhood had only three options. They could either work in a sand and stone factory, sell various items at traffic signals or steal.
I took the third option, and the first time I pocketed an amount of Rs 130. The amount was sufficient for me to get a train ticket from my town to Gwalior. That was my first visit to a big city, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I even had a cold drink!”
Inside the trains, he had seen groups of young children like him picking plastic bottles. Dev befriended one such group and started selling the bottles once he reached Gwalior. While he acknowledges that they were not a good influence, he also needed to start earning.
“Before I knew it, I had joined them in stealing iron and metal objects from the railway station and selling them to a scrap dealer.
It wasn’t long before I also got into the habit of inhaling whiteners and consuming easily available drugs,” Dev recalls.
A couple of years passed, and one day, Dev was arrested on the charges of robbery and sent to a juvenile rehabilitation centre.
Here, he suffered through lousy food, unsanitary environment, and unsympathetic fellow inmates until Raja Parmar, a good samaritan, bailed him out and provided him with better living conditions.
Dev wishes to keep the reason behind Raja’s act away from public attention.
Thankful for the opportunity he had received, Dev decided to turn his life around. He started with the job of a waiter in a small restaurant. A quick learner, he rose through the ranks and eventually became the manager of a restaurant in Goa. He also reconciled with his mother back in MP and was dreaming of settling down and purchasing a house in Agra, when his plans came to a screeching halt.
Dev’s mother passed away in a car accident.
In the process of recovering from the shock, Dev decided that he needed to do something good not just for himself but also the society. That’s when he got in touch with Chandni.
From a former street acrobat to a school teacher
Chandni Khan and Dev have led very similar lives.
She was 6 when she started performing on the streets and begging for money in return for the entertainment.
When her father passed away, her mother took her along to collect garbage from the roads and earn a meager amount at the end of the day. Once, she was also arrested on false charges.
Speaking to The Better India, Chandni says, “Most children in slums follow the footsteps of their parents, and that’s what I did, till volunteers from the Badhte Kadam NGO came to our neighbourhood and started speaking about child rights. You cannot imagine my joy!”
Soon, Chandni, who was 10 at the time, started attending school, while continuing to support her mother through rag-picking. Through the NGO, she started writing for Balaknama, a newspaper for and by the children of slums. You can read about it here.
Chandni met Dev during an event organised by the NGO. However, at the time, neither of them know that they would embark on a journey of educating school children, together.
Voice of Slums
When Voice of Slums (VoS) started in Noida in 2015, Dev and Chandni were mocked, endlessly. How could a man who had studied only till Class 5, and a girl who had begun her education at the age of 10 teach kids? But the mission of the duo was very different.
They wanted to to prepare the slum children for a world of intimidation, mistrust and very high expectations.
“From a child who was addicted to drugs, I became a restaurant manager earning Rs 45,000 per month. I want to teach these kids that this was possible. Not just through education and established contacts but through self-esteem, confidence and a passion for doing good work,” Dev explains.
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The team, which has now expanded to 30, tapped into social media and Chandni’s contacts in the NGO to generate financial and social support. After testing their model for a few months, they started the Slum Post magazine, on the lines of Balaknama where students were encouraged to report any issue they came across.
“There was a 15-year-old girl who we would bump into once in a while. Our young reporters found out that she was smuggled from Nepal and the age of 10 and married off to a 40 year-old-man in Bihar. She had her first child at the age of 13. She moved to Noida with the man, who, along with his brothers, would take turns to rape her. These are the reports that are published in the magazine—no entertainment, no gossip but the horrid truths of their lives,” Dev says.
Chandni adds that VoS played a role in rescuing the girl. They contacted the government child helpline, following which she was rescued and reunited with her parents. The girl currently lives in Nepal, along with her child, while the rapists have been sent to jail.
How does VoS operate?
To begin with, Vos takes a child under their wing and provides free education for a year. These ‘tuition classes’ are to prepare the child for mainstream education. After a year of taking VoS classes, the child is enrolled in a school.
Depending upon the timings of the school, VoS takes additional classes in the morning or evening to ensure that the kids are up-to-date and their education is progressing well.
We spoke to Neha, a 13-year-old student who had just appeared for her final exams.
“My mother works as domestic help, and my father is a plumber. Until two years ago, I too used to work as a domestic help till I found out about VoS. Now I have given up the work and focus only on my studies. I want to become a teacher when I grow up and teach other slum children,” says the Class 4 student.
For the VoS team, it is the impact of transforming lives that really matters. Through educational, vocational activities, the NGO can ensure that young children don’t get into drugs or stealing but rather prepare themselves for a better, mainstream and respectable future.
Their efforts are already reaping benefits, proving that with a little push and encouragement in the right direction, educational and social transformation is possible.
“Today, we have trained about 300 students. Of these, at least 50 have secured formal education opportunities, 50 others have secured jobs, and we have rescued five girls from deplorable conditions,” says Dev.
If you are inspired by this former rag-picking duo who is educating slum children like them, please click on the link here to further their cause.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)