I recently came across an article about a ‘school’ in a garbage dump in Mumbai. The article is uncanny. It could have been written for us. It almost recounted the story of our Okhla centre, a story I had never written. It was time to make amends.
My mind travelled back to the summer of 2004 when one of our teachers came and told us about the plight of a bunch of kids that lived in the slums near her home. Most of them, particularly boys, were not in school and spent their time loitering and were used by predators to steal and push drugs. The are in question was close to a railway track and the little boys were trained to steal from stopped trains anything they could lay their hands off. Moreover the area was home to some notorious drug dealers and little children were easy prey. A few coins or the promise of a treat were enough to get the boys to comply. I was deeply disturbed by this and asked her whether we could begin an outreach centre. Unaware of the lay of the ground, I asked her to find us a room to rent! She smiled and told me that barring factories and slums there was nothing else. I refused to accept easy defeat and requested her to look for something.
A few days later, she came back and said that there was a garbage dump that we could use. These were still early days of project why and I must admit teaching in a garbage dump was almost anathema but then children stealing and peddling drugs was a greater abomination. So I asked her to explore the possibilities. A few more days went by and she came back tome saying that she had talked to the local politicos and cops and got a tacit nod from them with a proviso: that we would move lock, stock and barrel the day the space would be needed. I must add here that the dump we are talking about is ‘owned’ by the government. Beggars cannot be choosers and in this case the need was too great. It was time I visited the place.
Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw, more so because I was supposedly looking at it with a view to set up a children’s centre. The place was filthy with layers and layers of garbage and along side there were a handful of ramshackle huts that housed mostly physically handicapped persons, who were all known to be drug peddlers. They looked scary to say the least. But the space that lay in front of my eyes was huge by our standards and had ‘potential’. There was no way we could clean the place. How do you clean years of filth. So the next best option was to dump earth on it. We had to get several truckloads. And then keeping in mind the caveat we had been served and had agreed to, we set up a flimsy structure made of bamboo and plastic sheets. And on a warm summer morning classes began. It was June 2004 exactly six years ago!
The Okhla story has been one of ups and downs, of elation and frustration. A true pwhy story. It was launched by two very special women, who weathered every storm that came their way. It is a story of strange encounters. It is a story of a bunch of children and their teachers defying every odd be the heat, or the unexpected storms. It is a story of grit, determination and above all triumph. Today Okhla has a secondary class and even a computer centre.
Above all it is the story of a magical garbage dump that metamorphosed into a vibrant space that conjures dreams and desires and makes them come true