From a balcony vantage point in the Kabadi Basti (ragpickers slum) in Rangpuri Pahari, the view is obscured by a billowing curtain of heat and dust. A Boeing 737 flies low over the area, located a few kilometres beyond Vasant Kunj, past a winding dirt road shadowed by one of Delhi’s landfills, where garbage mounds rise like sand dunes. To the left is the urban sprawl of Mahipalpur where, in galis 2, 3 and 4, 12-year-old Asmina Shah’s father, Mohammed Nazir Shah, collects garbage every day from 7am.

School time: Asmina Shah (seated) wants to become an English teacher in her father’s village when she grows up. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint

Asmina is Shah’s eldest child. Four years ago, Asmina, like many of the children in Rangpuri Pahari, was brought into the occupational fold—ragpicking, segregating waste or just engaged in odd jobs at home. Tall for her age, wiry and dressed in a red and yellow salwar-kameez (her favourite colours), she chats about her life while absent-mindedly playing with the tiny pigtails that loop behind her head. “I used to wake up, greet my mother, wash my hands, say my prayers, and then I worked…helping my father segregate the garbage," she says matter-of-factly. The courtyard of her one-room residence has discrete hills of plastic bags, cardboard boxes and empty alcohol bottles. Asmina was around 6 when she started working.

In 2005, a local NGO called Bal Vikas Dhara decided to intervene in the area with support from Child Rights and You (CRY). At the time, they estimated there were around 2,000 families in the slum, and started two non-formal education centres for children in 2006. Asmina was one of the first children in the slum to enrol in the facility. She stopped working with her father after getting admission in a municipal school nearby, at the age of 9. She now studies in class V.

Dressed in a faded red cap and khaki shirt, Shah looks visibly tired after his daily shift. He holds his youngest son Peer Mohammed on his lap, periodically wiping the trail of mucus emerging from the boy’s nose with a handkerchief. “The minute my children were born, I decided I would beg, ragpick, do whatever… But my children would sign with a pen, and not a thumb impression. It was my most fervent wish. I’m glad Bal Vikas Dhara has helped make it possible," he says.

Community coordinator Anita Jha was one of the first teachers to start work in the area and has been with the project since 2005. “In the beginning, I went door to door, identifying families and kids. Pleading with them to send children to our centre," she says. The non-formal centres had a basic curriculum of Hindi, math and English and were designed as a bridge programme to help the children join a municipal school. “We had much trouble in the beginning. The kids ran away, cried when they had to come here. The teachers were eve-teased by the men. We also had to convince the principals of the schools to take these children." In its first year, nearly 190 students in the 6-14 age group attended the non-formal centres.

Asmina enjoys school, especially her uniform: sky-blue shirt, navy-blue skirt and black canvas shoes she polishes to a shine. “The dress makes me look smart," she says. The school provides midday meals, whose quality is uncertain. “Sometimes it’s good, like when they have rice…other times they have sookhi (dry) puri." Once or twice a month, they also feature Asmina’s favourite: rajma rice.

Attending school has freed Asmina from having to work through the afternoons, time she now devotes to her two pets: She points to a puppy curiously sniffing a mound of plastic bags. “That’s Dolly the dog," she says, “And this…," she runs into the dark room, emerging with a cardboard box, “…is my pet mouse." The unnamed mouse is white, with patches of brown, and a present from her father. “I found it during my rounds about a month ago, and she’s been taking care of it ever since," says Shah. School holidays are spent in the shade of a nearby mulberry tree, where old saris are hung from branches to make swings.

By the end of 2008, at least 350 children from the neighbourhood had been admitted to the local municipal school. “We moved the ward commissioner and the local MLA to force the schools to admit these children, " says Nisha Verma, committee organizer with Bal Vikas Dhara. Dropout rates in this particular community are now less than 20%.

However, the constitution of Asmina’s slum is changing constantly, and regularity in residence and job is proving increasingly difficult for the residents. “Rents have been on the rise here, rising to over six times their amount three years ago. Evictions and land disputes have intensified," says Sunita, a field coordinator with Bal Vikas Dhara. Asmina’s family pays Rs1,500 for its single-room residence. It’s no surprise then that Asmina sees her future elsewhere. Her ambition is to teach English.

It is her favourite subject at school. “I want to go somewhere far away," she says. “I want to be a teacher in my father’s village." Why there? “Because there are people in that village who don’t go to school yet." When asked where this village is, she shrugs. “I don’t know. But my father does. He’ll take me there."


Bal Vikas Dhara, New Delhi

Bal Vikas Dhara (BVD), supported by Child Rights and You (CRY), works with marginalized, nomadic urban communities, with the aim of spreading awareness and educating people about their rights and duties, and addressing the issues that face women and children. BVD works out of Vasant Kunj, New Delhi, and has projects in the ‘bastis’ near Rangpuri Pahari. Besides non-formal education, it deals with aspects of “creation of community assets, economic empowerment, training and capacity building of the parents of working children, gender sensitization, networking, campaigns and awareness building on child rights".


Rs5,000 for this charity can:

All funds raised by CRY are pooled and disbursed to projects/child rights initiatives across the country, which focus on addressing the “root causes that keep children uneducated, unhealthy and unprotected".

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