Their mother died a year ago after a long bout with tuberculosis. Their father passed away five years ago after being bitten by a snake. Living with aunt Kamla Devi now, Jashoda Garg, 13 and Pooja Garg, 10, have few things in life they consider a luxury. There is the “dhood-malai chocolate candy — “four pieces for Re 1”. And now there are the new shoes on their feet — the girls’ first pair ever.
The black canvas shoes are part of the over 25,000 pairs in various shapes and sizes distributed on January 26 in Jalore under the Vidyarthi Charanpaduka Abhiyan.
While a three-year gap separates them, the two sisters study together, in Class VI. “So that they have each other,” explains Kamla Devi laughing, as she herself sits barefeet under a tree outside the one-room house that is the only thing their parents left for the girls.
Till recently, they covered the 10-minute walk to their school in their fraying chappals — the only footwear they owned.
The girls help each other put the shoes on and inside home keep them safe in a corner, where these won’t be stepped upon.
Beaming, Jashoda says, “We’ll wear the shoes to marriage functions… or to fairs.”
The extended family, Kamla Devi explains, lives together in adjacent homes in Bhagli Sindhalan village. “We do whatever we can, I’m their parent now,” she adds.
It was in December that Jalore district collector Jitendra Kumar Soni thought of the idea of distributing shoes after spotting a few children walking barefeet to school. The son of a watch shop employee and an illiterate mother, Kumar, who belongs to Hanumangarh district of Rajasthan, himself had a difficult childhood. His relatives funded his higher education after his parents found it difficult to raise the money. The sight of the children moved him, he says.
A survey was undertaken, which revealed that at least 10-15 children in each school in Jalore came to class barefoot.
The Vidyarthi Charanpaduka Abhiyan was launched with the target of 25,000 pairs of shoes to be given away by January 26. Though the figures are still being compiled from schools, Kumar estimates they have crossed the target by a fair margin.
According to him, the most important aspect of the campaign is that it is entirely driven by people. “Bhamashahs”, or well-off people, were encouraged to fund the campaign. The DM or the schools haven’t allotted any fund for the shoes.
Officials talk of hundreds of schoolchildren donating their pocket money for the cause, Rasool, an autorickshaw driver whose own child doesn’t go to school, donating 11 pairs of shoes, and one Jograj Jain giving 940 pairs. While officials haven’t specified any kind, black canvas shoes are ideal.
Neighbouring districts are now planning their own campaigns.
Jashoda and Pooja were among the 14 children given shoes at their government higher secondary school in Bhagli Sindhalan. Of the 388 students at the school, 28 continue to be barefeet.
To Ganpat Lal Bhil of Keshav Nagar gram panchayat, the new shoes mean the difference between carrying on studying or dropping out of school.
The 16-year-old’s father works as a labourer at one of the several granite units in the region, breaking, loading and unloading the stone from 8 am to 6 pm every day. No one Ganpat knows has studied beyond Class X within his tribal community here.
School is an hour’s walk away, across desert sand and a path flanked by thorny branches. Ganpat worries still though, about sand entering his shoes through the socks and spoiling them. However, he no longer has to worry about too hot or too cold days, he says.
Dalpat Meghwal who lives half a kilometre away from school got his new shoes on January 26. His father Velaram, who sets up seasonal stalls — of kulfi, roasted corn, tea, depending on the season and whatever he can manage — remembers the 15-year-old Class VIII boy running to him to show them off. He couldn’t help smiling, Velaram adds.
The laces were undone. Dalpat doesn’t know how to tie them yet.