BEHIND THE World Trade Centre towers in Mumbai’s Cuffe Parade, the road narrows into a maze of alleys overrun with garbage and ankle-deep drain water, the smell of sewage hanging thick in the seaside air over the 400 homes packed into the Ambedkar Nagar slum. But when Raghuveer Prasad steps out, in sharply pressed office apparel, he’s unfazed by the surroundings.
About to start his final year in BCom, the 17-year-old is one of five youngsters from Mumbai’s slums selected for a paid internship at J M Baxi and Co, a 100-year-old shipping and logistics firm. The youngsters, put through school and college by NGO Humara Footpath, have completed about 18 months of a two-year internship to give them job and life skills that their background otherwise rules out. The interns earn a stipend of Rs 4,000, but have their meals and travel costs taken care of.
At work, Raghuveer and Ajit Shetty, 19, who live a few doors apart in Ambedkar Nagar, have mostly worked in the travel department. Raghuveer reels off his new skills — send a fax, an email, scan documents, convert files to PDFs, make online bookings, ask for corporate rates at hotels in parts of the world he has never heard of before, make out invoices, purchase foreign exchange. He also knows the capital city of every country in the world and all major airport codes.
Before December 2015, he had never seen an intercom or fax machine. “I now understand what it is to be responsible for something in an office atmosphere, to take up a task and finish it reliably. I also know how to befriend people from other parts of the city,” he says.
Ajit underwent a personality change, says his mother Tamilselvi, 35, a single parent who works as a domestic help. “He was inclined towards some badmaashi,” she says, referring to his use of swear words, the evenings spent leaping into the Arabian sea, the bleached hair and swagger.
Ajit agrees the responsibility of a paid internship straightened him out. “The other boys here don’t care for studies, or jobs. Most of them hang around doing nothing all day. I used to be like that, but once I had the job there was no time for anything. I’d come back from school and go to work, and then back home to finish homework,” he says.
Humara Footpath’s volunteers have taught street children in Mumbai for 17 years and funded the schooling and college education of scores of children. But for its founder, Taha Jodiawalla, the idea of an internship took shape around two years ago when his friends, many with companies of their own, joined him for football with kids from the NGO. One of them saw the kids at play, and things fell in place.
The first batch, comprising Ajit, Raghuveer and a girl, joined on December 1, 2015. At the peak, the programme had eight teens doing internships at various offices of JM Baxi. Three have currently taken a break to focus on board exams. “On-the-job training is much better than rote learning. And sometimes, school curriculum can be quite irrelevant,” says Jodiawalla.
Jodiawalla personally selects those candidates for the internship, boys and girls close to 18 years, who would need to find employment over the next few years. The aim is not a prospective job with JM Baxi, but to make the kids employable. Gunjan Singh, general manager at JM Baxi’s travel department, says the interns she has supervised have grown tremendously, from dress to speech. “They are not at all ashamed of where they come from. And they have confidence in their desire to move up,” says the former teacher.