Every morning at 8, a pavement in a local market of Vasant Kunj turns into a classroom for 30 underprivileged children from the slums of Masoodpur, who sit on a large mat under the shade of a huge kikar tree. Undeterred by the noisy traffic movement on the adjacent road, a group of boys in the front row are practising additions and subtractions. Three girls in the centre are engrossed in English textbooks. All of a sudden, the boys exclaim in delight and run around in joy after having solved a particularly difficult Math problem.
There is never a dull moment in this classroom, says 66-year-old Shyam Bihari Prasad, their teacher. The class consists of undisciplined but good-natured students. He has to shout, literally, to make himself heard amid the din. But his aim is to help these underprivileged children access quality education.
After Prasad retired as an assistant general manager with Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited in Patna, he decided to settle in the Capital. Prasad has been residing in Vasant Kunj’s B block since November 2013.
“When I came here, I started going to the nearby Hanuman temple. This is where I first came across slum children. They begged for food and money. When I spoke to them, I realised that a majority of them were illiterate and lived in the slums of Masoodpur. I was heartbroken. So I decided to help them in whatever way I could,” he said.
He started these classes in December 2013. It was a challenge to begin the project as their reading and writing skills were very poor. For instance, a class 5 student couldn’t write English alphabets properly. A class 8 student couldn’t solve basic Math calculations.
“Their parents mostly work as vendors, cooks and maids in Vasant Kunj area. They send their children to government schools, which lack basic facilities and don’t offer quality education. So I began with basics like teaching them English and Hindi alphabets, counting, multiplication tables, names of the days and months etc,” he said.
As days went by, more parents came forward to enrol their children in these free classes. Government school students from class 2 to 10 started coming between 8am and 11am. Prasad also provides books and stationery items to them.
Earlier, Ram Kumar, a class 8 student, was scared of Math. Nor could he read and understand words in English. But after he joined these classes, Math became his favourite subject. He also started interacting in English, something that he couldn’t even imagine earlier.
“I don’t understand much in my school. The classroom is always overcrowded and noisy. But I like to come here. Now, I am quite interested in the subjects that used to scare me,” said Kumar.
To encourage children to study hard, Prasad gives away prizes to those who correctly answer or solve maximum number of problems every day. A prize can be a toffee, a packet of biscuits or an energy drink.
Prasad is strict when it comes to maintaining discipline in the class. If the students are late or create chaos and disturb others, he makes them do sit-ups as punishment. “Sometimes, my students can be really troublesome. It becomes difficult to handle them. They are undisciplined and as a result uncontrollable. Some children try to disrupt the whole class,” he said.
So how has he managed to educate them for so long? He says that he is determined to improve the lives of these children through education. He ensures that parents are informed about their children’s progress.
“Regular interaction with parents has made them realise the importance of education. Earlier, they didn’t take any interest in their wards. Now parents come to me to check on their progress and when they have concerns related to their results,” he said.
He makes sure that the classes are conducted throughout the year. During harsh winter and heavy rainfall, the classroom shifts to the complex of a nearby temple. Vasant Kunj residents, too, have come forward to help Prasad in his initiative. Commuters, shopkeepers and volunteers have approached him to offer help.
“People have donated books and stationery items. The blackboard, along with the table and chair that I use, have been donated by well-wishers. Shopkeepers provide free drinking water. Sometimes, residents volunteer to teach children English and Math. This project wouldn’t have been possible without their help,” said Prasad.