In India, education is a fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution. This strikes me as a worthy inclusion, one that shouldn’t be taken for granted. Declarations and constitutions are often bloated with concepts like “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” whose scope and interpretation remain nebulous. Happiness, it turns out, was synonymous with “property,” and terms like “liberty” are too often strategically invoked in the political sphere until they’ve been gutted of intent, transformed to clichés, or used to galvanize people into nationalism. Raise your hand if you remember “Freedom Fries.”
In comparison, the Indian right to education seems clear and tangible at first glance. And yet, as I visited a series of elementary school classes for wastepicker children in recent weeks, the complexity of a right to education became apparent.
Here’s the description of a young Indian schoolboy waiting for the bus in Bombay in the early 1950s from the Salmon Rushdie novel I’m now reading: “…washed and brushed every morning, I stood at the foot of our two-story hillock, white-shorted, wearing a blue striped elastic belt with a snake buckle, satchel over my shoulder…” Here we have the prototypical schoolboy, gearing up for education with a capital E.
Many wastepicker children, on the other hand, are born into a situation in which the demands of helping their families earn a livelihood are in conflict with going to school in the traditional sense. Chintan’s education program, “No Child in Trash,” bridges this divide by holding classes for wastepicker children directly in their communities. I visited two classes in the Nizamuddin neighborhood. One took place on a patch of dust under a tree, amid the roil of wandering goats and middle-aged men eating thalis; and the other under a small tarp strung over a concrete nook at the end of a labyrinthine network of alleys and crowded residences.
When it comes down to it, the right to education is the right to learn and grow, whether or not that learning takes place in school. To conflate the two creates an unfortunate social division between those who can afford (and who are permitted) to wear their bright white shorts and suspenders, and those who cannot. Chintan’s model of organizing is finely tuned to the quotidian realities of the wastepicker communities; instead of lambasting parents for not sending their kids to school, they train teachers to work directly in the wastepicker enclaves and villages spread around Delhi.
The attention and initiative of these kids was impressive. The commotion surrounding them was enough to keep me distracted, but somehow through the din they quietly and methodically took Hindi dictation, paired off in groups to read, and participated in puppetry and name games. Sure, there was a random four-year-old with a runny nose goofing around here and there, but in general their fierce concentration and reverence for their teachers blew my mind. One has the impression that they know the stakes are high.
There are two age levels of children taking part in the program. Those aged three to five are in a group whose Hindi name means “Young Corridor.” Chintan’s goal is to act as a corridor, leading them to the public school system in Delhi. They focus on two subjects, Hindi and Mathematics. Nearly half of the 200 children in Chintan’s programs have indeed made the successful transition into city schools.
The older children, aged six to fourteen, have mixed educational histories. Some are in public school, others have dropped out or never went, and most have been employed as wastepickers for years. Crucially, Chintan’s goals with them are fluid. Despite high profile child labor laws in India that demand children stop working and go to school, the situation on the ground is that many wastepicker kids are not going to end up making the cut to get into the municipal education system. For them, the Chintan teachers focus on reading stories and storytelling. If one of the major obstacles to social inclusion is that policies are formulated only by those who have a “voice,” there seems to me no better educational pursuit than helping children read the stories of others and find the means to tell their own.
I asked Rajneesh, Chintan’s education programs director, what he thought was the biggest accomplishment of “No Child in Trash.” Surprisingly, after some facts and figures about kids who have made it into public school, he said that one of the greatest successes was a one-day health clinic that they arranged for the wastepicker children in this very neighborhood. Though this happened before I arrived, it has been documented in video by others:
If children are not healthy enough to make it to class each day, if they are overlooked by the formal education system, if they lack the time to study or the means to travel, then the right to education will remain perpetually trapped in the ink of the Constitution. Chintan and these kids are transforming what that right means, giving it a living, breathing, complex reality.
Posted By Ted Mathys
Posted Jun 26th, 2009