The coronavirus pandemic has exposed a massive digital divide within India’s education system.
Growing up in Ambedkar Nagar, a slum community in south Mumbai, Phatima Sattar Mulla used to imagine what it would be like to put on a clean school uniform and go to school. Instead, she would accompany her mother and six siblings each day to the Sassoon Docks, where she worked peeling prawns.
But then in 1999, when Phatima was eight years old, an organisation called the Door Step School (DSS) answered her prayers.
Now 29, Phatima has a master’s degree in social work and a job in the field of rural development, health and nutrition.
“I chose to study social work, inspired by what the Door Step School does,” she says. “The teachers and volunteers could have worked anywhere else, but the fact that they choose to do this difficult job, giving children like me a fair chance in life, is what made me choose this field.”
Each day, Phatima would go to the local balwadi (preschool) run by the DSS. It was a small room in the slum, furnished with a blackboard and charts, some toys and books.
“We sat on mats on the floor and my teacher used to hold my little fingers and guide me as I wrote the alphabet on my slate,” she remembers.
“I learned shapes and colours through songs and pictures. This early attempt by them to change my life had ripple effects, seeing me through school and college. DSS impacted my life forever by giving me a route out of poverty, and the milieu that I was thrust into.”
It was children like Phatima that Bina Sheth Lashkari had in mind when she founded the Door Step School.
In 1988, Bina was studying for her master’s degree in social work and volunteering in government schools when she noticed the high drop-out rate of children who lived in slums – often nothing more than makeshift shanties on construction sites. These children were required to support their families instead of going to school, either by working at odd jobs or by looking after younger siblings while their parents were away at work.
In India, the right to schooling for all children aged 6 to 14 is enshrined in law, but government schools do not always reach children living in remote areas, on the streets or in slums. Furthermore, parents are not always aware of their rights.
Other children were missing out on schooling because they moved frequently from city to city with their parents who needed to move to find work, and were never enrolled in school.
Their plight gave Bina the idea that, “If children can’t go to the school, let the school come to them.”
With her colleague, Rajani Paranjpe, she started by offering informal lessons in letters, numbers and language skills to a small group of 25 students from the migrant Banjara community, at Cuffe Parade in Mumbai.
The idea was to provide the children with nonformal education, for them to learn to read and write, so that they would not be exploited by unscrupulous employers who might underpay them or shopkeepers who might overcharge them, as well as to help them towards the goal of attending regular school eventually.
Their idea for the Door Step School – so named because teachers would literally fetch children from the doorstep – grew into a popular teaching scheme for disadvantaged children in and around Mumbai. It has produced many success stories like Phatima.
Vinod Chavan, 26, grew up in a slum community in South Mumbai, living with his mother and three brothers.
“I started working in a tea stall when I was aged eight, earning 300 rupees ($4) a month, which was a significant income for my family,” he explains.
“I somehow managed my studies with the support of the teachers of the DSS, and started working in an ice cream shop when I was 11.
“Today, I have a degree in commerce and I am a restaurant manager in a food company,” he says.
Vinod wants to make sure that other disadvantaged children also get the chances he had.
“I want to give back to the community, and have started a foundation called the Dream To Achieve Foundation, which helps the children of ‘pavement dwellers’ – those who sleep rough on the streets – and other underprivileged children,” he explains.
The foundation works to develop children’s confidence and helps with the practicalities of enrolling them in school. It also runs vocational courses in areas such as travel and language courses to help them get a job when they are older.
Twenty-seven-year-old Shivraj Chavan is also a graduate of the DSS. He was enrolled in it in 1997 when he was four years old. His parents were construction workers. Later, at age seven, he enrolled at the government school and attended after-school classes offered by DSS, as well as doing football training and performing street plays.
Now, with a master’s degree in commerce, Shivraj works as an accountant and plans to pursue a law degree in the future. “I owe a lot of my success to DSS, which shaped me and gave me a chance to pursue my dreams,” he says. “What it gave me is the chance to change my path, and come out of poverty and my social environment.”
Since it began in 1988, the Door Step School has grown from its original, simple idea. “In the early days of DSS, our teachers went from door to door to fetch the kids, as we did not have any permanent room or building or any school bell,” Bina explains. “We chose teachers who were passionate about social work and teaching children, rather than just having a teaching degree.”
In the early days, classes were quite often held on pavements, beside the dustbins, using whatever space the teachers could find near the children’s homes. “There was no literacy component in the early days. All we wanted was that these children who had never got a chance to attend school, at least know how to count or be able to identify signs that they saw,” Bina says.
“The teaching approach was very practical – we started off teaching them relevant things from their everyday lives, like how to calculate their daily earnings. One of the most impactful instances that I remember is a young girl who was working, cleaning fish, and she corrected her employer when he wrote 3kg instead of 5kg of fish against her name. She shared her elation at being able to stand up for herself and not be exploited by her employer,” Bina recalls with pride.
“I don’t expect too much change in the first generation that we teach. If there is, it’s a bonus,” she says. “But it will definitely impact their children, who will have a literate parent to guide them.”
Today, DSS, which also operates a “school-on-wheels” project, runs more than 200 centres – usually single rooms on construction sites or in slums – in Mumbai and Pune. They target children in the early years – between the ages of three and six – to prepare them and their parents for school, making sure they join a school by the age of seven. Children are supported with after-school classes if they need extra help. The centres also work with older children, who never got a chance to go to school or are dropouts.
DSS aims to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and goes to wherever the children can be found – from those living rough outside railway stations or on footpaths, to slums and construction sites, and even apartments where their parents are domestic servants.
The schools-on-wheels project, which began in 1998, is a converted bus fitted with cabinets filled with stationery, supplies, toys and books. Every bus has a teacher and supervisor and each one stops at four preassigned locations each day. Today there are seven bus-schools operating in Mumbai and five in Pune.
They try to reach underprivileged children in neighbourhoods without access to education. Each mobile class lasts for about three hours, and their students include ragpickers, balloon sellers, shoe polish boys and other street children.
“When they see our parked bus, they run towards it – to read, sing songs or learn basic concepts for a couple of hours each day,” says Bina.
“Sometimes the children are taken on field trips like museums or to the zoo or even to the police station, so that they understand and [do] not just fear law enforcement.”
Ashwini Pawar, who is 12 and lives in central Mumbai, studies in class six.
“I have books to read, we say prayers and sing the national anthem,” he says. “Teachers teach us from picture charts and we have writing competitions. I love coming here because it’s so much fun.”
Not all parents are keen on the idea, however.
“With the school-on-wheels project, our jobs were more difficult, as we had to start with hygiene, cleanliness … and then attract the students to learning,” Bina explains.
“Many times, the parents would take their children away for some work. Some parents were abusive, used foul language and it was challenging for us and our teachers to handle them.
“Parents would hide their kids and say that they are not at home, or that they want to send them to work and not to school. We have had to convince them about why education is important. Increasingly, however, the children who started enjoying our classes would fight with their parents to attend school.”
But Bina says they have seen a positive change over time, with many parents coming to value their children’s education.
“They are initially reluctant but later become very co-operative and supportive of our endeavour. Regular meetings with the parents is a must and we foster understanding and respect for education through that.
“Our former students are the best ambassadors for our schools as when they share their journey from poverty and illiteracy into a better life for them and their parents, it inspires others too.”
One programme that DSS runs is the Bal Samuha, a youth group that helps former pupils to develop leadership skills that will benefit their communities.
Phatima says that she honed her leadership skills and grew her confidence through this programme. “I worked on many initiatives with others in my community, from arranging for regular garbage collection, to persuading people who employed girls from villages as housemaids to send them to school. We did school plays, dealt with problems in the slums and helped each other to learn and grow,” she says.
Another major challenge is the cost. “Sometimes finding the money to run programmes really becomes tough,” says Bina, explaining that because the schools are run by an NGO, they depend on donors for funding.
“We pay all our teachers and supervisors, we buy teaching materials, toys and books, and we also train our teachers regularly. The centres are usually rooms that we pay rent for. In the case of the school on wheels, there are the added costs of fuel, drivers and insurance,” she explains, adding that their donors come from India and elsewhere.
DSS has also developed deep connections with government schools. “We … run programmes in tandem with them to ensure good sanitation facilities, and to teach good hygiene and eating habits to young students of government schools,” Bina says.
The success of DSS has inspired some communities to name streets in slums like Ambedkar Nagar, Hiranandani Akruti Chawl in Govandi and slums in Cuffe Parade after children who have become high achievers.
Rehmuddin Shaikh, who lived in Ambedkar Nagar, was a school dropout who attended lessons with DSS. He went on to become a state-level rugby player, and a coach for the state women’s rugby team. An alley in Ambedkar Nagar has been named after him. His story has inspired other children from the slum.
“It’s not easy living in the slums or on a footpath and not have access to schools or education,” says Bina. “Children can go astray, get into drugs or crime, or simply lose motivation.
“What is very heartening at the end of the day is the change that we see in the trajectory of a child’s life, and how he or she can rise above their circumstances.”