As per UNICEF, the pandemic and lockdowns have led to the closure of more than 15 lakh schools in India and impacted more than 25 crore children enrolled in elementary and secondary schools. However, for a developing country like ours, the pandemic was just an added blow as more than 60 lakh boys and girls were out of school even before the pandemic. Efforts are being made by individuals and organisations to bridge this gap, especially post covid. Recently, Abhishek Shukla, the founder of Shuruaat — Ek Jyoti Shiksha ki, opened a school for underprivileged children in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh, named Shuruaat Play School. The children studying here are given quality education … and a lot more … for just Re 1/day. Why Re 1? Because that’s how much one tends to give to children who beg at traffic signals. The tagline of the campaign is quite apt – ek rupaiye bhiksha, ya ek rupaiye me shiksha … how would you rather spend your Re 1? By giving it as alms to a child or towards his/her daily school fees?
“When we started a few months back, many children would not even take bath or brush their teeth before coming to school. They did not know the importance of hygiene. It wasn’t their fault. They came from extremely poor pockets of the city. We would bathe them, and dress them up in clean uniforms,” said Abhishek Shukla, 31, who opened Shuruaat Play School in April this year in his hometown in Prayagraj (earlier Allahabad) in Uttar Pradesh.
“The main purpose of the school is to teach these children moral values, apart from the regular subjects. They come from extremely underprivileged and poor backgrounds. Their parents are daily wage earners and make a living by driving autos or by picking and sorting garbage. Some are unemployed and most consume alcohol. These children go through a lot mentally and emotionally. We have identified some of them and encouraged them to join the school,” he added.
Around 90% of the children studying in the school are first-generation schoolgoers. For now, owing to the space crunch, Shukla and his team of volunteers have identified 50 children who desperately needed help. Some 30-40 are still waiting and thousands are yet to be identified.
“It’s a play school, so technically we should have given admission to 3-5-year-old children. However, because of their background, these children were never admitted to any school, and most are in the age group of 6-8 years. In fact, there are 2-3 girls studying in upper Kindergarten (UKG), who are 11-12 years old. It’s the first time in their life that they are going to school. Some children are orphans and the parents of some can’t even afford to pay the fees of Rs 30/month. However, we have allowed them to continue,” said Shukla.
The obvious question that came to my mind was why anyone would expect children from underprivileged backgrounds to pay Rs 30/month when there are many Anganwadi centres and government schools that are teaching children for free.
“The reason is, when parents pay fees, even if it’s as nominal as Re 1/day, both parents and children start taking school seriously. Besides, paying for their children’s education instills a sense of pride and self-respect in the parents. Also, when we take fees, our responsibility and accountability automatically go up,” said Shukla.
He added: “The reason why children drop out from government schools is that they don’t have to pay any fees and hence there is no obligation for parents to send their children to school or children to go to the school daily. The children don’t get any help or motivation from home as their parents don’t understand the importance of education. Gradually, they lose interest and drop out. These are the children we see begging at railway stations or traffic signals. They do odd jobs, or worse, start doing drugs, or end up in juvenile homes.”
High school dropout rate is indeed an issue. Data speaks volumes. As per the findings of the National Family Health Survey-5 conducted in 2019-21, the most common reason reported for children dropping out of school is a lack of interest in studies. This was the main reason found for children abandoning their education in previous rounds of the survey as well.
The key is to keep the children interested and invested. For this reason, Shukla and the six volunteer teachers working at the school have adopted innovative methods of teaching. The regular pattern of textbooks, classwork, and homework does not appeal to these children, so the teachers try to educate them through games, pictures, and paintings.
And what will happen to these children once they pass out of the play school? Shukla has cracked this. It’s not the first time he is dealing with underprivileged children and trying to integrate them into the mainstream education system.
It all started in 2016. Shukla was preparing to be a civil servant. One day, he was waiting at a traffic signal. A little girl came begging. She was carrying her baby brother in her arms. She told Shukla that her mother had passed away, her father was an alcoholic, and it was her responsibility to raise her brother. Shukla did not buy her story and went along with her to the slum where she lived. What he saw there changed his life. There were so many children who were miles away from any form of education. He decided to put his dream on hold and educate as many children as possible.
A few volunteers joined him and together they started teaching children in slums, on railway platforms, in parks, and on the streets. Many children were addicted to drugs or would beg and were violent. It wasn’t easy, but the team persisted. Gradually, they started enroling these children in government and government-aided schools. It was a huge motivation when some of these children started performing well. The team continued to work even during the 2020 lockdown. Recently, class 10th and 12th board exam results were announced and some of these children, especially girls, from extremely poor backgrounds have cleared their boards with flying colours.
Shuruaat Play School was conceptualised because teaching children in open spaces is difficult. The plan is to open many more such “Re 1” school.
“We need help. Right now, we have managed to collect funds through public fund-raising. People trust us, they have seen our work and hence they have contributed. But this is not going to be sustainable in the long run. The rent of the building where I run the school is Rs 22,000/per month. I am not even able to pay the sweeper Rs 1,500 from the fees that I collect. We are in the process of figuring out a sustainable financial model for our school, but for now, if people could donate to our fundraiser, that would be great,” said Shukla.
What keeps Shukla going despite the hardships and roadblocks can be gauged from the incident that he narrated.
“There is a lady named Rita Vishwakarma. She works as a house help. A few years back, we helped her two children get admission to a government school. A class 10 pass out, she got married very early and had to kill her desire of becoming a schoolteacher. She joined our school and for one-two years concentrated on brushing her knowledge. Later, she joined as a schoolteacher. When we were starting the play school and scrambling for funds, she pleasantly surprised us by donating Rs 20,000. She had been saving a little from her earnings for 5-6 years so that she could buy a computer for her son. She did not think twice before donating that entire amount to our play school because she believes in our cause. It is this goodwill that keeps me motivated and I am sure I will continue to get help,” said Shukla.
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Gaurav Girija Shukla lives in a small town named Arang, 40 kms from Chhattisgarh’s capital Raipur. Nearly 20 years back, his parents opened a school in Arang. Over the years, the school has been providing affordable and quality education to underprivileged children living in nearby villages. The parents of these children belong to lower-middle income groups, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, or are farmers and daily wagers. The founders even managed to open two additional branches in far-flung villages. And then came the prolonged pandemic. As of today, the small branches have shut, and the main branch is at the mercy of the personal savings of the founders. Hearts of hearts, they know it’s time to pack up. Shuklas are not alone. There are a little over four lakh low-cost private schools in the country. Due to the ongoing pandemic, tens of thousands of these budget schools have either shut or are on the verge of shutting. For schools in villages or small towns, the demise was slow and painful. In this first-person account, Shukla uses his school as a case study to give us a larger perspective.
Gaurav Girija Shukla
Case study 1
Kajal Chandrakar is presently studying in Class 8. Her family has always struggled to make ends meet. Her father is an alcoholic who often abuses his wife as well as Kajal and her younger brother Kundan. He creates a scene every time his wife spends money on books and notebooks. Kajal is a bright and enthusiastic student. She has to commute for an hour and change two buses to reach school, but she never complained.
Our school shut in 2020 after a nationwide lockdown was imposed. Kajal had to spend 24 hours in that toxic environment. In the absence of proper digital equipment, her education suffered. When the school reopened for a few days just before the second covid wave hit in 2021, she was very happy. However, we noticed that there was a significant dip in her grasping abilities. These children, whose parents are not educated, often gain from peer learning. Because of the long absence from the classroom, her enthusiasm level has gone down.
Case study 2
We had a teacher in our school named Gulshan Chandrakar. After completing his Engineering, he could not find a job. The financial condition of his family was not very stable, and he had old parents to look after. So, he accepted a job as a teacher at our school. Though he was not a trained teacher, he was good with children and taught them math in a very simple manner. Sincere and dedicated, he was with us for five years. Owing to many factors, which I shall write about in this story, we struggled to give salaries to our teachers regularly during the prolonged pandemic. He had no option but to move on and today he is working at a medical store.
While the above-mentioned case studies are from the school run by our family-owned non-profit Abhikalp Foundation at Arang, nearly 40 kms from Chhattisgarh’s capital Raipur, you will get to hear thousands of such stories from across India. The pandemic has managed to shake the foundations of our education system and the primary victims have been the budget or low-cost private schools (LCPS).
As per the National Independent School Alliance (NISA), there are over four lakh low-cost private schools in India spread across metros, Tier I and Tier II cities, districts, towns, and villages.
Besides, under the Right to Education Act, the government provides free and compulsory elementary education (Class I to 8) to all children. In 2020, there were 10.83 lakh government schools in the country. Parents who are not satisfied with the quality of education at these government schools, often enroll their children in budget or low-cost private schools. In small towns and villages, parents of children studying in such schools fall into the lower-middle class category. They mostly are farmers, daily wage earners, or those who do odd jobs for survival. For most, incomes are cyclic.
While it’s extremely satisfying to provide quality and affordable education to these underprivileged children, running these schools is challenging even under normal circumstances. The pandemic has dealt a massive blow and tens of thousands of such budget schools are on the verge of shutting down permanently. While one can never be prepared for an unprecedented and sudden event like a global pandemic, could we have done something differently to avoid the complete closure of so many low-cost private schools? Can we do something now?
I am not an expert in the field of education, so I won’t be able to comment on what the government should or should not have done. All I know is, for two decades, starting from 2003 until now, my parents – Girija Shukla and Dhruv Kumar Shukla — and I have put in all our efforts so that underprivileged children living in and around Arang could get quality education. This school caters to 30 villages nearby, and, for most children, this school is the only option. Our dream has crashed.
The school won’t survive for one more year unless some miracle happens. On most days, the dinner table conversations are about winding up and moving on. With an emotional heart, I urge you to read this piece. After all, it’s not just about our school. There are thousands of budget schools that have shut or will eventually shut.
The collapse in a chronological order …
The timing of the 2020 lockdown, which was announced in March, dealt a blow to us. Parents of most children studying in our school are not in a position to pay school fees (Rs 6,000-12,000 annually, excluding transport) at the start of the session or on a regular basis. We don’t insist. Most pay the fees at the end of the session before the final exams. Because of the lockdown, the exams could not take place and the school had to be shut down. So, parents could not pay the school fees. That was the beginning of the end.
In 2021, again, the timing of the second wave and the subsequent lockdown (March-April) coincided with the end of our session. Due to the second lockdown and the closure of the school, again, parents chose not to pay the fees. So, technically, we have not been able to collect 100% school fees from the 2019 session onwards.
It was a tricky situation. We could not pressurize or urge the parents to pay the fees as most of them had lost their jobs during the lockdowns or could not earn. So, though many of them chose not to pay the school fees due to the financial crunch, there was nothing we could do to make them pay.
Imagine our plight when the third wave hit in the beginning of 2022. We are nearing the end of yet another session and the schools have just reopened. For us, there is a lot of anxiety regarding school fees which takes care of a chunk of our expenses.
The digital divide
Here’s a harsh reality. In the Adivasi belt that we are functioning in, there are people who, with great difficulty, manage to buy one basic mobile. Smartphones are a luxury item. Families with two smartphones are almost non-existent. Parents of most of the students studying in our schools have one smartphone, the purpose of which is to send messages and make calls. Because of severe network issues, these smartphones are not used extensively. Most parents are not educated. They were not in a position to help children with online classes or help them with their homework. There was no one to help them resolve the technology and network-related issues.
Similarly, teachers in our school are not trained teachers. They don’t come from very affluent families, so they are in possession of basic gadgets. It was a struggle for them too to learn tasks like conducting classes on Zoom or Team Meet, sharing screens, uploading, and downloading documents or giving assignments and correcting homework online. It was next to impossible to teach all these things to children sitting in far-flung villages. Poor network was our biggest roadblock.
When they somehow managed to get hold of these things, the administration decided to allow teachers to come to school and conduct online classes. That posed newer challenges. When nothing seemed to be working, we even hired a few volunteers who taught different subjects to children, but it was, at best, a temporary solution.
Confusion regarding school fees
In April 2020, Bhupesh Baghel, the chief minister of Chhattisgarh, tweeted saying: “Many private schools are sending messages to students’ parents to deposit school fees. It is not appropriate to pressurize them for fees at such times. All schools have been instructed to postpone the recovery of fees during coronavirus lockdown in Chhattisgarh.”
After many small-scale schools reached out to the administration complaining that the school fee is their only means to pay the salaries of the teachers, the High Court, in July 2020, said the schools were allowed to collect only the tuition fees.
The financially stable private school welcomed the decision, but parents of children studying in schools like ours were not happy. They were of the view that since the school was not functioning and the online classes were proving to be too chaotic wherein children were not learning properly, they should be exempted from paying any fees at all. Even after reducing the fees to half, we could not convince them to pay up. In such a situation, we could not pay our teachers regularly.
Because of the fund crunch, our investments started taking a hit. Let me give you an example. Just before the lockdown, we had bought two school buses for the convenience of children living in faraway villages. That was a very big investment worth lakhs of rupees. We have hardly used the buses, but to date, we are paying the EMIs. The buses are just parked in the compound for the past two years, and that’s pinching us financially. Now we are using our personal savings to pay the EMIs. I know many instances wherein school buses owned by low-cost private schools have been seized by the finance companies because of their inability to pay up.
Students switching to government schools
Because the parents were not willing to or were not in a position to pay school fees, many of them withdrew the admission of their children from budget schools and enrolled them in government schools where there was no obligation to pay any fees. This rampant switch happened because for these parents who are not educated, educating their children is not a high priority, especially when there is a severe financial crunch and arranging for even two meals a day is a task.
As per the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), 2021, which assessed enrolment patterns, tuition trends and smartphone access of children in rural areas, the government school enrolments had risen from 64.3% in 2018 to 70.3% in 2021. The corresponding decline in private school enrolments has been from 32.5% in 2018 to 24.4% in 2021. In Chhattisgarh, in the 6-14 age group, enrolment in government schools increased from 76.4% in 2018 to 82.9% in 2021.
In our school, before the lockdown, 400 students were enrolled. Today there are less than 200. The students who moved out had been with us from the beginning. We had invested our time, energy, and efforts in them. It was heartbreaking.
Confusion regarding transfer certificates
The shift from low-cost private schools to government schools began in 2020 itself and parents started approaching the schools to get transfer certificates. After some budget schools refused to hand over the transfer certificate saying the parents had to clear the dues first, the state administration intervened.
Soon after, the School Education Department sent a letter to all District Collectors and District Education Officers and urged them to ensure admission of all students leaving private schools. The letter mentioned that during the time of admission of these students, their transfer certificate or earlier class mark sheet should not be demanded. Now, the parents were not under any obligation to clear the dues before cancelling the admission. These flip-flops from the parents and the administration further complicated the situation for us.
Now, either the schools are shut, or half the students have moved out
Just after the second covid wave in 2021, at least 500 private budget schools in Chhattisgarh shut down. Most of these private schools were running in rented buildings and they had to wind up due to their inability to pay the rent. The school managers informed the education department of the state about the closure of their schools. Due to this, the future of about one lakh students who were studying in these schools, was in limbo.
It was unfortunate, but the schools that were running in rented buildings were not as unfortunate as us. Winding up was not difficult for them. In case we have to shut down, what will happen to the school buildings? The school buses? There is a playground and a small computer lab. What do we do with all this? The government guidelines say schools will have to follow proper covid protocols after the schools reopen. We don’t have the money to give salaries. How do we sanitize the whole building periodically?
Hence, at this stage, we don’t know if it makes sense to keep the school running for one more year, with half the student strength and teachers who have lost the enthusiasm and motivation.
Plight of children studying under the Right to Education Act
In Chhattisgarh, as many as 60 lakh students are enrolled in 57,000 private and government schools combined in an academic session. Around 15 lakh students are enrolled in 6,615 private schools of which 31,317 students are studying free of cost under RTE on 25% of the seats. Because of the closure of the private schools in such a large number, about 20,000 students who were studying free of cost in these schools under the RTE Act have also been deprived of free education.
In my school, most of the students who are still enrolled are RTE students. Briefly, the central government releases funds to the state government, the state government releases funds to the schools and that’s how the fee of these children gets paid. It’s a long-winding process. However, there has been a delay in the release of funds from the central government. It’s a double whammy. And, in case, if we have to shut our school, I have no idea what will happen to these children studying under the RTE.
No help from the government, no policy changes
India’s education sector has received a 11% hike in the 2022 Union Budget this year. Many interesting schemes have been rolled out. However, school managers like us, who were looking for specific measures to bring the education system back on track, are disappointed. We have many questions. Like, will individual schools get financial help? What happens to low-cost private schools? How do we sustain ourselves post pandemic? What about the students who have moved to government schools? Do these schools have the infrastructure to educate so many students? What if there is a fourth wave, and a fifth? What happens to the existing infrastructure if I have to shut down my school? Will I get some waiver on the school buses that have costed me lakhs? Lastly, what was the fault of these children and teachers? How do our schools survive post-pandemic?
Gaurav Girija Shukla is based in Raipur, Chhattisgarh. He is the owner of Sangyaa PR and Abhikalp Foundation, which runs the school in Arang.
This story is a joint effort between Shukla and The Good Story Project’s Swati Subhedar. While Shukla provided case studies, story material, and images, The Good Story Project was responsible for conceptualizing, writing, and structuring the story. Please note that images used in the graphics have been sourced from Abhikalp Foundation and have been used for representation purposes only. They have nothing to do with the data being provided in the graphics.
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