“Hey bagha benduk (Look at the frog),” says eight-year-old Rahul, pointing towards the red paper frog he has just given life to in his craft class. “Benduk nahin beduk,” Pallavi Jadhav, one of his teachers, says. Soon, other students, armed with frogs of various hues and deformities, approach Jadhav, one of the volunteer-cum-teachers working at the signal shala (signal school), India’s first such registered school.
It is difficult to believe one is seated in the middle of the Eastern Express Highway, below the Teen Haath Naka flyover junction in Thane, Mumbai, reportedly one of the worst congested intersections in the world. But then again, few schools operate out of an abandoned ship container.
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Set up on June 15 this year, the school currently caters to 22 children of four families, originally from Osmanabad, Beed and Satara. If they weren’t in school, most of the children would be selling wares at the Teen Haath Naka signal.
Samarth Bharat Vyaspeeth (BSV), a Pune-based NGO now active in Thane, runs the school with the help of the Thane Municipal Corporation (TMC). It aims to eventually assimilate these students into the mainstream education system. Till such a time that the students can find their feet, the team of Bhatu Sawant, a journalist and CEO of BSV, work to rid the youngsters, aged between four and14 years, of old habits.
While the signal school begins at 11am, Sawant, Jadhav and others associated with the school reach the flyover around 10.15 am. As soon as the children see the volunteers, they head for a small gate that leads to the container. The 30×8 ft container opens up in to a main room and two ante chambers, one of which contains bags with names of the students on it. “These bags contain their uniforms and school bags. We allow them to take one book when they go back to finish their homework,” Sawant says.
There is running water to ensure that the students take a bath before classes. “Most of the 22 children — five of whom are toddlers — were suffering from skin diseases since they could not take a bath daily. Now it has become part of the their daily schedule,” says Jadhav.
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School timings have been decided to suit the convenience of the students. On Saturdays, they begin school at noon, since the parents want them to sell strings of lime and chilli, to ward off the evil eye, which is in much demand on Saturdays.
“While travelling, we would see youngsters selling wares or asking for alms at traffic signals. We felt we needed to do something to ensure that these children had access to education,” Jadhav said. The group then carried out a three-month long research project at three spots in Thane, which revealed that there were more children selling wares at Teen Haath Naka, “since vehicles wait at the signal at a longer time,” says Sawant.
Around this time, the TMC was also looking to get more children into classrooms, especially those on the margins of society, under the Right To Education.
In April, the NGO approached TMC commissioner Sanjeev Jaiswal, and told him about the study they had conducted. “We told him that the parents were not willing to send their children to schools since it would clash with the time when children sold goods and made an earning for the family,” says Sawant.
When the children could not go to school, the school had to come to the children. That was BSV’s proposal to the TMC. “It was decided that a school would be started near the signal, and with TMC’s help, we got the container installed below the flyover,” says Jadhav.
Inside the school, the day begins at 11 am with prayers and a rendition of the national anthem. Today, there are only 17 students. Others have gone to the beaches where Ganpati idols are being immersed. After half an hour of revision, students begin with the alphabets. Today, they will learn ‘C’. “Cucumber”, “crow”, “calendar” and “carrot” are scribbled on the blackboard. Mohan, one of the students, sits on the last row with his head down. On checking, the teacher finds that he has fever. He is given a Crocin and allowed to leave.
“Health is a major issue with these kids,” says Sawant. “In the initial days, we realised the kids would doze off within minutes of sitting in the class. We contacted a peadiatrician, who said that all of them were suffering from ill-health and extreme weakness due to lack of nutrition,” he adds.
With the help of self-help groups, the NGO got nutritious food delivered to the children for lunch. Health tonics prescribed by the paedriatrician were also given.
At 3 pm, it is time to play. The children play games such as kho-kho and badminton, before it is time to pack up and leave at 4 pm. Some want to stay. Within an hour, around 5 pm, they will be back on the roads, hawking flowers, national flags and mobile covers. Even if they are back on the street tomorrow, they have a school to go to.
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