Free School Under the Metro Bridge: A modest attempt to bridge India's education gap
Children of the underprivileged go through the basics of Hindi language at the school. Photograph: (WION)
It’s early in the morning and New Delhi’s Yamuna Bank metro station is swampy after the overnight rain. As cars drive past, a group of children, wearing mud-soiled clothes, start assembling under a gigantic metro bridge. Pushing each other to form neat lines, they fold their hands to pray. The sight resembles a school assembly, only that it's not.
A few kilometres away, 46-year-old Rajesh Kumar Sharma, a grocery store owner, picks up his bag and sets out for a long day ahead. He crosses his store but doesn’t go in.
Fifteen minutes later, he stands next to a blackboard dusting away a lesson on decimals as his voice gets drowned out by the overhead metro roar.
This is Sharma’s “Free School Under the Metro Bridge”, located in the national capital's suburb.
For eight-year-old Nisha who has just finished learning her alphabets, it has already been a long day. She woke up early to help her mother collect roses from public parks, gardens and the nearby cemetery. She had to wake up at 2am for that is the only time they can go about their business unhindered.
“I was too tired to come to school today but my mother never lets me cut classes. My older sisters have studied here. They now go to schools in their uniforms,” she says.
Like her, most students in the free school are children of migrants from northern states of India.
In the mornings, they make money by selling flowers near temples and then double up as manual labourers after sunset.
Sharma had first seen a similar gaggle of children back in 2006, when he visited the area to see the capital’s newest sensation — the Metro train.
The citywide project was growing rapidly and with its expansion came opportunities for tenants and landless farmers from the neighbouring states. They arrived in hordes. They dug mud. And they put up the burly grey pillars that now dot the capital’s landscape.
It is between two such pillars that Sharma now teaches about 50 students.
For many, it is their first brush with education.
“I had come to see the metro construction on Yamuna bank when I saw kids from poor families playing in the mud. That's when I thought I should help these children and improve their lives. I spoke to their parents and started teaching a few kids under a tree,” says Sharma.
But Sharma’s modest school under the tree did not withstand the vicissitudes of Delhi weather. The rains and the oppressive heat scuppered daily classes.
“I started looking for another venue. That’s how I came up with the idea of shifting my school under this bridge. Today, ten years later, we are four teachers, teaching children from the age of five to 16. We have come a long way,” he beams.
The school runs on donations. Some of the children here are also enrolled in the nearby government-run schools. But they continue to come to the free school.
Fourteen-year-old Bunty Mohammed, a grade six student, is one of them. He comes to the school at 9am, studies for four hours before classes in his government school begin.
“There are so many students in my class and teachers there never get time to clear our doubts. Most lessons are taught only once. Here, each student gets individual attention. We don’t get scolded for asking questions. The environment is much better,” he says.
It's also better for those who struggle to get themselves enrolled in a government-run school.
“They (children) don't have identity cards or ration cards. At times, schools refuse to give them admission,” Sharma says while speaking about the sorry state of government-run schools.
“I was compelled to start this school because I realise the importance of education,” says Sharma. “I am just a high school graduate.Yet, I am here introducing education to children.”
Quality education is something Sharma and his teachers aren’t qualified to impart either but they put in the hard yards to keep their school updated with latest teaching methods. Over the years, the school has incorporated computer and mobile-based learning into their curriculum.
“It’s a competitive world and we don’t want our students to be left behind. We send them to a free computer class nearby, whenever it's possible. We also have volunteers who come over from different NGOs to show children how mobile applications work. They might not have smartphones but they know how they work,” says Laxmi Chand, one of the teachers at the free school.
The result of all the hard work is evident when ten of their students made it to a medical school last year. For Sharma, this is his biggest achievement so far.
“Some time back, a few guests had asked the kids about their ambition. Some said they wanted to be doctors. That time, I thought how can they become doctors when they don't even know how to wash their hands properly?
“But today they are in a medical school. Now tell me, has their life changed or not?”