What will a 10-year-old girl answer when asked about what she likes? One would say pizza, chocolates, shoes and accessories?
But Meenakshi goes blank for a few minutes. She fails to think of a reply. It might be because no one has ever asked her this question before. After a lot of effort, she says, “Mujhe CID (the TV serial) pasand hai. (I like watching CID).”
Meenakshi wants to become a police officer when she grows up.
Staying with her family by one of Delhi’s landfills at the Rangpuri Pahari near Vasant Kunj, Meenakshi belongs to denotified and nomadic tribes, of which 60 families had settled here more than a decade back.
Most of the adults make clay toys or do odd jobs to make their living and most of the children here go out begging. In such circumstances, attending school is a distant dream.
Meenakshi, her seven siblings and parents Joginder and Anita share their shanty with a dozen rats. Anita keeps shifting the cot to keep the rats away from her children.
Joginder earns around Rs 2,000 per month cleaning ears and selling toys. Anita helps him by making clay toys. The youngest member of the family is Chulbul, an undernourished child whose birth coincided with Salman Khan’s Dabangg and hence, the name.
Meenakshi used to alternatively sell toys and beg. That was till Bal Vikas Dhara (BVP), a CRY project supported by Hindustan Times, intervened in the area. They asked Meenakshi’s parents to send her to their non-formal education centre. “Meenakshi and her younger sisters, Barkha and Chhoti, started attending the centre after much convincing of their parents that education could change their lives,” says Kavita, a community coordinator.
“Pehle ek baar koshish ki thi humne school bhejne ki inhe. Tab school walon ne birth certificate manga. Wo tha nahi hamaare paas (Once we tried for their admission, but the school asked for a birth certificate, which we didn’t have),” says Joginder. In April, Meenakshi was enrolled in Class 3 at the nearby MCD school after a social worker interacted with school authorities.
Today, dressed in her school uniform, she says, “Padai karna achhha lagta hai. Abhi school band hain, isliye hum centre pe padne jaate hain. (I love studying. Right now schools are shut so we go to the centre daily to study.)”
Anita wants her daughters to attend school but needs one of them home. So for now, Meenakshi, Barkha, 5, and Chhoti, 7, will be attending school in July but Shilpa, 8, will stay home to help the mother raise Chulbul and cook for the family.
“Abhi ek ladki to ghar mein chahiye. Jab main khilaune bechne jaati hun to koi to Chulbul ka khayal rakhega na (I need one girl at home. Someone has to take care of Chulbul when I go out to sell toys),” says Anita, when wheedled to send Shilpa to school.
Kavita, however, is not disheartened. She is hopeful of being able to convince Anita to send Shilpa to school too. For now, BVP has got 22 children from the locality enrolled in schools.
As Chulbul dances to ‘hudd hudd dabangg’, the family imagines Meenakshi in khaki and smiles.