Helping slum children dream big - and go to college

By Sugandha Pathak, IANS
Sunday, November 21, 2010

NEW DELHI - Only 30 percent of Delhi’s slum children make it to school beyond the age of 14. But defying the statistics and the odds, a clutch of bright-eyed youngsters is now studying humanities and even engineering in well known colleges - with a little help from an NGO.

Eighteen-year-old Babita looks frail, but she recently joined Maitreyi College of Delhi University as a political science student.

“After my Class 12 result, I thought I will be married off as my mother could not afford my higher studies. My father died eight years ago. My mother toils hard as a maid to make ends meet,” said Babita.

“I remember times when my two brothers and I did not have anything to eat and slept empty stomach,” she said sitting in her one-room cramped house in a narrow lane of Ambedkar Nagar slum in south Delhi.

“On the last day to pay the college fee, I did not have a penny. My mother asked me to drop the idea of joining college. I cried. I did not know what to do,” Babita told IANS.

But an NGO named Asha came to her rescue by paying her college fees.

The same is the case of Radheswari, 18, who is a history honours student. According to her, she is much more confident now.

“I used to look at a crowded bus and wonder whether I will ever be able to travel in it. I was scared to go out of my slum as my school was nearby. I never really went out of my comfort zone,” said an excited Radheswari.

“Now I travel to Maitreyi College every day in a bus without any hesitation. I feel liberated,” she added.

Mahesh, 19, is a reserved boy with an innocent smile. This student of Delhi College of Engineering said he has seen many twists and turns in life.

“Though I got 83 percent in Class 10, there was a mixed feeling of wanting to earn and study too. As I don’t have a father, I felt the need to take on some of the financial burden from my mother,” he said.

He stays in a one-room house with his two siblings and mother. A look inside reveals a corner full of books with his bag lying on top of them.

Mahesh took an education loan of around Rs.1.5 lakh and the NGO helped him in all the formalities , besides guiding him and providing study materials.

Mahesh’s friend Mahendra who lives in Ekta Vihar slum in south Delhi had it a little easy. Now a first-year student of Greater Noida’s Galgotia College of Engineering and Technology, he had his family’s support to continue his studies.

“But my family couldn’t help me financially. Occasionally, my father asked me to drop the idea of engineering,” said Mahendra. He has taken a Rs.4 lakh education loan.

“I have to start working once this course is over and pay my loan. Then I want to study more,” he added confidently.

According to a report by Asha, every third Delhi resident lives in a slum colony and around 86 percent of the urban poor in Delhi is illiterate. By the age of 14, only 30 percent of children in Delhi slums attend school. Delhi has some 1,500 slums.

“Slum children are denied opportunities and very few aspire for higher education even if they manage to complete schooling. Even the brightest children, particularly girls, are not sent to college due to lack of money,” Asha’s founder Kiran Martin said.

“Social pressures, the obvious barriers of tuition fees and other expenses, and lack of confidence keep young people from slums out of higher education,” she added.

One of the problems all these children face is difficulty in concentrating on studies in a one-room house with their families carrying out their daily activities.

“The outside noise, TV blaring nearby, cooking and people outside talking loudly makes it difficult to study. I used to study at night, but that was a problem too since the light used to disturb my family members,” Mahendra said.

Asha has also opened up a study centre so the slum kids have a quiet time to study. The NGO is a community health and development society that works with over 400,000 people in nearly 50 slum colonies of Delhi.

(Sugandha Pathak can be contacted at

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