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India

India's Inspiring Slumdog School With A Railway Bridge As A Roof

The teacher is a shopkeeper who volunteers his time to kids who otherwise would be shut out from any education.

Rajesh Kumar teaching at "railway school"
Rajesh Kumar teaching at "railway school"
Jasvinde Sehgal

NEW DELHI — By law, all Indian children are supposed to receive free education until the age of 14. But in practice, many children don’t go to school for any number of reasons: because the schools are not available, because the kids need to work to support their families, or because their parents are uneducated and don’t appreciate the value of learning.

But shopkeeper Rajesh Kumar in the Indian capital of New Delhi is trying to get around these problems with a new generation. He teaches poor children in a makeshift school under a railway bridge. Though his day job is selling household items in his shop, his real passion is teaching.

His students, between the ages of four and 14, are children of rubbish pickers, rickshaw pullers and laborers. On their way to school, the students say they want to learn how to read and write because they want to become doctors or join the army.

“This is not officially a school,” Rajesh says. “It has not been registered. The students come only for two hours. We used to run another school, but a mall was built on the land. As this one is under the railway bridge, the children are safe here.”

Rajesh has no professional teaching qualifications and wasn’t even able to complete the final year of his bachelor degree because of financial problems. All of the school equipment can be packed into one big box, and there are no desks or chairs. The railway bridge acts as a “roof’’ for the school, while rugs are laid out across the stone floor to create a classroom of sorts.

But it’s more than what most of these children have ever had. “The school is very close to the slums where these poor children live,” Rajesh says. “The aim is to make them independent, curious and confident so that they can change the course of their future. After class they either go home or to work.”

There are 60 students who attend the classes here. Among them is 12-year-old Babar Ali, who works after school at a nearby restaurant to help support his family, which is extremely poor. He doesn’t go to a normal school because it goes for six hours a day, which wouldn’t leave him enough time to work. He comes here instead because classes last just two hours.

“I want to become a doctor someday,” he says, adding that he likes numbers and “the sound of English when I speak the words.”

Ajay Mandal is a former student at the railway school. He says studying with Rajesh helped him pass the exam required to get into a good government school, where he’s now in the eighth grade.

“It’s thanks to this school that we can get admission to the top government schools in the city,” he says. “The teacher taught us many things, including moral values. Now we are heading towards a prosperous future.”

When school ends for the day, the children are dismissed to return to their homes or to go to work. Tuk tuk driver Jai Prakash Yadav, who arrives to pick up his 4-year-old son Shiv, is among the few parents who are supportive of their children’s studies. “The children are getting free education and books,” he says. “They are busy and learning new things.”

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