Tales of the unknown fighters
A story of children struggling to educate themselves, fighting against the odds with support from a local NGO, Sarthi and its Sushiksha program.
India, Southern Asia
Story by Sanjoli Banerjee, Deepika Dhiman, Gagan Dhiman, Isha, Mamta, Anjali. Edited by Charu Thukral
Published on September 27, 2022. Reading time: 14 minutes
This story is written by Charu Thukral by drawing together individual conversations with 5 students of the Sushiksha program, an initiative to educate underprivileged kids.
Kids from rural Darar village of Karnal, Haryana , have been motivated and inspired by Sushiksha  to have high aspirations for their future: Gagan wants to join the army, Deepika the police; Isha wants to become a doctor, Mamta wants to be like Sanjoli and help rural kids in their education , and Anjali wants to become a doctor but also to follow her passion for dancing.
Through Sushiksha, Sanjoli and Ananya bring children from all backgrounds under one roof
Charu Thukral, CotW's Story Ambassador to India, interviewed these five students at Sushiksha, a free mobile school founded and run by sisters Sanjoli (CotW Correspondent) and Ananya to educate children from underprivileged backgrounds with the aim of providing them a holistic education and plug the educational gap between rural and urban kids. The initiative was started in 2019 after Sanjoli realized the need for educational support to these underprivileged kids when she was visiting a refugee school in Malaysia and was hit by the realization of her privilege of studying at world class institutions. Through Sushiksha, Sanjoli and Ananya bring children from all backgrounds under one roof to learn together and ignite their creativity without discrimination or segregation.
The Indian public education system suffers from a substandard quality of education, which leads to poor learning outcomes and directly affects the lives of thousands of kids who depend on public schools for their careers. Many kids studying at government schools lack basic literacy and numeracy skills. The early years of education are of prime importance in not only shaping the career of an individual, but also their personality: their ability to advocate for themselves, and to be creative and self-confident. Poor quality education makes many kids vulnerable to child labor, abuse, and violence because they lack both knowledge to help them secure better jobs and the confidence to self-advocate. 
Anjali, Deepika, Mamta, Gagan, and Isha spoke to us about their aspirations and experiences of attending public school. All five kids come from underprivileged family backgrounds. Their parents could only afford to send them to government-owned educational institutes because of the low fees.
I will become something significant and successful when I grow up if I go to school.
Although COVID-related restrictions forced them to shift to attending school virtually, all five kids expressed their interest in going to school. Anjali likes to go to school “because I get to study and also, I get to meet my friends”; Gagan says he likes going to school because “I will become something significant and successful when I grow up if I go to school”. Mamta likes to study and says “I feel good at school. There I get to meet my friends and play with them”. Anjali, echoing the sentiment, also said, “I like school because I get to study and also, I get to meet my friends there”
Even though these kids are interested in studying, they are unable to get quality lessons at school, forcing them to take tuitions (extra classes) outside of school. Anjali, for example, takes mathematics tuitions because there is no teacher for the subject at her school. Tuitions not only require extra effort to study, but also place an extra financial burden  on the family who initially sent their kids to government schools to save themselves of the exorbitant fees of private schools.
In India, almost 40% (2021)  of students depend on private tuition. This number is relatively higher for children from less advantaged families.  Considering that most of these children would be attending public (government owned) schools, such statistics puts the education system in question.
The substandard quality of education and other facilities at these schools were echoed by the Sushiksha students. Mamta told us that they get many free periods in school because of the high frequency of teacher absences and lack of interest of authorities to arrange for substitutes. In other instances, when they do come to school, “they don’t teach – instead [they] just ask us to read. This is boring for us,” Mamta said. She also narrated an incident when she, along with her classmates, tried to take charge of the situation and complained to the principal. However, they had to bear the brunt of this action: “The next time she (the teacher) came, [she] ridiculed us so much that we stopped reporting. She used to teach us in Hindi language, and when we requested [that she] teach in English, she refused.”
Anjali, who is in the same school as Mamta, echoed these sentiments. “Earlier, teachers used to teach nicely, but now they don’t take interest. Most of those teachers who taught nicely have [been] transferred.”  When asked about a teacher they dislike, Isha spoke about a Hindi language teacher who “only teaches sometimes when he wishes to and doesn’t come to the class often.” When asked about their favorite classes, the students associated the subjects with teachers who teach sincerely and are present on most days. Isha spoke about how she likes studying Patient Care Assistance (PCA) because “Sanjay Sir teaches nicely, and I understand most of his lessons and enjoy them too.”
Apart from challenges with faculty, the public schools in the village face major infrastructural challenges. Many schools do not have proper toilets for female students, which discourages them from attending schools. However, successful intervention from local NGOs like Sarthi and voices of students like Mamta have led to some recent positive changes. “I had asked for the repairs; [Sanjay] Sir  then got the taps and the toilets repaired. I had spoken to Sir about girls struggling because of poor sanitation facilities in the school. I also spoke about water wastage. Most of these issues are now addressed,” Mamta said.
As a local initiative, Sushiksha has been working to bridge the educational gap for many kids like Mamta and Anjali. Unlike the traditional schooling system, Sushiksha uses creative means to teach conventional subjects such as Math, Science, Social Science and General Knowledge.  Sushiksha’s creative approaches include conducting workshops by experts, learning through creative activities and drawings, writing letters to important personalities such the Prime Minister, talking about critical national days such as 26th November  Mumbai terror attack, and many such activities have not only exposed the kids to the outside world but also expanded their reasoning and thinking skills. They also give lessons on Public Speaking, Dance, Sports, Fitness, Self Defence and Art.
During her interview, Isha said, “at school they don’t teach much English grammar. Now after coming to Sushiksha, we know it nicely and can also speak in English.”
Deepika likes Sushiksha because “they teach differently and nicely like friends. We can ask questions easily. It is more fun there to study.” She also said that “at school most of the fun is amongst us (friends/students). But at Sushiksha we can also have fun with the teachers. We can ask questions openly.” Anjali said, “in school we study through books but here we study through our own brain. Like they tell us about society and nature.” Anjali also recalled a lesson on marketplaces and spoke about how she learnt a lot from that session. Gagan, the youngest of all, said, “I learnt new spellings of fruits and vegetables at Sushiksha. Although I learnt that in school but couldn’t remember it then, but now I do.” Most kids enjoyed the freedom to play along with studies at Sushiksha. Gagan said, “I like it because they make us play games and also make us study.” Anjali expressed similar sentiments: “I love coming to Sushiksha. I had a lot of fun there. There is study and play also.”
Lessons at Sushiksha [...] opened a whole lot of different worlds of possibilities.
Lessons at Sushiksha have not only pushed these kids in their education levels but also opened a whole lot of different worlds of possibilities. It has made them aware of the social problems around them and ignited the urge to be a part of the solution. We tried to gauge this by asking them if they were given powers of a prime minister or a village sarpanch for a day, what would they do? Surprisingly, none of them thought of exploiting their powers to roam around the world or enjoy luxuries but directly chose one of the most pressing social problems that they would work to solve.
Gagan, who was interviewed at the time of a farmers’ protest in India, said, “I will ensure there is no fight. Like in Delhi and Haryana farmers are fighting. I will call them back to their villages. I will protect the poor. I will make home for them and give them food.”
Anjali said, “I will work on the rising problem of pollution that comes out from the factory contaminating our waters. I have read this in a book. Many people get diseases and die. Thus, I will work to reduce chemicals in water and control air pollution.” Ishasaid, “there are many kids that have spent lakhs (millions) on studies. I will give them jobs. Currently many people are unemployed.”
Deepika explained how she wants to reduce discrimination that women face: “many people trouble women; they discriminate against women. In today’s world, women can do a lot of things and are almost equal. Thus, I want to change that thinking.” She further elaborated that “in the village, many people tell girls what to do and what not to do. They put restrictions on where and when they can go. If I were grown up or of power, I would change that.” She continued, “I have also seen in the news that many ask for dowry when women get married. I feel girls’ families are already giving such a big thing by giving their girl to another family; how can they ask for more? I want to change that.” She finally added, “I will get the village cleaned. Then I will get washrooms for girls. And work for their safety.” Deepika and her fellow students have been inspired to think about solving social issues through their education with Shushiksha–ideas they probably would not have encountered in their public schools.
There is much to be done to create a friendly environment for kids to learn at school, especially those run by the government. Beyond traditional literacy and numeracy skills, life skills contribute significantly to the aspect of quality education. Many public schools lack that important alignment between curricula and life skills. Although NGOs like Sarthi are making a difference, there is a need to multiply such efforts by introducing impact assignment and monitoring and evaluation procedures at public schools.
‘Sushiksha: Empowerment through Education’ was founded by Ananya and Sanjoli Banerjee in 2019 with the aim of plugging the gap between urban and rural kids and providing a holistic education model in rural Haryana and hence, started a free mobile school. We found that the children are so eager to learn and receive quality education that we had 165 students on day 1. Our idea is to provide quality education, especially what is generally missed out by the public school curriculum such as social awareness, confidence building, working on strengths and weaknesses, personality, and grooming, in addition to academics. Though the majority of Sushiksha students are from underprivileged socio-economic backgrounds, our idea is to have children from all backgrounds study under one roof in collaboration and cooperation. The program is a weekend school run entirely by volunteers on zero fundings or donations and moving around the village teaching from different locations such as open farms, temple courtyards, anganwadi center, etc. thus ‘mobile’. We are proud of this initiative and we never thought that we could survive all those challenges, especially the pandemic, to run for nearly three years and develop a deep emotional bond with students, seeing them progress over time. However, we still have a long way to go and obstacles still do not lessen.
- Sanjoli (23) & Ananya Banerjee (18)
 Karnal Village, https://karnal.gov.in/
 SUSHIKSHA- Empowerment through education; https://www.ngosarthi.org/empowerment-through-education
 Story of Sanjoli and her inspiration to start Sushiksha program, https://correspondentsoftheworld.com/story/becoming-a-happiness-ambassador-a-dream-of-a-young-social-activist-from-india
 Quality education, UNICEF; https://www.unicef.org/india/what-we-do/quality-education
 ‘On average, private tuitions raises education expenses by 53% in urban areas and 75% in rural areas’. Is the Golden Age of Private Tuitions Over in India, Mint, Aug 2020; https://www.livemint.com/education/news/is-the-golden-age-of-private-tuition-over-in-india-11597230452852.html
 Number of students opting for private tuitions rose sharply in 2021: ASER, Hindustan Times, Nov, 2021; https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/number-of-students-opting-for-private-tuitions-rose-sharply-in-2021aser-101637144198513.html
 Enrolment in government schools goes up but more children taking private tuitions, says ASER report, Nov 2021; https://theprint.in/india/education/enrolment-in-govt-schools-goes-up-but-more-children-taking-private-tuitions-says-aser-report/767368/
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