Giving Slum Children A New Sense of Class

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 25, 2007

NEW DELHI -- Neelamdevi Thakur lives in a working-class slum and earns a living washing dishes in middle-class homes twice a day. In the past year, two of her five children, who attend an affluent private school, have returned home speaking words that she had never heard from her other children, who study in government schools.

They have begun speaking English.

They point to the vegetables in their meal and say "turnip," "cauliflower" and "radish" in English, a language that for many Indians denotes social status and opportunity. They sing nursery rhymes in English and refuse to take the tortilla-like Indian bread called roti to school for lunch, instead demanding sandwiches and noodles. The children, ages 5 and 7, now want to cut a cake on their birthday, like the other children in their classes.

"I don't understand what they say, but my chest swells with pride every time they speak English. Their life will be far superior to mine," Thakur said, wiping her moist eyes with the edge of her blue floral sari. She compares the two with her 12-year-old son, who attends a government-run school in the neighborhood. "He comes home with bruises, scars and broken teeth. His teachers are either absent or sit in class knitting sweaters," she said.

Thakur's family is one of thousands in the capital that have benefited from a three-year-old school integration drive stemming from a court decision. The court ruled that the city's expensive private schools, which were granted land at relatively low rates, were required by law to set aside 20 percent of their admissions for poor students.

According to a World Bank study, one-quarter of the teachers at state-run primary schools in India are absent at any given time. Only 47 percent of public schools have a playground, compared with 78 percent of private schools, and computers are available in 31 percent of private primary schools, compared with 6 percent of public schools. About 15 to 20 percent of school-age children attend private schools.

In a city where scores of slum communities exist alongside plush neighborhoods with a booming lifestyle of conspicuous consumption, the school initiative was aimed at bridging both the education gap and the social divisions.

"The private schools are run like businesses, demanding cash under the table for admission and charging exorbitant fees. They have a social responsibility," said Ashok Agarwal, the lawyer who filed the court petition in 2002. "Even after the ruling, they kept saying that it was not a good idea to mix the poor children with the affluent ones in the classrooms."

Several schools continue to be locked in court battles over the issue. Others comply reluctantly, even after the court brought the admissions set-aside down to 15 percent.

Two years ago, when Thakur took her younger children to the neighborhood private school, she was shooed away by the clerk.

"The clerk said, 'Do you have the face to send your children to this school? Take them to a government school,' " she recalled. "I told him it was my right because the government wants to grow lotuses from dirty marsh."

Unlike private schools, government schools charge no fee, do not screen students before admission and subsidize textbooks and uniforms. About 1,300,000 students in New Delhi attend middle and high school at government-run schools, and 900,000 go to private schools.

The private school experience of Thakur's children is not only changing their aspirations but also creating challenges for her. She has to wash and iron their uniforms every day despite erratic electricity and a poor water supply, because the private school insists on it. She pays for the textbooks, uniform and the rickshaw they use to ride to school.

She is unable to pay for their field trips or to help them with their homework. Every argument at home either begins or ends with the younger children showing off about their private school, she said. And in school, the children from poor families are usually the first ones to be blamed when something is stolen.

"These children are misfits in school and at home. They develop a feeling of inferiority among their classmates, and feel superior to their family," said Sheela Sharma, 40, a middle-class parent of two boys who go to an affluent private school. She argues that the government schools should be improved instead.

The contrast among Thakur's children is stark. Her older children in government-run school say their classes are held in the open because there are not enough classrooms. The drinking water smells foul and the toilets are dirty, they say.

But Dinanath, 7, beams when he talks about his private school and is not disheartened by the subtle signs of exclusion.

"My school is clean and not noisy. The teachers have made me the class head," he said. "None of my classmates from rich families want to visit my home, but I play with them in school."

A year ago, Sakshee Chawla, 12, a student in a prestigious school, was asked by her teacher to take care of two new poor students in her class and ensure there was no discrimination.

"In the beginning, nobody befriended the poorer students. They looked shabby and were referred to as the 'other kids,' " she recalled. "They were not invited to birthday parties. Even though they did not understand English, they worked very hard to catch up with us in studies. I could see it was not easy for them."

To get around the challenge of total integration, many schools have resorted to running parallel, separate-but-equal classrooms for the slum children.

"The pride that the slum children feel in attending good schools is immeasurable. It offers them the possibility of another life," said Shyama Chona, principal of a private school that runs separate classrooms for poor children. Some of the children who score well are later integrated into the main classrooms with the affluent children.

On a recent afternoon, students from an integrated classroom at Chona's school began rehearsing a play they will perform next month. The play, which is about begging, is titled "On the Other Side of the Street."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company