From rag picking to reading — a retd school teacher in Jammu is transforming young lives
Kanchan Sharma, a retired government school teacher in Jammu, provides free primary education to rag-picker children at her school Sangharsh Vidya Kendra. But will her 13-year-old school get a No Objection Certificate from the authorities to allow it to continue?
Mubashir Naik 19 Dec 2022 10:46 AM GMT
Abbas Massih, a 13-year-old, was a waste picker at Maratha Mohalla in Jammu, and when he was not collecting plastic garbage to sell, he would beg. "But, now I am the happiest kid in the world, and my backpack is my most prized possession," he told Gaon Connection.
Abbas was one of the lucky children who got a taste of primary education thanks to Sangarsh Vidya Kendra, a tin shed-school set up in 2009 by a retired school teacher, Kanchan Sharma. For the past 13 years now, Sharma has been educating the poor children of migrant workers free of cost. Currently there are about 85 children who study there.
Abbas joined the school in 2016 and left in 2020 after completing his primary education. He is now studying at a government-run school.
Maratha Mohalla near the Tawi railway station is not a well-regarded neighbourhood. There are heaps of garbage everywhere and it is home to a huge population of migrant labourers who live there under temporary shelters made up of cardboard, tarpaulin and so on.
"I used to see young children begging and chewing tobacco, and felt so bad for them," the 63-year-old teacher told Gaon Connection. "These poor children have nowhere to study and are sucked into bad habits like substance abuse and begging," Sharma pointed out.
Also Read: Graphic designing classes and virtual learning – a village school is breaking stereotypes of rural education
The idea to set up a school for these children who had nowhere to study came to Sharma when she taught at a government school for girls at Gandhi Nagar in Jammu.
"Three children who lived in a slum nearby approached me and asked me if they could join the school. I asked them if there were more children who wanted to join in and they said 'yes'. After these three girls joined, 40 others enrolled into the Gandhi Nagar school," Sharma recalled.
The idea took a firmer hold of her, and when she retired and saw so many children wandering the streets aimlessly, so vulnerable to a life of crime and drugs, she decided to start Sangarsh Vidya Kendra.
She got permission from the education department and used her own funds to start the school in 2009. She persuaded the parents of children in the Maratha Mohalla shanty town, to enrol them into her school.
According to Sharma, convincing the parents was perhaps the even bigger challenge. "Understandably the parents were reluctant. Many of them depended on the money these kids brought in through begging and rag picking. In some instances, one or both parents struggled with addiction," Sharma said.
Also Read: A farewell to alms as little hands that once begged now hold notebooks to read and write
At present, the school has four teachers including Sharma who pays their salaries from her own funds. "All the kids are in the 5-13 years age group," she said.
"The sole objective of my school is to give kids access to free education. They also get free stationery, school supplies, and uniforms," Sharma said. The children in her school now take part in extra-curricular activities such as debates and sports.
In 2009, Kanchan Sharma won an award from the Gandhi Global Family, which is a United Nations Department of Global Communications accredited Peace NGO that propagates the ideologies of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela among youth.
The same year she received the Best Counsellor award from the Red Cross Society of India. In 2019, she won the Best Teacher award, from the state administration.
The school went through hard times like so many others across the country, during the pandemic. "Schools were shut during the lockdown and I arranged a few smartphones to conduct online classes," Sharma said.
But to her dismay many of the children slipped back into begging. Things limped back to normal post the lockdown and the number of students now fluctuated between 85 to 100, she said.
Also Read: Disability no hindrance for Milan Mishra who cycles 20 KMs daily to teach rural kids for free
Threat to the school
But now, there is a threat of another kind hovering around the school. It has been 13 years of struggle for the school to just stay afloat, but now there are fears that it may close down.
"I am running from pillar to post to get a No Objection Certificate (NOC) in order to continue running my school, but have met with no success in doing so," Sharma worried. "If the government doesn't issue the NOC, then the school will close down and that will be a massive heartbreak for me," she said.
Sharma firmly believes that just giving food and clothing to the children as charity is not going to cut it. "An education is the only way forward for these kids which will lead them to living respectable lives," she said.
When Gaon Connection reached out to the corporator Purinama Sharma of Jammu municipality, Maratha Nagar, about the status of the NOC, she said, "We are looking into this matter and once a decision is made, we will let you know."
Meanwhile, the children in the school who are old enough to understand are praying the school continues to function and they continue to receive some semblance of an education. "We request the authorities to issue the NOC, so that Kanchan Ma'am can continue in her mission," pleaded Abbas.