A school in Amritsar's Maqboolpura is helping children of drug-abuse victims to leave the dark past behind and take on responsible societal roles

Fifth grader Arti is determined to join the police service on growing up. She feels being a cop will equip her better to address drug-abuse, a scourge she lost five uncles and her father to.

Arti is one of the 450 students of Citizens' Forum Vidya Mandir, a school in the Maqboolpura area of Amritsar, infamous as the “locality of widows”. Addiction to pills, synthetic drugs and illicit liquor has claimed the lives of numerous men here over the years, leaving behind parents, wives and children to fend for themselves.

The school was started by Amritsar-based activist Brij Bedi (former cop Kiran Bedi's husband) and Ajit Singh, a government school teacher, to provide free education to the children of the locality's drug addicts.

Of the 450 students — comprising mainly girls — over 50 per cent have only a single parent (in most cases mothers), while several others are orphans. What began as an endeavour with 20 children in a small room from Mr. Singh's house in 1999 is now a full grown institution offering a healthy and literate life to the Maqboolpura children. Their uniforms and books are being sponsored by a city school, while the government mid-day food scheme assures them at least one meal a day. Former IPS officer Kiran Bedi has also been helping with funds.

“The situation was pretty grim back then. Children played on the streets with none to take care of them. The men worked as rickshaw-pullers and labourers, or were largely unemployed. In their frustration, they took to drugs which were, and still are, quite readily available,” laments Mr. Bedi.

Mr. Singh, who grew up in Maqboolpura and has been a witness to drug-abuse devouring local men, says unemployment and drug-abuse are interrelated.

“Women are forced to work as maids as husbands blow away whatever they earn on their addiction. Some of them have run away or even committed suicide because of their husbands' waywardness,” says the teacher, who has been living in a single-room with his family after donating the rest of his house to run the school.

The institution offers studies up to Class 8 and though it financially supports those wishing to pursue further education, the drop-out rate remains high, especially in the case of girls. However, for children in this 25,000-plus locality, this routine of school, books and banter seems to give them some semblance of a “normal” life.

Vidya Mandir also runs vocational training programmes and free coaching classes for students appearing in entrance test for admission to polytechnics across Punjab. Adult education classes are also in the pipeline.