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FoSBT on the ground: update on the Mobile School and community projects

Written by Friends of SBT Trustee Nick Thompson following his annual visit in March 2023.

Two communities in North East Delhi, each served by a metro station and so just 15 or 20 air-conditioned minutes from the Red Fort or Connaught Place, but still on the other side of the river and either not in the minds of other Delhiites, or not for the right reasons; in 2020, the area saw the capital’s worst communal violence in many years.

Salaam Baalak Trust (SBT) has been running contact points here for a while, centred in part on the mobile school which was converted from a bus. I’m here to learn more about the community outreach work. The overriding aim here is to prevent young children becoming the street children of tomorrow – through school enrolments, other education and life skills programmes, and constantly keeping in touch with their families.

I am guided around the crowded alleys of Seelampur by one of SBT’s tireless, enthusiastic outreach workers, who stops in almost every little street to check up on the families he is in touch with. It’s a round he does every day: if a child hasn’t come to class, to ask why; if they have problems to see what can be done, or to act as a mobile Citizens Advice bureau.

Seven children and one mother – all part of an extended family – live in these two rooms [right].

There are few men during the day. Some are earning a small wage nearby; some are travelling, and some are no longer around at all. The SBT counsellors work mainly with the mothers.

SBT have the use of two decent-sized rooms in the centre of the community, which cater well to different age groups: the older ones who come after school and in some cases are preparing for the school leaving exams, and the younger children who come in the mornings, including – in a new venture for SBT, children as young as 3 learning the basics of ABC.

At one house we meet Jafar, now 20. Asked to tell me something about himself, his English is thoughtful but fluent. He recalls that back in 2011, he could not have dreamed of going to school, let alone higher education. In a family of nine, he grew up without electricity (which arrived, patchily, a few years ago) and with only a filthy area to play in. Occasionally his words become profound. “I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become.” He remembers meeting one of the SBT teachers. “Neelam ma’am came into my life like an angel.” When she told him she would make sure he got an education, “to be honest I didn’t really believe her. But she did not lose my faith”. He started school at the age of eight, scored 94% in his school leaving exam and is now doing a degree in Political Science at Delhi University.

In Shastri Park, ten minutes away, the realities of the divide between haves and have-nots are even starker. Almost immediately, water is central to this. A large empty space is optimistically coloured blue on Google maps but, after the dry winter, only filthy black pools remain. In the monsoon time it can be knee-deep. In the background, behind barbed wire and a wall, are cream-coloured apartments for professionals. A large pipe, delivering fresh water to luckier residents elsewhere, dominates an empty space. In one of the houses on the left (above), another of SBT’s success stories who trained as a beautician has rented a room and set it up, within the last month, as a beauty parlour.

On the far side of the pipeline and reached only by ducking under it, a small community of families live in makeshift shelters of plastic and bamboo. Here, the women sit outside the shacks to work. Most of them have a pile of not-quite-ready jeans, from one of the many factories in the district. They get Rs25 a pair to do the last stitching and finish them off. At 3 pairs a day that is Rs75, which is less than 75p. The UN definition of absolute poverty is £1.50 a day. Some of them will have husbands or children also earning.

As with Jafar, most of these children would not have gone to school without the intervention of SBT counsellors. But not only do they approach parents of any children they hear about who are out of school; they make daily rounds in the community; they speak to the parents when children are dropped off or collected from classes.

Economic realities here mean that sending children to school means hard choices. Doing without the badly needed money they can earn in the short term for their chance of a better future.

UPDATE I’m back in London. A message pops up on WhatsApp from the outreach worker. A fire has broken out and destroyed the homes of all 25 families by the pipeline. Something that started with an electric fault, but then led to some of the gas canisters exploding that the families use for cooking.

They have all lost everything. The children enrolled in school by SBT have no clothes other than the uniform they were wearing. No study books. Their parents have no food, no sheets, no tools that they used to work at home. My immediate thought is if we should launch an emergency appeal. But on reflection, and after speaking to the Trustees in Delhi, I realise there’s no need. The SBT staff have already swung into action. A couple of days later they send another photo, after new school bags and food packs have been distributed.

Resources will be diverted from other programmes where the need is less urgent. The money needed is not even that much, certainly by Western standards: this is a reflection of the fragility of these families’ lives and the extent to which they carry on with the bare minimum. But even so, the immediate response is only possible because SBT is there on the ground, in the communities, and has all the local contacts and trust that has been built up over the last years.


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