I decide to spend a day with the Chalta Firta School — a school on wheels that goes to four poor neighbourhoods in central Delhi every day and tries to impart some education to children who don’t attend schools.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
A minibus, painted bright yellow, stops for 2 hours at each of these places. It is well-furnished inside, with drawers and shelves and glass display cases, all of which contain textbooks, notebooks, stationery as well as toys and illustrated storybooks. There are also fans, tube lights and, most prominently, a big impressive plasma TV screen fixed on the back wall of the bus. Children are shown films on it from time to time.
Manning this bus is a crew of five: two teachers, Poonam and Sudama, both in their 20s; Mansi, who is a “minder”; Durgesh, who works as general help-cum-troubleshooter; and Mahavir, the driver. The non-governmental organization Salaam Baalak Trust, which works with street children, and the Delhi government jointly run the Chalta Firta School. As a boy, Durgesh was rescued from a life on the streets by the Salaam Baalak Trust. Now, he is married and has a daughter of his own.
The children, mostly aged between 5 and 13, invariably look happy attending classes. They generally wear hand-me-downs, and a few of the younger ones are semi-clad. Some have brought their younger toddler siblings — mostly out of necessity, Poonam tells me, as there is no one at home to mind them. Given the varying age group and the loose, non-rigid structure of teaching, the environment is that of a classroom-cum-day-care centre.
Just past 8.30 in the morning, I reach the first stop of the day, a ground in the Kali Bari locality, and am greeted by a scene out of timeless India — children sitting cross-legged on the ground in the shade of a tree being instructed by their teacher. Poonam hands them drawing sheets and a crayon each, and they exchange crayons and mostly draw what I recall from my primary school days — a semicircular sun rising between two triangular hills, a house with a row of Diwali diyas, trees and the outline of a palm with fingers splayed, which is then adorned to resemble a hen. A 3-year-old decides to take his neighbour’s sheet and crumple it into a ball.
After lessons in double-digit addition and division, on a small blackboard that rests on a tripod, it is time for a quiz contest between the boys and girls. Poonam asks a couple of simple math questions, and tests their knowledge of capitals — of India, of Uttar Pradesh (the answer to which no one knows).
“Who is the chief minister of Delhi?” she asks.
“No! Say Shrimati Sheila Dikshitji!”
“Who is the president of India?”
“No! Shrimati Pratibha Patilji!”
The class concludes and a basketful of bananas is brought from the bus parked nearby. Everybody gets one, including some who have just joined the class so that they can get a banana.
From Kali Bari, the bus makes its way across Connaught Place to the “Guru Nanak” locality (it lies near the Guru Nanak Eye Hospital); and, at 10am, it stops under a neem tree in the compound of a government nursery. First, there is a familiar prayer (Itni shakti humein dena daata, which translates loosely as, Give us the strength, God, so we do not lose faith), then the national anthem, followed by quick rounds of some PT (physical training) and even meditation (eyes closed, in lotus position, breathe in, breathe out, say “Om”).
Later, I ask a girl if I can see her notebook, and come across two essays in Hindi. There is that hoary classic on the cow — six lines stating respectively that the cow has four legs, four udders, two eyes, two horns, one nose and one tail. The other one, titled “My Introduction”, went like this:
# My name is Savita.
# I am a girl.
# My birthday is on 12 February.
# I have studied till class V.
# I want to study till class XII.
# I get up early in the morning.
The daily routine for the staff is fairly taxing. Minding four sets of children over the course of the day for 2 hours each, without the infrastructure of a regular school, is not easy. At the Anna Nagar locality — stop No. 3 — Poonam stands in the hot afternoon sun so that the children get what little shade there is. Classes here are conducted literally on the road, by the wall of a shed that houses a temple. (I, too, had to stand in the sun, but I took out an umbrella from my car and unfurled it over my head, much to everyone’s amusement.)
In between classes, the two teachers and Durgesh are busy filling out what look like attendance registers and other forms. “The government requires so much documentation,” says Sudama. She shows me a sheaf of yellow cards she has to fill out — to record the progress of the wards who fall in the scheduled caste and scheduled tribe categories.
Caste might matter in the larger context, but not in the immediate one — all the children they teach are very poor. So many have light hair because they are malnourished. A girl wearing spectacles catches your eye, because you realize she is the only one you have come across with glasses.
At Anna Nagar, a boy of around eight is wearing tattered underwear and a yellowed vest. Compared to him, the others look better off. The slate and chalk in his hand look out of place. He is quiet and meek, and paying attention. Amid all the commotion, I try and observe how Poonam and Sudama treat him. They are actually attentive to him.
All along, I had been curious about the final stop of the day — GB Road, Delhi’s red light district. It turns out to be another bustling old business district, with shop signs of metal traders. The bus stops in front of a small police chowki by the side of the busy road. Since there is no space here to hold a class, it is conducted inside the bus.
Sudama starts off with the prayer at 5pm, but there are only five kids. The others trickle in gradually and, within half an hour, the strength goes up to 15. Around 10 of them, I am told, are from “respectable” families; the others are children of sex workers.
Sudama does double-digit addition on the blackboard — she is adding the digits on the right first, instead of the ones on the left. Behind her, Mahavir, the driver, is sitting by the door and teaching a little girl the Hindi alphabet, carefully writing the letters in her notebook.
It is time to leave. “Forgive us if we did something wrong,” says Mansi, the minder, making me feel like a school inspector.