At a time when teachers from various 'renowned' government and private institutes are being conferred awards on Teacher's Day, there are several of their unsung counterparts, who sans accolades, have been toiling hard to change the lives of children of rag-pickers and labourers, whom no one would ever dare educate at their own expense.
That their own protégés are joining them in their noble endeavour instead of opting for lucrative businesses is another factor that goads them to march on.
All of 18, Mithun is a pioneer of sorts as far as taking the light of education to the doorsteps of the students from underprivileged backgrounds is concerned. Enthusiastic about education, since the age of four, when he slashed his wrist to compel his parents, who then used to work as labourers, to send him to school, Mithun has gone to the extent of working as a waiter in roadside eateries to educate children from financially backward families.
Mithun said he was pained to see children his age serving tables at roadside tea stalls at a time when they should have been in school. As a result, his evening school that goes by the name of 'Free School' intended for children from indigent families was born in 2008 at Nangli village, where he is currently putting up with his family.
"My first batch comprised 10 students. The number has now swelled to nearly 150," he said, adding that just recently he had managed to arrange a few sewing machines to start stitching lessons in his school and was looking for help to impart skating lessons to his students. Mithun's own students, who are studying in classes 11 and 12, serve as teachers in his school.
Awards and honours have not been forthcoming for Sardar Singh, a former Food Corporation of India employee, since he started Nishkam Sewa School for children of rag-pickers in 1996. The school, at that time had only seven students, whom Sardar Singh had to cajole into getting enrolled by doling out funds from his own pocket to convince their parents to send them to school.
Started in a shanty in north Amritsar's Hukum Singh lane, the school is now located in a building that once housed the office of the civil surgeon. "Initially, I was able to collect Rs 6000 from philanthropists in the city. As that was barely enough to run the school, I had to put in my own contributions, though I would not like to disclose how much of my personal savings went into it," said Singh.
Singh's school is now a thriving institution with around 200 students in all, from kindergarten to class 10 and employs nine teachers. A number of its students appeared for the Class 10 through the Punjab Open Board, but the school is seeking affiliation to the Punjab School Education Board.
Singh's students, who have access to free books, uniforms and mid-day meals, are also
taken on regular educational trips to places as the legislative assembly and Bhakra dam. A couple of years ago, he took them to Delhi to see the Parliament House, when Parliament was in session.
"An apex court judge, who visited our school recently, has invited our students to witness the proceedings in the court. Our effort is to ensure that our students get to see how the judiciary functions," said Sardar Singh, adding that the school was yet to get help from the government.
While her counterparts in other schools across the city spend their mornings getting ready for school, Santosh, who has been associated with Sardar Singh's Nishkam Sewa School, since 1996, spends her early mornings coaxing some of the new students to get ready and come to school.
"In the beginning, things used to be quite tough as besides coaxing them, I had to teach them basic rules pertaining to hygiene, such as brushing their teeth, washing their hands and face and having a bath and dressing up properly to come to school. A lot has changed over the years with the students finally realising the importance of health and hygiene, besides the importance of education," she said.
Santosh, who started her teaching career almost 16 years ago, said that earning money from this profession had never been her concern. An NTT teacher, she started her career from a school at Sunaiya village near Batala, where her parental home is situated.
"I was referred to Nishkam Sewa School by a neighbour who used to teach here earlier and I readily agreed. Though the rising inflation often makes it difficult to subsist on the salary I get, I am happy to serve the students who come from poor families. A number of them are doing well in studies, while a few have also landed respectable jobs, which I consider a personal achievement," she said.
Accolades or none, 17-year-old Charanjit Kaur wants to follow in the footsteps of her mentor Mithun. Her aim in life is to help others attain education, just as she herself was helped by Mithun. Hence, four months ago, the girl, who is a class 11 student at the moment, joined Mithun's evening Free School as a sewing teacher.
The eldest among five siblings, Charanjit, who holds a diploma in sewing, is more concerned about helping the students, who attend Mithun's evening school in their studies than about what she is paid.
"I pay her Rs 1,000 per month and she seems contented with that. When one or the other teacher is on leave, she gladly fills in and helps students complete the day's lessons," said Mithun.
Charanjit says she wants to grow up to be a teacher so that she can help out students from poor families have access to education.
Charanjit's father, who was the sole breadwinner of the family till Charanjit started earning, is associated with a local gurdwara, while her mother is a housewife. The family used to make and sell dung cakes to supplement the family's income. The family could ill afford to send its children to school, said sources.
"My siblings and I have been able to access education with the help of Mithun. The salary that he gives me goes a long way in helping me meet my family's needs. What other reward could I ask for? Money is not everything. At the end of the day, it is the satisfaction that I get from helping these students that helps me enjoy a good night's sleep. I want to carry forward the good work that he has started by following in his footsteps," she said.