We bring you the 3rd Article by Rajani tai from Chaturanga, a supplement of the local newspaper - Loksatta.
This experience is also about twenty years ago. In those days Senapati Bapat Road in Pune was not crowded with the structures as of today. There was the Chaturshringi temple and few buildings around it. Rest were all open spaces. Adjacent to the temple were many hutments where families whose main occupation was begging lived. We used to take our “School on Wheels” bus there, for the children living there.
These children were professional beggars. Their skill sets were different. Living on the streets day in and day out, and maneuvering through the crowd and traffic, and earning a livelihood is not an easy task. The younger you are, and the more pathetic, dirty, shabby appearance you have added to the capital of your business.
The first step before we started the class was to get the children cleaned up. On the first day our teachers and Volunteers got everything ready – new clothes, bathing soap, towels etc. They used the nearby public bath and toilets. The children were given their new clothes, soap and towels and were asked to go and take a shower. They came out soaking wet including the towel - they did not know the use of a towel! – Our volunteers and teachers were dumbfounded not exactly knowing whether to laugh or feel sad.
Our class used to be for about three hours. After class, the children went home, changed into their working attire and reported to work on the streets. Many a times, when we passed through that area and waited at the traffic signal a child would come forward with hands spread for begging and before we could register his presence he would disappear – most probably he had recognized us but for us to recognize him was next to impossible due to a complete change of attire and demeanor. His “makeover” was an essential part of his business strategy – this truth he had understood at an early age. We understood it so late in life.
To get these children enrolled in schools is a difficult task as these children are the main means of income generation. The children earn much more while begging, than seniors. Therefore, the parents are most reluctant to send the children to school. Festive season is the prime time when the children have to be at home. We tried putting these children at a Boarding school nearby. The children liked it there. Suddenly, one day we got a message from the hostel saying that the children have run away. After enquiring at their homes we found that the children were at home. On questioning them as to why they ran away, the parents replied that the festive season was the prime earning season and if the children were away, how they would fend for the whole year?
Many people advise us that we should insist that the children should stop begging. But, if these children are the main source of earning for the family then how can we insist on such a thing? Can we provide them with any alternate occupation or any other source of earning? If we sincerely feel we need to stop these children from begging then as a first step we have to stop giving alms to them. When the parents realize that this business is not working, they would try to find some something else. It is simple logic based on demand and supply. But unfortunately, to give alms to beggars is our need and we create the demand because somewhere it satisfies us.
Then how do we go about educating these children? - How do we prevent them from begging? Just recently, residents of an Apartment complex nearby, volunteered to offer their community hall to start this process. They provided all facilities like bathrooms, toilets, food, T.V. and other entertainment equipment and a teacher to teach. We worked along with them, basically to keep the children occupied for the whole day, make them learn to sit in one place. We appointed two trained and experienced teachers. Unfortunately, this project didn’t last long. The reason being the expectations of people with no experience in such projects were not met, which were very basic for people like us but totally out of the familiarity of the children- things like discipline, daily attendance, cleanliness, not quarrelling with each other, eating properly etc. The response from the children was not as per the anticipation of the Apartment owners, so slowly the facilities were withdrawn and the project ended. By and by the settlement was removed and the families shifted elsewhere. This is a common feature with such settlements. But many a times the people come back again to the same place, but then once the routine is disturbed it is difficult to set up again.
The families in this settlement however didn’t come back. They settled in a slum called “Poolachi Wadi”. Our work with such children is still going on but it is like an obstacle race. The children are irregular in their attendance, but very regular in being absent during festivals. Then is it worth working with such children? – YES IT IS. Our very recent experience endorses this – one of our teachers who had worked at Chaturshringi project met a man on the road a few days ago. He recognized her, though she couldn’t place him. He was one of the children at the Chaturshringi project. He stopped her and talked very emotionally about the old days- the art classes, the songs which he had learnt, the “School on Wheels”. On being asked how he was and how he was fending for himself now, he very sadly said that he was as he was before but he had made sure that his children were not brought to the city and were studying at school in his native place! He wanted them to have a better life than his!
The seed which was sown twenty years ago at Chaturshringi, had sprouted, nurtured and had grown into a tree, was now bearing fruits. What else does one want?
For the original article in Marathi, please visit Shikshan Sarvansathi (Education for all) - Article 3
Translated by Wasudha Korke