We don’t always talk of poverty and creativity in the same breath. The two might be poles apart, but if being poor means anything, it is being innovative, resourceful and ingenious.
Recently, we visited a conspicuous slum area in the Indian capital Delhi, and we were eager to talk to the residents and peek into their creative vision. We were fascinated by the way each house had the dweller’s name written on it in a crazy handwriting. As the slum children greeted us in all their cheer, the happiness reflected on their faces was a moving sight indeed.
These children live in the ghettos we are scared to even enter. Never mind the dilapidated dwellings amidst pools of sewage, never mind the frugal meals of hardened leftover rice and watery daal, never mind the harrowing poverty or the lack of education, never mind the foetid and disease-ridden living conditions – for them, life’s colossal challenge also brings to them real joy in living dangerously, with almost nothing.
The children in the slum attend government schools with few, and at times, no teachers to guide them. The educational system in India, as in many developing countries, offers them nothing that they do not already have. Their talents, passion, creativity and originality are all their own. They do not get the encouragement they deserve, and the system more often than not works to kill a child’s individuality and innovativeness by scorning their lack of wealth. History is witness to big minds that have come from humble living – we at eFiction wonder: if Shakespeare had gone to college, would he have written works studying the human psyche such as Hamlet or Tempest or Twelfth Night? Would Bill Gates have managed to become the man behind Microsoft and Windows OS if he was an MBA graduate from Kellogg College? Would Lal Singh Dil, a published author and eFiction India contributor, have been able to write with his intensity if he had been caught in the system’s contempt of the have-nots?
Despite the promises the country and its education system make to the poor, they remain underprivileged in education. India’s current literacy rate is 74 per cent as of 2011; but then, literacy is defined in India as people over the age of seven or above being able to “read and write with understanding”. This definition in no way encapsulates education – a ten-year-old who can write his name with understanding can also be termed literate according to this definition.
The budget allocation for education for 2013–14 is a whopping Rs 65,867 crore, out of which Rs 27,258 crore is allotted to Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the country’s flagship primary education programme. The government also has schemes such as midday meals, and partnership with ISKCON’s Akshaya Patra programme, to encourage children to attend school and to reduce dropout rates.
In spite of all this, according to the India Human Development Report 2011 released by the Institute of Applied Manpower Research, approximately 19 per cent of children in the age group 6-17 are not attending school. India’s government-run schools are plagued by a lack of committed teachers and inadequate infrastructure. Private schools that offer the best amenities to facilitate education are beyond the reach of the impoverished children in the slums and they must make do with the facilities in government schools. The latest Right to Education (RTE) Act mandates that 25 per cent of seats in private schools should be dedicated to “children belonging to weaker sections and disadvantaged groups” and provides every child the opportunity to receive an education.
However, private institutions are protesting the RTE. Mass media recently reported that some schools were demanding fees from the parents of children who were admitted under RTE guidelines. It makes us wonder, are private schools simply in it for the money? The government is constantly receiving a lot of flak from NGOs and public interest groups for not doing enough to enforce the RTE.
And it is in these abysmal conditions – both physical and psychological – that we found these slum children eager to soak up knowledge and show us what they have. What grabbed our attention was the fact that these kids have in them a fervent desire and zeal to learn in spite of their less-than-conducive surroundings. They are ‘self-taught’ in all connotations of the term, be it education or creativity. They learn by conversations and experiences. Their very situation ensures that they learn how to find happiness in the worst of circumstances. They could be thinkers and poets, artists and entrepreneurs, and yet they are little children who find happiness in trifles.
One of the editors at eFiction India was part of a corporate social responsibility (CSR) activity that involved teaching spoken English to children in a government school. “The eagerness to learn that I found in them, I have never seen that in the children who study in pedigreed private schools for whom English is almost a native language,” she said after her stint. She found that the children were receptive to learning, open to constructive criticism, and wonderfully honest in expressing themselves. “They did not lack ideas or thoughts; all they needed was a way to express them. They sought to learn more in order to experiment with their expression, in order to find the words that suited them the best,” she told us.
Here is a poem that a fourteen-year-old girl wrote in our editor’s class:
Birds are flying with open wings,
I also wish to fly,
I also want to see new things,
I also want to touch the sky.
Our editor observed, “I feel it is the very lack of what they receive, the nothingness, that helps them create something wonderful.”
The slums, which are notoriously tagged as eyesores, could in fact be huge reservoirs of creativity and innovation. These individuals living in dire conditions have an extremely productive and original mind, which if properly honed and put to use, can create wonders. Children have a natural curiosity and openness that is unique to them. The slum children want more from life, yet they are satisfied with their meagre existence. The playful smile on their lips and the twinkle in their eyes is indeed a beautiful sight. In spite of growing up in the filth that surrounds them, they have a special love for life. They write, they draw, they paint, they create – they do it all.
They might be underprivileged, but positivity and optimism describes them, which is extremely hard to find even in the best and richest of people. They might be poor, but they are definitely not impoverished in all senses. Their possessions may not stack up as much when compared to the relative opulence of even the middle-class, but their life is definitely colourful, hopeful and importantly, self-made.
As our chief, Nikhil Sharda, summed up, “While we had an eye-opening experience interacting with the children in the slums, we returned from the slums feeling helpless and hollow – for lacking in understanding, for not having the zeal and curiosity of the kids – and also ashamed for not being able to match their potential despite our smug life. We must help them create more wonderful things. As a society, we must be able to realise the potential of the poor and learn not to deride them. Change must come from us.”