Attired in a neatly pressed brown uniform, her hair tied in a smart ponytail, Saloni is attention personified as she attends class at Vani School in Punjab's Patiala. The 12-year-old initiates a conversation with this correspondent in English. "My name is Saloni. What is your name?"
The Class 2 student doesn't falter.
To those asking what's the big deal about a Class 2 student conversing in English, here's the answer:
Till just two years ago, Saloni was one of the hundreds of beggar-cum-ragpickers roaming the streets of Patiala.
Saloni remembers how she would sit in a park next to the school for hours and watch children attending classes. "I would tell my mother that I also want to go to this school. After begging for some hours, I would just stand and watch other children. My mother used to say that schools are not for children like us. The day I was admitted here, I just cried and cried," reminisces Saloni.
She, along with 35 other children, all of them child beggars or ragpickers, from the Grace Basti – a slum area in Patiala – are now students at Vani School.
Bananas and chocolates have replaced tobacco sachets (zarda) that some of them used to consume, hands that used to beg and forage for scrap from garbage now hold pencils and pens, and the backs that used to carry sacks full of scrap now don school bags. The cuss words in vernacular that used to be part and parcel of their lingo are now mostly forgotten giving way to "please", "thank you", and "welcome".
That's how the life has changed for Saloni and almost a hundred other child beggars in Patiala. The change-maker for them is an initiative called "Har Hath Kalam (a pen in every hand)". The initiative is the baby of a group of 70-odd youngsters – mostly students or college graduates, mostly in their early 20s. The initiative is inspired from and dedicated to former President late Dr APJ Abdul Kalam.
These youth work to bring child beggars, labourers and ragpickers into formal education system, with the process starting from the scratch – identifying the children, counselling the parents, preparing them for school and finally getting them admitted to schools. The group has pided itself into three teams in Patiala city – Team Udaan (works with children), Team Asar (counsels parents, community) and Team Goonj (that performs nukkad naataks (street plays) and takes up activities for awareness).
The biggest challenge that they face and fight is to make the parents give up on the Rs 100-500 that their children bring home by begging or ragpicking.
The Grace Basti, a settlement with a large number of migrant families from Maharashtra mostly engaged in ragpicking, has been the focal point of the initiative and is now witnessing the change that Har Hath Kalam has brought.
The past was not a good place for these children. They would get up in the morning, pick a sack and heading to the nearest garbage dump or market places looking for scarps. Others would head to the traffic junctions, religious places or parks where they would beg for alms.
The present is shaping up good. Thirty six children from the Grace Basti board a bus that stops outside the slum at 8.30 am. It drops them at Vani School. The same bus then drops them home at 2.30 pm. After a change of clothes and lunch, the children wait for an autorickshaw that arrives at 4 pm and takes them to Government Polytechnic College for Girls (SST Nagar) where they attend an evening school to complete their homework. The Har Hath Kalam volunteers help them with their studies. Back home at 6.30 pm, they start preparing for the next day at school. Some try to teach their parents a word or two in English. There is hardly anytime left for them to even think about begging.
Apart from the Grace Basti, the volunteers are now focusing on three other slums in Patiala. Ten children each from Bindra Colony and Mall Road slums have been admitted to other schools and attend evening classes held in their area clusters. Another 40 children from Rajpura Colony slum attend evening classes and are being prepared for school admissions this coming session. (2019-20)
According to Showkat Ahmad Parray, additional deputy commissioner (general), Patiala, the effort has resulted in reduction of at least a hundred child beggars or part time laborers from roads of Patiala city in past one year. "In some colonies, we are still facing resistance from parents especially in the Bindra Colony slum. Despite that, at least a hundred children who were out of schools have now been engaged into education," he told The Sunday Express.
Harsh Kothari, originally from Kota in Rajasthan and an engineering graduate from Thapar Institute of Engineering and Technology, Patiala, was 19 when he founded Har Hath Kalam. Later he left his job at Maruti Suzuki, fetching him Rs 8 lakh per annum, to continue with the cause full-time in Patiala. Now 23 years old, Kothari says that first task they undertook was to understand why the problem of child begging existed at all.
"We carried out a survey on 126 child beggars in Patiala in 2014-15. It threw up some shocking results. We covered hotspots of begging – traffic signals, outside religious places and markets. It came out that 50 per cent of children were beggars because of habit and not because of any financial constraints or compulsions, 35 per cent were forced into begging by their parents or relatives, and just 15 per cent had some financial constraints or medical condition due to which they took to begging. Thirty per cent were also found to be addicted to drugs or tobacco. The real challenge then was to involve their parents and force them to give up the greed of an additional income of Rs 100-500 a day that their children were bringing home by begging," he says.
After surveys and ground work, including counselling sessions for parents till 2016, the slum children were enrolled into "bridge gap" classes for a year – from August 2017 to March 2018 – to help they prepare for admissions to the schools.
Mehak Gupta (21), a volunteer explains, "We taught children basic alphabets and numbers. We taught them how to sit, speak and behave properly in 'bridge gap' classes. Children would take Rs 5 or 10 from their parents and buy tobacco. Some were also into gambling. At least 13 children from Grace Basti were tobacco addicts. Now, they have quit tobacco. It was basically about building trust with their parents".
The group then contacted district administration for help in tying up with schools and securing concession in tuition fee. "Currently we are working on a monthly budget of Rs 60,000-70,000. Each child has been "adopted" by private inpiduals or companies. We are spending Rs 750 a month per child which includes Rs 250 as school fee and Rs 500 as bus fee. The auto, which picks them up for evening class, is paid Rs 2,500 a month. We aren't paying anything to our volunteers," says Kothari.
They have launched a mobile application – 'Har Hath Kalam' and 'Report a Child Beggar' – where people can share a photo and location of any child beggar or ragpicker they come across. "We get a notification whenever a child beggar is reported on our application. Our volunteers reach there and make inquiries," he adds.
However, it was not easy going for the volunteers and the children from slums when it came to mingling with other students at school.
Sukhchain Kaur Virk, principal of Vani Integrated School for Hearing Impaired, said that 36 children from Grace Basti were admitted in nursery to Class 4 this year (2018-19) at their school but they faced a lot of opposition from parents of other children and even their own teachers initially.
"The children used cuss words, had foul language, pick quarrels and chew tobacco due to which parents of other students objected. Even our own teachers raised objection initially but we decided to continue with their education. Now, these children come to school properly dressed, remain in discipline and hardly miss school. One of them – Ayub topped in Class 3 while another one, Gopi, was given best student award for discipline. We also called their parents to meet teachers. We understand that the condition at their homes is not same as that at the houses of the privileged children. For instance, they sometimes miss school when their uniform is not dry after being washed as they have only one set," she says.
At Grace Basti, parents have their own stories to tell about change that they have witnessed in their children.
Anju (name changed), whose three daughters used to beg or pick scarp and now go to school, says, "My eldest daughter who is 12 years old used to chew tobacco. She couldn't start her day did without it. Now she has given up the habit. Now, all three do not miss school even if I tell them to take an off. We know and understand that we have to adjust and run our home without Rs 100-300 that they used to get from begging," she says.
Vinod Kumar, a cart puller, father of Sandhya, Saloni and Vinay, says, "I felt proud when I was called to school and teachers said that Vinay is an excellent singer. He performed at school function. My elder daughter Sandhya has completed her Class 10 and is now pursuing architecture diploma at polytechnic college. Now, I do not let my children beg or work."
Adjusting his bag outside a discarded wooden structure that he calls home, Gopi (9), who used to work at a tea-stall, fumbles while talking in English but doesn't give up. "My name is Gopi. Now I go to school. I study in Class 1."
"Main pehle chai ki dukaan pe kaam karta tha…Din ke 70 rupaye milte they par acha nahi lagta tha (I used to work at tea stall and earn Rs 70 a day. But I never liked it)," says Gopi.
Outside the Government Polytechnic College for Girls, where children gather for evening tuition class, Kajal (12), who earlier used to beg outside the same campus, says, "Mere dost gaali dete they, bheekh maangtey they, ab nahi karte. Main college ke baahar hi bheekh maangti thi aur loha bechti thi. (My friends would shout cuss words and beg. No more. I used to beg outside this campus) Twice, I had tried to enter inside and got a scolding from the guard. Now when I sit here on benches inside, I could not believe my luck. Now, I do not crave for the little money that I used to get from begging".
Gurbakshish Singh, professor, civil engineering, Polytechnic College, who helped volunteers in getting space for evening classes, says, "Since some months, an auto has been picking up children from slums for evening classes but I have seen the days when these youngsters would bring the children on their own two-wheelers, making the to and fro journey multiple times. When they approached us and asked for space, we had no reason to say no. They were asking for a shed outside, but two classrooms inside the campus was the least we could do for them."
The work has also started in Ludhiana where 16 children from Dhakka Slum colony have been admitted to a school.
Meanwhile, at the evening class in Patiala, the children also sing in unison for their 'friends' who introduced them to world of books. 'Meri zindagi sawari, mujhko gale lagake, baitha diya falak pe, mujhe khaak se uthake, Yaara teri yaari ko maine to khuda maana…!'