By Faye Sakura Rentoule:
As many developed countries face the crisis of an aging population, they can only dream of a state where half the population is under the age of 25.
This is not a dream for India. It is a reality. By the year 2020, India will be the youngest country in the world. Every hour 3,800 babies are born. Last year alone, 150 million young people between the ages of 18 and 23 became qualified to vote for the first time.
Though some, like Denmark and Japan, might cast sidelong looks at this emerging middle power with envy, this burst of youthful energy does not come without its complications.
Every year there are more children needing enrolment into formal education systems for whom there are simply no space. Though Modi’s government understands the fundamental need for the education for their youth, there has not been sufficient progress to match the rapid increase in the sheer number of children birthed into the nation.
“The number of children to be educated is too much and the infrastructure is not coping with it. We have just realised that the number of youngsters are more and so we need more education and more institutes. We need more of the primary sector, we need more of the higher education sector. The government is working towards it but it is a slow process,” says Shivani Singh, a full-time volunteer for Samarpan Foundation. “The population explosion has happened suddenly but the infrastructure has not risen to that level.”
Indeed the logistics of the education system only represents a margin of the issue. For families living in poverty, children play an important part in their communities. Often older children are the caretakers of the younger siblings, or even the main provider for the family. Education which in itself is not an income does not feed hungry mouths and therefore sometimes cannot be the priority.
“’Dharma’ is relatively translated [to English] as ‘duty’. But dharma is not duty only because duty is what you are forced to do. It is not that. It is something that you do on your own. Something that is coming from yourself,” Professor Shashi Shekhar Singh explains why there is a cultural difference between a western understanding of children in the work place and as it is seen in India. As a lecturer of Indian literature in translation at Amity University he asked me to understand how some of the fundamental elements that make up Indian culture have been misinterpreted by the rest of the world.
The more time I spent in Delhi I started to feel like I was starting to understand. What might seem like exploitative underage labour to us coming from a western culture was something children seemed to do without question or objection. There are children in the markets working as vendors, or stringing together flowers to be put at the feet of Hindi gods, or some with an even smaller child strapped to their backs.
Walking through the slums of Kathputli, I was swept through the narrow alleyways in a stream of excited children.
“Hello!” The smiling brave little people yelled as they stuck out their hands to touch mine. Some more shy of company put their hands together in a gesture to say Namaste.
The Kathputli Colony is the largest slum area in Delhi and is home to 40 000 people living in abject poverty. There are only four toilets to share amongst these 40 000. Stephen Dziedzic of the Australian High Commission to India informed me that most of these people living in slums were not in fact from Delhi but had travelled from rural places, particularly from West Bengal or Rajasthan in search of a better life in the city.
Slums like Kathputli have their own functioning form of an economy in which children play a vital role. Some children work alongside their families in a trade of performance. Kathputli is sometimes called the puppeteers colony, but living in these slums are also monkey charmers, magicians, dancers and the younger generations that are taking on these trades.
Not all of the duties for the youth in India involve earning a wage. I met a young bride of fifteen and her children in the slums. And then I met many more young brides and their children. If I expected to see destitute fragile girls, this was not them. Perhaps this is another part of the cultural element of the mistranslated Sanskrit ‘dharma’ I still do not understand.
For the children born and living in these slums, this culture runs as deep into their roots as their poverty. Introducing education is a difficult mission but these local NGOs work at a grassroots level to address the deeper issues that continue to fertilize the cycle of poverty.
NGOs have a vital role in this environment as they have the resources and flexibility that allow them to work within slum environments and use a bottom-up approach to educating children and eradicating poverty. PETE India is one such organisation alongside Samanpar Foundation and others that have set up schools in slum areas to educate children.
“We teach the children here literacy and numeracy and also have vocational training,” says Lexmi who walked us through the Kathpulti slums. The school was a concrete building, as brightly painted and crumbling as all the surrounding buildings. It was distinguishable only by a sign and the young girls in bright saris spilling through a crevice in the wall which was also the door.
“She is fourteen and she is a mastering henna,” Lexmi pointed to the bright orange marks that stained decorated the hand of a young girl.
The work of these NGOs are becoming increasingly invaluable as the number of children for whom there is no space in government provided education also increase. That is not to say the government does not still play a vital role.
“The change is slow. It’s bits and pieces here and there, but it’s happening,” says Shivani Singh. “You see that thirst for education, once they get a taste of it they really want to do well.”
There is a bright and curious nature in children that deserves to be nurtured. Though India is struggling to keep its head above water in a sea of bright new faces they are not without support.
“If there is work to be done, we just do it. That’s the philosophy of our foundation,” the young volunteer Shivani says with a smile, “If there is work to be done you just do it, and there is so much to be done in so many sectors.”