As per the latest Census of 2011, as many as 7.8 million Indian children are forced to earn a livelihood even while attending school, while 84 million children don’t go to school at all. Working in shops, as ragpickers or employed in petty jobs, these children usually belong to families that land up in big cities in search of a livelihood. And before they know, their childhood is lost in oblivion. This is what Shillong-based activist Shima Modak aims to rectify.
Even as a child growing up, Modak says she felt for such children. “All I could do at that time was share my tiffin with them,” she says.
In 2010, she founded an NGO, Spark, wanting to provide educational opportunities to marginalised children. Today, Modak runs five educational centres with a staff strength of 16 teachers, each educating over 450 such children across Shillong. “Despite RTE (Right to Education Act), such children face immense discrimination. If we take a ragpicker child and put him/her in a class with other students, they complain of the smell coming from him/her or the way he/she is dressed,” the 35-year-old says.
Modak faces several challenges still. With the only sources of money being her own savings and some donations, Modak struggles to fund her venture. “I don’t have the funds to undertake any activities for these children. I have to make do with whatever I have and can accumulate. Sometimes other schools or organisations pitch in with some help, but that’s it. It gets difficult at times to look at those eyes brimming with hope when your hands are empty,” she says.
The attitude of the parents of such children is another hurdle. “Many times, they are reluctant to send their children to school even for a few hours. They want them to be employed so that they can contribute to the family’s income,” says Modak.
The linguistic barrier is another deterrent. Khasi is the official language of the state, but Modak, who is originally from West Bengal, doesn’t speak it. “It’s difficult to reach out to a lot of people because I am not from here originally. People refuse to trust me, as they don’t consider me one of them,” she says.
Despite these deterrents, however, Modak has not lost courage. And today, she is a beacon of hope for children who continue to live without an identity.