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Gyan Azhar’s diligent pupils

– Soumya Das – The Hindu – June 8, 2016

THE CHANGING FACE OF THE INDIAN SLUM
Gyan Azhar’s diligent pupils

Girl students who cannot afford books take refuge in this library to pursue studies

This report is the tenth of a 12-part series on the changing face of the Indian slum, chronicling stories of new social and economic trends in our impoverished neighbourhoods.

Inside a library in a modest building, Shabnam, 16, sits engrossed in a mathematics book. Every time she pays a visit, the library, only for girls, fills her with hope for a future as a teacher.

Three years ago, Shabnam quit studies as her father fell ill and the family could not afford school. She turned to the Gyan Azhar Library for help, as many girls in the Tiljala slum do, to pursue studies. Now Shabnam is back in school and is planning to take her exams next year to pursue her dream of becoming a teacher.

As names go, the locality has many meaningful ones. If the slum takes its name after sesame, grown and cultivated here many years ago, Gyan Azhar means “expression of knowledge”.

The library had a modest beginning in 2008 with just two members. “Now we have more than 660 members and close to 1,000 textbooks,” says Mohammed Shafkat Alam, joint secretary of Tiljala Shed, the non-governmental organisation which founded the library.

“I had lost all hopes of becoming a teacher after my father died of acute diabetes. It was not possible for my mother to bear the cost of my education with her meagre income from making wallets,” Shabnam says.

Before resuming studies, she had nothing to do but sit at home and help her mother with household work. Lacking the know-how of making wallets, she was of no help to her mother in her job.

“I just wasted my time sitting at home,” she says.

The library but spelt hope, where she stepped inside first in December 2015 and keeps coming back.

On the Net

slum_2885584aThe six computers with Internet connection and CDs of documentaries are an added attraction. The Italian Association for Women in Development, a women’s rights organisation, has sponsored the library. Corporate entities, individuals and shops donate books.

“Most of the textbooks are in Bengali, Hindi and Urdu as the slum has a large number of Hindi and Urdu speakers,” Mr. Alam says. The slum is home to more than 30,000 families, a majority of whom are Muslims, living in shanties.

“It is impossible to study at home with the entire family in one room and the television on at a high volume most of the time,” Madhu Shau, 15, says. After failing twice in the secondary examination, her father, a hawker, told her to quit school. But he relented after she told him that he would not have to pay for books as she would borrow them from the library.

Now that odds are not stacked against her, Madhu is looking forward to realising her dream of becoming a nurse. “My father died because we had no money for good treatment,” she says before getting back to her history books. The girls spend five to six hours in the library and do much of their studies there considering the condition at home.

The slum has three primary schools and one high school. “Hindi- and Urdu-speaking students here face considerable problems as there are no Hindi- and Urdu-medium high schools in the locality,” Mohammed Alamgir, activist and founder of Tiljala Shed, says.

Most of the residents are domestic workers, vegetable vendors and workers at leather factories. With low-income jobs that fetch as little as Rs. 200 a day, it is difficult for them to bear the cost of their children’s education. People say that because of the library, children are returning to schools. “After the library was set up, enrolment of girls in schools has increased significantly in the area,” Mr. Alamgir says.

Plan for school

The Tiljala Shed officials are planning to turn the library into a full-fledged school with academic and extra-curricular facilities, but funds are a constraint.

The railway line leading to the nearby Park Circus railway station and bisecting the slum is a looming threat. It is the main pathway for pedestrians, and accidents causing swift deaths are a frequent occurrence.

In the shanties that shake when trains rumble through, the library offers a semblance of stability and hope.