So, with some help from Child Relief and You (cry), she set out to start a class of 50 children from one slum, the premises: the offices of the Republican Party of India. Seth put in whatever time, money and energy she could. The concept began to catch on and the students, mostly Banjara girls, children of migrants from Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, grew in number. These were all 'working' children-who tried to add to their parents' meagre earnings on construction sites or at the docks nearby. The Doorstep School, therefore, necessarily begins well past lunchtime, and by the time the children return home after a day's work, proceedings are well and truly under way. Dropout rates being high, over the past decade Seth and her team of workers (which's grown to 30 paid teachers with 2,000 students in 17 slums, apart from 300 more at a beggar's home in Pune) has evolved a system whereby a teacher first visits all the students at home and then herds them together in a loft at the end of a narrow, smelly bylane. If some students are still missing, a team of 'shepherds' takes over-these young boys go hunting for the stragglers and bring them in before classes begin.
Seth explains these methods: "We have to do this, for initially, neither the children nor their parents are too motivated." Moreover, as her students are mostly Banjaras, who migrate very often, the dropout rate stands at around 10 to 15 per cent. And then child marriages (often at the age of 10 or 12) among the Banjaras are also a major problem. "But we do not try to stop this at all, or the parents will turn hostile," she says, adding, "We're attempting to tackle the issue through education. We won't see a visible result in this generation, but the next one will do better." Some of her former students are already sending their children to the school. Earlier, the Doorstep School, along with the Indian Institute of Education, used to give students its own certificates. But these proved worthless on migrating to other states. So now the school has secured the cooperation of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and prepares the children to take the Class III and IV exams set by the BMC so they can be eligible to join any school. In addition, Doorstep's NFE (non-formal education) curriculum, which has only a single course for all students, also offers vocational courses-sewing, pottery, candle and incense-stick making, mehndi designs and other handicrafts. The attempt is to ensure that, in addition to the three R's, the children are able to earn a living in places other than docks and construction sites.
It hasn't been easy, but the school has had help from many sources. From the slum dwellers, who've set apart little rooms for the classes, and even from diverse political parties who've little kholis (rooms) in the slums, which they operate only late in the evenings. Then, following in cry's footsteps, agencies like Concern India Foundation, the British High Commission, Save the Children Fund and other foreign agencies apart from the home-grown HDFC and Rotary Clubs also chip in. The funding from each agency is used only for a particular slum to ensure that accounting to them is made easier. And, finally, last year the Japanese consulate gifted a two-in-one bus: it's a 'mobile' classroom and also ferries the children from their homes to school. It's an effort geared towards reducing society's dropouts. Doorstep School can be contacted at Room no 54/55, Jagganath Shankarseth Municipal school, Nana Chowk, Grant Road, Mumbai; phone: 022-385 9203 or 022-3826343.