Nandini Kumari, a 12-year-old girl, calls the IIT flyover her home. She lives under it with her parents. All of them sell flowers at nearby traffic signals for a living. Kumari has never seen a school. She always wonders how it would feel to be sitting in a classroom or wearing a uniform. However, all is not lost. She has taken her first step towards education.
At sharp 8am, Kumari along with 40 street children, gather on a footpath adjacent to the flyover. Some children are accompanied by their parents. They sit on a mattress and their class starts. They repeat after their two teachers who are teaching them English alphabets.
These classes are initiated by NGOs Chetna and Plan India in which the Delhi traffic police is offering help by providing them with space to keep their stuff. As part of their programme, ‘Dreams on Streets’, they aim to educate children who beg and work at traffic signals. The project began in April this year. When the NGO members reached the flyover near IIT gate and found many street children aged between 6 and 14 selling flowers at traffic signals, they decided to do something about them.
“They were wearing torn clothes, had messy hair and dirty faces. They knew nothing except for selling flowers the whole day and earning for their family. But these children have dreams. They need a direction,” said Rekha Sharma, education coordinator, Chetna-Plan.
She said that it was a challenge to bring them together and make them understand that they needed to study. Another difficult task was to convince their parents. When the classes started, only two students were present whose parents sent them on a condition that they be taught only for an hour in the morning so that they are able to sell flowers during the day. But after a few days, more children joined them.
“We approached the parents and tried to convince them to allow their children to come to our classes for at least two hours a day. Some of them liked the idea, but many stepped back saying who would earn for the family if their kids got busy with books? Another problem was that some children live with their guardians who would never allow them to take out even a single hour for studies,” said Sharma.
After a lot of persuasion, some parents agreed to send their children. In the beginning, the members had to go to bring them to the place where the classes were held, but eventually, children themselves gathered on a footpath adjacent to the IIT flyover. The Delhi traffic police have offered their booths near the flyover to keep the study material, books and stationery items.
A traffic police constable posted in the area said he had seen improvement in the lives of the children ever since these classes began here. “We motivate them to attend the classes regularly. They will have a good future only when they are educated. And we are happy to help them in whatever way possible,” he said.
The classes are conducted between 8am and 11am. They are taught English alphabets, formation of words, varnamala and counting etc. They are encouraged to exercise and do yoga as well. The NGO members are also trying to make children understand the importance of cleanliness and personal hygiene. They tell them to regularly wash their hands and come to the classes only after taking a bath. The children are given chocolates, biscuits, toffees and juices at the end of the day.
Nowadays, the children have learnt to greet everyone they meet. Sometimes, passersby and commuters at the traffic signals are surprised to hear them say, ‘good morning’, ‘hello’, ‘I am sorry’ and ‘thank you’.
Similar classes are being held under Moolchand flyover and BRT crossing near Kamala Nehru College. The Delhi traffic police have provided a part of their large work space at Moolchand flyover area to be turned into a classroom. More than 20 children attend these classes. Due to distraction and pollution caused by the heavy traffic, the classes were shifted to a nearby park. But the major challenge is to continue the class when it rains.
“We always check the sky after getting up early in the morning. If the skies are clear that means classes will happen,” said Aarti Kumar, 12, student.
At Moolchand flyover, the traffic police has provided its cabin to conduct the classes. More than 30 children come here to study every morning. Recently, a health camp was conducted here. Though the students have a roof above their heads, unlike their counterparts in other areas, the space is limited. In open areas like footpaths and parks, there is no limit to the number of students. Many times, friends and siblings of the students too join the classes. They have ample space to sit. But that is not the case inside a cabin.
“The classes are running successfully. It is very satisfying to see these street children getting educated. Now, they know tables by heart, they are able to form small sentences in Hindi, they can recognise colours and name them in English. This is a huge improvement in their lives,” said Sanjay Gupta, director, Chetna.
Sunit Kumar Singh, another member, who currently takes care of the IIT flyover classes, says that it was a challenge in the beginning. The children were stubborn and it was not at all easy to convince them to study. “These children have always lived without any system and there was no one to tell them the difference between right and wrong. So it was difficult to control them as they were stubborn. But now the situation has changed. They listen to us and are taking keen interest in learning English and Math,” said Singh.
Harendra Singh, DCP, Traffic (Southern Range) said, “Removing street children from the roads is not a solution. But educating them is a way forward to improve their lives. So whenever any voluntary organisations ask for our help, we give it in whatever way we could. When street kids are educated, street crime rate automatically comes down. This serves our purpose as well.”
The NGOs are preparing to start similar classes under the Defence Colony flyover. Bhagyashri Dengle, executive director, Plan India, said, “Our aim is to create an impact on the lives of these underprivileged children. We want them to get an exposure and enjoy their rights instead of working as child labourers. Education is the only tool which can get these children respect and help them earn their livelihood.”