In Pursuit of Learning: Educational Programs for At-Risk Children in India

Article excerpt

With one billion people, India constitutes nearly one-fifth of the world's population. The country's rich cultural, artistic, and religious heritage can be traced back nearly 3,000 years. In that glorious past, India was a center of learning. After centuries of changing political rule, however, education became the privilege of a chosen few, and was confined within the walls of the palaces. Although the importance of education was proclaimed for the 200 years of British rule, its benefits did not reach the greater population.

Some experts argue that India's greatest problem today is its large population, which has led to shortages of food, housing, and health services (Belasco & Hammond, 1980). This economic strain has further widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots. In recent years, the contrasts between the illiterate and the intellectual have become enormous. According to a census report, the literacy rate was only 52.2 percent in 1991 (Mukhopadhay & Alyer, 2000). For people living in poverty, who constitute a large percentage of India's population, the first priority is to meet their basic needs of food and shelter. To them, education is a distant concern, even though they understand its importance and the benefits they could reap in the long run. Because they must struggle to meet their basic survival needs, however, they view education as a luxury. These people toil hard to make ends meet and raise their children in conditions that would be considered totally unacceptable to the Western world. Their children experience the hardships of life at a very tender age. As Sreedhar (1985) states,

The number of dropouts and illiterate individuals will continue to increase unless the needs of the socially disadvantaged are identified and met. The majority of dropouts and illiterates belong to the socially disadvantaged groups such as the scheduled castes and tribes, urban slum dwellers and working class families.

Although the government has mandated education, the law is not strictly enforced. There are programs run by several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in India that are directly involved in trying to help disadvantaged families. Most of them focus on medical needs such as immunizations, birth control, and AIDS and tuberculosis prevention. While the efforts made by these NGOs are commendable, the magnitude of those other social and medical issues drains their resources and limits any focus on educational aspects. Only a few regional or local organizations have implemented educational programs for India's poor children. Khurana (1992) describes a basic literacy project targeting deprived children; Unnikrishnan (1995) reports on a workshop created to identify problems of low-income families in South Asia and develop methods to meet their needs; and O'Brien (1996) describes the Social Work and Research Center (SWRC), which brings educational services to certain villages.

Whether a project is initiated by a government or by an NGO, the task of implementing educational programs targeting the poor people in India is quite daunting. The success of such programs depends not only on the quality of the program and the tireless efforts of their administrators, but also on the learners, who must understand the long-term benefits these programs offer, and not be enticed by short-lived opportunities to make money. The outcomes of these benevolent works are not immediate; therefore, these organizations may have difficulty getting the attention of the targeted segment. Nevertheless, their hard work to bring education to children living in poverty continues.

Foundation of Udbhas

"Udbhas," which means "expression," is the name of a nonprofit organization formed in January 1988 for the sole purpose of promoting literacy among the children living in the slums of Calcutta. The goal of Udbhas is not only to help educate children in the slums, but also to motivate other organizations to establish similar programs throughout the city, across the state, and all around the nation. …