The changing face of the Indian slum

RTI, RTE and rising aspirations

In a sign of change, mothers wage a relentless battle to get their children admission to the seats reserved for the poor in private schools.

In her tiny room with a grey refrigerator and a wall-mounted television set, Babita opens up about her dreams. “My children should learn to speak in English,” she says.

Two of her children study in private schools, and another in a government school. Private school admissions for children from a slum may sound like a fantasy, but this is the era of the Right to Education (RTE) Act. Private schools must reserve 25 per cent of their seats for children whose parents earn less than Rs. 1 lakh a year, who make up the economically weaker section, or EWS.

Babita lives in Jagdamba Camp, a warren of matchbox houses where the stench of open drains and the aroma of cooking in the kitchens make an odd blend. Women like her do not take things lying down. By asking questions about the inadequate number of toilets and the fee for using them or about public distribution system entitlements, they gather every possible bit of information using the Right to Information (RTI) Act. Occasionally, the men too join in, but they largely confine themselves to bringing home the money earned from masonry work, driving or odd jobs.

The women dream of a private school education for their children, fluent English rolling off their tongues which, they hope, will change the lives of the boys and girls for the better. Twenty-five students from Jagdamba Camp go to private schools now. Behind each of that admission was the feisty struggle of a mother.

For women like Babita, if the RTI is a lifeline, the RTE opens for their children a road denied to them when they were young. They wield the two pieces of legislation like weapons for the betterment of the slum of 7,000 inhabitants in a city where the rich and the poor live together in an unequal, contractual relationship.

Babita, with the help of other women and the Satark Naagrik Sangathan, a non-governmental organisation, sought information through the RTI Act on the enrolment of EWS children in private schools that ring the slum, a process that took six months. “I had never set foot outside my house till I took an autorickshaw to the Education Department offices. We would be driven away by the guard. But we decided to fight it out,” she says as her neighbour, Pushpa, nods in agreement.

While the intervention of the Sangathan provided the initial spark, all credit goes to the super-charged women of the camp who took up the fight.

Pushpa, who is from Rajasthan, was the first to get out of her ghunghat when she decided to battle for a private school education for her daughter. She appears to be the ringleader, exhorting other women to use the avenues successive governments have opened up for people like her. So, if a school refuses to enrol a child, the women file an RTI application, seeking the number of children enrolled in the EWS category. The usual questions are, “How many students have been admitted from kindergarten to fifth class? What are the names of those children and their parents? How many days does it take to admit a child to a private school?”

Demand for extra money

Vandana from Varanasi wanted to know why schools were demanding money from her children for extracurricular activities such as skating. Clearly, the demands strained the family’s finances. If responses don’t come by or are not satisfactory, the women file an appeal against the respondent, a mechanism available under the RTI Act.

The mothers even sought details on the monthly activities undertaken by the school and the money each of it requires. Children are taught skating, tennis and such games in private schools, and it is for Babita, Vandana and Richa to provide for their wards. “I just want to give the best education to my children so that they don’t have to depend on anyone,” Vandana says.

Richa cannot read but that does not stop her from checking out recipes on her smartphone. Her photo gallery displays cuisines from all over the country. “I can make idli, poha, anything,” she says, adding that all she has to say to her phone is “OK Google”. She dreams of starting her own small kitchen service. She squirrels away some of the Rs. 5,000 she earns a month and has a savings account.

India’s urban demographics began to change much after the government started liberalising the economy in 1991. The country’s traditional business elite became the first movers in the market, and they heavily invested in the service and real estate sectors. The readily available cheap labour helped them make massive profits in quick time.

The Knight Frank Global Wealth report 2016 says the number of Indian elite is growing at a faster pace than the global average; in the past 10 years, the country witnessed a leap of four times, or 330 per cent, in the number of billionaires. The number of those living in slums too registered a huge spurt. As pointed out right at the beginning of this series, the population in slums is projected to increase from 93.1 million in 2001 to 104.7 million in 2017.

A large number of people from rural India are abandoning farming and moving to cities for jobs. At first, they seek opportunities in the formal economy but because of lack of skills, they are mostly turned away.

So they turn to the low-paying unorganised labour market, finding places like Jagdamba Camp to live. A big proportion of them find work in the booming real estate sector, and slums are where they head to when the bricklaying is done for the day.

In Mahipalpur, near Rangpuri Pahadi, a cluster slum close to Vasant Kunj, a middle-class neighbourhood, three girls dream on. Though just 17, they look forward to embracing life with all its opportunities. Their parents have educated them in government schools, and they dream despite the odds. One wants to be a journalist in a Hindi daily, the other a radio jockey, the third mulls over the prospects of being a librarian. “Do you think I should first do a course in radio programming? Is there is a course for it,” asks Anjali. Anjali and Arti, sisters, know how to handle cameras. Quite possibly, their future too.

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Printable version | Jun 30, 2020 5:00:19 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/RTI-RTE-and-rising-aspirations/article14392121.ece

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