Picture this classroom scene. There are about 15 children, each of whom is seated on their own mat. There are no desks or chairs but the classroom is not bare. It’s well-lit and there are fans too. Cupboards on the side are filled with books and stationary for the kids. On the walls are posters with primary school level information in English – from the alphabets to animals to fruits and vegetables etc. Some of the kids are past primary-school age though; they’re well into their teens. Seated next to each of them, on the same mat, is a young teacher. The teacher himself/herself is yet in college.
Seems almost like a regular classroom in a village, am I right? But you’re probably wondering about the 1:1 student: teacher ratio combined with the fact that the kids are past primary-school age. And maybe about the teacher too, who is yet in college?
Well, the above description is not of a classroom in a village but is of a classroom in the heart of the city of Bombay. It’s a classroom run by the NGO Salaam Baalak Trust (SBT), an organisation that works for street and slum children. That’s why the oddities. SBT’s 4 centers across the city cater to children in the surrounding slums. The elder kids sit in one class; and the younger ones in another. Coming from a harsh background, the children are a rowdy bunch. They have low attention spans. It’s difficult to teach them as they’re too restless to stay seated for long. The 1:1 student:teacher ratio is thus followed for their own benefit – complete attention from a teacher will help them make the most out of their school hours. These teachers are usually college kids, who volunteer with the organisation during holidays and post-college hours. Of course, there is a center head too, who is not a volunteer, but a staff member from the organisation.
After just an hour at their Chowpatty center, I couldn’t help but wonder about what a tough job the center head and volunteers have taken up! In our corner, there was a 10-12 year old boy, Akash, who wanted to go to the toilet every 15 minutes! And his volunteer-teacher was paying no heed to his “Toilet Ayee Hai, Toilet Ayee Hai” (I need to go to the toilet) requests after the first one. Not one to give up either, boldly and brashly, Akash replies, “Chadee mein kar loon, kya?” (Shall I pee in my pants?) But his volunteer-teacher clearly isn’t giving into his threats.
In another corner, after a teacher-volunteer intently explained the morale of a story, his students simply said, “Neend aa rahee hai” (I’m feeling sleepy). But that casual response didn’t seem to perturb the teacher-volunteer who went on to the next story in the book. Then there’s 8-year old Ashok, who keeps running in and out of class. And even randomly got up and started doing push-ups!
Quite a tough class to handle, wouldn’t you agree?
In addition to education at their centers, the organisation offers shelter, medical services, and vocational training to children in the age group of 5 to 18 years too. Dance, music, and sports are also used extensively. Camps and workshops are organized too, where professionals come and lend their skills for the benefit of the children. Nutrition and medical care include regular health check-ups, vaccinations and treatment. Mental health through counseling services is given importance as well. De-addiction services, are another much-needed area, and are carried out in conjunction with other organizations. As they age, job skills training (ranging from screen printing, handicrafts, candle-making, paper bag making, photo-frames and other items) is provided as per the childrens’ aptitude.
At the end of the day, the aim is to get these children off the streets and on their feet. Hence, activities that will provide the children with the right guidance and opportunities are what are focused on.
What makes the job at hand difficult is the harsh backgrounds these children come from. Abuse, alcoholic fathers, parents who are constantly fighting – their family situations are nothing to be envious about. They are also challenged by the mobile nature of the target group. Providing these children with long-term assistance is restricted by the time-lengths that these children do and can stay in a particular place.
But despite these challenges, the organisation has done a commendable job. In 2012-13 alone, the organisation touched the lives of about 1,200 children.