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INDERJEET KHURANA

India,

Inderjit Khurana , by chalking off a bit of railway platform, has created India's burgeoning "platform schools" to serve the street children who live or work nearby.

This profile below was prepared when Inderjeet Khurana was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2003.

INTRODUCTION

Inderjit Khurana , by chalking off a bit of railway platform, has created India's burgeoning "platform schools" to serve the street children who live or work nearby.




THE NEW IDEA

Inderjit Khurana was founder and principal of the Ruchika Primary School in Bhubaneswar, Orissa, when she began paying special attention to the neglected children who begged for a living on the platforms of the Bhubaneswar railway station. She wished they could somehow experience the rewards of education that her own upper-class students were enjoying at Ruchika. But with their street lifestyle, these platform children would never be able to afford tuition or find access to public schools.

One Sunday morning with two cloth bags "full of fun and magic for children " and an innovative idea, Inderjit Khurana stepped onto the railway platform and began teaching. The idea was extremely simple and remarkably effective : rather than working to get children into the schools, why not just bring the school to them?

Within a few months, the "platform school," as it became known, had over 100 students sitting within its chalk-drawn boundaries, all absorbed in the song, dance, drama, music and puppetry that was helping make them literate. "We were not trying to make academics out of them," explains Inderjit. "We just wanted them to learn numeracy and language up to class III standard. Promising or hard-working children could then continue further to Class V, and the director of public instruction in Orissa agreed that a scholarship could be arranged for students who showed exceptional ability."

But as Inderjit encountered children pained by hunger, deprived of medical care, or lapsing into drug use or prostitution, she realized that one cannot educate children who are not healthy enough to learn. Education for these destitute children must be accompanied by a program of medical aid, counseling, basic job training, recreational activities, and for some even shelter. So she integrated these elements as needed into her informal educational centers and expanded into the slums. She also gradually extended her work backward from the platforms to the children in the slums and their families.

She is now expanding her work to other towns and cities along the railway line and has begun discussions with the Indian Railways to obtain access to their stations nationally.




THE PROBLEM

"The railway station, normally a place of place of transit only, has become, in India, a refuge, virtually a home, for many children in the most lamentable state of destitution," explains Inderjit. "It is here that they choose to battle for life - a shrewd calculation of probability. It affords them not only ready-made shelter, but also prospects of dole-outs from the passing throngs."

International and government agencies have brought programs to the rural and tribal poor, as well as into the urban slums, according to Inderjit, but few, so far, have addressed the problems of these beggar children. For such children, neglected by parents who themselves are struggling to survive, education is not a real possibility. And the number of this class of children is increasing at an alarming rate as people migrate from rural regions into the cities in search of job opportunities that often prove elusive.

Apart from the debilitation of illiteracy, such children face other hurdles: infections and festering sores; diarrhea and dehydration; diseases such as tuberculosis and leprosy; broken bones from beatings; malnutrition; and as they grow older, drug addiction and the lure of prostitution. " We must reach boys by the age of twelve to fourteen, and girls by the age of ten," says Inderjit. "Otherwise it's too late. We've lost them."

While the children respond positively to Inderjit's educational centers, education is still perhaps the most difficult tool to give them. As they struggle to survive, their attention spans are short, and they must often choose the short-term fix making money, acquiring food, relying on drugs and dubious adults over a long-term program of self-help.




THE STRATEGY

Inderjit's strategy works because it is extremely adaptive. She follows a plan that caters entirely to the children's needs - going to them, integrating entertainment into the curriculum to attract their attention, leading field trips, using simple flashcards to teach reading, and allowing the children to come and go when they need to.

"We have a touch system," she says. "They can touch us anytime for anything they want: bathing, sleeping, eating, whatever. If we can't educate then, we can at least provide a message of cleanliness, so at least their teeth are clean, their faces washed, their hair combed. And every Saturday we bathe them ourselves."

Over the last several years her original platform in the main railway station has spawned volunteers and an increasingly comprehensive set of backup services. She now provides training courses for new workers; a drop-in shelter for abandoned, orphaned, and runaway boys eight to fourteen years old; a medical center (closed for lack of funds) three to six years old; and day care, counseling, and vocational centers- all located in the slums where they are most accessible to the children who need them.

Some of the future jobs Inderjit is targeting for the children who do not continue into formal schooling include home office lunch serving positions (as cooks and delivery boys), hotel work (as laundry men, porters, bellboys, waiters) tailoring, cooking and jobs and other income-generating schemes for slum children. Additional vocational training programs are refrigeration, plumbing, printing press operators and car repair training.




THE PERSON

Indrjit began working with children over twenty-five years ago, after she earned a diploma in early childhood and primary education. Previously she had earned a BA from Isabella Thobure College, in Lucknow. She later assisted Mother Teresa for a year in her work with destitute children.

In 1977-78, after her husband retired from the army, Inderjit began her own school, Ruchika, in Bhubaneswar, with a single student (one of her nieces). The need for primary schools was so great that her school grew rapidly to its present size of 620 students (aged three to twelve), thirty teachers and a support staff of thirty-five. She started with one platform school, but she has since added some thirty-five non-formal education centers in the slums and working areas serving children aged six to fourteen.

Inderjit is a woman who places her own achievements behind those of the children she works for. She measures success not in terms of awards and publications, but in a child pulling on her sleeve and asking, "Didi , when will I see you again?"




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