Lakshmi Narayanan’s Account of the Informal Education Class

When I was a child in Mumbai I remember my grandmother telling me to watch the clothes drying on the line outside because the ragpickers would steal them. She would tell me to watch out for the nimble fingered ‘porkis’ with their sacks filled with God knows what. I was terrified that the sack may even have contained a child or two picked up by the woman.

The distrust of the ‘other’ I realised was alive and well in all socio-economic classes. I was then a young middle class activist trying to run a non formal education class in one of Pune’s largest slums. The women for whom the class was meant were most uninterested. They did not believe that literacy had any place or meaning in their lives. There were a few children though, with sacks on their backs who almost always peered through the window with great curiosity. I started chatting with them and invited them into the class. They walked in gingerly one by one; quite unsure of what it was they were getting into. We talked about what they did and where they went all day and about whether they had ever been to school. I asked if I could accompany them on their rounds. They burst into giggles. The incongruity of a young middle class woman scouring the garbage dumps had not escaped them.

So we went, on our daily tramps across the garbage strewn landscape. Words I had never heard before started acquiring a familiar ring to them – kagad (paper) kach (glass) bhangar (ferrous metal) mein (polythene) chil mil (bottle caps) jhipri (long tresses of hair). Some cuss words too! The words became the basis for the literacy class. They were the first words that the children learnt to read. They were words that held meaning for them in their daily lives. We got curious stares from those who we encountered on the street. Soon we started sharing confidences. I discovered that their mothers had ‘warned’ them to be careful because I was a witch out to kidnap them and carry them away in my bag. I used to carry a large black cloth satchel in those days. They soon overcame their fears on that account.

I figured that it would be a good idea for them to collect scrap directly from the households. We started talking about that. My ideas about the reasons for the existence of child labour were not clearly defined at that time. Children worked to contribute to the family kitty. That was my limited understanding of the issue. The news about the idea of collecting directly from the generators spread far and wide. Ranubai, Sonabai, Baidabai expressed interest in the new initiative. Lakshi was attending the class and Ranu offered to enrol her into school if she herself could get the scrap without going into the municipal container. The willingness of working mothers to enrol their children opened my eyes to the fact that perhaps sending children out to work need not be inevitable among families of the working poor. Parents were not necessarily victims of their circumstances but were able to exercise choice in charting their children’s future. A few months later Lakshi joined school. Almost 10 years old she sat in class I with all the younger children and continued till she completed elementary school.

Many battles to be fought

Battling for birth certificates! Ranu’s daughter Lakshi attended the non formal education class. When Ranu decided to send Lakshi to school she couldn’t. Lakshi did not have a birth certificate and the school insisted on one. We finally joined with other organisations in Action for the Rights of the Child to demand that the government hospital should come to the slums to issue age certificates. We sat on a dharna outside the hospital till they agreed. It was the same story the following year. The hospital superintendent had changed and we would have had to begin all over again. So we told the schools to make the arrangements. We pleaded and cajoled and argued and fought till they finally agreed. It took us four years. Slowly but steadily more and more of us began to see reason. We had school enrolment rallies with children singing and dancing. Children started going to school. Now every single child of a waste picker is enrolled in school.

Battling the municipal school system! That hurdle was crossed but there was more to come. Municipal school teachers routinely sent our children home. Sometimes because they were ‘dirty’, at other times because they were rude. If a child wandered off home the teacher did not even notice it. Once again we had to convince the school teachers’ that it was their duty to teach children to read and write and keep themselves clean and behave themselves. What work would the teacher have if all the children came to school in perfect condition we asked? That did the trick. The teachers realised that we were serious about our children’s future. Complaints about schools and teachers decreased. We are not satisfied with the education provided in government schools. We continue to demand quality education for our children.

Battling the practice of child labour! The battles were not only with outsiders and the municipal school system. Quite often we had to battle with our own members. There is a saying in our (Marathi) language which goes Bamnacha livhna, kunbyacha dana aani mharacha gana (the Brahmins write, the farmers produce grain and the mahars are minstrels). The implication being that each caste had a function and determined one’s station in the social order. We wanted to turn that saying on its head and with it the caste system as well! We believe in the equality of human beings. We believe education is an important means to do that and to increase opportunities and occupational choices for our children.

Battling social practices!The challenge was to encourage our children to continue at school. We started distributing notebooks at the beginning of each academic year as a token incentive. It was a statement to those of us who were not so convinced. We spent long hours away at work. We had no clue whether our children were in school or roaming around with their friends. There was also another problem. Many of us thought we should not keep older girls in school. What if some boys were to………..they did not want to take the risk. Out of school after the 7th grade and into marriage seemed a more practical option to them. Several years ago we had acted against child marriages. This time we started the Shiksha ki Shikshan scheme.

Rahi Ingle took on the Social Welfare Administration

Rahi Sugriv Ingle has an air of quiet dignity. Moderate voice and reasoned arguments are her hallmark. They hide steely determination. Her son was then (2002) was studying in municipal school in the area where she used to ragpick. One day his teacher asked the children whose parents worked in unclean occupations to identify themselves. Her son was among those who stuck up his hand. When they did, she told them they would get a scholarship under some government scheme. The son came home with an application form saying the teacher had asked him to submit it. Rahi is a conscientious parent who believes that her child should get a good education. She had someone fill the form. She put together all the documents required and handed it to her son to submit to his teacher. He did the next day.

The following day she was at the municipal container near the school rummaging through it as usual. She was diligently taking out plastic and paper and metal scraps and dropping them into her sack alongside the bin. The school cleaner happened along with buckets of waste paper. She chatted with him desultorily for a bit about this and that as was her habit. She then started going through what he had brought to dump into the garbage container. Her keen eye spotted a familiar looking document that had been crushed. She pulled it out and straightened it out with trembling fingers. She started seething. It was the completed application for that her son had submitted the day before.

She marched off to the teacher to ask for an explanation. The teacher nonchalantly told her that she had made a mistake. The scheme was only for those in unclean occupations. Rahi was aghast. “Are you trying to tell me that the work I do is clean?” she asked the teacher in even tones. The teacher was unconcerned. She said the form referred to scavengers, tanners etc but the word ragpickers was not in it. The teacher did not budge.

Rahi brought the form to the union office and related the whole story. What followed were a series of representations to officials at various levels. A recommendatory letter issued by the Municipal Commissioner was attached to almost 800 applications of children of waste pickers. Till 2006 almost a 1000 children benefitted each year from the scheme after which the government raised the same objections as those of the teacher.

Rahi is now battling the Maharashtra government with the same argument — “are you trying to tell us that children of ragpickers do not qualify because ragpicking is clean?”

Three Generations

Manabai Nagtilak lost the will to live the day her cherished son succumbed to cancer 5 years ago leaving behind a 3 year old child and young wife. She had liquidated every single asset she had painstakingly acquired over years of toil to pay for his treatment. A young widow herself, her indomitable will had led her out of Marathwada in 1972 and into Pune city during the century’s most severe  drought. With three young children to feed she started collecting waste paper, plastic, metal and glass to sell to the traders in the city.  

Babasaheb Ambedkar’s words echoing in her ears, so she sent her children to school. The work was back breaking but it ensured that her daughters completed high school and got her son an engineering diploma.

Manabai was already about 50 years old when I first met her 25 years ago. She was the one who first proudly displayed the hard won identity card stating that she was a waste picker authorized to collect recyclables from the municipality. She was the star who got the standing ovation in the play “swatantryacha zhala kay amchya hati alach nhay” (whatever happened to independence? It never came within our grasp!) about the lives of waste pickers. Manabai had a loud voice and an unshakeable belief in equality and social justice and led many agitations for civic services and worker rights.

Manabai represented the trade union at a consultation called by the National Advisory Council. Her voice broke as she told the august gathering that all the elderly should get pensions. She received a cheque of Rs. 18000 towards her first air trip and had to open a new bank account in order to have it credited and to return the amount to the organization. That is the amount she would have earned over 6 months.

The very next morning I saw her at the municipal container arguing with a municipal worker who was setting fire to the garbage. Hey that is my ‘lakshmi’ she said, don’t you throw the match in there. Every so often she asks me if that Committee in Delhi has told the Government to start pensions for the elderly. Then she adds tell them “death will wait till I get that pension”. Manabai is the face of the Pension Parishad. She is who started it off……………..will it conclude in her lifetime? The Finance Ministers budget says………NOT IN 2013.

With no one to take care of her when she falls sick, Manabai moves in with her daughter, Jana, every time she is unable to work.

I saw Jana Kamble one morning, fighting on the main road with her husband. I wasnt sure if she wanted me around so i drove slowly past without stopping. She waved out to me cheerfully prompting me to stop. “Ah Laxmibai! Good you came!” Dutta, her husband, said. Although he was visibly irritated a moment ago, he smiled at me sheepishly.

“I know that all of you from KKPKP say men shouldn′t drink and hit their wives, and you can check with Jana, i have stopped doing that for some months now”, looking in her direction for affirmation, which she readily gave. “But, dont you think this is going a bit too far, when i ask her where is my dabba (lunch) nowadays, she turns round and says in Laxmiba′i s house her husband cooks, why can’t you do it yourself.”
With a wide smile growing wider Jana said “Now since he is asking you, do answer honestly. We both work long hours, we both earn, just like the two of you….So if your husband cooks in your house, don’t you think he should be doing the same in ours?”

Why would anyone ever refute such strong, clear, honest feminism?

Janabai lives in Pimple Gurav. Of her three daughters, she got her eldest daughter married young, even before she could finish her 10th.  However, she was determined to educate her younger daughters and not marry them off before they turned 18 at least.  This digression from convention gained strength when she paid Rs.50 under a scheme run by the union—Shiksha ki Shikshan—where each member enrolled in the scheme takes an oath to educate their girls and not get them married  till they turn 18. In 2012, Rohini turned 18 and had completed 10th standard and when asked about her daughters’ marriages, she says it’s too early to get them married; they want to study further. She also utilized the Rs. 5000 she received under the scheme for Rohini’s aage ki padhai. She said, ‘I enrolled Rohini for her course with a deposit of Rs. 500 and when the bakshish came, I put in Rs. 500 more and paid her entire fee.’ Rohini is currently doing a course on waste-water management and purification from ITI, Aundh.  Rohini elder sister, Pallavi, was also felicitated under this scheme in 2008. She is currently preparing to write the civil services exam. She has completed her graduation. Janabai encourages her daughters to study in any area that interests them. Inspite of being married, she wants her eldest daughter to study.