India's night schools

by AFP/Phil Hazlewood, Jun 18, 2009 | Destinations: India / Mumbai

MUMBAI, April 8, 2009 - Ganesh Kuban was forced to drop out of school when he was 10 after his father died. He has been supporting his family ever since by fixing scooters at a roadside mechanic's shop in central Mumbai.

But when the shutters come down at his workplace every Monday, the slim 19-year-old joins other young mechanics, hotel and restaurant boys, couriers and maids for three hours of evening classes.

"I want to become an engineer," he told AFP.

Ganesh's night school is one of about 210 in Mumbai, a city that attracts hundreds of thousands of poor Indian migrants each year with the promise of jobs and money.

The schools were originally established at the turn of the 20th century for children from southern India who were sent to the city to work in restaurants.

Children of migrant workers from across India are on the roll call today, attending classes as they fight to survive in Mumbai's slums and crumbling tenement blocks.

Students are aged between 14 and 21, and have often dropped out of formal education to provide for themselves or their families.

But their one decent chance of escaping from a life of low pay now appears to be under threat.

"Night schools are a must but without good funding they're doomed," said K.S. Panse, from the Night School Headmasters Association.

The schools, mainly owned and operated by religious organisations or community groups, operate six nights a week, typically in classrooms at state day schools, and have long relied on goodwill to survive.

Most teachers have already spent the day at the blackboard before the young workers squeeze themselves behind the battered wooden desks for their evening studies.

Charities and individuals make one-off donations of cash or equipment to help students work towards their state secondary school examinations.

"The government is only giving a meagre amount of funding," said Panse, who has been a teacher for 60 years.

"They're only paying the teachers' salaries but that's not the only requirement. We need chalk, dusters, notebooks, so many things.

"The future is bad, really. Night schools are not funded properly."

One local non-governmental organisation is hoping to put night schools on a more secure footing by lobbying civic authorities for more cash and support.

"These schools have existed for more than 100 years and the problems that existed 100 years back still exist, and will continue if we don't do something about it," said Nikita Ketkar, chief executive of the charity Masoom.

The charity already works in Ganesh's school in the working-class district of Parel and another in nearby Worli.

While the state government provides a total of 50,000 rupees (987 dollars) a month for teachers' salaries at both schools, Masoom provides everything else, from textbooks to paper and other essentials.

Ultimately it hopes to support five schools by 2011, with a view to the state government eventually taking over.

According to the United Nations children's fund UNICEF, 20 percent of Indian children aged 6-14 do not attend school.

Half of all girls and nearly one-third of boys do not enrol in secondary school. The country also has 12.6 million child labourers, the highest number in the world.

Ketkar said the night schools are a lifeline for youngsters who have been forced into the world of work too soon.

"If they were not engaged for those three hours, they would be there in the slums indulging in vices," the former civil servant added.

"It could be drugs, it could be drinking, it could be smoking, it could be something anti-social because of peer pressure."

The headmaster of the Maratha Mandir Night School in Worli, P.S. Kadam, is in no doubt about the benefits of a formal education -- at whatever time of day.

He talks proudly about successful former students who have gone on to become top ranking police officers, lawyers and even government ministers.

Panse, a night school headmaster for 25 years, also knows their importance and says they desperately need more money.

"The students are bright and they want the future to be bright," he said.

For Ganesh -- who currently earns 250 to 300 rupees a day -- night school offers a glimmer of hope in a difficult world.

"I want to move upwards, earn more, have a better life, a better home and living conditions for my family," he said.

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