School under a bridge for India's poor

School under a bridge for India's poor
North India

Schools don't come more rudimentary than this: In a cavernous space under a metro bridge in the Indian capital, mats are spread out on the dusty ground. The trains above roar past, periodically silencing the teacher. The blackboard is a painted stretch of the concrete wall of the adjacent rail station.

But Pinto, 10, is proud to be a pupil of the Under the Bridge School.

"Before I came here, I used to watch other children put on their uniforms in the morning and go to school with their bags," he says.

"Now, I can also say that I go to school."

The conditions are hard on Mr Rajesh Kumar Sharma, 45, the "principal". His voice is raspy and hoarse as he shouts out words - heat, difficult, neat, correct - in Hindi and asks the children to write down synonyms.

"Every seven minutes, a train passes and drowns out my voice," he says. "I have to shout all morning to be heard by the children in the back row."

Mr Sharma set up his makeshift school near Yamuna Vihar metro rail station three years ago. He accepts any child of any age. Since then, more than 140 have "graduated" from his school and joined government schools.

The inspiration for the school came to him during a morning walk near the small grocery store that his family runs. He realised many children in the area were helping their parents with farming chores instead of going to school.

When he spoke to their parents, they told him they had never even seen the inside of a school, and they did not send their children to one because the children were needed to help at home and in the fields to earn money.

Mr Sharma himself had been forced to drop out of university for lack of funds; he had hoped to study engineering. Concerned about children who, like himself, had families who could not afford to give them a proper education, he started teaching them in the fields around Yamuna River in east Delhi before moving the school under the bridge.

He had no money for a classroom but, at least, the bridge offered shelter from rain and shade against the sun.

His wife and his brother (who has to run the grocery store from 9am until noon when he is teaching) were horrified and asked him if he had gone mad.

"I told them that even animals feed themselves and care for their offspring. If you are human, you have to do more - you have to help those who have nothing. Now, after all the media coverage, they are more supportive," he says.

The Under the Bridge School teaches arithmetic, writing, reading, some English, science and general knowledge to the children of local labourers and farmers. The pupils start turning up at 9am, and their first task is to sweep the ground, so they can roll out the grey foam mats and get their books out.

Apart from a short mid-morning break, it's concentrated work. Mr Sharma's friend, the loquacious but kindly Laxmi Chandra, helps him during the week. Over the weekends, volunteers occasionally come to offer extra classes.

Like poor children all over India, his pupils are hungry for knowledge. They devour information because they know it holds the key to a better life. Simply wearing a uniform gives them a sense of pride.

"I had to get them uniforms. They had to look and feel like pupils," says Mr Sharma, who is so passionate about his school that he clearly dislikes breaking off from teaching to give an interview.

Despite the distractions - cars whizzing past on the road and trains rumbling above - the children are attentive, except for some fidgeting and chatting. When a boy mischievously pulls a flower out of a girl's hair, she scolds him loudly. A stern look from Mr Sharma and they both return to work.

His biggest problem for the moment is that the municipal authorities came last week and painted the vast cement wall grey. In doing so, they dismantled the makeshift blackboards that ran the length of the entire wall (also erasing the school name).

So Mr Sharma took some cream-coloured paint and marked out a large rectangle as his new "blackboard". Against this block of light colour, the words he wrote with dark markers were visible.

For the younger children, he keeps milk in a giant aluminium teapot, stored away in one of three old-fashioned tin trunks dotted around the "classroom". These trunks are the only furniture. One is for the milk and biscuits. The second is for books and pens. And the third is for the children's belongings, if any.

"For the older children, the milk and biscuits don't matter, but the little ones feel excited at the idea of coming to school and getting a treat," he says.

One of his greatest frustrations is the lack of a toilet. The little ones can relieve themselves behind the bushes. The older boys can urinate, as so many Indian men do, on the roadside. But the teenage girls cannot follow suit, and just have to hold on until they get home.

Mr Sharma travelled to Palam, at the other end of the Indian capital, early last year to meet the founder of a non-governmental organisation called Sulabh International, whose mission is to build toilets for poor Indians. Even though Mr Sharma met the founder, Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, and implored him to build a toilet for the school using a design that would not require a sewage line, nothing has happened.

Mr Sharma sounds bitter about it. "Please write this down. I asked for just one toilet, and they couldn't even help with that. They promised to visit but never came. Just one toilet! It would make it so much easier for the young girls."

His chief goal is to help the children reach a level where they can gain admission to a government school.

In 2009, the government passed the Right to Education Act, which guarantees free education for all children aged between six and 14. But the children who attend Under the Bridge find it hard to get into a government school because they usually do not have even the basics and, even if they do gain admission, they cannot cope with the curriculum.

Mr Sharma has to raise them to the necessary level.

Says Ms Meghna Mulay, an English teacher at a private school who volunteers on Saturdays: "If children haven't got the basics, they fall behind immediately in school and can't cope. When the struggle becomes too painful and embarrassing, they drop out. What Sharma is doing is preparing them for school."

Asked how long he will continue running the school, Mr Sharma says: "Only God can answer that. I can't abandon these children or any child who comes. When they come in the mornings all excited and happy, I feel pleased." He then returns to his teaching.

On most days, he gives his pupils homework. Mohit, 14, says he does it in between helping with household chores. He wants to be a doctor when he grows up because he wants "to help people".

Mohit and his friends are curious, their faces full of intelligence. They show me their latest work - a list of capital cities. "Shall I test you?" I ask. "What is the capital of France?" There are blank, panic-stricken looks.

But Mohit's riposte is quick - and justified. "Ma'am, we wrote this out only today. We haven't had time to memorise!"

Mr Sharma leans in and ruffles Mohit's hair protectively. "Give them time," he says. "Come and ask them next week."

This article was first published on Apr 5, 2015.
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