Many kids living in Mumbai’s slums have to drop out of school because their parents cannot afford their fees or want them to work instead. Three Gandhi Fellows understood the gravity of this situation and decided to do something about it.
Neha is an 11-year-old girl who lives in the Damu Nagar slums of Kandivali. She has lost both her parents. Her grandmother is the sole earner and makes only Rs. 2,000 per month. With this income, she cannot buy the Rs. 160 monthly bus pass that Neha needs to go to school. So Neha, who loves to go to school and play with her friends, has to now sit at home instead.
Suhasini Mhaske’s case is no different. Her father drinks heavily and squanders money on alcohol. Her mother used to work but often had to skip meals just to provide her daughter with the bus pass. But now that she is unwell and cannot work, Suhasini too is unable to go to school.
Three Gandhi Fellows, Harsha Ramchandani, Aditi Chatterjee, and Shrestha Ganguly realised this was the case for many students living in the slums. There were many such kids who were missing out on education because their parents could not pay for their education.
As per India’s Census of 2011 for Mumbai and Thane regions, approximately 1.01 million children in the age group 5-17 are out of school. This is because 0.4 million children have dropped out of school and 0.6 million have never been to school at all.
“As part of our fellowship, we have to spend one month living in the slums with the family of any of the children we teach, and one month working the same labour that the parents and guardians of these kids do. While living there, we came to know, through a co-fellow, about such families where kids were unable to attend their schools,” says Harsha.
They identified eight such kids in the Kandivali slums and a couple of kids in Versova. The effort to take care of round-the-year education of these kids gave rise to Urjayati.
‘Urjayati’ is a Sanskrit verb, which means to nurture and enlighten. The first step these young women took to raise funds for the kids was to organise raddi sales.
As Harsha says, “It is much easier to ask people for their raddi than their money.”
This initially helped them collect Rs. 5,000 to kickstart the process of sending the kids back to school. But they needed more funds, especially as they found out about a pair of kids from Versova who were the sole earning members of their family. Poonam and Anand Shinde’s mother had to stop work after she became pregnant. Consequently, the kids had to drop out of school and work odd jobs to support their mother and the baby.
"The situation was so bad that once when we visited, we found the one-year-old eating only sugar for lunch. The kids wanted to go to school but would only be able to do so if we could compensate for the loss of income they would have to bear.”
A successful online fundraiser on Milaap helped gather sufficient funds to take care of round-the-year education expenses for these ten kids. The next challenge was to keep track of their performance and make sure they did not skip school.
To tackle these challenge, Urjayati created a model of mentorship, whereby they assigned a mentor to each kid or a couple of kids. The mentors not only guided the kids and helped them with their studies but also kept track of their performance and the problems in their households.
Nilanjana, the mentor to two sisters, Pooja and Ashwini, says, “If I work with these kids and turn them into better human beings and help them find the path towards their goal, wouldn’t it help make the world and the society I live in a better place?”
She is all praise for the girls and believes they are more mature than their age.
"Pooja wants to become a cop and Ashwini wants to follow her big sister’s footsteps. They really want to make the most of their education. They’re not just going to school for the sake of it,” says Nilanjana.
The significance of the role such mentors could play became all the more apparent when the Kandivali fire broke out. Many slum homes were burnt, causing huge damage to people and property. At that time, the mentors helped collect food and clothes for the families of their kids and delivered them personally. They also provided mental support to help them recuperate from the shock and loss they experienced.
Seeing the success of their venture, team Urjayati has decided to take on more kids, this time from a slum in Delhi.
About the author: Ibrahim is a Milaap Open Fellow in Mumbai. He assesses the impact of Milaap’s crowdfunded campaigns and brings inspiring stories of champions to donors.