Back in 1996, when Sardar Singh, 64, an employee of the Food Corporation of India (FCI), started the Nishkam Sewa School with just seven students — all children of ragpickers — the Singh household witnessed a civil war of sorts. Reason: Apart from the R6,000 he received as contribution from philanthropists, a sizeable chunk of Singh's savings went into the initiative.
“I did not like it at all then,” says Singh's wife Elizabeth, who has not only come around since, but also teaches at the school.
Initially, the Nishkam Sewa Public School was a one-man show. Since he was still with FCI, Singh used to teach before and after office hours. “Two hours in the morning and three in the evening.” But despite his zeal, he had a tough time convincing parents to send their children. “They were just not convinced about the benefits of education. I even had to dole out money to some parents as an incentive.”
Over the next few years, Singh's school limped along, constrained by funding problems. And then a dream changed its fortunes. “It was 2004 and I was recovering from a heart surgery. I dreamt of Jesus (Christ). From then on, all issues pertaining to the school started falling in place one by one.” Singh retired that year and has since been at the service of his students “round the clock”.
Today, the school that started off from a shanty in north Amritsar’s Hukum Singh Lane, is a thriving institution with 200 students from kindergarten to class X. This year, its students appeared for the Class X exam through the Punjab Open Board, but the school is seeking affiliation to the Punjab School Education Board.
It now employs 10 teachers, three with funds from the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan. Students are also given free books, uniforms and mid-day meals. Singh also takes them on educational trips regularly — the legislative assembly, Bhakra Nangal dam, Joginder Nagar dam and so on.
A couple of years ago, he took them to Delhi to see the Parliament. “Parliament was in session and students interacted with ministers. They enjoyed it very much.”
Akash, a student of Singh's first batch, will graduate this year. “He scored 75% in the first semester and I expect him to score even better in the second semester,” says Singh. One of six siblings Akash, whose father is a ragpicker and mother a housewife, will not be able to pursue higher studies because of lack of funds. But the 17-year-old, who has already been offered a clerical job at a city hospital is not complaining. “My education has given me and my family a chance to live a decent life.”