MARRIED at the age of 14 to a daily wager and stitching clothes for a living at the fish market slum in Ludhiana, Aneeta had a dream. That was five years ago. Today, the mother of two is living that dream.
Aneeta is among “150 students” at the “jhuggi classrooms” in three slums within 5 km of each other in the city. The face behind these schools is Hari Om Jindal, a 53-year-old lawyer who is living his own dream — providing basic education for free to slum dwellers.
Last year, Aneeta cleared the Class 3 exam under the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) curriculum and is appearing for her Class 5 exam in four months. With her three-year-old daughter and five-year-old son in tow, Aneeta attends classes for three hours, besides learning basic computer skills and typing at another class in Jindal’s home in the evening.
“My father sells fish in the market near the slum. Though I always wanted to study, I could never do that. Now I want to study till Class 10 at least. If I can get a job in an office with my computer skills, my dream will fully come true,” she says.
Jindal says his initiative got going sometime in March 2014, when he noticed the slum children during his morning cycling rounds.
“Initially, I used to take ladoos and chocolates for them. After about six months, I started reading out to them — stories and the daily newspapers. In December that year, I started teaching them the alphabets and basic counting using pieces of debris and chalk for about an hour every day. Initially, only five of them came,” says Jindal, who takes up civil and criminal cases in the district courts and the Punjab and Haryana High Court.
Today, six students from his school, including Aneeta, have cleared their Class 3 exams with A and B grades. “In March 2020, 11 of my students will appear for their open school exams — six for Class 5 and five for Class 3. A senior secondary school 5 km away is the exam centre,” says Jindal.
From a strength of one, the staff at the “slum school” now include three part-timers who teach from Monday to Saturday, and two computer instructors who teach after school hours. “There are five computers at home, and 60 students are being taught in batches from 2.30-4.30 pm. I have organised a van to transport them,” says Jindal.
Jindal, a father of two whose wife runs a logistics business, says he sets aside about half his income for the slum schools, spending on books and stationery, among other things. His friends donate too, he says, adding, “The cost works out to around Rs 1.5 lakh every month”. But the result, he says, has been worth the effort.
Jindal says that he attempts to take education and learning beyond the basics. “I realised that they need to be educated about their rights and duties, too. So I wrote a book, ‘Empowerment through Knowledge’, in which I structured the alphabet lessons in a different manner: A for Administration, B for Ballot Box, C for Constitution, D for Democracy, E for Election, F for Freedom, G for Government, and so on. We explain the meaning and significance of each word as well,” he says, adding, “It is a challenge to deal with children from different age groups — six to 20 — in one class, but we are managing somehow.”
The impact is visible. “In a democracy, many parties contest. But the one that gets the maximum number of seats forms the government,” says Ajay in fluent English. The 11-year-old is set to appear for the Class 5 exam in March. Not too long ago, Ajay was a rag-picker at the huge dump near his slum until “ladoowale uncle came on his bicycle”.
Sita, 15, speaks about “empowerment, democracy, elections”. “I want to become a lawyer like Jindal sir,” she says while preparing for the Class 5 exam.
For the students, the school is not just about the book. “Now, we take care of our personal hygiene as well. We take a bath every day, wear grey skirts, white shirts and red sweaters to school. We also celebrate all festivals,” says Rekha, 13, who cleared her Class 3 exams with an ‘A’ grade in March this year.
Kajal, 15, who is ready to appear for the Class 5 exams next year, says her parents will continue to pick garbage to earn money, “but we have stopped. Now I study and help my mother with her household work”.
“Rich people misbehave with us and our parents. But education had taught me about the Right to Equality,” says Durga, 16.