Kolkata, West Bengal : The sunrays struggle to penetrate the tiny holes of a corrugated tin roof that covers the narrow passages of Kolkata's poorest of slums. In Narkeldanga, thousands of people, mostly Muslims, live under this single roof.
Afrin is taking us home to meet her parents. She stops by the 'factory' - a blackened 7-by-7 feet room lit by a single 40-watt bulb, where five men slice recycled black rubber tubes into cheap washers. Afrin, her three younger sisters and their mother must have counted billions of these washers, which have to be packed, hundred each, into little boxes. For every hundred boxes delivered, that is, for every one-lakh washers counted, the factory owner pays them a paltry Rs 7.
Afrin is 15, an age when poor families worry not about their daughters'education but their marriage. But Shahida, her mother, is not even thinking on those lines. "Not till she passes her Class 10 exam," she says firmly. She has, in fact, got all her four of daughters enrolled into the Urdu medium Baitulmal Girls high school, a government-aided school at Narkeldanga.
Afrin's father Anwar is a daily wage trolley rickshaw-puller. He has five children and the sixth one is on its way. They do lead a hand-to-mouth existence but the girls' education has not been sacrificed.
Shahida represents a new trend among the urban Muslim community in India. She says, "they are going to be mothers one day. If they are uneducated how will they teach their children? Besides, in today's world they, in all likelihood, would have to supplement their husbands' income. Hence, they should be equipped."
The family earns about Rs 300-400 from counting the rubber washers every month and keeps it aside for the girls' private tuitions and stationary. The parents not only insist that the girls attend school but they must also do well.
According to the Rajinder Sachar Committee findings, more Muslim parents want to send their children to mainstream schools today. The statistics do present a dismal picture: nationwide just 68 per cent of Muslim girls go to school, compared to 72 per cent Dalit girls and 80 per cent of the girls from other communities. Overall, 25 per cent of Muslim children in the age group of 6-14 have either never attended school or have dropped out. However, Sarva Siksha Abhiyan, has started showing results. The strategies giving incentres and non-formal method of education suitable for children from deprived backgrounds seem to be working.
Shahida says, "earlier, we did not dare to spend on the girls' education. In fact, Afrin started school very late, when she was eight years old.
All four of my daughters get free books (though, sometimes it is delayed), the two girls in primary school get school uniforms. We get 2.5 to three kilograms of rice from school every month. It is not much, but every bit helps. If the government is doing so much to educate our daughters, how can we not do anything?"
A study titled 'Primary Education in West. Bengal and the Mid-day Meal Programme' by Amartya Sen's Pratichi (India) Trust in 2004-05, which compared school attendance pre- and post-introduction of mid-day meals, discovered that the attendance of Muslim children had increased by 13.2 percent (attendance of scheduled tribes by as much as 19.9 per cent, scheduled caste by 12.6 per cent and rest of the Hindus by merely 3.8 per cent). Overall, attendance of girls has increased by 10.2 percent owing to the midday meal scheme.
Of course, there are other factors at work, including the opening up of information channels in the homes of poor and rich alike, mainly through television. Yesteryears' unattainable goals seem a possibility today and education is the road to reach them.
At Baitulmal Girls high school, secretary of the school managing committee, Abdul Hayee, reveals that there has been such a rush for admissions for the last three years and that they have had to refuse a majority of applicants. There are just 10 classrooms and the school is already doing three shifts. "There is such little room for the 2,000 girl students studying here that some teachers have to teach from the corridors!"
If Baitulmal works overtime to provide education to maximum girls belonging to the minority community, Parvez Shahidi Sishu Shiksha Kendra at Kolkata's 1, Circus Avenue is not far behind. The school is held between 4p.m. and 7p.m. to accommodate working children from the poorest sections of the Muslim community, mostly from Beckbagan Rows area. Many of girls here work as domestic helps while the boys work in the local automobile garages and small-scale factories during the day.
The Sishu Shiksha Kendra (SSK) initiative is part of the Alternative and Innovative Education (AIE) Programme of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan.
Adolescent girls, who have dropped out due to cultural restrictions, economic constraints or to manage the house in the absence of their mothers who go for daily wage labour, constitute the bulk of SSK students. The 87 students who have enrolled in the four primary classes taught here are aged between two and 16 years.
The school is a large portico in peeling green colour, built in 1915. All four classes study in loose groups in the Urdu medium. Though not part of the curriculum, on popular demand, the teachers have also started teaching spoken English.
Shabana Begum, junior education volunteer , is holding fort, hustling the students to their seats, berating them for being late. At 5.30p.m. senior volunteer Shaheeda Khatun puffs in with a smile. It's evident that the two teachers, the maximum number in many SSKs in Kolkata, are enthusiastic and dedicated. Their relationship with students and their families is that of a mentor, guide and friend.
"Since 2001 when this SSK began, at least thrice in a month we have to go from doortodoor urging mothers not to keep the children from attending school. Why only children, here we have to educate the parents too," she jokes, counting persistent motivation as the reason for a positive change among parents. While the two teachers chat with us, Pinky, one of the students, has taken charge and is checking everyone's homework. The girl, 5.6 feet tall and well-built, could easily be mistaken for a teacher. At 16, she is the eldest of students here, studying in Class three.
Pinky comes from a relatively better economic background. Her father is a petty trader. But why did she start school so late? "Women are not allowed to go out of the house much. When Baa-ji (Shabana), who stays next door, started teaching in this school my father gave me permission to come." He also spent Rs 700 to get a new purdah and gown stitched for Pinky.
Sabra Parveen's (12) parents can barely make ends meet, though three of her brothers do odd jobs to help them out. Because of the teachers' persistence, Sabra was able to join class one last May. Her brothers are keen that she should attend school though they themselves are unable to. They call her 'path chor' (truant) if she misses school. Sabra wants to learn English.
Jahana Begum sends four of her six children to SSK. When asked how long will they continue their studies, she says, "Till they can stand on their own feet … when my daughters become like Baa-ji (teacher)." Jahana echoes the hopes of most parents in the Muslim community - that even if they themselves never got an opportunity to study, their children must acquire enough formal education to live with self-respect and dignity.
The sea of change that has taken place in the mindset of this minority community would have been unimaginable five years back. Boys of poorer Muslim families start working when they are 10 years old but the girls are being educated, not so much to equip them to earn a living but to "open their eyes". It has almost become a matter of family pride. When we come out of the SSK, Kolkata's neon lights are already burning. It is 7p.m. and 50 students are repeating what their teacher is saying about Babasaheb Ambedkar in a deafening volume. Learning is in full swing.