Over the past seven days, Mukesh and Chandni Paswan’s four-year-old son has brought several new things home — an English poetry book, a school diary, two crisp sets of uniforms and a pair of shoes. For the couple, both residents of Sanjay Camp, a slum cluster abutting Chanakyapuri in south Delhi, each of these items holds the promise of a better future for their son.
On March 20, their child got admission to the nursery section of Sanskriti School, less than a kilometre away from the slum, in the Economically Weaker Section (EWS) category. Under the provision, 25 per cent seats in private schools are reserved for children of families with annual income less than a lakh.
Earlier this month, Delhi businessman Gaurav Goyal was arrested for impersonating as a resident of Sanjay Camp to get his son admitted to Sanskriti School under the EWS quota in the 2012-13 batch. Goyal allegedly claimed his annual income was Rs 67,000 and told police that he had stayed at the slum for 10 days.
Residents of the slum deny Goyal ever stayed in the slum. “I wonder why he gave our address… look at this place, there is not enough room for us. How can we rent out any space?” says Shammi, 24, whose mother-in-law’s house is where Goyal claimed to have stayed. Her mother-in-law Sarifan Islam, she says, has been living in the slum since the early ’80s.
Sitting outside her mud home that is painted blue, Shammi says police visited their house but returned after they refuted Goyal’s claims.
The police visit left residents of Sanjay Camp amused, says Mukesh, 27. “Hindi Medium film jaisi kahani hai (The story resembles the plot of the film Hindi Medium, where the lead protagonists stay in a slum in Delhi to get their daughter admitted to a private school)… People come from outside and misuse the EWS provision and people like us are left scrambling for seats,” says Mukesh, who earns Rs 300 a day working as a daily wager on construction sites.
Situated on the fringes of the upscale Chanakyapuri, hidden behind its tree-lined lanes and parks, Sanjay Camp, which residents say came up in “Indira Gandhi’s time”, provides most of the manpower for the embassies, five-star hotels and government residences in the area. But the slum’s proximity to the tony neighbourhood has done little to improve the living conditions of its nearly 2,500 families, residing in crumbling homes. Open drains run parallel to haphazard lanes and the men and women use the community toilet and bathroom in the slum. In some of the cramped homes, where the bed and the kitchen stove often jostle for space, there is the occasional television set, washing machine and even a tablet.
“Hamari zindagi toh ghar chalane aur gaon paise bhejne mein chali gayi (Our lives have been spent making ends meet and sending money to our homes back in the village). With a private school education, at least my son will have a shot at moving out of the slum,” says Mukesh, who hails from Bhagalpur in Bihar and has two other children, a six-month-old son and a five-year-old daughter who studies in Class 1 at a government school in nearby Moti Bagh, like most children in the slum. The locality has three government schools in all. Residents say Sankriti is the only private school that children of the slum apply to.
Sanskriti School declined to comment on its EWS policy.
“A relative of mine suggested that I apply to Sanskriti School and so I did. I took all the necessary documents to a nearby cyber cafe and applied online. Over the years, at least 30-40 children in the slum have managed to get admission to the school and so I was quite optimistic. On March 20, I was informed that my son has got admission. That was the happiest day of our lives,” says Mukesh, whose wife has just got their son back from school.
While serving their son lunch, Chandni, 25, says she has been following all the “instructions” from the school so that the boy doesn’t feel any different from the other students. “I make sure his uniform is clean and ironed; shoes polished. We have been told to give healthy food in tiffin and I try and give him paranthas,” she says, adding, “There are eight general category students in his class and eight from the EWS quota. I want him to mingle with everyone.” Both Chandni and Mukesh have studied till Class 5.
“I am prepared to take up more work so that I can provide for my son’s needs. He has got this opportunity and I will make sure that we make the most of it,” says Mukesh, lifting his son in his arms.
A few homes away, 18-year-old Jyoti, a Class 11 Arts stream student at Sanskriti, is getting ready for extra classes at school. Dressed in a pleated skirt, her shirt tucked in, she says she wants to become a fashion designer. “I got admission in nursery and I now have a strong group of friends… even high-society ones,” she says, adding that her “dream” is to “move out of the slum one day”.
“The children in the slum who go to government schools don’t dream big. I do. The teachers pay a lot more attention. There are so many extra-curricular activities. I enjoy all of it,” she says, sitting in her one-room home. Her mother is sitting outside, washing a large pile of clothes.
Over the years, she says, her friends have understood that “I can’t throw lavish birthday parties and so don’t bring it up”. “They are all children of big officers and I go to several of their parties. For my birthday, I mostly stay at home… Once I took a few of my friends to a local sweet shop,” says Jyoti, the youngest of three siblings. Her two brothers, aged 20 and 21, have both studied in Bhagalpur in Bihar and are now preparing for competitive exams. They have also picked up part-time jobs to supplement the family’s income. Her father is a painter at the nearby Taj Palace Hotel.
As Jyoti begins to leave for her “afternoon” class, a neighbour standing outside her home points out: “Dekha, kaise yeh bachche afternoon afternoon, sorry sorry bolte hain (See how these children speak English)… Children of government schools don’t do that.”
While Mukesh and Chandni’s son made the private school cut, there are several families in the slum who have tried to get their children admitted to private schools, but failed. “Sab kismat ki baat hai (It’s all destiny). I first tried to get my daughter Tamanna (10) admission but that never happened. This year, I applied for my son Prateek, who is 5, but he wasn’t selected either,” says Ratan Agnihotri, 32, a daily wager who earns
Rs 10,000 a month. Both his children go to a municipal school in Moti Bagh.
His wife Poonam, who has “grown up in Sanjay Camp”, says she made several trips to Sanskriti School in March but was told that her son wasn’t chosen. Pointing to her phone that has a photograph of the admission list that was pasted on the school gate, she says, “See, his name is not there. We couldn’t enter the school or else I would have pleaded with the administration.”
Agnihotri, who is from Vaishali district in Bihar, is disappointed too. “Children of IAS, IPS study there, my children would have got a good environment had they got in. But the most important thing is English. Although it is taught in government schools as well, the standard is very different. You need to know English to get any good job today. There is also good security outside the school. The students get separate study material as well,” he says. “I don’t want my children to live in these crumbling homes and keep wishing for a better life,” he adds.
His wife joins in, pulling the five-year-old Prateek to her lap, “I like the uniform of the school too. It’s very smart. Haina, Prateek (What do you think, Prateek)?” The child wriggles out her grip and returns to play games on his father’s phone.
“All children in the slum are hooked to the phone,” smiles Poonam, 28, who studied till Class 12 at a government school in Moti Bagh.
Back at the Paswan household, Mukesh and Chandni are jostling with another problem: there is no one to teach their son after school. “None of us knows English or for that matter any other subject. My daughter has been teaching my son a few things… We might have to get him a tutor,” says Mukesh.