Every 3 minutes a speeding Metrorail kicks up a din, but the children seated below the elevated tracks near the Yamuna Bank Metro Station in New Delhi carry on with their studies unperturbed. On the faces of the children one could see a steely resolve and determination to focus on their learning and not be distracted by the surroundings.
In fact, this informal ‘Under the Bridge School’ situated below the railway flyover is all about defying conventions.
Rajesh Kumar Sharma, a college dropout who runs a general store, teaches 200 children from poor families under a railway flyover
Located on railway land, the school has no building. Children sit on the ground on mats. There are few plastic and wooden chairs for the teachers, and a couple of steel trunk boxes for keeping the attendance registers and school records. Coats of black paint on the boundary wall make up the black boards.
The school’s founder, Rajesh Kumar Sharma, is a college dropout who owns a general store at Shakarpur, about 5 km from here.
Around 200 kids from nearby slums attend his school that functions from 9 am to 2 pm in two batches. The children are taught to read, write, and basics of English, Hindi, science, mathematics, history, and geography.
Though the school does not follow any fixed syllabus and has no government approval, it achieves the purpose of a school, imparting education and building the confidence level in the children.
Sharma started the school back in 2007 after seeing the condition of the children in the area.
He had first visited the place to catch a glimpse of the ongoing metro railway work, when the sight of the children who were not going to school and loitering around changed the course of his life.
Speaking to the parents of the children, who were mostly farmers and daily wagers, he realized they were poor and there was no school in the vicinity they could send their children to. He started the classes after the parents requested him to teach their children.
“The area used to be covered with undergrowth and bushes. I found a place to teach and started with just two children. In three months it took the shape of a full grown school.
Children study with great enthusiasm despite the lack of infrastructure
“I approached the principal of a municipal school at Shakarpur and invited him to visit our school. He visited us the next day and was surprised to see so many children attending my classes.
“He later made arrangements to admit 60 of our students at his school,” says 46-year-old Sharma, who had moved to Delhi from Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, in search of employment in 1995.
Sharma always encourages the children who attend his classes to join some nearby government school. Some children go to regular school in the afternoon after attending his classes.
Sharma could not complete his BSc degree from Aligarh University due to financial constraints in his family. His own inability to finish college became his inspiration to educate other poor children.
“Knowledge increases when it is shared,” he declares.
Since the school’s fifth anniversary last December, he introduced a sports session every Saturday for the students.
“People from different walks of life visit us on Saturdays and encourage the kids to play games like Kabbadi, Volleyball, Football, and Cricket. However, an hour’s study is mandatory,” says Sharma, who has around five volunteers to assist him now.
Anshul Gupta, a volunteer teacher, studying law at Amity University, teaches English and science at the open air school. “The students are lovely, enthusiastic, and keen to acquire knowledge,” she says.
IAS aspirant Umar Imam, another volunteer teacher, devotes 4 hours daily at the school. An IIT-Delhi graduate, he came to know about the school through a friend.
“It gives immense me satisfaction to teach these kids. Initially, I devoted 2 hours in 3 days, but now I stretched it to 4 hours daily,” he reveals.
Appreciating Sharma’s dedicated work since past five years, he says it would be so much better if the school gets some basic infrastructure.
Sharma with some of his wards
Sharma says they are badly in need of toilets, especially for grown up girls who attend the second batch from 12 noon to 2 pm. He has sought the help of the local Member of Parliament in this regard.
Metro authorities have extended their support. “They constructed the platform for the teachers to stand on and teach, and gave the coats of black paint on the wall to create five blackboards for our school,” he says.
There are few well-wishers who donate footwear and snacks for the children.
For Sharma, life does not end with the school. After 2 pm, he goes to the shop and relieves his younger brother and remains there till 10 in the night.
He has 2 sons and a daughter. His elder son, who is in class 11, often volunteers at his school as a teacher. His wife, who takes care of the home used to object to his work earlier, but has become supportive now.
Editor's Note: Rajesh Kumar Sharma can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on his Mobile at +91-9873445513