At the far end of Delhi’s Pragati Maidan metro station, opposite Gate no 1, stands a small temple. Walk a few steps beyond the temple and a small board announces the arrival of ‘Sabki Pathshala’ (Everyone’s School)- an impromptu, makeshift school, with a tree canopy for a roof and a bedraggled carpet for furniture.
It is here that 33-year-old Neetu Singh, an ex- Delhi government school teacher, gathers kids from the nearby Bharat Camp every day. From 3 pm to 5 pm- Monday to Saturday- the kids gather under the tree to not only learn basic English and Math, but things like art and craft, dance and music.
Starting out with teaching a few children for two hours a day when the school started in 2014, Singh currently teaches 45 children at the school, all belonging to different age groups.
Talking about her motivation for starting the school, Singh says, “Both my parents are labourers. I have lived here all my life. Being a girl, it was presumed that I will cook and clean, and eventually when the time will come, get married. Obviously, I wanted more. I wasn’t good at studies, but I wanted more. So, instead of going to school where no one gives you money, I started going to the temple to beg. The first day, I made 10 rupees. I felt so rich! But then, there were also times when those that gave me money would do dirty things to me, things I didn’t like, but things I couldn’t explain as a child either. So I decided to stop going to the temple and go to school instead. What I went through still happens with a lot of kids here. And I wanted to change that.”
Her family did not support her, but thanks to help from a few teachers, Singh managed to finish her studies after all, finishing her graduation from Delhi University and Masters from Kurukshetra University.
Education not only empowered Singh, but also gave her the confidence to become an agent of social change in her own area. “It started out as an experiment, but it has now become my life. There are times my parents ask me to take up a job, but I just can’t do it. Sure, a job can get me money, but what about the children?” she asks.
Under her care, children at the camp have not only quit begging, but also started excelling in school. “There are days when I don’t go to school. But there is not a day when I don’t attend Neetu mam’s class,” says Sonu, one of the students.
Witnessing the change in their children, parents in the locality are also firmly backing Singh, especially against local goons who have tried everything to shut down the school. “The government is doing all that it can in schools and that is wonderful. But in order for things to change, it has to step into the slums and engage with the children and parents. Else, no amount of facilities or scholarships will bring the children to school,” she says.
With zero financial aid, no source of income and interference from local goons who constantly threaten to shut her school down, the 33-year-old is struggling on a daily basis, but she refuses to give up. Currently, her biggest concern is the rains. “Children sit on the dari, but there is no roof, so when it rains, it may take 3-5 days for the dari to dry. School band ho jaata hai phir (the school will have to remain closed then),” she tells me.
A few volunteers have also joined her recently who come on a regular basis to teach students and help her out financially, but she still needs financial help.
Money is not what she is concerned about, though. She says it’s the mentality that needs to change.
“Society naturally assumes all these things about children living in slums – that they are dirty, illiterate, uneducated. That they won’t amount to anything. That they don’t have dreams. That they don’t desire change. It’s not true. The truth is kids in the slum are just not given the opportunities. Nobody cares to ask them – Tumhe kya chahiye? (What do you want?),” she tells us like it is.