On a windy Tuesday evening at a classroom by the sea, dozens of students looked up from their books as the monsoon rode in on black clouds — first a taunting drizzle, and then a Biblical deluge sweeping down and under flip-flops and backpacks.
Malika Kerketta was tired of sitting. The 10-year-old had finished her English lessons under the blue tarp at the corner of Bandstand, a pathway tracing the shoreline in Mumbai’s Bandra neighborhood, where a non-profit organization called Angel Xpress has created an outdoor learning center.
She got up to face a small blackboard perched on a wooden stand. “My dad drives a water tanker, my mom cleans houses,” she told me in Hindi, as she swirled her palms across the damp surface. “And I come here to play and learn.”
Educating children in a city of more than 18 million people — of which at least 1.7 million are children under 6 years old, according to the national census — is a daunting task. Mumbai, India’s financial hub, is a dense metropolis of almost inconceivable disparity, where multi-story homes of business tycoons cast shadows over tiny fishermen communities and crowded informal settlements stretching to absorb thousands of new migrants every week. About 40 percent of the city’s families live in slums, defined as compact, congested areas with poor hygiene and infrastructure.
Mumbai’s education system has fallen gravely short of absorbing its children. Only 400,000 children were enrolled in municipal schools in 2014, according to a report by Praja, a non-partisan research and advocacy organization. That number actually dropped 11 percent since 2009, despite increased government spending on education.
That leaves more than half of the children in Mumbai either out of school or learning in private institutions. At least 37,000 kids in Mumbai live on the streets and work with their parents to earn a few cents a day, according to advocacy organization Action Aid.
In response, community members, activists, and educators have carved out classrooms between the hidden folds and seams of the city. They offer safe and regular learning spaces to students who can easily fall throughout the gaps. Some you have to literally climb into to access, while others are built on wheels. For thousands of students across Mumbai, these classrooms have become tiny oases, a place to call their own for a few hours every day.
Manasvi Khasle walked up and down a narrow aisle. She called out even numbers and waited for her class to say the next one. The 22-year-old teacher knows how to command the attention of the 20 students sitting in neat rows in her unusual classroom: a yellow school bus parked near a smoky crossroad of factories and railway tracks in south Mumbai.
“In the beginning I had to go to their homes and call them to class,” she said. “Now they see the bus pull up and just come.”
Khasle has been teaching for eight years with Door Step, an organization founded in 1988 that runs classes for more than 10,000 students, in school buses and tiny community centers. The buses can only hold 20 students, most of them between six and twelve years old, without much space to wiggle around or store books. But they have unique benefits — like their ability to reach many of Mumbai’s poorest migrants who live on illegal plots of land where schools can’t be built.
The students who come to Door Step are as mobile as their classrooms. Many of them work during the evenings or weekend, walking miles down busy roads to peddle toys or newspapers. Most are the first in their families to receive any type of education.
“I like coming here because we sing songs, we study things,” said Gopal, an 11-year-old who attends class in one of the buses parked close to his home in the Byculla neighborhood. His family migrated to Mumbai from rural Maharashtra. He has yet to be enrolled in a local school full time. “On weekends I walk to the temple and sell lemons. Here I can play.”
To get to one learning center at the southern end of Mumbai, you have to walk through a maze of narrow pathways filled with open drains, women scrubbing laundry, and jumbled electrical wires that hang between buildings like knotted shoelaces. Then you climb two ladders — one wooden and painted blue, the other metal — to find a small entryway in the ceiling, which leads to an open platform surrounded by railings and trees.
This is the journey that Kirthna Rai, a volunteer teacher, and her 18 students — mostly slight, lanky teenagers — make five days a week to learn spoken English, math, and general knowledge. It is also the uppermost floor of the home of one student, Harsha Vade. Rai’s organization, a small non-profit called Down to Earth, rents the rooftop by the hour.
“We like it that the kids are so close by,” said Arti Bharat Vade, Harsha’s mother, as she filled buckets of water from a communal pipe. “We want them to do well and make a name for themselves.”
Vade said the center has made a powerful impact on her daughter, who had recently scored strong grades on her tenth grade exams — the make-or-break year in the Indian school system — making her eligible to go to a mainstream college. Harsha’s English is fluid and confident, and Rai has guided her through tough exams and career decisions.
When asked if it was hard to concentrate in this treehouse-like classroom during Mumbai’s scorching summer or heavy monsoon season, the students looked around quizzically before Rai, their teacher, eventually spoke up: “This is just like their homes, it’s what they’re used to.”
Some miles north of the Down to Earth Center, a different tiny classroom was buzzing. The Dharavi Art Room was started by educator Himanshu S. in a particularly entrepreneurial neighborhood called Dharavi. The area is home to over 600,000 people — about the same as Baltimore — packed into less than one square mile.
Dharavi Art Room is not yet a registered non-profit, but has been operating with community support and donations from friends to teach painting, drawing and other mediums of expression to children in the area. On one sunny summer Sunday, there were trays of paint and paper strewn along the floor. Fifteen students intently focused on depicting their family, or copying a painting from the famed Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo.
“It used to be hard for me to paint because I didn’t know how, but now it’s not so hard,” said 12-year-old Lovesh Chilveri, a student at the center, as he carefully shaded a window he was drawing.
Himanshu said the art room is particularly important in Dharavi, where young people are caught in the aggressive atmosphere that can pervade the neighborhood. Sitting on the floor near a student, a book of small paintings by his side, he said the room gives them a relaxed and free space they might not otherwise access.
“Some kids just like to come sit here,” he said. “This is a space where they can be themselves.”
For many of the educators in these informal classrooms, creating a comfortable place is as important as what they teach. Many low-income children in Mumbai deal with very harsh realities of life — going to bed hungry, falling sick from the rain, helping their parents make ends meet — and a classroom can become like a second home.
“Education has to be holistic approach,” said Vrushali Naik, a program coordinator with Mumbai Mobile Creches, a non-profit organization that has reached more than 100,000 children by building temporary education and daycare centers near the construction sites where migrant laborers live.
One center in eastern Mumbai is housed in the same corrugated metal sheds where the migrant families live in neat, Spartan rows. There are three rooms for the children — ranging from infants to teenagers — and educators who teach, play, and help distribute meals throughout the day.
Food is an important part of many of these classrooms. The Action Aid study found that 25 percent of the children in poor Mumbai neighborhoods skipped meals due to lack of money. At Mumbai Mobile Creches the children eat eggs, lentils and milk, and at Angel Xpress the students line up for packages of sandwiches and snacks at the end of their tutoring sessions.
“We have to look at the bigger picture — do children feel safe, are they understood? Are their stomachs full?” said Reshma Agarwal, an education specialist with UNICEF. “I don’t think these programs have come because of a shortage of classrooms in Mumbai — these programs have come in for specific needs.”
Even so, Agarwal said, the classrooms cannot replace the school system in the city, however weak it may. Most programs agree. Door Step buses, for example, drive kids to municipality schools after they’re admitted. And teachers like Rai help students tackle the exams and papers to get through the critical years of school.
For now, though, the teachers continue to climb ladders, board school buses, and cut through the howling winds of the Mumbai monsoon. And thousands of students willingly follow.
“We don’t walk here,” said 10-year-old Kerketta, referring to Angel Xpress. “We run.”