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From sludge to software

mumbai Updated: Feb 21, 2011 00:50 IST

Every time Smita Mahadik, 21, visits her school, her teachers erupt into cheers. “Where have you been?” asked Usha Pol, 52, an algebra teacher, when Smita visited her Marathi-medium Prabhadevi Secondary Municipal School last week.

Her English teacher, Saroj Dhok, 48, wanted to whisk her away to meet her Class 10 students. “You must give them tips,” she said.

In 2004, Smita topped the state board exam in the Mumbai municipal school category by scoring 89.6%.

Today, this scholarship student at the Sardar Patel Institute of Technology in Andheri has offers to join Infosys Technologies and IBM as a software programmer after she graduates with a computer engineering degree in May.

Her journey to the edge of a new life began seven years ago.

“It was the day I got my board exam results,” said Smita, gazing at the school board that lists toppers.

Her father Vijay, then 40 and earning Rs 1,800 a month as a peon in a private firm, was getting ready for work. Her mother Laxmi was making breakfast for her dozen-strong family members that included various cousins, all of who shared a 100-square-feet room in a Prabhadevi slum.

Lying in her old room’s makeshift loft, Smita was numb with anxiety. This wooden plank straddling one side of the room would keep her books dry when rain, and sewage along with it, flooded her home each monsoon.

“I would study there all night,” she said. “It was my life.”

As a scrawny 15-year-old with sunken eyes, Smita got to school every day by 7 am. After school, she would head to tuition class and study till 7 pm.

“When I did her hair every morning, she would hold a glass of milk in one hand and a book in the other,” said her mother Laxmi, 42. “She never wasted a minute.”

Free, state-funded education was Smita’s only hope of climbing out of poverty, like it is for the around 4.5 lakh students enrolled in the city’s 1,327 municipal schools.

“Let alone education, I had barely enough to feed my children,” said Vijay Mahadik. “They would be nowhere without government schemes.”

Six months ago, her family finally moved into a one-bedroom house that they got under a government slum redevelopment scheme.

One year at a time

After her board result, Smita received Rs 50,000 in prize money from government and charitable sources, which went towards her junior college fees at Ruparel College in Matunga and for the first year of engineering college.

“But I had enough to pay just the first year’s fees,” she said. “I knew I might have to drop out any time.”

So Smita started teaching young children in her first year, earning

Rs 2,000 in all. At the start of her second year, Smita was Rs 20,000 short of the Rs 50,000 annual fee. But a government scheme for scheduled castes and tribes came to her rescue, allowing her to pay one-tenth of the fee until the final year.

Money wasn’t the only challenge; she suddenly had to function in an English-speaking world. “I would stare at the board all day, trying to make sense of what was written there,” she said.

Her classmates chattered about movies and parties that she knew nothing about. “I knew I would never fit in,” she said. “But it didn’t bother me.”

Today, she is months away from receiving her first pay cheque from her pick of the two blue-chip firms, both offering her Rs 3.2 lakh a year, a salary that has the potential to multiply rapidly in a sector that has boomed since liberalisation. India’s IT sector employs 2.2 million people, according to a 2010 National Association of Software and Services Companies.

Smita’s parents are dazed. “She is about to change our lives,” said her father, who earns just Rs 6,000 a month.

As Smita stands in her municipal school playground, she recalled a day when the rain had flooded the streets of her slum. “I waded to school through the sludge and water, shivering under a small umbrella,” she said. “Now I feel it was worth it.”