At 10.30 am sharp, 70 students scuffle to find the best seat on the carpet under the tree. Some are looking for a cool shade while the others want a place in the front row. Their school has neither classrooms nor salaried teachers, but the students are no less ambitious than those in the private schools of Gurugram. Started ten years ago, the open school has been the lifeline of over 700 young students so far.
It all started when a group of young kids begged for alms in front of Gopal Krishana Bhatnagar in 2009. Bhatnagar, an ex-bank manager and principal consultant at the Human Resource Development department, was ambushed by 12-15 kids all seeking a few rupees from the gentleman. Like any of us, he asked the children if they didn’t have a school to go to. “No, we don’t have money to pay the fees,” came the reply as the kids extended a hand at Bhatnagar, still asking for aid.
Bhatnagar asked the children if they’d attend school if he started one, free of charge.
“They responded with enthusiasm, and frankly, I had asked the question without any plan in mind. I had retired from my job at the HRD five years before this incident, and although I had obviously met a lot of begging children before 2009, nothing really sparked within me because other things occupied my mind. Even after this conversation, I did not immediately unite efforts to open a free school until the following Thursday,” the 66-year-old tells The Better India (TBI).
Exactly a week after Bhatnagar had met the kids, he went to the same spot. Yet again, the group of children ambushed him. But this time, they were not requesting for money but for an update.
Although I hadn’t thought much about the school, the children were eager. They demanded to know where the school would be and when they could join. It was their enthusiasm that drove me to start an open school. And my first task was to appoint a teacher, he explains.
Bhatnagar knew that he could teach a few subjects to the children, but if he wanted the school to last for several years, he could not take up the task alone. He needed someone to teach the kids while he handled the registers, logistics and such other duties. And he knew the perfect person for this.
A guard in his locality had conveyed to him that his daughter was looking for a job, and if Bhatnagar could help her find one, it would add to his family income. The guard’s daughter, Sangeeta, who was pursuing an MA degree at the time, would become the first teacher to teach the students of “Sudha Society”
Sudha stands for Society For Upliftment & Development of Human beings by Action.
Twenty-five underprivileged children attended Bhatnagar’s first class in the Gurugram locality. Neither of them knew exactly what the lessons would be. Bhatnagar, who had planned on teaching English, Hindi and Math to a handful of kids had a class ‘packed’ with enthusiastic children. These children had no background in formal education. But they were all present there, grinning with eagerness at the prospect of getting an opportunity to learn.
By the end of the first class, both the teachers and the students knew one thing for sure—this open school is here to stay. The former bank manager lived in an upscale housing society and soon, word about his school spread. Over the years, Bhatnagar and Sangeeta did not remain the only teachers educating the underprivileged students. Homemakers, as well as working professionals, started volunteering to teach various subjects to the kids.
“I can see the passion and ambition brewing in these children as they sit for class every day,” 19-year-old Ashish Dudeja tells TBI.
Ashish is a second-year student pursuing BBA from Bennett University. In his free time and especially when he has holidays, he teaches in Sudha school. “A friend of mine told me about Bhatnagar uncle’s efforts in educating underprivileged children, and I’ve been volunteering my time during vacations.”
Shivam Raj, a class 5 student, tells me that he loves studying in the school. Especially math. Why does he like the subject, I ask? After a minute of careful thought, “Because I love solving math,” says the preteen who attends two-hour classes at the open school. Both his parents are labourers and uneducated. But Shivam loves studying. It is his summer vacation now, but he says he spends most of the day reading.
What may seem like a mundane routine to many of us is contributing to the well-being of these children. About 80 per cent of the child beggars in Delhi are forced into the occupation by their parents. Without proper education, these children waste away their formative years due to the limited scope of opportunities. This is not their fault so much as of their circumstances. Parents cannot afford to send them to school, and since both of them are working menial jobs anyway, the children are dragged to work or left to tend for themselves—both equally dangerous situations.
A small class that snowballed into a decade of free education:
As more and more Gurugram residents started volunteering to teach, the base of Bhatnagar’s school became that much stronger. However, providing free coaching classes could not be their end goal. The classes may have introduced the kids to the basics of formal education but a certificate, after all, comes only from established schools.So, after a few months of free classes, Bhatnagar prepared the students to appear for entrance tests of government schools. Over 700 students have benefitted from his efforts so far, of which 500 have been admitted into formal schools.
Anju Ara Khatun, a class student in a government school, shares how the classes were of tremendous help. “About four years ago, I joined the Sudha School, but I don’t study here anymore. Last year, I got an admission in a government school, but I make sure I visit the classes here whenever I can. All day, I am at school, and in the evening, I finish my homework or read a book.”
Anju’s parents work as household helps in Gurugram, but she hopes that her formal education gets her a better deal in life.
When the number of students exceeded Bhatnagar’s ‘class’ limit in 2009, he expanded his initiative to open two more schools the following year. Apart from the adults who spend their free time at school, is a young girl who studies in a private school.
Moksha, a class 5 student, says, “Bhatnagar uncle’s classes are quite famous in our society. My elder sister used to teach there, and now, till my school starts, I teach students from class 1 and 2. I teach them English because I feel that it is my strongest subject.”
She clarifies that although she is just a couple of years older than her students, they treat her like any other teacher.
One school under the tree expanded into three, and today, Bhatnagar has founded the Sudha society, a non-government organisation that takes up social initiatives with the aim of “upliftment and development” of fellow humans.
Since ten years, the residents of Gurugram and Bhatnagar’s family have funded for the students’ supplies and stationery. Some donated clothes, others bought the books that the children could use.
Today, Sudha has become a family that empowers the children of Gurugram with education.
Picture Courtesy: GK Bhatnagar.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)