On Sunday, the last day of 2017, Amit Kumar hopped into his green and yellow auto-rickshaw at six in the morning, and went down to the Saket metro station to ferry passengers looking for short rides into the neighbouring colonies.
The following day, the first day of the new year, he began a two-month hiatus from riding his rickshaw to prepare for his Class 12 Board examination.
Ankit, a student at the Government Boys Senior Seconday School in Sangam Vihar, colloquially known as the Pahadi school, is one among the many school students who work as waiters at weddings, auto-drivers ferrying passengers along the capital’s dusty roads, hawkers at street corners, and security guards outside glass-fronted shop facades, before and after school to help their families make ends meet.
With just two months to the Boards, the Pahadi School’s working boys are taking a break from their jobs to make up for the classes they missed while they were at work. This decision hasn’t come easy for the boys whose families depend on their earnings.
But Ankit’s study break is a bet on the future: that India’s faltering education system and stuttering economy shall somehow provide him with college degree and a meaningful, and well-paying job so he never has to ride his rickshaw again.
“I wish I could have studied more during the year,” Ankit said. “But, I am not sure if this education will help me.”
Ankit and his friends often speak of going to college, and the prestige of getting a degree, “But no one knows how the degree will help in getting a job.”
Juggling work and school has not been an easy route for Amit Kumar, who will now take a break from January 1 to attend tuition classes to prepare for his Class 12 Board exams in March.
Ankit and his friends are not the only ones confused by the importance of finishing school. Atul Gupta, another auto driver, drives past the pahadi school several times each day on work. Gupta was a student in this school till 2013 when he dropped out of school at 14, to work as a mechanic at an auto spares shop to support his family after his father fell sick.
Gupta would have been in Class 12 if he had continued to study, rather than ply his auto for between Rs 10,000 and 14,000 per month.
“I have no regrets that I could not study. My family needed me and it was my duty to help them,” Atul said, “Anyway most people around me are doing similar jobs. Even if I had finished school what more could I have done? I was never really interested in studies.”
Teachers at the Pahadi school explain Atul’s decisions as an instance of a child uninterested in study. But experts caution against such glib and easy conclusions.
“There would be very few students who would say I love to study. Will a middle class family allow their child to leave schooling if the child is not interested in studies?” said Geetha B Nambissan, a professor of education at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “The teachers might say kids have made a choice to leave school but these kids are struggling to study and have constrained choices.”
Nambissan, whose research examines the links between poverty and education, said children can only choose from the opportunities available to them, and a student’s decision to drop out or stay in school is influenced by the kinds of jobs people around her do.
“It is the responsibility of the school system to ensure they continue to study. The system should look into reasons for why a child is finding classes boring,” Nambissan said, “Is there something wrong with the curriculum or is the teaching method not interesting enough?”
Having failed once in Class 9, Karim was on the verge of leaving school but decided to give it another chance and is now in Class 12.
One day in December, K.S. Tyagi, the Pahadi school’s Hindi teacher, was handed a crumpled piece of paper by Karim, a class 12 student. In the letter Karim asked the teacher to grant him a few days of leave so he could earn the Rs. 1,200 fee he had to pay to sit for the Board examination.
Moved by the letter, the teacher paid the fees himself and told Karim to give him the money when he could afford to.
Every evening after school, Karim works as a hawker selling clothes in Sangam Vihar market. He earns between Rs. 3000 and Rs. 4000 per month; a vital contribution to the Rs. 15,000 to Rs. 17,000 that Karim, his father and his two brothers earn each month.
His two younger brothers dropped out of school after failing in Class 8 and Class 9 respectively. They felt that learning the family business was a better use of their time. Karim failed Class 9 as well, but stayed in school.
“When I failed in Class 9 my family wanted me to quit as they thought I won’t able to pass again. But I persisted and now I work as well as study,” he said, but he wonders what he will do once he graduates. “Till now there was a clear path but after school there is no clarity.”
Karim plans to stop working from January till March and focus on the Board exams but worries how his family will cope with the loss of one earning member.
“If I leave working I will get time to study but won’t have money for tuitions that I want to take up but if I work I won’t have enough time to study,” Karim said.
Karim dreams of joining a college to study Political Science but he is clear that he will have to continue to sell clothes to pay his way through college.
“I cannot leave my work permanently till I have another source of income. I want to do B.Ed and become a teacher and get out of Sangam Vihar. But sometimes I wonder if I will get a job,” he says.
The worry among students about finding a job after school and graduation is not unfounded, said Jayati Ghosh, a professor of Economics at JNU, as the education system does not equip students to enter the job market.
“The Board exam system is just making the students do rote learning. The system is not necessarily equipping them for jobs,” Ghosh said.
And the job market is unbelievably tight, Ghosh continued. The last National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) study on employment was done in 2011-2012, Ghosh said, while the survey results for 2017 are yet to be announced.
Kshetrapal gave up his job after missing out on an internal exam because he could not wake up on time after his night shift duty. He now plans to go back to work after March.
When school began in April this year, Kshetrapal Singh kept up a punishing schedule of working all night as a security guard, sleeping in the morning, and attending school every afternoon. By late September, his exhaustion finally caught up him.
“I missed one of my mid-term exams because I didn’t wake up on time,” he said, “I just couldn’t get out of bed.”
In interviews at the beginning of the year, Kshetrapal maintained that his aim was to finish school and get a bachelor’s degree from Delhi university. Now, on the eve of his pre-board examinations, he seemed less sure of his future.
“I’ll still do college, but I think I’ll do a correspondence degree. I can’t waste another three years going to class every day,” he said. “I need to start working full time.”
Ghosh, the economist, concedes that the Kshetrapal’s decisions – and those of others like him - reflect a grim pragmatism.Public sector jobs were declining, she said, and most new private sector jobs were mainly in the services sector.
“But for that sector, a candidate requires soft skills like spoken English. This places people who come from a privileged background at an advantage,” Ghosh said, “Chances are these kids may end up falling back on self-employment beause the cirriculum is not equiping them with soft skills.”