By Jonathan Allen
NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Eleven-year-old Anurag never went to school because he had to scavenge through Delhi’s bins, dumps and gutters in search of sellable trash each day before spending his nights sleeping on the street.
Now, thanks to India’s biggest effort yet to educate every last child, he has a smart blue uniform and has started going to a mainstream state school in the Indian capital — something he had once considered a luxury for destitute children like himself.
He is happy and smiling, has a bed in a residential centre and is thinking about becoming a driver when he grows up.
"I never had a home, so it’s not like I’ve left home," he said, holding hands with his new best friend, 10-year-old Rahul.
"I ran away from home because they wouldn’t send me to school," adds Rahul, explaining that his parents sent him to work at a motorcycle repair shop on Delhi’s outskirts.
Anurag and Rahul are among 30 homeless children involved in a pilot project in Delhi, giving them housing and "bridging" classes to help them catch up on lost years of schooling.
It is part of India’s renewed commitment to educate all of its children, including the country’s millions of child labourers and beggars, as it struggles to meet the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals.
"Besides locking them up, the government never really had a programme for street kids," said Harsh Mander, a children’s rights activist who set up the first home on behalf of the government.
"It was suggested they don’t have mainstream rights."
Charities have done similar work for decades, but, according to Mander, this is the government’s first attempt on a national scale to bring such marginalised children into education. Similar projects are appearing across the country.
While Mander thinks Delhi has made a promising start, he points out the city state alone would need to build several hundred similar small residential centres to house its tens of thousands of homeless and working children.
MILES TO GO
Education officials agree this will not happen anytime soon.
Of those children it can take on, Delhi hopes to get at least half into mainstream schools. The others may have insurmountable learning difficulties, often because of prolonged malnourishment or an unstable childhood.
They were reached too late.
When India launched a new campaign for universal education called Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan in 2001, there were still at least 32 million children not going to school, according to education authorities.
That figure is now down to 7 million, they say, although new data from the family welfare ministry puts the number several times higher.
So for now, Anurag and his friends are the lucky ones, living and learning in a drab concrete building in a north Delhi slum for nearly a year.
Many of the boys there have run away from an abusive family, and have spent years living in railway stations.
They describe it as a life of scavenging, begging, picking pockets, selling sex, eating leftover food swept from the trains, sniffing solvents, and enduring occasional beatings and sexual abuse from policemen and boys in rival gangs.
Several boys have deep, jagged scars on their young faces.
Despite their squalid lives, it can take the centre’s workers months to convince the children to trust adults and leave behind what they see as the hard-won freedom of the railway station.
They are slowly decorating the bare rooms with their glittery art, and enjoy watching and mimicking kung-fu films after dinner.
Four teachers and four student volunteers tutor them in maths, literacy and computer skills. Anurag was among the first to qualify from the bridging classes and enrol at a nearby government school, but continues to live in the project building.
Now, life does not seem all that gloomy.
"I want to learn about cars," he said. "I like them."