New Delhi: Hoping to change the lives of the capital's have-nots, a shopkeeper in Delhi has been running a makeshift school for more than 300 underprivileged children beneath a metro bridge in the Yamuna Bank area for the last over eight years without any assistance neither from the government nor any NGOs.
'The Free School Under The Bridge', where hundreds of children living in shacks and hutments close to the Yamuna Bank metro station get an education, is run by its founder Rajesh Kumar Sharma.
The sole breadwinner of his family of five who live in Laxmi Nagar, Sharma belongs to Uttar Pradesh's Hathras district and runs a small grocery shop in the same locality to support his family.
The 49-year-old's journey of teaching more than 300 children of slum dwellers, ragpickers, rickshaw-pullers and beggars began with two children in 2006 when the idea came to his mind while wandering around the empty fields close to the Yamuna river.
Today, he runs two shifts -- one from 9-11 AM for 120 boys and the other 2-4.30 PM for 180 girls — with the help of seven teachers who live in nearby areas and in their free time, volunteer to teach the students aged between four and 14 years.
The open house school, whose roof is a Delhi metro bridge, has five blackboards painted on the wall of the metro complex and some stationary such as chalks and dusters, pens and pencils.
The children, who sit on the ground covered with carpets, bring their own note books and study in groups. The place is far from traffic and the noise of frequently passing metro trains hardly gets noticed by the students.
Sharma, who could not complete his B.Sc and dropped out of college due to his family's poor financial condition, says that no one should be deprived of education due to poverty and to fulfill his or her dream, he dedicates over 50 hours a week to the children.
Although he started the movement of educating the poor children on his own, Sharma is now assisted by teachers Laxmi Chandra, Shyam Mahto, Rekha, Sunita, Manisha, Chetan Sharma and Sarvesh who take classes on their free will and none of them get paid for the deed.
Sharma says that he has never been approached by any government representative for any kind of assistance although he has seen many regime changes ever since he started his journey 13 years ago. However, he has no complaints against anyone, saying I am driven by my selfless goal of educating these poor and underprivileged children whose smile is more than enough for me.
Initially some NGOs contacted me and tried to be associated with the makeshift school but I never allowed them as they all looked suspicious. None of them were serious about the children's education and their future.
"All they were interested in was making money by showing something and claiming something else. I did not approve of their way of functioning which had many loopholes and room for discrepancies, he said.
Sharma said he only receives genuine contribution from individuals that too not in the monetary form. Some people visit the school occasionally and distribute biscuit packets, fruits, water bottles and packaged food. Some youngsters celebrate their birthdays with the children, cut cakes here and have food together by sitting beneath the bridge.
"Such occasions make them feel that they are also the part of the society no matter where they live or what background they belong to, he said.
Sharma not only conducts regular classes for the students, but also gets them enrolled into the nearby government schools and ensures that they devote sufficient time to their education. He maintains a record of the students and conducts their attendance. If a student is absent beyond a reasonable period, he contacts their family and tries to know the reason for the absence.
Six-year-old Sunita says learning here is fun and she tries to be regular as much as possible. I want to achieve big in my life and that is why I come here every afternoon. Sometimes the school is closed due to bad weather like heavy rain or thunderstorm but my passion for studies never gets weakened, she said.
Teachers here are very supportive and encouraging and work very hard for every one, said another student Suresh. I never knew the value of education before coming here. Now I dream of becoming a successful and responsible person and want to support my family after the completion of my education, he said.
Sharma said the children always remain cheerful whenever they study because they know that their future is in their hands if they continue their studies seriously.
Sometimes, some children get absent for days as they have to assist their families due to extreme poverty. No child wants to discontinue his or her studies but they also have to make their ends meet.
"They come to my school fighting hunger, extreme poverty, adverse weather and sometimes resistance from their families. They all dream big. You can see the smile on their face while they study here, he said.
Sharma said he also teaches his children the value of cleanliness and has separate toilets for boys and girls near the school. Some shopkeepers donate drinking water which is a big help specially in the summer.
Laxmi Chandra, 57, a tuition teacher from Bihar's Nalanda, has been teaching here since 2011. I come from a very poor background and understand the pain of these children. Although my father was a daily-wage labourer, I completed my graduation in science from Bihar and now I teach all the subjects to the students mainly mathematics. These students are my family for whom I am always available, he said.
Chandra said the students are very dedicated and intelligent and need a direction.Poverty has never come in their way of learning and their enthusiasm for education is commendable despite all the hardships they face in their life.