April 29, 2015 / 7:01 AM / 5 years ago

How Delhi’s shoeshine boys learn to read and write

It’s 8:30 am and office workers are streaming out of the Delhi Metro’s Gate No. 5 on Barakhamba Road, the capital’s central business district. Nearby, five shoeshine boys holding pencils and notebooks crowd around Firdos Khan, who sits with them on the ground in her white salwar and is busy explaining the difference between 7 plus 2 and 7 multiplied by 2.

David Lalmalsawma

Khan, 23, teaches math and other basic education to street children in the surrounding markets. Her goal is to meet the educational needs of these children who are too busy working to go to school, or to children whose parents are too poor to send them to school. She doesn’t work for any organization – government or NGO.

“I have worked with NGOs for the last seven or eight years (as a volunteer and employee). I noticed t

hat they don’t have accountability, transparency,” said Khan, who is in her final year of a master’s degree course in Public Administration.

For the past six months, she has been teaching her class at Barakhamba Road, starting around 7 a.m. and lasting for two hours. She holds another class at the nearby Connaught Place market at 9.30 am. Her students comprise boys and girls aged 5 to 25 years. During the day, Khan visits street children and their parents in the area and checks up on kids she admitted to a nearby government school, where there are no fees until the eighth grade.

“A school has so many resources. If you can go to school, go, otherwise I will teach you,” Khan said. She said many children can’t go to schools even for free because they have to work during the day. A majority of her male students are employed in polishing shoes for a living for 20 rupees (32 cents) per pair, while the girls beg or sell ball-point pens in the streets for 5 rupees (8 cents) each.

Khan, who grew up in Delhi, is the daughter of a bus driver father. Her mother is a homemaker. Khan’s expenses for books and stationery for her students are borne by her partner in the initiative, Shekhar Jain.

Khan and Jain, a 25-year-old college teacher, met in 2013 at an NGO that works with the children of sex workers. Khan joined as an employee while Jain volunteered. After nine months, they quit, disillusioned by how the charity functioned. They decided to work on their own.

They came to Delhi’s central business district, started talking to street children, asking if they wanted to learn to read and write. They ended up admitting a few children to a nearby government school after getting their parents’ permission, while the street classes started six months ago.

“We are concerned about teaching them to read and write at least one language,” said Jain. “We love kids, and this is the most interesting thing we can do.”

Harjit Singh, an 18-year-old shoe polisher from Rajasthan, said he now can read and write in the Devanagari script of the Hindi language after attending Khan’s classes for five or six months.

“I didn’t know anything before, but now I can write a little,” he said, giggling. Then he read out the name “Central Bank of India” written in Devanagari on a nearby advertisement painted on a metal sheet used to protect tree saplings.

Twelve-year-old Ranbir said he never went to school in his native Ajmer, a city in Rajasthan, and started learning only one-and-a-half months back after Khan asked him if he wanted to join her class. “I like her class. I am starting to learn a little,” he said.

Khan mainly does the teaching and Jain provides the funds. For now, the duo can make do with little. Last year, they spent 40,000 rupees ($640) on sweaters, dresses and shoes for some of the children they admitted to schools, apart from stationery for the street classes, Khan’s everyday expenses and taking kids out a few times to visit landmarks in the city.

They have not reached out to anyone for help so far. A few friends have contributed money and a couple of strangers also donated books and cash. The metro station manager also helps by allowing them to conduct their classes on the premises and lets them use a locker to store books.

Jain says they want to expand their “centres,” and is confident that people will readily donate to their cause if asked. Their target: a child must learn to read and write at least one language in a year.

“And anyone who wants to contribute, we will ask them to come at least once (to see what they are doing), otherwise we will not accept the funds,” said Jain.

“Right now, we are teaching 100 students, but if we want to teach 1,000 students, we need money of course,” said Khan. Her register shows the names of 26 children in one of her classes, while the other had 30 names. They have admitted another 40 in a school, and they say they regularly follow up on how they are progressing in school or if they need resources like uniforms or stationery.

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For those children whose parents agree to send them to school, Khan and Jain get the forms, fill them up, get them notarized from a court, and take care of all the formalities in the school.

“We are thinking about registering with the government because there are so many government resources we can avail if we are registered. After that, we want to start one more centre,” Jain said. “This is my happiness.”

(Editing by Robert MacMillan; Follow Robert on Twitter @bobbymacReports and David @davidlms25 This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission)

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