28 November 2013 | by Shruti Kohli | NEW DELHI
“I must have been 9 years old then. The police picked me up along with some other rag picker children. They accused me of theft. It was only in the evening when some people came to the police station and told the police that I was not the girl who had stolen from their house, that the cops let me go,” says 15 year old Chandni.
Three years later, she came to know of some other children who had been taken to the police station. She immediately landed up at the police station to rescue the children. “I was educated by now and I knew I was empowered thus,” says Chandni who, by now, had been going to a non-formal school for about a year and knew some laws. She argued with the policemen and told them that it was unlawful to pick up children without even having evidence of their crime. The policemen were, obviously, harsh with a lone 12 year old questioning them and threatened to arrest her also.
“I was trembling within but I was confident,” she says. She had to return empty handed the first time but came back in a while along with her teacher. Now, the police had no choice but to let the children go. After that, there have been very few such cases. “The police pick up random children and men and women to show that they are working. Nabbing the real criminals takes lot of effort and then they also lose their share of the booty,” Chandni tells The Petticoat Journal.
With this confidence and an opportunity to go to school, she feels has been able to carve an identity. She feels respected. Her neighbours, relatives and friends look at her as a role model. “Earlier when I went rag picking, men and boys would say, “Come with me” “You also want it otherwise you won’t be roaming around like this.” But all that is pass now. Some useless men may lech or whistle but such direct comments are a thing of the past.
Chandni was a rag picker till three years back when she started going to a non-formal school. Having covered up for lost academic years through an open school now, she will join a regular school from next year. She lives in the Atta Market slums of Noida along with her mother and two younger siblings. Her elder sister and brother are married and live separately along with their families. Her brother does nothing worthwhile for a living and is given to heavy drinking. Meanwhile, Chandni has ensured that her younger siblings join a regular school and study well.
“I do a regular follow up on their performance. Both of them like to go to school and want to continue their studies and pick up good jobs,” she says, delighted. And what does she want to be when she grows up? A teacher. Then she pauses and laughs and says something which is not decipherable. You have to ask her to repeat some three or four times before you can make out “IAS”. She wants to be an IAS officer but is too shy to declare it openly lest people ridicule her for nurturing “laughable ambitions.”
Last, but not the least, you may wonder where is the family getting all the money for the children’s education and other expenses even as Chandni quit her rag picking job a long while ago? Chandni, at 15, is the National Secretary of Badhte Kadam, a federation of street and working children. She gets paid a stipend of Rs 6,500 per month.
Girls like Chandni and their families are boosters for others around them. Alka Dash, education coordinator at Chetna, says, “More parents have started sending their girls to our non-formal schools now and to regular schools also.” The number of female enrollments for open basic education* through Chetna has gone up from 22 percent in 2008-09 to 35 percent in 2013-14 in Delhi NCR.
Open Basic Education (OBE): For children who are past their regular school going age. For instance, a ten-year-old who has never been to school, can cover up for the lost years of education with a couple of years and join regular school after that.
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