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‘We want to go to school, but can’t afford it’

A week ago, the Indian Parliament decreed that every Indian child would have a Right to Education.  But what does that mean in practice?  Journalist Meenakshi Srikandath takes to the streets to find out.

“My son knows how to add and subtract, he can read and write and he knows his way around here. He makes some money everyday. That is enough,” pavement dweller in Mumbai.

Visiting the slum in Jogeshwari in Mumbai’s western suburbs, it didn’t take me long to find out that many of the very people targeted by the new Right to Education law aren’t greeting it with unbridled enthusiasm.

India exists on two very different levels, and Mumbai is probably the best example of opulence and poverty living side by side.

Where is the money?

Most of them were just elevated pavement dwellers with their huts a little off the road. They all had the same thing to say “Yes, we would love to put our kids in school, but where is the money?”

Sheelu’s 12 year old son Munna used to go to school when they lived in the village. Now he sells flowers at traffic lights and brings in much needed money for the family.

Munna liked his old school and dreamt of working in an office at one point, but now he says he is happy with his new job. Munna’s younger sister Choti is only a year-and-a-half, but it’s doubtful whether she will even go to school. They have bigger problems. At the end of the day, very few of them even knew about the RTE.

I went to another neighbourhood nearby, behind a busy flyover off the highway that link the suburbs to south Mumbai. Here, people live in one or two-room houses with electricity and running water, and while some mothers work as domestic help, others are homemakers.

It was exam time and I was greeted by kids getting ready for school and doing some last- minute brushing up. I asked one lady, Parveen, what she thought about the RTE and whether her children went to school. She was surprised I even asked such a question.

“Of course, children must go to school. I only studied the bare minimum, but my son goes to an English-medium school, and my younger boy will start kindergarten in 2 years.”

Her son Saaj and his best friend Faizan were ready for their English exam later that day. They have about four more exams to go before the school shuts for summer holidays.

Further down, I met a young mother who is a high school graduate but couldn’t go to college. Shaista said that she wanted her son Saif, now in the third grade, to complete college. I asked Saif what his favourite subject was. He grinned and showed off his grammar book

“My favourite subject is English, but today, I have my math exam. I’m not so bad at math either.”

These were lower-income households; I spoke to them about the clause in the RTE that states that children from underprivileged backgrounds should be given admission in private schools. While some mothers said woh achhi baat hain, (that’s a good idea) most were happy with the government school.

Ensure regular attandance

Madhav Chavan is the founder of Pratham, a Mumbai-based NGO which aims to provide quality education to underprivileged children. He agrees that there are some challenges.

“The law lays down that all children should have access to a school and that attendance of all should be ensured. However, the law alone cannot make this happen. Even if there is a school nearby and even if the children are enrolled in schools, many do not attend or do not attend regularly. Social consensus to ensure total attendance and some pressure of the law is needed.”

The RTE certainly is a historic and monumental step when it comes to education- and yes, the Indian government is keeping with its promise of a pro-poor agenda by putting the bill into action. While more finances and some tweaking would help in its execution, what really needs to done is to make more people aware of the RTE and its benefits. Rather, educate the public about their right to a quality education.

Meenakshi Srikandath lives in Mumbai and has worked with CNN-IBN and CNBC


1 Comment on “‘We want to go to school, but can’t afford it’”

  1. #1 Samantha
    on May 6th, 2010 at 1:36 pm

    There might a help from heaven soon for these children. I’ll be back to check new posts of yours.

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