The school under a bridge in New Delhi
For the past nine years, Rajesh Kumar Sharma has been operating a makeshift school between two pillars of the aerial metro that runs across India’s capital. More than 200 children from the surrounding slums attend this open-air classroom every day.
Sébastien Farcis, French journalist based in New Delhi
This school does not appear on any map. It does not have whole walls or a complete roof, let alone tables or chairs. Like the small street shops that keep the Indian capital alive, the “Free school under the bridge” has simply merged into New Delhi’s sprawling urban space. It nestles between the massive number five and number six pillars of the aerial metro of this megalopolis of over 20 million inhabitants. And for the past nine years, the school has provided free education to hundreds of poor children from the surrounding slums on the banks of the Yamuna River – a no-man's land located in the heart of a city that is prosperous in pockets, but badly overcrowded.
The district is a concrete grey, the sky low and heavy in the monsoon season. But the street school is full of life and colour. The three walls that make up its space are painted sky blue, with a forest of tall trees and giant roses surrounding the five blackboards that hang on the back wall. As soon as they spot him, the students run up to the teacher from everywhere, shouting “Namasté, teacher!” The man held in such esteem by the children is Rajesh Kumar Sharma, 49, founder of the “Free school under the bridge”. He considers it his mission to help break the cycle of poverty by improving the education of the poorest.
His battle is also a personal vindication. Sharma, who comes from a poor family of nine children in a rural area of Uttar Pradesh state in the country’s north, had always wanted to study but could not finish university because he lacked the means. “The school was seven kilometres from my home,” he says. “It took me over an hour to cycle there. When I was in high school, I always missed chemistry, which was the first class. As a result, I didn’t get good marks in this subject, and couldn’t go on to study engineering, which was my dream.”
Sharma still managed to obtain a high school degree, a feat that none of his eight older brothers and sisters had achieved. He enrolled in university, selling his textbooks to pay the registration fees. To get there, he had to travel more than forty kilometres by bicycle and bus. But after a year, the elders in his family cut off the funds for his education. His dream was cut short.
The next phase in Sharma’s life was challenging. When he was about 20, he moved to New Delhi with his brother. “I sold watermelons, worked on construction sites, did anything I could to earn a few rupees,” he recalls. One day, on the metro construction site, he was shocked to see the workers’ children, most of them out of school, wandering amidst the rubble. At first he offered them candy and clothes, and then he considered providing them more sustainable help. And thus, in 2006, he began helping two children with their homework, under a tree. One of them, now 18, has just entered university, and wants to become an engineer.
Four years later, in 2010, he set up his makeshift school under the newly-built aerial bridge, where he now welcomes more than 200 children a day – at levels ranging from the first year of primary to the third year of secondary school. The students are divided into two groups – boys in the morning, and girls in the afternoon, for almost two hours each. Most of them also attend the local school, but come to him for academic support. “We have sixty-three students in my class,” says Mamta, 13, who attends the third year of high school. “Sometimes we can't understand everything, so we come and ask Mr Rajesh.”
There are many other children who do not attend school because their parents – migrants or informal workers – are undocumented. Sharma helps them to get papers, so they can enroll their children in school. He does this for free, relying on the meagre income from his family grocery store and occasional donations. So far, he has refused to create a non-governmental organization (NGO). “It’s a way to avoid paperwork, but also because I'm afraid that with a formal structure, the metro authorities will be afraid that we’ve settled in, and will kick us off their property,” he explains. But in the absence of a legal organization, donations are received in his personal name, which has recently exposed him to criticism. “I do the best I can, but I can't provide an invoice when I use the donated money to feed the children,” he says. To dispel such doubts, he has stopped accepting money and only receives donations of clothing, food and books.
On this hot July afternoon, the outdoor classroom is a little disorganized. The 105 students are divided into groups of different levels. Three teachers, all volunteers, assist Sharma and have to shout as they point to the letters on the board, to be heard above the noise of the metro overhead. One teacher does his best to hold the attention of the youngest pupils. Sharma, meanwhile, is busy interpreting a Hindi text to a circle of five very attentive girls. “We use the national textbooks and do everything we can with the few resources we have, to help them progress,” explains this improvisational teacher. “In the old days, classes were held outdoors, so I don't think it’s essential to have closed classrooms to teach properly. In India, it is said that the most beautiful lotuses are born in the marshes.”