In a makeshift one-room house in a Bhubaneshwar slum lives a family of five. Rudra, the youngest, is six years old. Every day he sees his two brothers off to school. His mother reassures him each day that he will soon start going, too. Rudra’s parents can afford education for only two children at a time, rendering Rudra with an inability to read anything beyond three letter words.
This scenario is one among many. A number of parents like Rudra’s are unaware of the Right to Education Act (RTE). In order to empower such parents and children, Desire Foundation took the initiative of Project Adhyayan, in Bhubaneshwar, Odisha, where the success rate of RTE is 0.97%. As a part of Adhyayan, we admit eligible children from various slums across the city to private schools under the RTE Act, Section 12(1)(c), of the Indian constitution, which mandates a minimum of 25% free seats for children belonging to weaker sections and disadvantaged groups (EWS) in all private unaided primary schools.
The onerous yet fulfilling journey of Adhyayan began in August 2016 when the interns of Desire first visited the Telugu slum to survey the families in the area. Some of these interns were trained at a winter school conducted by the Right to Education Research Centre (RTE-RC) at IIM Ahmedabad over public policy and social change. These interns surveyed 95 families to check the level of awareness about the RTE, as well as for any children who fit the criteria but are yet to be admitted to any school.
We surveyed 188 children in total and shortlisted 30 eligible students. After that, we approached a CBSE affiliated school nearby to enquire about the admission process. The school told us about the deadlines, admission procedures, and the amount of funds and documents required for each child. We conveyed this information to the parents in December and told them they had a month’s time to arrange for all the required documents, the deadline for the school being in mid-January.
During the first week of January, we revisited the parents, to begin the admission procedure. An appalling reality hit us. None of the parents possessed any of the required documents for the process. We also came to know that most of those families were migrants from other states and thus did not have any documents for Odisha. The deadline would be there in a week. We couldn’t admit even one child from that slum. Months of hard work had fallen through like a house of cards.
That wasted effort felt like an awful heartbreak. However, we realised that we didn’t have time to mourn over our failures. The children didn’t have time. We may have been bruised, but we learnt from our mistakes and started marching towards our new goal. We moved on.
We had surveyed another slum, Mahimanagar. So we decided to approach this slum. It was smaller than the previous one and most people were natives of Odisha. We gathered information on 40 families and 80 children in total. These families were not aware of the RTE Act and thus it took us some time to introduce them to the idea. The language barrier was another formidable issue that our interns faced. However, despite the problems, we finally managed to shortlist 25 eligible children. Only seven out of these 25 children had the required documents.
We contacted a number of schools nearby to discuss the admission procedures. We realised that RTE awareness is in a dire state. Most schools were unaware of any such act. In order to solve this, we approached Odisha Primary Education Programme Authority (OPEPA) seeking their support. The officials at OPEPA recommended that we meet the Block Education Office (BEO) authorities.
The interns commuted every day to the BEO to work out a solution for the situation. The BEO officials were very helpful and supportive of our cause. They provided us with a notice that could be presented to any school stating that the RTE act is mandatory to follow. With this in hand, we decided to contact Future Bhubaneswar School. The school agreed to admit five children under the RTE criteria.
Suddenly, out of the seven shortlisted students, six families backed out of admitting their children in an English medium school. It was a mammoth task to convince the parents that their child would not drift away from their cultural roots if they study in an English medium school. Desire’s interns assured them that this change is for the better. We promised to help them with their school chores in order for the kids to cope with a new environment. Eventually, we managed to create a rapport with these families, and these parents placed their trust in us and agreed to admit their kids.
Four of these parents were escorted to the school on the first day. We assisted them with all the formalities of admission. The school insisted on making Desire Foundation the local guardian for these children and we agreed. Admitting the last child, Sameer, required additional efforts due to his father’s alcoholism and their financial difficulties. Though his father was against the idea of sending him to school, the efforts of our interns managed to convince his family, who managed to gather a certain portion of the funds. The remaining amount was loaned to his family by Desire.
Finally, on April 3, 2017, five children got admitted to Future Bhubaneswar School and began the journey towards fulfilling their dreams.
This has been our journey till now; a journey of sweat and blood, failures and learning, success and new beginnings. At a stage in life when youngsters usually prefer hanging out at the next happening place in town, our interns are working with an unwavering commitment to empowering the kids of tomorrow.
Phase I of Project Adhyayan has filled us with even more vigour. We, Desire Foundation, aim to admit 50 children to school this year and we are ready to tackle 500 more problems to reach our goal. We have worked without any external funding so far, by creating our own educational merchandise and selling them to students all over Bhubhaneshwar. Now we need your help to materialise some more dreams this year. We are excited to change lives. Are you?