Published: 10th July 2021
How this 21-year-old from Pune is teaching street kids across the city to minimise the dropout count
They might not always know what's in the books but a life on the street has taught them life skills, says Abhijeet Pokharnikar
The COVID-19 lockdowns have affected children's education severely. The dropout rates have gone up and studies by various organisations, including the World Bank, have predicted huge learning losses. But there are people trying to bridge that gap as well. Meet Abhijeet Pokharnikar, a 21-year-old social worker from Pune, is running schools on city streets so that underprivileged children do not miss out on education.
Right after the lockdown was lifted in July last year, Abhijeet and his friend Alphanso Kasbekar, a teacher, started teaching kids in slums across Pune. "At first, it was just the two of us. But eventually, we built a network of volunteers. We had to. We couldn't be at two places at once," said Abhijeet, who has been interested in social work since childhood and works with Sindhutai Sapkal, who works for orphaned children. "We decided to name it Dada Chi Shala or brother's school. We maintain social distancing and teach the kids so that they do not lose their connection with education," he added.
The kids are exceptionally smart, said Abhijeet. They might not always know what's in the books but a life on the street has taught them life skills. "Some of the kids are exceptionally good at Mathematics. One boy I met knew multiplication tables till 45 and was super fast with mental Maths," said Abhijeet who is studying Computer Application. But it is difficult to get the students back to class as they contribute significantly to the family income. "Of all the parents we approach, very few want to send their kids back to school. But the kids are interested. So we ask them to talk to their parents and tell them how interested they are about going to school," he added. Abhijeet and his team of 100+ volunteers have also been working towards getting the kids admitted to school, but a major issue is documentation, which these kids often do not have.
Abhijeet is not into social work as an extracurricular activity. He plans to study law after his graduation, which he feels will help him with his initiatives as well. "I have a couple of plans but people do not always have faith because of my age. They feel I am too young to actually make it work," said Abhijeet. "One of my plans is to start a centre for the kids on the street which will give them education, a place to stay and will also remunerate their parents for the apparent financial loss since the kid is not earning for the family anymore. But for this, I need a lot of funding. The other idea is to renovate old government buses to turn them into classrooms and have such a bus in every locality. This way, if the children can't go to school, the school comes to them. The average cost of refurbishing such a bus would be around `1.75 lakh. I have approached a few government officials but nothing has materialised till now," he added.