Reach Out members in Delhi (India), both Sri Lankan and Indian, joined hands many months ago to start regular lessons with children in a small slum in Janakpuri, New Delhi. The slum is situated opposite a university and right in the midst of upper middle class affluence; although there are schools available nearby that offer free education – the children, for either lack of motive or encouragement, do not attend anymore. One of the teachers here gives an account of her teaching and her thoughts on poverty in Asia. All opinions here are her own.
From left to right: Rani, a volunteer Shreya, Meera and little Bharthi
There are nearly 15 students in our class – every now and then a few join, from a new ‘slum house’ added to the neighborhood or one or two leave as the family migrates elsewhere. Their mothers usually stay at home and their fathers are usually rickshaw drivers, earning a measly 100 rupees or so a day. They live in small 5×5 make-shift homes, mostly made of tin, wood scraps and lots of plastic sheets – which are obviously ill-suited for a family of minimum four, especially during Delhi’s harsh winter and during rainstorms. Although they are poorer than most people here – they are so much the same; the parents speak in the same way as my parents would, and the children laugh and play and talk in the same way as my cousins do. They are exactly the same except in that they have been completely neglected – by the Government, and more importantly and criminally – by us, by society.
The teachers are just five of us – we are university students and the slum is on the same block as our college. We teach the children in two batches – one for children between 6 and 9 and the other for the ones between 10 and 16. Most of the older kids have been to school to some extent, and know the alphabet, numbers and how to write Hindi more or less. They are now being taught complex sentence writing and Math, according to their varying levels of understanding. Right now I’m teaching the younger children the English alphabet – how to read and write; they’re getting pretty damn good at it. It’s a challenge for us because frankly none of us have any teaching experience – our method of teaching basically involves a lot of love for the children, and we get discipline and attention in class in return. We don’t just teach, we try to take care of them, to feed them, teach them good manners, make them laugh; whenever they see us they scream ‘Dheedhee!’ (big sister) and wave. Our funds are the collection of our own money and the money of other students in college. People who teach impoverished children are not heroes or some extraordinary saints – it is not an extraordinary act in any way, it is only an act of compassion and some consciousness about the ugly unjustness of our class system. And it is that very attitude – that showing compassion to people who deserve it is only an ‘extraordinary’ act, let’s leave it to the extraordinary people – that leaves so many people in our own communities alone and ignored in their problems.
In South Asia and elsewhere poverty is growing shamelessly with the increase in population, and as the saying goes, the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. Although Sri Lanka seems not to facilitate the contrast between rich and poor on such a massive scale as in India, the sinister contrast still exists. Take a drive through Mabole and you will find the same plastic homes and the same painful unashamed produce of neglect. The only difference is that, unlike in India, a lot of the privileged Colombo 7 crowd is completely ignorant about the extent of poverty in Sri Lanka. While the streets of India are teeming with random slums – you will see a child with only 2 t-shirts in his entire wardrobe living right next to a giant corporation, on the island they are more often tucked away quietly to certain parts of the city to be forgotten.
Either way – whose fault is it? I’m not an expert on educational or government affairs but I’m going to just speculate now on what little I know. Most people blame the Government. India and Sri Lanka both offer free education to its people – but there is a vast disconnect between the education system and the employment sector. Thousands will go to school and university and get a certificate, and only one hundred will get jobs. This is because of both, the disproportionate nature between the number of graduates and the number of jobs available – and the fact that many of the graduates lack the basic people skills for a job, such as English, communication skills and basic computer literacy. Unemployment rates have shot up; people without jobs equates to an upshot in poverty. How do we fix that mess?
I suppose one possible way is to make university entry more exclusive – like what they do in Sri Lanka’s medical faculty – saying ‘we can take in only this many students at a time’ which puts a control on how many doctors are produced, proportionate to the jobs available in hospitals in the country at the time. However this system is nonexistent in too many other faculties in both India and SL. Another important thing is for universities to train their graduates in people skills – to bridge the gap between getting a certificate and working in an office or under a boss or in a team. Also I think it would help to raise the level of dignity in manual jobs such as the job of the ‘baasunai’ (construction work), to bring equal respectability to all types of jobs perhaps through a leveling in salary and to conduct workshops or qualification-courses in those fields – so that people have more options in terms of employment. On a personal note, till these things begin to change, although there exists a taxing system – and some of the taxes of the more affluent are supposed to be going towards helping the poverty stricken – the results don’t show it to be so. A responsible body of monitors need to be elected to be in charge of the specific purpose of transferring a percentage of our taxes to the well-being of the poor, to keep taxes from disappearing into some corporate suit’s pocket. But this again is full of complicated things to work out – primary of which is, who will monitor the monitors?
Anyway we can all sit and talk about this over some tea in our well furnished rooms in India or Sri Lanka, and say ‘yeah I hope the Government gets down to all that some time,’ then go to bed happily and forget about it the next day. But ask me whose fault it is and I will say I don’t believe it is the Government’s. I think it is our fault that some of us have more than enough of everything without doing much work and others have to skip their meals and work twice as hard. It is our fault that my brother has a comfortable bed and the boy in the slum I teach at sleeps outside on a cloth in 10 degree weather; the object of this blame is not to simply pull a Robin Hood – but rather to use our sense of responsibility to better their condition. Why? Because we can and we should on the basis of being humane. Who is the Government? The Government is our creation and we are the people who have voted for their power and it is us that they serve. Also it is us few who are the upper middle class and the upper class – the not-just-literate but educated few, the privileged few – who actually have the resources, and the power, and the possible social contacts, to actually convey to the leaders in power our proposals and our demands for tangible change. The poor cannot do it themselves.
This could have been a happy little piece about our teaching at the slum and how all the kids are happy now and how love conquers all. But what good will that do? People will read it and feel warm and fuzzy inside and then get on with their lives. And people will keep on living in plastic 5×5 houses. The internet is a start; use your resources and discuss poverty – not about how sad it is, but about what we can do to slowly undo it. Talk real life solutions for at least community-level poverty. Project proposals begin with ideas. It is the least that we can do – that you can do – for helping sustain an unfair system with our silent consent, for facilitating starvation and deprivation with our complacency. Meanwhile reach out to people in your community who are impoverished, find out if there are any where you live.
We may live in a highly competitive industrialized setting but let us not let that strip us of our basic humanity.