A Pathshala over the debris

As Covid-19 has taken a heavy toll on the society, especially economically weaker sections, the young students of Jamia Millia Islamia and other colleges came up with an initiative of Dhobi Ghat Pathshala, that provides free education to the children living in the Dhobi Ghat, where the Delhi Development Authority demolished over 200 Jhuggis in September 2020, displacing hundreds of poor families.

Shadab Farooq | TwoCircles.net

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The Delhi Development Authority demolished over 200 Jhuggis at a slum near the Dhobi Ghat on 24 September 2020, citing the National Green Tribunal’s (NGT) law banning construction on river embankments. 

Dhobi Ghat used to be home to around 1,000 people, mainly construction workers, rickshaw-pullers, and domestic labourers, before the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) directed to demolish the Jhuggis of these residents. 

Most residents whose homes have been demolished have been living in Dhobi Ghat for close to two decades and suffered massive economic losses. 

As Covid-19 has taken a heavy toll on the society, especially economically weaker sections, the young students of Jamia Millia Islamia and other colleges came up with an initiative of Dhobi Ghat Pathshala, that provides free education to the children living in the Dhobi Ghat.

It was on February 27 when the Dhobi Ghat Pathshala was started in the slums of Dhobi Ghat, with the joint efforts of the All India Students’ Association (AISA), Revolutionary Youth Association (RYA), and the women-led Dhobi Ghat Jhuggi Adhikar Manch. The Pathshala was built near the demolition site on the debris. 

Asima, a nine-year old girl, is a regular student of the Pathshala who keeps reiterating that Panchhi and bird are not the same. Though Panchhi is a Hindi name for a bird, Asima insists that both can never be the same. On asking her the reason for it, she said, “Panchhi is the one who is held to her desire while a bird can be a vulture also, eating the flesh of the dead”. 

Rabia Parveen, a twenty-five-year-old who is currently teaching at Dhobi Ghat Pathshala tells Asima that Panchhi and bird are the same. 

Parveen has been a student of history at Delhi University and is currently preparing for B. Ed Exams and lives around the periphery of Dhobi Ghat.  

“There are many children whose parents work as labourers and the eldest child has to take care of their siblings,” Parveen told TwoCircles.net.  

Asima is among those children who take care of their younger siblings. 

Asima was observing Dhobi Ghat Pathshala from a distance, holding the hands of her 3-years-old younger brother. When I talked to her about joining the Pathshala, she refused by saying that she can’t leave her younger brother at their Juggi alone. 

During the starting days of the Pathshala, the same pattern was observed where one sibling has to take care of the other. This is when the Pathshala decided to allow students with their siblings. 

“From then onwards, Asima and her brother never miss a day of school,” said Rabia Parveen.

“No one cares for the poor person. The Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown had already brought miseries to people. We were not able to send our children to school because we couldn’t pay the fee. Getting our children to school was tough and the pandemic made it further impossible. This Pathshala, with God’s grace, has brought a ray of hope at least. My children daily come up with one English sentence. I am happy to see their growth,” said Shabana Begum, a mother of two and a member of Dhobi-Ghat Jhuggi Adhikar Manch. 

The residents are in a constant legal battle with the authorities. The court has ordered the Delhi Development Authority not to take any precipitative measures in connection with the ‘Dhobi Ghat’. In January 2021, the women in Dhobi Ghat started women-led JHUGGI ADHIKAR MANCH, comprising of different awareness programmes and protests. As part of this campaign, clothes, shawls, blankets and ration kits were arranged and distributed to some of the poor families. 

Seven-year-old Fatima, who is currently a student at Dhobi-Ghat Pathshala said, “I used to go to school earlier in Batla House Anganwadi Centre, but my school is shut due to coronavirus. My books were dead in the debris when the demolition took place. I thought I would never be able to go to school again.”

Currently, a total of eighty students are enrolled in the Pathshala with a varying age difference. Among these, fifteen students are those who used to go to school earlier but due to lockdown and the demolition were not able to go to school. 

The books and reading material is being provided through donations.

“Earlier, we thought of renting a space for teaching children, but it didn’t work due to a lack of funds,” said Mohammad Asif Abid, an RYA activist and founding member of the Dhobi-Ghat Pathshala. “We then constructed a temporary Jhuggi with the aid of all the residents and began teaching the children there. All we want is to prepare these kids for formal education and provide them with a healthy environment.” 

“Plans are also in the works to recruit a teacher, with money raised from the volunteers’ own pockets. They aim to train students for entrance exams and provide a complementary and in some cases, an alternative for students to pursue their education after they have dropped out of school,” Abid added.

Seven-year-old Shamshad has problems in understanding the numerical system and introduces himself as Khali, the Indian wrestler. 

Fatima, a seven-year-old friend of Shamshad continuously argues with him to correct his age to which Barbin Nawaz, a student of Jamia Millia Islamia volunteering as a teacher comments, “Discussions are needed to be done. We, at this Pathshala, make sure that students must have discussions on issues related to sex and gender, good touch and bad touch.”

“The authorities must realise that they cannot break our resistance and our voice. When the DDA Authority demolished our Jhuggi, we made sure to re-build our home again. They have demolished it three times. I and my daughter slept fifteen days on roads and at Jamia metro station. The foundation of this Pathshala is a symbol of our voice. We will produce our Kalam, and that is something that the authorities could never break,” said forty-year-old Parveena Khatoon, a resident of Dhobi Ghat.