/ Education

School on Wheels for the Less Fortunate

Many people’s lives move from green to red in our familiar streets and quite often we give a bloated response “maaf karo”(sorry, can’t help). More than a decade ago an affluent woman heard – “Didi, teen din se kuch khaya nahin’(Sister, haven’t had anything for the past three days)” and her response at home was, ‘Can we set up a school for them?’ Because she believes education is the only way to give them a better future.

Mukti Gupta, the MD of Mukti Group, has challenged the fixed, brick and mortar conventional model of a school. Her ‘School on Wheels’ is metal, mobile and goes to students. Doing small things with great love as advocated by Mother Teresa has accelerated Mukti’s dream.
In India every eighth urban child (0-6 years) lives in slums. More than 250,000 children are forced survive on the streets of our ‘City of Joy’ and about five million people live in dreadful settings in slums (The Hope Foundation). To add to the burden, 33 million children in the age group of 0-18 years are working in India. An analysis of census data by CRY (Child Rights and You) reveals that close to 1.4 million child labourers in India in the age group of 7-14 years cannot write their own name. This means one in three child labourers in this age group is illiterate. PWC and Save the Children suggest that for overall city development, an inclusive and child-led planning process is essential.

Hailing from a family that owns establishments such as the Park Plaza hotel and Mukti World it could have been easier for Mukti to simply write out a ‘pay to’ to those already committed in running schools. Few ardent and like-minded friends rather supported her to form an NGO ‘Help Us Help Them’ and started a school in Mullickpur, S 24 Parganas.

An initial turnout of four students could not deaden her enthusiasm and she worked resolutely on promoting the school. She advocated the big cause house to house in the environs. This eventually recorded more than 200 admissions.

To scale up and sustain Mukti wrote personal letters to the industrialists of the city whom she did not know personally. To make her school loom Mukti met the UCMAS regional director without appointment. UCMAS is an after school mental arithmetic program for children between 4 and 12 years. It is designed to boost brain power and stimulate young minds using abacus and mental arithmetic in a way that children find engaging and fun. Her teachers got trained in Advanced Mental Arithmetic gratis. Eventually the Malaysia based institution engaged with this initiative as its CSR.

A six-machine computer lab was commissioned next in association with NIIT. Few parents had a doubt on the benefits of a ‘balanced’ education. We cannot ignore the importance of extra-curricular activities and sports especially at the growing ages. Mukti therefore initiated a swimming facility in a nearby pond. A national swimming coach, Bishwajit Choudhury, joined hands and conducted the swimming sessions. In fact, talented children identified in the sport could either qualify for district level championship or make it to good schools with sports quota.

When some people doubted to get a property in Kolkata for such a school Mukti responded ‘If we create a school inside a bus then we don’t need real estate at all!’ The mobile School on Wheels project starts rolling where the educational institution indeed drove down to serve the impoverished children.

School on Wheels

The fuel of patience and persistence was added to keep the gears of the project moving. She wrote to several corporate organizations for the take off of her mobile educational school bus.

The accountant jabbed her with the seven-figure cost to arrange such a mobile facility. “To start with, I wrote a letter to the person managing the Tata Motors CSR practices in Mumbai and then from one person to the other till they termed my idea as “crazy”. The result was a cheque which I received from them as their 50 percent contribution. Oriental Bank of Commerce also contributed towards 40 percent of the costs. The remaining was contributed by family and friends. So this is how we started off,” Mukti recalls.

The seats have been stripped off to give birth to a 175 sq ft classroom. There are chowkis for the children to work and study. Vibrant enlightening posters are all around. A splendid plasma TV empowers audio-visual learning.

Mukti Gupta on her School on Wheels

Vocational training is passed on along with academics. It is somewhat an incentive for the kids to join. This also prepares them to stand on their own feet financially sooner and to be able to live a life of their choice. Nutritious food is also provided to help them keep healthy and make them more regular in attending the school. Excursions are arranged. Ayahs (helpers) have been appointed to ensure to scrub clean the children daily and put on their school uniforms before starting with their classes.

KMC is kind enough to provide parking permission in Sealdah station which is the home to more than 300 juveniles and outside the Park Circus Maidan The school operates from Monday to Saturday at 3 locations – Raja Bazaar from 9 am- 11.30 am , Park Circus from 12.30pm – 3.30 pm and Southern Avenue from 4 pm – 6.30pm.

There are 30-35 students per batch and daily around 100 students are taught. Students have been split into different batches and every batch has 1 teacher to support them. There are 3 teachers, 2 nannies (ayahs) and 1 driver per location. Students are taught according to their age and their class education standard.

Visiting guardians and explaining the improvement of their children is a regular task which helps to ledge dropouts. The experience inside the fleet or school is quite a lot different than their usual life.

The Oriental Bank of Commerce has announced a year-long support for the mobile school. The monetary support could be used to expand the reach and facilities. Mukti cheerfully says,“We are planning to launch 2 more buses so that we can reach out to larger numbers and more locations, and educate more children.”

Two students have been admitted in a boarding school and a few students have been selected for government schools.

Help Us Help Them started with contributing relief work with regard to natural calamities in 2001. Undoubtedly Mukti is influenced by her father, Rajkumar Gupta who thinks that philanthropy and charity need not ask you to give up large chunks of your income. A little bit of time and good intentions are all you need.

Mr. Gupta shares how he started with social work, “We realized that the homeless people in stations have no access to clean drinking water. In the scorching heat of Kolkata that is a travesty. So we set up a man with a ‘matka’ so that these people and the little children could quench their thirst. It did not cost more than fifty or sixty rupees a month. All of us friends contributed to that fund and no one felt a pinch in their own lives.”

Rajkumar Gupta, Mukti World, Kolkat

Mukti thus wanted to bridge the gap between, the mainstream education and street children. She has gradually proving Nelson Mandela rightEducation is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Such people from our own city definitely encourage Eyezon in its endeavor.