Bhutto Sajid, 41, is an ‘angootha chaap’ (illiterate). Born into a poor peasant family in Bihar’s Darbhanga, Sajid’s family didn’t have the financial means to send him to school. Doing odd jobs, first in his village and then later in Delhi, Sajid was among the first wave of migrant workers in 1999 travelling thousands of miles to Kerala, a state grappling with a shortage of labour after its own people left in droves looking for jobs in Gulf countries.
In the past two decades, Sajid has made Kerala home, working in a small shoe factory in the industrial area of Edayar in Ernakulam district and living with his wife and five kids.
If the lack of education suppressed Sajid’s dreams in life, on Sunday, in a bittersweet moment for him, his eldest child, Muhammad Dilshad, made him and his family proud by topping from his Malayalam-medium government school in the Class X Board examinations and securing A+ grade in all subjects.
“Hum gareeb the, nahi padh paye. But mera beta mera sar uncha kar diya (We were poor so couldn’t study. But my son has made me proud),” Sajid said.
Ever since the news of the results filtered in, Sajid, his wife Abida and the teachers at the Binanipuram Government High School have been flooded with congratulatory calls from government quarters and the media.
Sudhi TS, the mathematics teacher at the school who took a special interest in Dilshad’s studies, said he is more happy with his student’s performance than his own son who also appeared for the board examinations this year.
“I used to tease my son by telling him that Dilshad would score better than him. That would get him jolted and serious about studying,” Sudhi said.
“In fact, I had the opportunity of a transfer to another school here two years back. I have an asthma condition and this is an industrial area. But I stayed on just to help him (Dilshad) out. I wanted to see him do well in the exams because he has a bright future ahead,” he said, adding that he would often fix special classes at 6 am in the morning for Dilshad’s batch.
The six-decade-old government school, located in an industrial belt on the fringes of Kochi where a large section of inter-state workers are employed, receives a sizeable number of applications of children of such workers into all grades. In Dilshad’s class of 12 students who wrote the board examinations this year, four of them, including him, hail from northern states.
But, the primary hurdle for such students in excelling at studies has been the medium of instruction. Most subjects, with the exception of English and Hindi, are taught in Malayalam at schools like these, which end up making the learning process arduous.
To solve this particular problem, the Ernakulam district administration flagged off the ‘Roshni’ project two years ago through which schools with a large concentration of migrant students were identified. The project, a brainchild of Ernakulam district collector Mohammed Y Safirulla, involves an extra hour of language proficiency class in the morning before regular classes begin.
Teachers under ‘Roshni’ have been trained to use code-switching methodology to help students, from classes I to VII, in familiarising with the Malayalam language. To attract more students to the programme, a round of nutritious breakfast is offered at the school as an incentive.
The project, aimed at slashing the drop-out rate among migrant students in government schools and help them communicate better with their Malayali counterparts, has been a roaring success. With the help of CSR funds, the project was extended last year to nearly 20 schools in the district covering 750 students.
“There are initial hassles in getting them introduced to Malayalam, but after a while, they are able to pick it up. Some of them are doing very well, better than even some of the Malayali students,” said Sajitha, who has been the ‘Roshni’ trainer at the Binanipuram school for the past two years.
Kerala is home to nearly 25 lakh inter-state workers who fill the labour vacuum here by working in shopping malls, restaurants, construction sites, plywood factories and garment workshops. They have become an intrinsic component of the Kerala economy that without them, sociologists say, the economy would crash. Successive state governments, realising their significance, have responded to their needs by rolling out social security schemes and skill development institutes for them.
Teachers at the Binanipuram school argue that the feats of hard-working students like Dilshad, who comes from a family with acute financial constraints, are worthy of emulation. Having lost two years in the midst of shifting homes between Bihar and Kerala, Dilshad was admitted to Class 1 by his parents at the Binanipuram school. At a time when there were no incentive-based, add-on government initiatives like ‘Roshni’, Dilshad’s first couple of years at the school were particularly hard. A reticent student, he had a tough time interacting with his classmates and often stayed aloof, his teachers reminisced.
But today, Dilshad says, “Malayalam comes much more naturally to me than Hindi. Kerala is a nice place and I have good friends here.”
When he thinks of his native village in Bihar and the state of schools there, he counts himself lucky to be in Kerala.
“Back in Bihar, the only school in our village is very far from home. There are no buses and you have to walk a lot. Secondly, there are no desks and benches. I have seen students carrying sacks from home and sitting on them during classes,” said Dilshad.
Sudhi said it is a testament to Kerala’s large-hearted investments in the primary and secondary education sector that has paved the way for the inclusion of migrant students in its success story.
“There are revolutionary changes happening across government schools. There are huge funds being spent on education, especially by this government. For example, all of our classrooms are ‘high-tech’, equipped with a laptop, ceiling-mounted projector, USB speakers and access to the Samagra portal,” said Sudhi, referring to an online learning platform developed under the Public Education Rejuvenation Mission of the state government.
Schools like this one in Binanipuram are also routinely monitored by the district administration and the education department to evaluate the performance of its migrant students. If they drop out, teachers have been specially tasked with convincing their parents to enrol them back. But fortunately in the case of Dilshad, his mother Abida always took a special interest in his studies, Sudhi said.
“She would attend all the parent-teacher meetings and would regularly call me for updates on his studies. It was somehow very important to her that he does well in the board exams,” said Sudhi.
In fact, in the run up to the examination, Abida tested positive for uterine cancer, which she hid from Dilshad in fear of breaking his focus. Even today, he is not privy to her condition though he knows she’s not well. Taking into account the family’s financial state, the teachers at the school attempted a crowd-funding measure to help out with her treatment but it has not been enough.
“We are in touch with the district administration to see if it can finance her treatment. Dilshad is a bright child and he understands the poverty in his family. His father doesn’t earn enough to feed five kids. So it’s critical that Dilshad studies further and does well in life,” the teacher said.