Indian Street Kids Work at Dawn, Then Dream of School


Fourteen-year-old Deepchand should be learning but instead he lies sprawled fast asleep on the floor of an Indian school -- exhausted by his early morning labors finding rubbish to sell.

Abandoned by his mother, his father dead, he works as a trash collector on the streets of New Delhi, starting two hours before dawn collecting plastic bottles, drink cans and metal -- anything that will earn him a little cash.

Deepchand, who like many street kids has only one name, uses the plastic bag in which he collects garbage as his sleeping bag when he beds down on the pavement at night.

But there is hope for Deepchand, and countless others like him, through the Aviva Street to School Center, a program run by Save the Children that targets street kids to try to prepare them for entry into mainstream schools.

"It's hard to teach them at times -- they're so exhausted," said Save the Children program worker Pradeep Kumar, gazing down at the sleeping Deepchand, whose hands are calloused from work.

Getting India's millions of street children into schools is just one of the big challenges facing the government as it seeks to implement its landmark Right to Education Act which is just over a year old.

That's where transition institutions like Aviva come in -- helping children learn the most basic social skills such as sharing, and allowing them to catch up on lost school years so that they can one day attend full-time classes.

But many impoverished parents, who rely on income from the children to support the family, see no point in education.

"My father says, 'Do rag picking' but I want to go to school," says nine-year-old Suleiman in the brightly decorated classroom that lies up a flight of narrow stairs in a bustling market.

"The parents are so fixated on getting enough money to survive, the value of an education falls," says teacher Nivedita Chopra.

"But if they see their child doing well and feel it could eventually translate into a better life for them, it can change their minds," Chopra says, as she busily puts stars on drawings thrust at her by pupils.

A few of the children at the school, which is part of a global network funded by the Aviva insurance group, have had a bit of formal schooling, others none.

"Some of them we have to teach the very basics -- like how to hold a pencil," says another teacher, Rekha, who goes by one name.

Deepchand -- by now awake -- says he wishes for only one thing: to obtain training that would give him a skill and get him off the streets.

"These children are like any other children, they want to go to school, wear a school uniform, but most of the time they don't get the chance," says Kumar.

India's education act means all states must now provide free schooling for every child between the age of six and 14 but its implementation is badly bogged down.

State governments, which are in charge of education, oppose any change that the federal government will not fund.

Just five of India's 29 states -- Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Orissa, Sikkim and Manipur -- have taken preliminary steps to implement the law, which aims to get 10 million unschooled children into the education system.

"The education act so far has all been cosmetic. Nothing has really changed on the ground," said child advocacy coordinator Umesh Kumar Gupta of the volunteer National Coalition for Education.

Even when children such as Deepchand and Suleiman do get into school, their chances of getting a proper education are bleak.

The shortage of teachers is estimated to be 1.4 million so classes are overcrowded. States like India's most populous Uttar Pradesh have more than 200,000 teacher vacancies, according to the volunteer Right to Education Forum.

"Who will train that many teachers?" asks Krishna Kumar, professor of education at Delhi University, who adds many teachers are appointed without "any attention to basic qualifications."

Teacher absenteeism is estimated at 25 percent and even when there are teachers in class, many children do not "learn anything substantial," says Kumar.

"It matters to no-one whether they make tangible progress," he says.

Critics also point to legislation banning child labor that is routinely flouted with millions of children regularly putting in 12 hour days as household help, in restaurants, factories, mines and other jobs.

"If a child is working how can they be in school?" says Bhuwan Ribhu, a New Delhi lawyer who works with Bachpan Bachao Andolan, or Save the Childhood Movement.

Experts say India's "youth bulge" could drive economic development or be a demographic disaster, threatening social cohesion if the government fails to provide education for its brimming young population.

Already, over half of India's population of 1.2 billion is below 25 and the country has a literacy rate of just 65 percent, lagging far behind many other developing countries. Neighboring China's literacy rate is 90.9 percent.

However, 13-year-old Deepak at the Aviva school, whose parents are rubbish pickers, says he is determined to make a better life for himself.

"I want to be a teacher," he says, flashing a dimpled grin.

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