SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Close encounters

KNOWLEDGE TO THE RESCUE: The children with the teachers in a Saksham classroom.  

SMITA JAIN

Thanks to awareness created by Saksham, some children in Nithari were able to escape the clutches of the Noida killers.

NOIDA'S serial killers have exposed the extreme inequity and lawlessness that exists in one of the most prosperous suburbs in India. The media has covered, in minute detail, the lives of the killers and other sensationalist aspects of the gruesome murders. However, little attention has been paid to the perspectives of children who inhabit the slum, many of whom escaped, just barely, from the unyielding hands of the killers. Children who didn't directly encounter the duo had nonetheless been affected by the happenings in D-5, due to their close proximity. Saksham, an NGO located in the slum of Nithari, has been conducting free educational classes for children of Nithari since 2002. Currently, the school caters to around 350 children in the 4-15 age group, and operates from a small premises located just a few hundred meters from D-5. Around 13 children from Saksham fortuitously escaped the clutches of the murderers, and their stories reveal an extraordinary presence of mind and courage.

Resisting strangers

Rashmi, 15, was returning to her home in Nithari with her younger brother and an older male neighbour one evening. She was holding her brother's hand as they walked, and she recalls a white car driving up beside them as they proceeded on the road. The man in the car now identified as Satish asked her if she wanted to come to his house, where he promised her some enticing sweets. She refused, and they continued walking. Satish then picked up speed, caught her unawares from behind, opened the passenger door, and tried to pull her in. As Rashmi tried to wriggle free from his grasp, the older boy accompanying her ran away, fearful for his life. In those moments, as she struggled for her life, she quickly let go of her brother's hand. "I knew my life was at stake. However, I thought that I should at least save my brother, because his life as the only son in our family is more valuable than mine," she recalls. As she let go of her brother, she bit Satish's hand as hard as she could and managed to wrest free. She then ran as fast as she could to the nearest adult, a paanwaala, and alerted him to the man in the car. Satish had, meanwhile, driven away. Rashmi has been attending classes at Saksham for the last year, and strongly believes that what she has learned at Saksham contributed greatly to her presence of mind during those crucial moments. "The teachers at Saksham have always impressed upon us the importance of saying no to strangers, no matter what they offer," she says. "Through Saksham, I have gained a lot of confidence and am more aware of how to handle myself."

Personal safety

Priya, an eight-year old child who studies at a local school in Nithari and also attends evening classes at Saksham, was startled during class one morning when the school Principal called her to his room one day to inform her that her uncle was there to pick her up. She went to the Principal's room, only to discover that she had never seen this "uncle" before. "He said that my mother was ill, and that he had come to take me home to see her. He even knew my mother's name and my brother's name," she remembers. The Principal urged her to go, but she refused on the grounds that she didn't know who the man was. The man now identified as Satish urged her to come, and grabbed her hand. The Principal exhorted her to go too, but she broke free from Satish's grasp, and bolted from the room. Still shaken by the incident, Priya says that the lessons in personal safety that teachers at Saksham have constantly emphasised were with her on that fateful morning.

Vital skills

"At Saksham, above all, we try to instil confidence in the children and impart life-skills, two things which are never taught in their homes or schools. From the beginning, we have constantly impressed upon the children the danger of roaming around unattended," says Nadira Razak, the founder of Saksham. "We also discuss sensitive issues such as molestation, particularly among the girls. We discuss with them openly how they can protect themselves in the face of abnormal behaviour from men, whether the men are acquaintances or strangers." Razak, a former Railways Officer, founded Saksham with the intention of providing the children of Nithari's slums with an education that was well-grounded, compassionate and sensitive to their needs. The battle to encourage families to send their children especially their daughters was an uphill one at the beginning, and she recalls making daily trips from jhuggi to jhuggi urging parents to send their children to the classes. "Parents often argued that children would be better off earning money for the family or taking care of their siblings at home," she recalls. Within a short while, however, the roles were reversed as the positive change within the children became noticeable: parents were lining up in front of the school in the hopes of getting their child admitted into the school. Even today, there is a long "waiting list" for admission into the school, as the school is unable to expand to accommodate all children who would like to attend.

Passing the knowledge

Within the school and outside, the torch of knowledge continues to be passed on. Some of Razak's older students now teach the younger ones, in addition to furthering their own education. These student-teachers have decided to go to a nearby village, Morna, to teach children there. "We would like to help children gain access to education, the way Saksham has given us education," says Soni, a senior student at Saksham. However, Saksham isn't a large, institutionally-funded institution; it is a small community effort begun by concerned citizens. Its expenses are thrown together on an ad hoc basis from month to month, and its budget is being met by donations from individuals. The school runs on a small, rented ground strewn with pencil shavings and bits of paper, and a perpetual layer of grime remains complacently stuck to its floors. Teachers of the school, though competent, hail from the area.

Enormous impact

Despite its unassuming modus operandi, Saksham has undoubtedly had an enormous impact on the community around it. "I don't think many girls would have been able to escape from the duo had it not been for what they learned at Saksham," says Pinky, a 15-year-old girl who has been attending classes at Saksham for the last five years and now teaches younger children. "I have self-confidence now, and feel that I can protect myself in the face of any danger, even though I am a girl," she adds. With lawlessness proving to be the rule rather than the exception, community efforts like Saksham are more in need today than ever before. Email Saksham at: >nadirarazak@rediffmail.com