Neha and Priyanka (in white shirt) along with other slum children at an Asha centre. Under the initiative, children divide subjects among themselves and teach others from their neighbourhood. Image Credit: Nilima Pathak/Gulf News

New Delhi: Slum children in Delhi are not relying on government handouts for education any more. Breaking the shackles of poverty, they are educating themselves and taking part in the economic development of the country.

As talented and intelligent as other, well-heeled, students, the only drawback for Delhi’s slum children had been a lack of opportunity. But when Dr Kiran Martin, a paediatrician, came into their lives, their world changed. Founder and director of Asha Community Health and Development Society, a nongovernment organisation (NGO) that works for the welfare of slum dwellers, Dr Martin provided them support. The work initiated by her has turned into a movement of sorts and the community is now working with more than 500,000 people in 60 slum colonies of the city.

One such beneficiary is 22-year-old Mahendra, a resident of south Delhi’s Ekta Vihar slum. Mahendra recalls, “I was passionate about computers and technology, and fantasised about becoming a software engineer. One day, I happened to discuss it with my cousin sister, who lives in the same slum colony and is aspiring to be a TV journalist. She introduced me to Asha Community, which had been supporting her education for years.”

Mahendra was a government school student until Class 10 and even though he came from an impoverished background, he did well at school. “Asha Community first enrolled me into a private school to complete my Class 12. Thereafter, fighting against all odds, I got admission in Delhi University through merit. After completing B. Tech in information technology, I am now based in Kolkata and working with an American company as [a] software engineer. Asha has helped me realise my dream,” he says.

Speaking fluent English, Mahendra, who was in Delhi for a short visit, says, “Education is the only way we can change our lives. Under an exchange programme between Asha and the University of Melbourne, I have got the opportunity to study further in Australia. The NGO had helped me get [an] educational loan from a bank. Once that is cleared, I will buy a house for my mother in a nice locality. But I’m certain not to cut ties with my roots and believe in giving back to society.”

Under the initiative, the children have divided subjects like English, mathematics, science and history among themselves and teach others from neighbourhood slums. Looked upon as role models, they motivate others to study. “If Asha had not lent a hand, we might have ended up living miserable lives. Now, it is our duty to help Dr Martin, who has always kept the doors of her house open to us,” Mahendra says.

Dr Martin says, “For children in the slums, even finishing primary school is a challenge. Since parents do not understand the benefits of education, the biggest struggle is getting them to agree to let their wards study. Most want their daughters to marry young and sons to take up odd jobs.”

Asha volunteers are constantly guiding parents and building the confidence of youngsters to believe in themselves. Children facing concentration concerns and issues such as noisy neighbourhoods, lack of electricity and family problems have the option to study at centres set up by the NGO in various areas. The NGO also helps children to learn etiquettes and how to dress.

The rise in confidence levels of the children has seen a tremendous gain.

Neha, 18, was in Class 6 when she lost her father, a municipal corporation worker. “Facing sudden financial crunch, I wanted to leave school. My brother was also studying and I felt it would be a burden on the family. My grandmother insisted on marrying me off. But the NGO volunteers counselled my mother to let me study,” she said.

Neha completed her schooling; scoring 91 per cent marks. A first year History Honours student in Matreyi College, she credits Asha Community for her education. “My grandmother has come around to accepting that I should get married after turning 21, but I have no such plans and want to become a history professor,” she said, laughing.

Responding to the query whether they faced any behavioural problems in college due to their background, she said, “Initially, it worried me that I would be studying along with children from well off families. Some of them did make fun [of me], but I silenced them with my good grades.”

Not letting her social or financial background come in the way, 19-year-old Priyanka was geared up to see the bigger picture. “In the beginning, I found it difficult to cope up with studies and faced drawbacks due to lack of communication skills, which jolts many of us. But we shared our concerns with Asha members,” she said.

The solution was provided instantly. The well-educated NGO volunteers gave them lessons in English. “This soon removed our awkwardness and we stopped hesitating and mingled with students. Those who shied away from us, now say that we are the real achievers and have become our friends,” says Priyanka, now a final year Matreyi College student, aspiring to appear for the civil services examinations.

Proving that high paying jobs and thriving careers are not a privilege only of the rich, children living in impoverished slums are making waves with their achievements both as students and employees.

Akhlaq, 21, who wanted to give up studies after Class 12 today works as a manager in a fast-food outlet. Similarly, 19-year-old Chandan defied his parents when they accused him of being indifferent to family problems and pressured him to stop his education while in school and become a truck loader (like his father). But once Chandan met members of Asha, it has continued to fund his school and college education. He is currently a final year Mathematics Honours’ student in Delhi University’s Venkateshwara College.


Quick facts

• In New Delhi, a city of around 18 million people, more than four million are slum dwellers.

• The majority of them have migrated from villages in rural India to look for better job opportunities.

• By the age of 14, only 30 per cent of slum children attend school.

• Founded in 1988, Asha Community Health and Development Society provides free counselling, education loans and scholarships to students.

• Its approach is based largely on training and empowerment, so that people living in the slums take responsibility for improving their health and living conditions.