LEARNING IN THE FLOOD: How Chronic Absenteeism Is Erasing Futures
As a Teach For India Fellow, my days normally start at 5 am when I push myself out of bed, and begin the long, dusty commute to Sangam Vihar, where I teach 7th grade in a low-income private school. Now most people in Delhi know Saket, but few know that if you continue down a straight road before you hit the fancy markets of GK-2, you cross Sangam Vihar on your right.
Sangam Vihar is one of the largest unauthorised colonies in Asia. Think of it as Delhi’s Dharavi, and you begin to get the picture. Sangam Vihar is also special, because once you enter, you find yourself in a microcosm of everything that is wrong with Delhi. While Delhi’s air bears the dubious distinction of being the most polluted in the world right now, in Sangam Vihar you begin to really feel it. People walking down the streets there cover their faces with dupattas and masks, makeshift filters that allow them to breathe the thick, particulate dust that pretends to be air. The tiny roads are choked with traffic gone awry, and cows loom large in the middle, gracing the landscape with large piles of fresh droppings. As you manage to push through the crowd, and get in a little deeper, you start to notice that the roads are getting damp, as though it’s just rained. Slowly you begin to see the damp roads turn into murky brown water that floods the road, often knee-deep. You cross burst sewage pipes and water lines, gushing forth merrily onto the roads. You see tiny, heavy school-bag laden children hurrying through the muck to make it to school before they are doomed to spend the first period standing in the reception area for being late. This happens every few days, irrespective of the season. Sangam Vihar is perennially flooded with sewage. Within my first week as a Fellow, I bought gumboots.
I dodged monkeys, people relieving themselves directly into the flood, and groping hands, to reach school on time so that I could do the job I’d signed up for – putting my first generation learners on a life-changing path through education. Once inside the classroom, the many empty seats staring back at me began to make me question how exactly it was that I was supposed to do this.
Outside the classroom, is the inconvenient reality of our school’s lack of functional toilets or water filters. The water supply is erratic, and the few broken toilets we have aren’t acquainted with soap, mirrors, or working flushes. Pigeons fly over your head through the cracks in the roof when desperation forces you to use the loo. My children would make it through the floods, and stay in their sewage-soaked, damp clothes and socks until they dried. When they needed to use the loo, they would take each other’s precious bottles of drinking water to wash off. Every day the class composition would change as the children who decided it was worth it to come to school that day varied.
I responded by insisting at Parent-Teacher Meetings that the only valid reason for an absence was hospitalization (not the usual stomach issues which resulted from the cycle of wading through sewage -using drinking water in the loo- drinking out of the same bottle), or a death in the family. Slowly the students started to show up. I tried to make it worth it for them. I devised a concoction of songs to drive reading comprehension, real-life discourse to drive values, and lots of discussion to make them start thinking critically. My students would hang around long after school had ended just to ‘chill with Didi’. It was a victory of sorts.
I’m currently in my last few months of the Fellowship. Soon there will be a new Fellow in my class who may or may not sing with the kids to entice them to school. They too will grapple with the Sisyphean task of driving the kids to display values, and reach higher comprehension levels only to see them fall back down after a few days, weeks, months of absence.
I speak of Sangam Vihar because it’s what I know best. The problems, however, are hardly unique to my school. My friends who teach at government schools in Chhatarpur have massive gleaming grounds and shiny, happy posters on the walls that are inspection-ready. They also have toilets that are so full of faeces, it is impossible to set foot in them, let alone do your business. My friend who teaches in a government girls school in Adarsh Nagar has spent her two years teaching in a room open to the outside with no electricity, desks or benches. Despite being a fantastic teacher, attendance in her class takes a nosedive around December as the harsh Delhi winters steal her students one by one.
Yes, we can place great teachers in the classroom. We can instill in our kids values that will make them better people, that will make them love learning, that will make them want to come to school through rain, or biting cold, through flooding, and sewage.
But why make it so desperately, unnecessarily hard for them to learn?
These are not unsolvable problems. Indeed, there is work already being done in setting up sound infrastructure, and increasing accountability through setting up school managing committees by NGOs like SAAJHA. However, the magnitude of the problem demands that this work be prioritized and made efficient – whether the government tackles it through partnerships with NGOs and schools, or through basic maintenance in localities. To drive this though, it’s essential that those of us who can afford to not know about places like Sangam Vihar, who attended private schools ourselves, start paying attention and speak up.
This vicious cycle of avoidable, chronic absenteeism reducing already low learning levels, which then reinforces low self-esteem and a lack of desire to learn, is ruining their future.
I can try to shield my kids from a thousand demons, and I can try to set their minds ablaze with ideas, dreams, music, and language, but I can only do this if they make it to school. It’s time it stopped being this difficult for them to get there.
Riddhi Dastidar taught from 2014 to 2016 and this post was written briefly after she completed her Fellowship. She is now focusing on Innovation, Advocacy and Communications as staff on the National Alumni Impact team. All photos taken by author.