Around 11 am, a modified bus resembling a clinical laboratory pulls up in front of the municipal school in Rajkot’s Shramjivinagar. A curious passer-by on a scooter stops to ask, “What is this bus all about?” Standing at the door of the vehicle, Hemant Bhamre replies with a broad smile, “It is meant for children.”
Among its passengers are Sunny Parmar, an 11-year-old from a slum pocket, Lucky Talsangariya (12), who works in a tea stall, and Manisha Bhati (11), whose father scavenges metal scrap.
Bhamre is the coordinator of the Wisdom-on-Wheels (WoW) initiative launched by Rajkot District Collector Rahul Gupta in January. Sunny, Lucky and Manisha are among 1,113 children from slum pockets in Rajkot who have never been to school or dropped out. They have since been enrolled by WoW in various government schools over the last eight months.
WoW, often, also doubles as a community interface. On this day, among a group of women on board is Meena (35), mother of 13-year-old Kiran Shiyar, and her pregnant daughter-in-law Kajal. “When will we get BPL ration card so that Kajal can avail benefits of government schemes for pregnant women?” asks Meena, mother of four, who sells used garments while her husband drives an auto-rickshaw.
Bhamre tells her that he has already helped her get an APL (Above Poverty Line) ration card, which will now be converted into BPL.
A 45-year-old social worker from Nasik in Maharashtra with a Masters degree in social work, Bhamre worked for children’s rights in Maharashtra for the last 25 years and was roped-in by the Rajkot district collector in November last year to conduct a survey for the WoW initiative and then coordinate its activities.
“We have to first win the trust of these families before we can ask them to send their children to school. Kiran used to accompany her mother selling used garments. This is the case with most of the other children. So, we also had to think about giving these families alternatives so their children are not engaged in odd jobs which keep them out of school,” he says.
“As a way out, we have been helping these families avail benefits of various government schemes like the National Food Security Act, ration cards, voter identity cards, Aadhaar cards, old-age pension, foster pension for parents, aid to Divyangs as well as giving them opportunities to earn through new avenues like allotting them stalls to sell toys at fairs etc. Since this is an initiative by the district collector, it is easier for us to get such things done quickly.”
Bhamre and collector Gupta’s wife Anuja worked together in Maharashtra and she was instrumental in bringing Bhamre on board for the WoW initiative.
Gupta says that he felt the need for such an initiative after he and his wife adopted a government primary school in Anandpar village on the outskirts of Rajkot last year.
“We realised that there were lots of children who were out of school and there was a need to tap into that pool. We had a survey done and found that children were not willing to go to school as they were into begging, working in factories or doing menial household jobs and were earning something for their families,” he said.
Gupta says that modifying the luxury bus to give it the look of a school, with laptops, a desktop, a projector, sanitary napkin vending machine etc cost Rs 15 lakh.
“Initially, we used funds of the Rajkot Lok Mela Samiti. We created the bus only to attract people and create some buzz. But within the launch of the WoW project by Chief Minister Vijay Rupani on January 14, we got donations worth Rs 70 lakh. So, now, WoW has its own corpus” says Gupta. WoW has also been allotted an office in the Rajkot district collectorate and the team says they have been able to reach out to 11,000 people in Rajkot.