On a grand mission

On a grand mission

Saraswati’s lips never stop moving. When she is not smiling or talking animatedly, the nearly 70-year-old keeps chanting a “guru mantra". It’s impossible to ignore the soft hum of her voice or the large U-shaped tika on her forehead that gives her the look of a priestess of some sort.

Once a month, Saraswati accompanies her two granddaughters to Diya Vidya Mandir, an English-medium school located in the heart of Nihal Vihar which is run by the Diya Foundation in association with the Care and Concern Foundation. She attends the parent-teacher meeting, listens to what the teacher has to tell her about Anita and Nikita’s progress and then waits patiently to collect the 5kg rice and 1kg dal ration that the foundation provides every month to families that send their children to this school.

The foundation was set up in 2003. “It was the boy who used to clean our car and lived in Nihal Vihar who told us about the condition of his area. We visited the area and then rented out a small room from where we started our school with 20 children," says Sanjeev Nayyar, honorary secretary, Diya Foundation. “We were sure that if we would provide them with clothes and snacks, and also some amount of dry ration, that the children would come."

“Getting the rice and dal is a big help. But more than that, I am glad that the girls can come to a place that is safe and clean and that they are getting to study instead of loitering around in the basti or working with me as maids," Saraswati says.

Most people who live in Nihal Vihar either work as hired daily help in houses in Paschim Vihar and Janakpuri (a 40-minute walk from Nihal Vihar) or as rickshaw pullers, labourers in plastic factories, kabadiwallas or ragpickers. Though the cluster has a few privately run primary schools, there is no government school nearby (the nearest is a kilometre and a half away), which essentially means that children above 12 have little choice but to while away their time in the streets or work in the small garages and tea stalls.

Photo: Madhu Kapparath /Mint

Bijoy was not always like this. He was among the first few students who studied at Diya Vidya Mandir when it opened seven years ago in a small room in the colony. “We have tried many times to get Bijoy back to school, but have failed," says Selevam, currently Diya Vidya Mandir’s administrator and a long-time worker with the Diya Foundation, who has lived and worked in the area for 15 years. “Thakuma (Saraswati) was among the first women in the slums to send her child to our school when we started. Bijoy studied with us until class III three years ago. We only had space for classrooms up to standard III at the time. After that, we got him admitted to a government school but he hardly attended that. Once he left studies, we could not get him back, not even to this new school building which we started in July 2010."

Selevam and Nayyar both believe that only children who start attending the school from an early age stay with them. “In most cases, neither parent is home to see if the child has come to school or not. Also, the dal-rice scheme helps get children into the habit of attending school. We also try and give them a snack (usually biscuits) and uniforms and shoes," says Nayyar. “We are also now able to instil some basic hygiene and cleanliness habits in them."

Saraswati says that at present the only bright spot in her otherwise hard life is the fact that two of her three grandchildren are studying in a school like this. She eagerly asks Anita to show her schoolbooks as we sit in her 7x5ft room. “See, she can write in English and she even makes drawings." Saraswati’s is one of 10 such rooms on the first floor of a building. There is one toilet for the 70 people who live on this floor.

Now Saraswati pays Rs1,000 as rent for her room and the rest of her income goes towards feeding the children. “After my son’s wife died, he went off to another state (Saraswati is not sure where) to find work and remarried. He now has two other children and a new wife. He did ask me to send the children to him once but I refused to hand them over to sauma (stepmother). Since then, he has never come back or sent any money. But that’s all right. I can take care of them and the schoolwallas (Diya Foundation) help with ration, with the girls’ education, and sometimes even organize health camps."

She now hopes that the school will be registered and that at least one of her granddaughters will be able to complete her matriculation. “Maybe then they will get a good job, marry a good boy and move out of this slum."