On an impulse, I introduced myself to this charitable stranger (Sunil Razdan) and amiably suggested that what he was doing in the form of charity was in fact a disservice to the underprivileged segment of our society. It was perpetuating illiteracy and poverty in our immediate environment.
The first reaction of the gentleman was understandably anger but it didn’t take long for him to overcome his angst. He expressed his desire to start something constructive and worthy but wanted to know where to begin. And thus, two strangers Sunil Razdan and Rear Admiral (Retd) HC Malhotra (me) soon became acquaintances and the story of Gyan Shakti Vidyalaya (GSV) unfolded with our resolve to help in the upliftment and education of these children.
That emotional moment of quiet understanding led us to launch our program the very next day, blessed, as it was, by the dargah of Peer Baba under the shady umbrella of the beautiful trees which still stand testimony to those initial beginnings seven years back. With the presence of the statue of Gautama Buddha in close proximity of this park, we felt as though the environment of the park had come together to bless this initiative, energize our efforts and help give shape to our mission, the seeds of which were sown during a morning walk.
Born out of a will to give back to the society, Gyan Shakti Vidyalaya's main motives were to guide and inspire the socially and economically challenged migrant children into the mainstream of human development by primarily supporting their education with an awareness of life skills that include health, sanitation, nutrition, communication skills, and other social and developmental needs.
To progressively enable them to become responsible, disciplined and skilled as employable citizens through integrated social transformation and to be able to cope with their lives along with their sense of belonging to their community and the nation.
Our initiative at the launch had a very humble beginning with about 30 children in 2006, and now we have 360 boys and girls in the age groups 4 to 17 years attending Delhi Government schools and studying in classes from 1 to 12.
Classes after school hours are held for these 360 children, who congregate in the public park after school hours and undergo a programme of supplementary teaching and life skills training. Their motivation reflects in the fact that these children travel daily for 7-10 kms to attend these classes.
These children are mostly first generation learners and come from migrant families who are illiterate, living along the Yamuna river belt (Yamuna Khader) in the jhuggi (temporary hutments) shelters. Their livelihood consists of farming, river fishing or as labour on Patta (leased) farms. Some of them are now being compelled to work as construction labour or rickshaw pullers.
Although by now we should be used to the sight of clusters of temporary shelters or Jhuggis, spawned by the migration of the rural poor to urban areas, yet the inhuman, hostile and pathetic living conditions of jhuggis such as those along the Yamuna river belt from where the GSV children and their families hail, with no drinking water or hygiene or sanitation is still a source of daily horror.
The unimaginable is fast becoming the new and established reality, as we confront daily the realization that these tenements can exist just opposite comfortable housing colonies like Mayur Vihar Phase I and Noida, and that too in the capital of India.
These families call these shelters their home and they live like refugees in their own country. What is even sadder is that most of these children have been born and have grown up in these clusters, in life threatening circumstances where life at best is defined by a lack of all things human and at worst is rendered uncertain and unsafe threatened by floods and a constant fear of demolition.
They live their life in series or rather in ‘shifts’ given the need to shift to temporary camps in the event of floods or demolitions, which is more frequent than not.
Their inevitable existence around kerosene diyas and cooking fires, which are their only source of light, comes to a standstill at sunset, only to be revived at dawn when the sun bequeaths on them to right to live. After sunset they idle away their hours in darkness and fall asleep only when they get too tired to remain awake. This inescapable gloom and despair turned to delight when GSV gave them solar lanterns with support from TERI.
Although these solar powered lanterns helped bring about some amount of transformation in their lives, they still need to contend with creatures of the dark – scorpions, snakes, rats and other vermin and insects.
Under the parental state of helplessness the children had languished in similar ignorance with the accompanying social ills and inadequacies of their families compounded by an unquestioning acknowledgement of their destiny.
With the interventions by the GSV team the progressive transformation of the children over the last seven years has been a remarkable achievement. The efforts of the teachers and volunteers of the GSV teams have been to provide the basic needs of these children. GSV family sees to it that daily milk and snacks, periodic clothing and support for summer and winter uniforms are provided.
The children have also been empowered beyond text book learning, an empowerment that over a period of 7 years has included experiential learning, confidence building, communication skills, basic computer skills, competitive sports, health camps, linkages with government hospitals, sanitation sensitization, and theater workshops with an opportunity to perform in public forums like the National School of Drama festivals.
Moreover these children have been exposed to their environment with educational field trips to the Parliament, planetarium, science museum, heritage buildings and historical monuments, the airport and other sights around the NCR. They have also been coached in the art of questioning and deliberating on their rights and responsibilities as part of leadership and citizenship training with a hope that they will change the course of what had appeared till now to be an unavoidable destiny.
The GSV team also has frequent interactive sessions with the parents to keep them involved and to sensitize and equip them with their parental, social and disciplinary responsibilities to provide an enabling and nurturing home environment. The GSV core team of 10 paid teachers and 8 volunteers monitor the children’s attendance and progress on a continuous basis and plan and manage the programme.
They also periodically engage with school Principals and teachers of the Primary and Secondary Government Schools in Mayur Vihar Phase I to be able to integrate the efforts of the GSV with the school work.
We can happily say that over these last seven years GSV has overcome several challenges and has grown both in size (students, teachers and volunteers) and in its impact on the marginalized community. The financial support has come by the grace of well meaning individuals and organizations that have supported GSV with their personal and corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds.