Monday, November 20, 2017

'Urmila Pal ki Balwadi'

“I was born in a small village in Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh. In my village education was restricted only to the Brahmins, and I was the first non-Brahmin girl to have studied till the 12th grade,” said Urmila during our conversation in her house in a large slum of the suburban part of Mumbai.
Moving out of her village to a bustling city was quite overwhelming in the beginning. Urmila wanted to be a teacher, and she wondered if the competitive city will accept her services. But her drive to connect with children and spread knowledge did not allow migrant hurdles to stop her. In 2004, Pratham was surveying her locality, and after some rounds of interviews and orientation, she was selected as a Balwadi teacher with a monthly salary of three hundred and fifty rupees. "Though I earn more now, that amount will always be precious for me", she recalls. More than that, she says, the feeling that 'I am a teacher' was special!

She moved door to door talking about enrolling children in her Balwadi. Urmila’s warm persona, commitment to her work along with the teaching-learning material by Pratham soon became the talk of the neighbourhood. People started to refer to the Balwadi as ‘Urmila ki Balwadi’. Many women in the locality were inspired by her and began operating Balwadis in their own homes.

In 2008, she was given the additional responsibility of bringing 'out of school' children back to the schooling system. Urmila observed that many children, most of them in the age group of 6 to 14 years, spent their time loitering in the streets; some even spent time selling pakodas outside beer shops.” The task of convincing the children and more importantly their parents was not easy. She was ridiculed by many. Urmila’s heart would go out to the children. She was relentless and kept talking to the parents about the importance of education, its benefits, children and their needs. Although some parents relented, she had another challenge ahead of her. She faced resistance in the Municipal schools as the teachers would question the capability of these ‘children from the streets’! But Urmila was prepared for this. She worked with the children before taking them for enrolment. When she asked the children to solve math sums and read out textbooks in front of the teachers, they had no choice but to accept them in their class. This success with a few children created a ripple effect, and other parents started considering education for their kids. Many of these children eventually completed their school education.

A city comes with its challenges as well. "Our locality faces a demolition drive quite often, and many of us live in fear of our houses getting under the bulldozer. However, the bulldozer has always spared the Balwadis, and this is why we thank Pratham", she added.

A Balwadi teacher in the morning, a primary grade tuition teacher in the afternoon and a tailor in the evening, Urmila has her hands full. But her exhaustion vanishes when her ex-students, who are either pursuing higher studies or working, visit to seek her blessings. With time she finds it difficult to recognise many of her students who have grown up, but the thought of touching their lives and initiating a positive change in the society is what she finds her peace in.


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