I was in Varanasi, staying at a hostel when I first met Vibha. I was fidgeting with a silk saree when I saw her come out of the kitchen to lend me a hand. We got into a conversation and she told me she works here so that she can educate her children at a private school.
''Gormint me to padhata nahi hai didi (They don't teach well in government schools) '', she argued.
I asked her, why is she paying full fees at the private school, can she not apply for economically weaker section's quota?
She was not aware of any such provision, neither would she dare to try.
But why? I asked her and asked many others after her who I met. Single mothers, widowed grandmothers, older siblings of orpahned children, homeless street dwellers.
Everyone had similar sentiments: What if the school refuses to educate our children all together?
Their fear was not misplaced. After convincing a couple of them to try, I visited some of these schools and applied on behalf of the children for financial aid.
A pattern emerged:
Schools do not want such children in their premises who cannot afford to be at such a place. Children who cannot take part in fancy dress competitions and buy different colored dresses for different houses are not desirable.
Schools will not disclose what percentage of the 25% economy quota do they have filled with underprivileged children.
Administrators show absolute indifference towards the future of any child that cannot afford to pay the fee and would not hesitate to ridicule the child to their face.
Unless you file an RTI, you cannot get the truth out of such ''institutions''.
One shocking incident happened (back in 2019) when I reached a Central Delhi government school with a bright child who happened to be living on the streets. The girl was super excited for the day and wore her best clothes plus some plastic jwellery she had won at a fair.
When we reached the premises, we waited outside the principal's office for 45 minutes, then the vice-principal agreed to meet us. I explained to her the circumstances and asked her to consider giving the girl admission (let's remember that gov schools are free of cost and the child could have easily passed the test, if given a chance).
The lady glared at me with a look that said- you have nothing better to do, I do.
Her exact words followed: ''You social workers pick children off the street and expect us to give them an education. What is she wearing, look at her so dirty! Are you going to buy her a clean dress? Will you give her notebooks and books?
I obviously burned with rage but showed a rare moment of patience. I calmly argued the right to education, inspite of what clothes one wears and I reminded her of her duty of educating every child without discrimination. In the end I had to hint at legal action when she finally gave in and appointed us a date for examination.
This is not an isolated incidence. Parents/guardians struggling at theri horrible work to provide their ward an education often face insurmountable level of disgust from educational institutions all over India. Many parents I worked with cited this as the reason they don't send their children to school. They do not want their children to be humiliated everyday.
I am not a researcher or even an expert of educational sector, I am merely an ally who tried living the realities many underprivilged families go through just because they dare to dream above their ''station''.
Harder they try to break the shackles of class, caste, gender and religion, tighter the clasp of bigotry and discrimination gets. To expect children coming out of this starta of society to succeed on their own is hypocritical. Unless the people in power (meaning you and me) speak up, take actions and actively try to change things- social transformation is impossible at scale.