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Cost of Dreams

What is the cost of pursuing your dreams in today’s society? Some would say it is years of persisting education, some would say it is one paycheck per month, some would say it is a cauldron full of luck. But then there would be a third kind of people who would say that the cost of dreams is responsibility.

Several organizations and NGOs like Room to Read, Pratham, Tostan, and several more around the world have worked tirelessly towards nurturing the dreams of those who either do not have the means to fulfill theirs or are in need of someone to guide them through the correct path to their destinations. From schools which take zero to minimal amounts of fees, to the governments around the globe spending millions worth of money to mass communicate the importance of education through campaigns, to the rich of the society funding and establishing schools for the poor, to children being enticed into coming to schools with the promise of a free meal every day, numerous efforts have been made to ensure that the upcoming generations have all the means to fulfill their dreams through basic education and equal opportunities. In spite of this, the number of students enrolled in the schools keeps dwindling every year along with the motivation of the teachers and the change-makers.

The causality behind this disappointing reality, however, is hardly single-dimensional. When the volunteers of Humane Warriors created the Hunger Relief Program which was designed to help vulnerable and unemployed families buy food and medicines during the pandemic, it was soon realized that the pandemic was not the only time these families and their children had to go to bed empty stomach. Having interacted with the affected families, they had given a glimpse of the harsh reality of their lives and how each day is a struggle to put food on the plates. During the Hunger Relief program, Reshma*, a mother of three, told our volunteers how there were days when the family had to go to bed having eaten just meager amounts of rice mixed with salt. Under these circumstances, it was very evident that for most of these families, having their children educated was a distant dream.

It was revealed that the lack of finance was just one dimension of the problem. The current scenario of the education system, especially in India, although academically competent, fails to ensure a livelihood based on other skills, to those who do not or cannot surpass the expected academic thresholds set by a conventional system. The only reason the people belonging to this stratum of society are inclined towards education, however reluctantly, is because somewhere they believe that a better and more secured future awaits them at the end of this long road.

However, when a child fails to perform in school or when the parents realize that the teachers of the school are not really motivated towards teaching, their last shred of hope for the system disappears. They decide that the child would be much better off learning a skill through manual jobs or helping the parents in the fields, instead of wasting the day loitering around the school. At least that way there would be an assured source of income in the future, however small.

As was discovered by our volunteers through multiple interviews that they conducted, many of these families have several members living under one roof. As such, it sometimes becomes the responsibility of the oldest child (or in many homes the daughters) to sacrifice his/her education either to take care of their younger siblings while the parents work or to ensure that their younger siblings get the basic education that they had, as the parents cannot afford the education of all their children. Neha*, a class 8 student from the rural parts of Mumbai, told one of our volunteers that as her father lost his job due to the pandemic, her brother had to give up his studies to take up a job as a CCTV camera installation technician just to sustain the family.

Despite the above concerns, many families have overcome these obstacles and facilitated their little ones to go to school with the little money they make on a daily basis. The pandemic, however, had a different story to tell. As daily wagers struggled to find work and savings dried up for the poor, the futures of students were left hanging by a thread. While most of us, with some adjustments, seamlessly shifted to the digital platforms to continue our educations and jobs, thousands were not as privileged. The drop-outs for the low-income schools housing the children of migrants, daily wage workers, etc. increased marginally. According to a recent report, the drop rate for the school, Shri Sidheshwar Vidyalaya Vitale situated in Kadadhe Colony, Pune, India, has been an astonishing 23.15% from 216 students in 2016 to 166 in 2020. This paved the way to lay the foundation of the scholarship program and the elearning programs by Humane Warriors.

Warriors in action

M.H. English school in Malwani, Mumbai with its 350 students from class 1-10, with a staff of 12 teachers and the additional contract-based staff was one of the many schools facing such a crisis, which was approached by the volunteers of Humane Warriors. The head of the school Mohsin Sir has been a pioneer in championing the cause of the students of his school with whatever little means he and his community of people could manage. These people have fought their way through lack of funds, means, and equipment to ensure that the children get a proper education. However, with the ongoing pandemic restrictions and the school closing, it was very difficult to maintain the regular routine of things. Most of the students could not afford the digital platforms required to continue the classes online. Archana’s* family had only one phone, a basic Nokia handset belonging to her father, a daily wage laborer, which was not equipped with internet facilities. Between providing food for the family during a pandemic and buying a smartphone for his daughter’s studies, the choice was very clear. Sahidul* had to go to his neighbor’s house every day to do his every day classes as his family could afford only one smartphone, which was used by his elder brother for his classes. There was also the problem that most of these families were even finding it difficult to manage a proper day’s meal, let alone afford an internet pack. Some of the students who could overcome all the aforementioned hurdles had problems keeping their motivation and interest intact on subjects through the screens of their mobile phones with limited interaction with the teachers and their fellow students. The motivation of the parents to continue their children’s education also dwindled, as they came to terms with the reality of how unstable their financial conditions were with the ongoing pandemic. The future, with their children being able to achieve something in life or them being able to provide any more than two or on good days, three meals, seemed too feeble with the current scenario.

The obstacles before Humane Warriors and people like Mohsin Sir were manifold which would require a step-by-step elimination of these hurdles and an initiative backed by extensive research and surveys to cater to the needs of those who are the most affected by the pandemic. Hence, the first step was to put food on the tables of these needy families. Ration kits were donated to 338 families for the first 15 days of the lockdown through the Hunger Relief Program. Once the situation became a bit more stable for these families, HW along with Mohsin Sir, raised funds through the scholarship campaign to support the education of 100 students from his school for two months. During this time, surveys were conducted to understand what the aspirations and expectations were of both students and parents from the educational institution and also from the volunteers wanting to bring a change.