From rags to literacy
A learning centre is imparting literacy to ragpickers at the Ghazipur landfill site, bringing glimpses of life in the mainstream and hope for a less grimy future
“My father slapped me once when I couldn’t write his name in Hindi,” says Feroza, a 12-year-old student, without making eye contact. Throughout the conversation she talks very avidly about her experiences ever since she started her journey out of illiteracy.
The family of six live in a one-room house in a labyrinth of little streets in the Ghazipur slum. The family migrated from Bihar 10 years ago and consists of her parents and three siblings. According to her mother, Feroza’s father is an alcoholic, and doesn’t provide much for the household. Although he works at the nearby meat market and earns some Rs 5,000 a month, he gives money for household expenses only when he’s in a good mood.
As life doesn’t come easy for such children, it didn’t come for Feroza either. Too early in life, she realised that she needs to take care of her little siblings, and that made going to a school an obscure dream. When she drops off her sibling at the nearby government school and the teachers ask her why she’s not enrolled, she usually has no answer. Feroza says her father sometimes shows interest in her education, only to accuse her of showing off her new learning.
Her mother, 30, works at the nearby waste plant like many men and women of the area (about 60 per cent) and earns around Rs 8,000 per month, but gets the pay erratically. This month, she hasn’t received the full pay. Earlier, she used to work a jeans dying factory. Talking about Feroza’s future, she says she found herself in a tricky situation when she had to decide between sending her to school and quitting her own job. She chose to keep the girl at home to do the chores.
“Who else will take care of my children if not Feroza?” she asks with some curiosity and then breaks down in tears. She spends eight hours at the plant, leaving all the day-time responsibility on her eldest daughter.
Feroza wakes up at 6 in the morning, lights up the traditional gas stove, cleans up the room, freshens up at the community washroom, comes back and cooks rice and dal, packs it and then goes to her mother’s workplace, comes home and rests, then goes out again to bring her siblings back from school. The only duty which is not Feroza’s responsibility is washing clothes— because her mother thinks she wastes too much of detergent.
Five months ago, when Feroza got to know about the learning centre Panchi, it excited her to the core, and the idea of learning came up. It’s been five months since she started going to the centre, and finds comfort there. Her personality changes when she’s in school, where she’s free to express herself. At home, she remains silent and submissive. Studying has become a catharsis for her now.
So much so is her passion for studying that after doing all the chores, she picks up her books around 9 in the night and studies for an hour or more. A teacher has also filled up Open School forms for Feroza. She says, “I’m quite excited about sitting for the exams.”
Anab, Feroza’s four-year-old brother, goes to the government school, and to the learning centre too, but can’t shake off the habit of ragpicking. “Whenever he’s free, he takes his bag and goes to pick up junk so that he can buy something good to eat,” says Heera, a teacher at Panchi.
The learning centre is not a regular school, but a place to impart literacy to out-of-school children. Situated on the first floor of a building, it’s being run by the private sector company IL&FS. The school provides a bridge for the children living in the slum to seek education. The school also acts as a free-of-cost tuition centre for regular schoolgoing kids.
With children in the age-group 4-16 coming to the centre, younger ones study from the elementary level (early afternoon batch) while the elder ones come for remedial education (evening batch).
Mehmood Khan, 16, who’s in class 11, hails from a lower-middle class family living in the slum. He is enrolled at the nearby government school. He says, “I used to go tuition centre but since the fee ranges from Rs 500 to Rs 1,000 I had to stop going.” He now comes to Panchi, and is appreciative of the fact that there are several teachers available to help him out. He likes maths. His family of three, including his mother and elder brother, live in a compact one-room hut. He says that his mother feels proud that he’s studying, unlike other teenagers in the area who are doing drugs and alcohol.
The school has also taught students extra-curricular activities such as reporting news. Every week, a trainer comes to teach the students video shooting, video editing and reporting. The students made some videos on issues brimming in the area like drug abuse, side-effects of rag picking and special videos on Independence Day.
After capturing and editing the videos on phone provided by the centre, the students then send off the videos to the trainer who then uploads them on a Facebook page.
But students say that because some other students don’t take this seriously, they also sometimes lack the drive to make the videos.
Shahrukh, 15, another student at Panchi, says that most of the children in the area resort to ragpicking to buy drugs to which they are addicted. “They will do some amount of ragpicking and from the money they earn they will buy drugs or eat out,” adds Shahrukh.
His father Mohammad Asif, 51, who’s an e-rickshaw driver, is a humble man who migrated from a makeshift camp at Jama Masjid to Ghazipur area 10 years ago. He wants Shahrukh to study at least till class 12. Earlier Asif used to have an e-rickshaw but after selling off his one-room home in the area, he managed to make the down payment of Rs.50,000 for the rickshaw, which cost him Rs 1.25 lakh.
He too, like others, used to work at the plant but due to two severe injuries and some disgusting work like cleaning gutter lines, quit working there.
“If he wants to study further, we will somehow arrange the money but he should show the interest,” says Asif. However, Shahrukh says that he will study as per his father’s wish but wants to do his own ‘business’. His father hopes he will make a wise choice . “I find doing something related to engineering a good business,” says Asif.
In the middle of this conversation, Shahrukh’s sister announces that she likes to study English, upon which everybody looks at her proudly. “Such are these little moments which bring us hope,” says Asif. Asif says since he has never been to school, he made sure his children should.
Reena, another student of Panchi, is a class 10 student who went to the US on a one-month all expenses paid trip to a football game. The football coaching centre she goes to had a collaboration with a group which funded her training tour in the US.
When her father is told that it’s a big deal that she went to the US on a paid tour, his brows rise and he says, “Whatever she does, I will be proud of her.” He regrets that his elder son who completed Class 12 doesn’t take studies seriously. “It’s my daughters who make me happy and I will continue to support them always.” He works as a driver at a dairy farm and earns around Rs 12,000 per month. Spending on education is important for him. “If they won’t study how will they get out of this place?” he adds.