Every morning 10-year-old Raju used to accompany his mother Shama to a busy traffic junction to help her with her job -- the serious business of begging.
Unmindful of winter chills or the summer sun, Raju braved it all to evoke the sympathy of the passersby. He earned around Rs. 100 a month in the bargain, or maybe more if it was a lucky month. This was Raju's routine till Sarvan Kumar (77) came along.
Kumar's mission was to get Raju and his friends off the streets and into school. The turnaround, however, did not come easy. Convincing Shama to forego Raju's earnings and instead send him to school was hard. She just couldn't see the merit in books. The promise of a bright future did not cut any ice with her either.
"When I first asked parents of beggar children to send them to school, the parents asked, kya doge (what will you give us?). And I said, kya loge (what will you take?" says Kumar. "They told me the children managed to get Rs. 3 by begging every day."
It was thus settled - Kumar would give them Rs. 3 every day, along with meals, and the children would attend Kumar's Nishkam Vidya Mandir, a school he founded in 1976 for child beggars. The school also made arrangements for the children to take a bath and gave lessons in other good habits and hygienic living while weaning them away from beggary.
"But it was frustrating. Even after taking money, the children would go back to the streets to beg as soon as they were out of the school," says Kumar.
It was only when Kumar confided in his friend, the late Baba Amte, that he got a solution. The well-known social activist told him to stop paying them to attend school. "He asked me to give the children vocational training to help them earn a living. And it worked," says Kumar.
Amte had struck at the root of the problem and the children and their parents had got a lesson in dignity. "After getting enrolled in Nishkam Vidya Mandir, my sons not only refused to beg, they also asked me to discontinue the practice. It was then that I understood the meaning of dignity and started supporting my sons by working as a domestic help in neighbouring areas," says Shama.
Motivated by the success, the Nishkam Sewa Trust started five more schools - at Samrala Road, Kirpa Dham, Ambedkar Nagar, Shaheed Bhagat Singh Nagar and New Chander Nagar - along with an open school at a park in Dugri. Today, there are more than 2,500 students studying in these schools, from Nursery right up to 10. The schools are now housed in multi-storey buildings owned by the trust. The trust has also opened a medical store in every slum next to the schools so that students have access to medical aid. Each school employs around 25 teachers besides volunteers who take extra classes in science and mathematics for the students of classes 7 to 10.
"Initially, my parents did not have any plans to send me to school but Kumar convinced them. The trust enrolled me in the school in 2005. Now I am in Class 6. I want to become a doctor," says Pinki, a 13-year-old student who lives in a slum in Dr Ambedkar Nagar.
"My parents never went to school. But today I can dream of a career in public sector, preferably as a banker," says another student of Nishkam Vidya Mandir, Bholu. This 16-year-old starry-eyed youth too lives in a nearby slum at Samrala bypass.
Having taught children for more than 30 years, Kumar now only gives lessons in morals. "High moral values are a significant part of growing up and without them even a successful professional cannot become a good human being," he signs off.