Filling in the blanks

Nitin Wadhwani has made it his life’s mission to make municipal schools attractive to students and parents

Published - December 09, 2016 09:39 am IST

Three decades ago, when Nitin Wadhwani was growing up in Mumbai, municipal schools were not considered lower in quality than private schools. Over time, there’s been a radical shift in perception, something that has been bothering him. “When did this change happen? Today, there is the sense that if it is a government school, aisa hi hoga [it will only be like this].”And so, three years ago, Citizens Association for Child Rights (CACR) was born out of this question: how can we, as concerned citizens, make government-run schools work better in Mumbai? For it is up to citizens, in Mr. Wadhwani’s view, to challenge this perception and work toward remedying it. “We are middle-class, tax-paying citizens. If we do not care where our money is going, or how our children are studying, then who will?”

What also worried him was that children were not going to school in the first place. Years ago, when Mr. Wadhwani was volunteering with a child rights organisation, the volunteers were asked to make paintings with a group of 20 children in Khar. “These children were living on the street. The idea was, spend an hour with them, and leave.” So he spent the next three months doing solid groundwork — “it was not easy” — with the children’s parents, most of whom were gajra sellers outside Khar station. He managed to convince them to send their children to school.

Once the children are sent to school, it’s important to keep them there. His experience showed that it wasn’t very encouraging, with the many gaps in the system. There were sufficient budgets for the running of schools; teachers received good salaries, and, as per the Right to Education Act, there were many features available to schools and students that were not availed of. “It is about finding the gaps in the existing system, and identifying how we can fix them.”Literacy, healthcare and sanitation.

The organisation’s key programmes aim at fixing these gaps, in simple yet crucial ways that will help the schools run better. One of them is a computer literacy programme in which volunteers work in nearly 100 schools across the city and train teachers and students in basic handling of computers. “Many schools were equipped with computers, including those given as donations, but they were not in use, either because staff had no training, or because the computer room was in disarray and locked.”

They are also aiming at training long-time teachers with experience in computer usage. They find that students and teachers pick up computer usage very quickly.

Another programme is a pilot project in five school buildings (20 schools) in the Bandra-Andheri area. Using UNICEF guidelines as per their WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) programme, they aim to encourage hand-washing, using soaps in bathrooms, and similar everyday hygiene practices. Many volunteers from schools and colleges across Mumbai also work in these schools to teach children about germs and cleanliness in an engaging manner.All of these projects began with simple citizens’ observations. “For example, while I was visiting a school in Mumbai, I noticed that there was no soap in the toilet.”

Another important intervention by CACR is in the arena of healthcare. As per government regulations, every government school student is granted free healthcare and checkups at schools. Few know about this rule; a similarly small number of school staff implement it. “When we visited schools, we saw that the health cards, on which students’ checkups are marked — eye test, dental test, and other medical procedures — were all marked as ‘healthy’ even though students had health problems.” CACR is now partnering with the Indian Dental Association, and eye hospitals, to ensure children receive health care. The results are simple: children are able to see the blackboard better. They no longer have to sit at the front of the class because of poor vision, a common problem.

Long-term vision

Some of the projects CACR is engaged in are implemented city-wide, in around 1,000 schools, while some in the pilot phase are implemented in closer to 50. The organisation aims to increase its reach, both within the city and in India, and empower the projects so they can run in schools without the help of voluntary organisations. Unlike other non-profit efforts, CACR works within the municipal school system to effect long-term change, and is particular about accountability and consistent assessment.

Yes, there are several barriers: although municipal authorities and Department of Education officers are often helpful, they are also difficult to gain promises out of; the sheer size of the schools, and the changing levels of enrollment, makes them difficult to supervise evenly; parents of economically disadvantaged children are often too busy to take a role in their children’s lives; the children themselves are struggling with conflicting familial and other expectations that affect how (and if) they participate in school.

Yet, Mr. Wadhwani thinks there is purpose in continuing to try. “Because I have been doing this for over five years, I have gained contacts in the education department and in school bodies across the city.” He uses these to make schools work better.

CACR is still a small organisation; Mr. Wadhwani (he still holds a day job as director in a private electronic components company), a co-director, and a programme director are the only ‘employees’.

The work, then, is done by citizens concerned about their world. “The point of social work should be to make a difference, not just to do social work.”

The writer is an intern with the Hindu

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