No wall or toilets: Going to school in an Indian slum

Inside an Indian slum school as it battles to provide a better education for its impoverished students.

    No wall or toilets: Going to school in an Indian slum
    Pupils from different classes have to study in the same room due to a shortage of teachers [Mohd Abdul Alam/Al Jazeera]

    "Difficult." That is how Narsimulu Kistappa, a primary school teacher in an Indian slum in Hyderabad, describes his work.

    "It is very difficult to teach when you have only four teachers for five classes," he elaborates.

    The slum where 100 children aged between five and 11 are taught is known as Mahatma Gandhi Nagar.

    The children, some barefoot, must walk past a foul smelling stream of stagnant water and scramble across litter to reach the school.

    The pathway to a slum school in Hyderabad, India [Mohd Abdul Alam/Al Jazeera]

    The conditions in the slum sit in sharp contrast to the city that surrounds it. Hyderabad is, after all, the high-tech capital of the state of Telangana and home to the vast, gleaming offices of technology giants such as Microsoft, Google, IBM and Amazon.

    Mahatma Gandhi Nagar, like 15 other slums, lies in Film Nagar, an area of the city that hosts the world's largest integrated film studio, Ramoji Film City.

    But as difficult as Kistappa finds it to teach in the slum school now, it is a major improvement on what it used to be.

    Himani Gupta, a former management consultant for Pricewaterhouse Coopers, is working full time in the slum with the NGO she co-founded, Kriti.

    "In 2009, when we started working in the slum, the school was a one-room shack with one teacher only," explained Gupta.

    "But with the help of the slum leaders we petitioned [for a proper school building with complete facilities] to the government's department of school education, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan."

    Gupta said that in 2013, based on the petition, the government built a new robust building with five spacious classrooms and a toilet facility.

    But her problems, and those of the school, were far from over.

    Still, the school, one of five in the slum of 4,000 households, was only able to teach around 30 pupils because it had only one teacher. It also had no boundary wall and the toilet didn't work.

    "Because there were no boundary walls, people were drinking liquor in the school premises at night. Two or three times a week, we would go in the morning and there would be broken bottles in the place," Gupta said.

    Parents worried about the safety of their children in a school with no boundary wall; with only one teacher to keep watch, a child could easily wander off, they argued.

    The lack of working toilets also proved problematic.

    "There were no working toilets. There was no water, so even though toilets had been built children couldn't use them. So for going to the toilet the child will leave school and go home," Gupta explained.

    "Where is the studying happening if the children have to always go back home to use the toilet?"

    But Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the government's department of school education and literacy, told Gupta that a lack of funds meant a boundary wall and completed toilets would not be forthcoming.

    When Gupta petitioned for more teachers to increase the number of pupils that could be enrolled, she found herself in a Catch 22 situation.

    The government department said teachers could not be provided if school enrolment was low - but families said they would not send their children if there was only one teacher.

    Unable to afford shoes or slippers, many children come to slum school barefoot  [Mohd Abdul Alam/Al Jazeera]

    Private funding  

    Undeterred, Gupta and her team wrote a proposal and approached the private sector.

    A private firm that deals with clean energy, Greenko, signed a memorandum of understanding with the department of school education and literacy and took on responsibility for the school for three years.

    Under the terms of the agreement, the private firm was to build a boundary wall and provide working toilets.

    It would also employ two teachers for the school while the government was to give one additional teacher.

    With four teachers in place, student enrolment increased. The school now teaches about 100 children from grades one to five.

    But Kistappa says that a lot more still has to be done.

    "I am teaching 2nd and 3rd class with a total of 50 students," he said.

    "Both classes have different syllabus and timing becomes difficult. I give assignments to one class and move to the second and then rotate."

    Each class was being "disturbed", he said, as he was unable to give them his full attention.

    He hopes that the government will provide at least one more teacher. But that would only go a short way towards fulfilling his dreams for the school.

    "I do not even have a computer to explain to students what a computer looks like," he sighed.

    "There are no play things in the play area for the school kids."

    To Kistappa, such things are essentials.

    What happens when the funding runs out? 

    India school aims to educate the poorest

    Gupta, meanwhile, is worried about the school's future.

    "We have funding for one more year to pay teacher salaries and school maintenance. How are we to run the school after the funding has stopped?" she asks.

    The answer from the media office of the department of school education and literacy is encouraging, if not fully reassuring.

    Media officer Mohammed Abdul Ghani said that his department will strive to look for community-based funding. If this does not materialise, as a last resort, the government will sponsor the school.

    But there seems to be little chance of Kistappa's workload being reduced.

    Ghani explains that the government's policy is to supply one teacher for every 30 pupils. By those standards, the school would need to enroll another 50 pupils to be eligible for an additional teacher.

    "There is no way around that," Ghani said. "It is the policy and we must follow."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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