This school has no walls, only a roof, on which the Delhi Metro plies. In other words, it functions under the Metro bridge. It has five blackboards painted on the Metro pillars and some stationery – chalks, dusters, pens and pencils.
This is “The Free School Under The Bridge” in Delhi, a makeshift school that a shopkeeper, Rajesh Kumar Sharma, has been running for more than 300 underprivileged children beneath a Metro bridge in the Yamuna Bank area for over eight years without any assistance from the government or any NGO.
Sharma, who is the sole breadwinner of his family of five, is from Hathras district of Uttar Pradesh and runs a small grocery shop in the same locality to support his family. Sharma’s journey of teaching underprivileged children for free began with just two students in 2006 when the idea came to him while wandering around empty fields close to the Yamuna river, a news reports said.
Today, he runs two shifts, one from 9-11 am for 120 boys and the other 2-4.30 pm for 180 girls, children of slum dwellers, ragpickers, rickshaw-pullers and beggars. He manages the school with the help of seven volunteers who teach the children in their free time.
Sharma had to drop out of college due to his family’s poor financial condition but does no wish others to have the same fate. He believes that no one should be deprived of education due to poverty.
He says that he has never been approached by any government representative for any kind of assistance. But he has no complaints against anyone, saying “I am driven by my selfless goal of educating these poor and underprivileged children whose smiles are more than enough for me.”
“Initially some NGOs contacted me but I doubted their credentials since they seemed to be more interested in self promotion,” he was quoted as saying in news reports.
There are, however, some genuine contributors that too not in monetary form. Some people visit the school occasionally and distribute biscuit packets, fruits, water bottles and packaged food. Some youngsters celebrate their birthdays with the children, cut cakes here and have food together by sitting beneath the bridge.
Sharma also gets his students enrolled into nearby government schools and ensures that they devote sufficient time to their education. He maintains a record of the students and takes their attendance.
“They come to my school fighting hunger, extreme poverty, adverse weather and sometimes, even resistance from their families,” said Sharma.
Six-year-old Sunita said learning here is fun and she tries to be regular. “I want to achieve something in my life and that is why I come here every afternoon,” she said.
“Teachers here are very supportive and encouraging and work very hard for everyone,” said Suresh, another student. “I never knew the value of education before coming here. Now I dream of becoming a successful and responsible person and want to support my family after completing my education,” he said.
Laxmi Chandra, 57, a tuition teacher from Bihar’s Nalanda, has been teaching here since 2011. “I come from a very poor background and understand the pain of these children. Although my father was a daily wage labourer, I completed my graduation in science and now I teach all the subjects to the students, mainly mathematics. These students are my family for whom I am always available,” said Chandra.
Sharma also teaches the children the value of cleanliness and has separate toilets for boys and girls near the school. Some shopkeepers donate drinking water which is a big help, especially in the summer.