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What do you like the most, Umra?" I asked her.

“Apple," she said, in her soft, sure voice.

After a pause, she added, “Sometimes my father gets me apples from the railway station without my even asking for it."

Umra Salmani is 10 years old and Arif, her brother, is 8.

“I know multiplication tables," Arif said to us.

“Let’s hear them," I said.

Arif was unstoppable. He crossed 10 and continued breathlessly up to the multiplication tables of 11 and 12, as if he was repeating a chant he had heard every day.

What stayed with me long after I had returned home from Raebareli, Uttar Pradesh, was the laughter and bonding of the children of Poore Kallu primary school. We had witnessed joie de vivre.

“Do you like coming to school or do you like going home?" I asked a group of students from classes IV and V on camera.

“We like coming to school!" all of them said in unison. “At home it is always do this-do that, or bring this-bring that, and so much work to do. In school, we study, play, eat, study and play again."

Most of these pre-teen children are diligent workers at home. Ankit sits in the family-owned corner shop after he returns from school and helps to fold and paste paper bags. Iqra cooks and cleans because her mother is too ill to manage chores. Nancy helps her aunt, who is a tailor. Shahnawaz works in his father’s garage. Umra and Arif are latchkey children. They return from school to an empty home and often sleep before their father returns from work as a truck mechanic on the highway. Neither of them remembers what their mother looked like. They eat what their father, Mansoor Ahmed, cooks for them before leaving for work.

When we arrived to film a documentary at the government-run primary school in this suburban neighbourhood of Raebareli, there was only one teacher in a school for more than 120 students. In the week that we were there, midday meals were not being cooked. Kitchen supplies had run out. Most of the children had nothing to eat between 9am and 4pm. Like many other children, Umra and Arif had been attending school with nothing but a breakfast of biscuits and bread dipped in tea.

Despite this, there was an electric energy on the dusty campus. This school is one of the hundred schools supported by Lokmitra, an organization working to improve elementary school education for children from underprivileged communities.

A day often begins with student members of the Bal Manch (Students Council) walking into the neighbourhood with a list of children who are absent. Lokmitra’s Vandana Devi accompanies them. Lokmitra activists work with communities and government-run schools to create linkages and enable communication. They help children attend school regularly, support teachers in classrooms by introducing teaching tools and techniques and collectivize parents to become influencers in the system.

Till additional teachers are appointed to this school, Lokmitra’s Vandana will teach in class and organize activities for the children, supporting the lone teacher, Suman Devi, in her job.

In the afternoon, the Bal Manch sat together for a formal meeting. The room resounded with their voice as they spelt out the rights of children. Children have the right to life, protection, participation, expression and play. Children have the right to jump, added a small voice from the group.

The meeting was moderated by Vandana Devi and Sanjay Pal of Lokmitra. Three topics were foremost on the minds of the children. There was no running water in the toilet, midday meals were not being cooked and there was stagnant water in the school playground. They wrote an application to the local councillor and later walked across from their school to submit it. Brijrani, the elected councillor, was stitching clothes in her shop when the children arrived. She listened to their demands, received the application, and put an official stamp on the receipt.

The next day, the headmistress of the school, Suman Devi, ensured that a midday meal was cooked and served to all the children.

School is freedom for these children. School is where they express themselves. They teach and nurture each other. In school they have discovered that they have rights. They can ask for them without fear. They are reassured that their lives matter.

I spoke to Rajesh Kumar and Priya Bharti, who founded Lokmitra 17 years ago. “You could have started your own school or supported children outside school, but you chose to engage with the existing government-run school system," I said to them.

“We believe that it is the state’s responsibility to provide quality education to all citizens," said Kumar. “The biggest hurdle is not a lack of infrastructure, it is a lack of accountability. We decided to devote our energies towards making the system accountable. Towards supporting children and their families, and to enhance the quality of education imparted."

Arif and Umra are direct beneficiaries of the bridges built when a healthy dialogue takes place between the community and systems that are meant to support them. They were spotted by Sharda Devi, who is the president of the school management committee. Along with Vandana, Sharda met Mansoor Ahmed and persuaded him to send his children to school every day. They spoke to the teachers in school to allow Umra and Arif to attend class even if they came late.

Umra was a child without a voice when she joined school two years ago. Today she is a Bal Manch leader, counselling other parents to send their children to school regularly. She is Arif’s role model. The children have received permission from the larger community to grow and flourish.

Umra sits for hours together and draws and paints. Arif showed us her drawing book with pride. “You will find fairies and peacocks in this. Look, this is the school with a water tank and mosque next to it," he showed us. Umra’s best friends are Nancy, Pooja, Iqra and Rabia. On some days they play badminton together in school.

“We know we have come a long way in connecting the underprivileged with those in power," says Priya Bharti. “At an emotional level, it often feels like we haven’t achieved much. But when we look at the faces of children, their smiles replenish our energy once again."

These are the real stories of people who are pieces of the puzzle that is our whole. I’ll stop for today, but if you tell me you want to hear more, I promise I will bring you more.

Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three. She tweets at @natashabadhwar and posts on Instagram as natashabadhwar.

Write to Natasha at natasha.badhwar@gmail.com

Also read | Natasha Badhwar’s previous Lounge columns.

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