This account is written by Pratyush Pandey, a law student from NLU Delhi.
Before delving into an account of my experience as a volunteer for Aagaaz I would like to talk briefly about its origin and working. The Aagaaz project was started by Rajat Mathuria, Nikita Agarwal, Gunjan Chawla and Anshuman (2008-13 batch) in 2009. ‘Aagaaz’ is an Urdu word which on a rough translation to English means ‘the beginning’. The objective was to provide access to education to the children of the nearby ghetto Bharatpur, irrespective of whether they attended school or not. Most of these children attended either government schools (where the administration did not care) or small private schools (where administration only cared about the incoming fee at the end of every month). The classes were held every evening for an hour and a half in the academic block of National Law University, Delhi (Note: We were not allowed to leave campus after 6 and hence, this arrangement was worked out with the administration.) Sundays were off. In the first year, Aagaaz started with only 20 students but in 2012, the total number of attendees crossed 100. The volunteers do not receive any monetary benefits. The classes are, obviously, free.
A volunteer’s first task was to visit Bharatpur and inform the residents about the program and its benefits. We also requested them to spread the word so that students who are interested or in need of such help can join. The classes commenced the day after the visit. Every volunteer had to choose a subject and the grade of students he/she would be comfortable teaching. The project tried to encompass a wide range of subjects including economics (11th & 12th) and Sanskrit. One of the first things I noticed was the enthusiasm in the students to learn. Most of the students were hardworking and sincere. Teaching such students was a pleasure in itself and I would ensure they received enough attention for their sincerity. We usually followed the school syllabus of these students to ensure the kids performed well at school, apart from actually learning something.
The children bonded well with the volunteers and returned our love and hard work with theirs. A primary reason was the minimal age gap between us, which made the students more comfortable to share the problems they faced in school. Another reason was the rapport our seniors had with these children, which got them to trust us and provide us a chance to better their lives.
Students of both genders attended our classes, though the boys were fairly large in number compared to the girls. But as a volunteer I saw it as a sign of a progressive Indian society where girl education is now given importance. Their parents also deserve a special mention for sending their child for evening classes and not restricting them to the kitchen after school.
However, the journey was not very smooth for Aagaaz. The project ran into administrative difficulties on more than one occasion. I can recollect an instance when one of the e-stations (the term we use for computer systems in our classrooms) was found damaged after the class. The administration refused to let us use the rooms inside the academic block and we had to temporarily relocate to the auditorium corridors. However, the issue was resolved and the volunteers were told to be extra cautious. Thereafter, the volunteers guided the students from the main gate to the classes.
It was not just the administration but the students themselves who were troublesome. For some of the students the classes were a reason to escape from home. It was noticed that some students left their places to attend the classes but never turned up. However, as volunteers we were incapable of handling these situations. The best we could do was talk to these students about the importance of these classes and we did. The words got through the thick skull of some students, for others it was just another lecture from an older person.
Ineffective teaching at school
The school teachers of these students were another impediment. Most of the students had been promoted to higher classes even though they could not count numbers, or read, write or speak the alphabets for us. It shows the true face of Indian education system where everyone is concerned with a degree and a child’s education is not given importance. Some of the students told us that at school the teacher would come to the class, sit through the period and leave. It determined many of us to put in more efforts for these children. The school books were mostly in Hindi which posed a problem for many volunteers who had to decipher the meanings of technical Hindi words of subjects like science and geography. However, the hurdle was crossed every time.
Another major problem was the inability of the volunteers to teach on a regular basis. The classes were suspended during tests and exams, and also during holidays and vacations. This was a big obstacle for the project which otherwise ran smoothly. It disrupted the flow of teaching and picking up from then is another story. Also, the Moot Court Committee of the University organized its internal moot selections during the even semester. It resulted in non- availability of volunteers regularly and hence, frequent suspension of the classes during this period. On one occasion, students were shown videos from cartoon shows as classes had been suspended due to non-availability of volunteers.
Still, we were content…
Aagaaz was an experience which brought most of the volunteers face-to-face with the education system available for the poor kids in our country. It was miserable more so because most of the students were sincere, hardworking and had the will to study. Some even finished the home works we gave them. However, the improving attitude towards girl education seemed like a huge step up for the Indian society. Seeing our students perform better at school was unarguably the most heartwarming feeling during the project.