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63 Kids

Why are you punishing me? You have no education. At least I can write my name, a quivering Sachin retorted to his mother after she beat him with a belt for receiving low marks on his recent school tests.

Sachin, his eyes still moist, sat sniffling in embarrassment and pain in a corner of his home - really just a tent made from blue and grey plastic tarp. We arrived just after the beating and sat on stained dusty patches of carpet most likely discarded from an office tower nearby. My eyes wandered around the small stuffy space lingering on family photos wrapped in plastic taped to the tarp walls. I found myself wondering how the family sleeps at night laying on the hard grid of overlapping carpet edges.

Sachin’s mother, equally distraught, sat on the opposite side of the small space, dabbing her tears with the end of her dupatta. While many girls in slum communities are denied an education because their parents can only afford one school fee if any, their parents hopes and future are tied to how well their son does at school. Sachin’s mother has pinned all her hopes on Sachin.

This year DWP has paid school fees for sixty-three children at small private schools in the Saki Naka-Marol area of Mumbai. A private school in Mumbai is not a posh alternative to the free BMC (government-run) schools - it’s the only hardscrabble choice for parents who want their children to have a chance to succeed.

The infrastructure of most of the private schools we pay fees at are one explosive sneeze from crumbling to dust. No amount of peeling cheery pink paint, or naive student drawings tacked on walls, or images of gods or goddesses peeking out from behind stacks of dusty paperwork can fool the eye into thinking these schools are safe for students or teachers, or frankly, us when we pay the fees. However, despite the shoddy buildings, these small, private, accredited schools are bastions of hope for the poor because their administrators care about overall and individual student performance, the teachers show up, take pride in their work and expect only the best from their students.

The fees for private schools, although reasonable, are not affordable for many parents from slum communities in Mumbai leaving them with no option but to send their kids to free government-run (BMC) schools - an option few parents desire. The attendance of teachers at the government schools, (despite job security and a good salary), is abysmal (no accountability) and the academic results of their students, according to parents, is dismal at best. Coupled with filthy disintegrating buildings, few or no toilets, no access to running water and no books, supplies or teaching aids, it’s easy to understand why parents choose to enrol their children in a private school despite fearing, or knowing they won’t be able to sustain the cost of fees.

The proud private school administrators are always happy to see us. They know we’ve come to pay outstanding fees which they need to run their school. While Todd counts out the money for the fees, Indu and I chat to teachers or make arrangements to visit the homes of possible new cases brought to our attention by a worried teacher or another parent. Someone is always sent to fetch us a fresh coconut, or a cup of chai or our favourite frothy, milky sweet coffee in thimble sized glasses brought in from nearby restaurants. A small gesture that we look forward to after walking through the dusty, pot-holed, garbage strewn streets of Saki Naka.

The fees offices are notable for their lack of furniture or computers or organization, with the exception of Nandchhaya School where the fees employee expertly navigates the keyboard of a computer and prints out receipts for us in clear black ink. In most of the schools, student records are kept in thick, hand-written ledgers stacked in piles on desks sometimes kept level by a couple of bricks. The fee collector licks their finger and scrolls down the length of each smudged ledger page until they reach the name we need. Once the money is exchanged and haphazardly placed in a box or in a wobbly drawer, we receive a handwritten receipt and the school keeps the faded carbon copy for their records.

We wish we were paying fees in safe buildings that sit on paved roads with grassy sports fields where students have access to libraries, cafeterias, blocks of clean toilets, with large classrooms full of supplies, a desk for each student, modern computers and fast internet and the notion of a bigger world was tangible. However decrepit and crowded, the schools in Saki Naka do provide a chance for a brighter future, a slim chance wrapped in torn paper. Without private schools and their teachers who demand academic excellence, kids from slum communities would never have an opportunity to realize their academic potential.

Once Sachin’s mother stopped berating Sachin, she made us a cup of chai. Indu translated the mother’s fears about her family’s future if Sachin’s grades don’t improve. Her daughter has epileptic seizures, her husband has heart problems, their past and possible future are mired in poverty, and Sachin who is in the 7th grade, would rather be an artist than an engineer. DWP has paid Sachin’s and his sister Shobha’s fees for the past two years and will continue to pay them. We believe Sachin will thrive and continue to be a thoughtful, energetic, slightly mischievous but loving person and despite his harsh words to his mother about her lack of education, he is concerned about improving his grades. He attends Indu’s tuition class each afternoon and is especially prompt on Saturday… the day we set aside for being creative.

This year, thanks to generous donations by numerous donors, DWP has managed to pay school fees for 63 students!!

Total fees paid: 332,797 Rupees (CAD $6103.76)

-The average yearly fee per student: 5282 Rupees (CAD$96.87)

-The amount of fees paid per child is decided on a case-by-case basis. We pay the entire years fees for some children (approx. 7000 rupees/CAD $130), but for others we pay only partial fees because the parents have the ability to pay some of the fees. We make home visits, ask a lot of questions and make decisions based on facts and, yes, emotion. Indu keeps us sane and on track.

Update: Yesterday, Sachin’s home was destroyed by the BMC along with about nine other huts. He didn’t come to tuition class because he was busy scavenging what was left of his home and helping his parents build another home a short distance away. Indu, Todd and I went to see the site and delivered 15 new tarps and samosas to feed the affected families while they tried to erect new huts by nightfall.

70 samosas: 800 rupees (CAD $14.76)

15 new blue tarps for 9 huts: 8700 rupees (CAD $159.56)

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