Rajesh Kumar is a 42-year-old shopkeeper in New Delhi, India. Monday through Saturday, Kumar leaves his brother to watch over his store and heads to a dusty clearing underneath a bridge. This is his classroom. Children from neighboring slums come here six days a week for two hours, often walking several miles barefoot to be part of his class. They sit on foam mats and all have matching Angry Birds backpacks, a recent gift from a generous donor. They come eagerly and voluntarily because they want to learn.
On average, Kumar will have 50 students in his class ranging in age from 6 to 14. The kids learn basic math, reading, and writing skills. Some of the kids also attend government schools. For some, this is the only education they will receive. Kumar is truly changing lives in New Dehli.
A 12-year-old girl named Pammi was illiterate and had never been to school until she began attending Kumar’s class. Now, she can read and write, she said.
While teaching is not Kumar’s profession and he does not get paid, he believes that an education is vital to their futures.
“If they go anywhere in the world, if they have education, they can achieve anything. And without education, they can do nothing” Kumar said.
In order to understand why some of India’s poorest children walk several miles every day to a classroom under a bridge, it is important to take a look at the education system in India.
In India, similar to in the U.S., there are two options for schooling – public or private schools. Now, we may have some (very legitimate) complaints about the public education system in the U.S. but those are what this author will gently refer to as first world problems in comparison.
Most of the children attending Kumar’s class are the children of poor migrants workers. Kids from lower socioeconomic backgrounds such as these make up the majority of the student body in the government schools. Unfortunately for these kids, India’s government run schools are appalling. Teachers are often absent and classrooms are almost always overcrowded. A 2012 report by the non-profit group Pratham found that 68 percent of third graders in government schools can’t read at a first-grade level. The study also found that math proficiency had declined nationwide
Of Mr. Kumar’s class Raju, 12 said, “They teach much better here,” Raju also attends a government school in a class with 61 other students. There “they hardly teach anything,” he said.
But all is not lost. In 2010, India passed the Right to Education Act. Since the passing of the act, 6 million more students have enrolled in India’s schools, and the government has invested more than $11 billion dollars in upgrading the failing system.
When working on anti-poverty legislation or advocating for helping the world’s poor, it’s not uncommon to hear people say things like poverty is the result of laziness, lack of intelligence or poor work ethic. What an unfortunate misconception that is.
Mr. Kumar and his students are living proof that people living in unimaginable poverty are often some of the hardest working people you’ll ever have the pleasure of meeting.