Who says high-paying jobs and thriving careers are privileges of the rich? Many children living in impoverished slums in Delhi are making waves with their unique achievements as students and employees, and are in no mood to let their constrained social and financial background dampen their spirit to excel. Mohammad Akhlak, born in a Chanderpuri slum to a man who etches steel utensils for a living, is one such person.
Having almost decided to give up studies after Class XII to becoming a second assistant manager at Mc Donalds, the 21-year-old says that once you decide not to submit to fate, opportunities come. Five years ago, Akhlak was contemplating taking a sales job to augment the family income, but his dreams impelled him to look for people or NGOs who might sponsor his studies. After a desperate search, he found Asha Community Health and Development Society which agreed to give him financial assistance.
What followed was a hunt for a good Delhi University college. Akhlak says that so separated was his slum from the basic privileges of society that he had no idea about what exactly is a college. "I had heard about Delhi University but I had absolutely no idea how a campus of higher education looks like," recalls Akhlak, who secured admission in Dayal Singh College and completed a BA Honours in History in 2014. Asha Community not only provided him allowances and tuition fees but also helped him hone his communication skills, etiquette, English and dressing sense.
Chandan, 19, one of the five children of a truck loader living in Jeevan Nagar slum, also defied his parents when they pressed him to take up a job after school. "My parents would sometimes shout at me saying I was indifferent to the family situation. But I was determined that I would not give up my studies," Chandan said. "I started looking for government and non-government bodies that fund the education of poor children. At first it seemed like a never-ending search as there was nobody to give me an idea of such institutions."
He finally approached the children's wing of ACHDS. With their assistance, he not only completed Class 12 but also got into Venkateswara College of Delhi University, where he is currently a third year student of Mathematics Honours.
The community, which currently works with over 5 lakh people in nearly 60 slum colonies of Delhi, was founded by Kiran Martin, a pediatrician, in 1988 in the face of a cholera outbreak in the city. Martin was moved by the abysmal condition of the slum residents and the lack of medical attention or access to hospital. Although she did her bit by rendering free medical services, she realised a more enduring programme was needed to break their cycle of poverty. She floated the Asha community to make a lasting impact on the lives of slum dwellers through empowerment, healthcare, education, financial inclusion and environmental improvement.
Asha ensures that children get formal education and have access to adequate study material. Their approach of mentoring children through school, giving financial and career assistance during college admissions, helping find internships and placements after college, and supporting higher studies has transformed a whole generation of young people. "Asha not only enrols us in colleges but also teaches us how to speak in a sophisticated group, dress well and master interpersonal skills. This ensures that we do not feel odd in the company of more affluent students," said Chandan.
The study centres provide a unique, peaceful environment for the children to do their homework and assignments. Equipped with Internet, libraries and access to good tutors, they are a respite from the dingy rooms most of these children share with six or seven family members.
The bal mandals are instrumental in highlighting problems affecting slum children and bringing about government intervention. Rohit, who lives in Kusumpur Pahadi slum colony, wants to spread the community's work. "We have divided responsibilities among ourselves and we teach children from our neighbourhood. We also meet police and sanitary inspectors in our areas to keep things better and cleaner," he said.
Akhlak added that grooming was very important in an age of cut-throat competition. "As slum dwellers we are not exposed to the sophisticated manners employers of reputed companies look for. But Asha has bridged the gap. I was provided foreign mentors for personality development and improving communication skills," said Akhlak, who is now himself an Asha ambassador trying to groom slum children. He won the best internship award for slum children in 2013-2014 and was presented with a memento by then Finance Minister P. Chidambaram. His two younger sisters and one brother are also being mentored by ACHDS.
Shiv, a 24-year-old from Seelampur slum who is now working with Convergys in Gurgaon, said he would like to become a social worker and help more slum children. "I am sure if impetus is provided, they will be not be behind anybody else when it comes to personal achievements and careers," he said.
Martin was sure that the best way to empower people was to give them assistance and kindle in them the will and determination for self help. The mahila mandals (women's wing) of ACHDS were formed with this vision. The mandals soon started a health and education awareness drive and pressed MLAs to provide them a platform for self-redressal of grievances. The efforts multiplied with time, and today the society is supported by the governments of Ireland, Australia and UK, as well as donors from the US and other countries. Asha has 17 community centres in 60 slums in Delhi. All centres have grants from the Slum Development Department.
"What wonderful examples of true heroism are these slum children. In the middle of the filth, the squalor, and the noise of the slum, with no one in the family to mentor them, they have confronted their challenges head on. It is no wonder that they are going from rummaging in garbage to white collar jobs in some of the world's best known institutions," said Martin, a Padma Shree award winner.