New Delhi, India – Khushboo Tiwari has not attended any classes since her school on the outskirts of the Indian capital, New Delhi, was shut in March last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Like millions of underprivileged children across India, the 12-year-old also could not attend virtual classes as her parents, who work at a local utensils factory, could not afford to buy her a smartphone.
On Mondays, Tiwari would walk to her school to get the week’s homework on sheets of paper, but the grade VI student was not happy and missed regular classes.
Though her government-run school remains closed, she has found a new place to attend classes less than a mile away from her home.
Tiwari’s home is close to Singhu border, situated on a highway that links New Delhi to the northern state of Haryana.
For nearly two months now, the site has been occupied by tens of thousands of farmers protesting against a set of three agriculture laws passed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in September.
While the government says the laws will modernise India’s vast agricultural sector and allow farmers to sell their produce directly to private companies, the protesters see the legislations as “pro-corporate” and “anti-farmer” and fear they will destroy their livelihoods.
Multiple rounds of talks between the government and farmers’ representatives have failed to break the deadlock. On Thursday, an offer by the government to suspend the laws for 18 months was rejected by the farmers’ unions.
As the protest intensified, hundreds of tents emerged on Singhu border despite the freezing cold, blocking the highway for several kilometres with tractors.
It was in one of those tents that a makeshift school was started for underprivileged children, mostly from the nearby slums.
Gurdeep Singh, a 37-year-old farmer from Punjab state’s Rupnagar district, says the idea to start classes came after they saw poor children collecting plastic bottles at the protest site.
“A volunteer brought them to the tent and that is how the school started. Initially, we had just eight students but now the number is 167,” Singh told Al Jazeera, adding that the classes are held from 10:30am to 2pm on weekdays.
Though the makeshift school does not have a name, the tent is now called “Sanjhi Sathh”, meaning a common place, to recreate a village tradition of holding discussions on important issues.
It began with setting up of a library, which displays biographies of Indian freedom fighter Bhagat Singh, Argentine Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, and other books of various genres and newspapers in English, Hindi and Punjabi languages.
Dozens of posters with slogans written on them cover every inch of the tarpaulin tent.
“We want to help the children as they mostly come from slums and their parents are either daily wage labourers or work in factories and can’t focus on their education,” said Baljeet Kaur, a volunteer teacher from Kurukshetra in Haryana.
The children, most of them below the age of 13, sit in small groups for their English, Hindi, mathematics and science classes, besides painting and drawing.
“After remaining away from schools for months together, when I came to know about this place from my neighbourhood friends, I couldn’t stop myself from coming here the very next day,” says a beaming Tiwari, who aims to become a doctor.
“I love drawing but at our government school, we are not given painting or drawing lessons,” she said. “The teachers here are very nice and teach us how to paint and draw sketches. We all love being here.”
As soon as Tiwari’s classes are over, she rushes to her home to do the household chores while her parents are away at work. “I cook and do the dishes before my parents come home,” she says.
Hema Oli, another 12-year-old girl from the neighbouring Kundli village, is also attending the classes with Tiwari. The grade IV student says she comes to the makeshift school every day despite her mother’s concerns that the protests may turn violent anytime.
“I love studying whether it is in school or here in the tent. I just want to study,” says the young girl who wants to learn to speak English. “When people talk in English, I don’t understand them so I want to learn and speak English fluently.”
Volunteer teacher Kaur says many children coming to the tent have never been to school but can have a good future if nurtured.
“We want to develop an interest in learning and schooling in such children so they can go to school instead of working as ragpickers or at tea stalls at such a young age,” she told Al Jazeera.
“So I just want to help such children wherever I am, no matter for how long.”
Organiser Singh says the children mostly come from local slums. “This place is open to everyone. Anyone can come and read here.”
Neither the protesters nor the children at the makeshift school have any idea how long the protests will continue.
Volunteer Amninder Kaur Kang, 24, said they are in touch with some non-governmental organisations in New Delhi who can help the children once the site is vacated by the protesters.
“Everyone here wants to add value, do something productive, to contribute towards the movement and society in whatever way one can,” she told Al Jazeera.
“This is a collective movement and we all want to be a part of this.”