Mukta Patil, the 23-year-old teacher proudly looks at her students and the temporary makeshift class is not the reflection of their true efforts. This class like the many others in remote villages of Thane district, caters primarily to children of brick kiln workers. The school has come as big relief to the children who otherwise would’ve got dragged into working as child labour!

Picture Credit, Neeta Kolhatkar A volunteer teacher and children at a Bhonga Shala class

It is definitely a relief to see seven-year-old Ranjana Walvi in her worn-out pink dress add the figures on the blackboard. Ranjana confidently draws one grass stump for every digit and says, "Seven added to 5 is 12, with a chalk she draws 12 lines in the total bracket." It is obvious that the children enjoy their school. The class is different from the normal schools because even the teacher, Mukta has only passed the tenth standard. But her whole life revolves around these young innocent children. The school is temporary not only due to its tent structure, but as the migrant labourers leave the children too are packed off to their villages. However, thanks to these classes, the children can go back to the normal school rather than drop out or waste their precious year.

Bhonga Shalas, or the kiln schools, these are mobile schools put up in the areas where the brick kilns are situated, since the labourers are all migrants. The workers too get an incentive to send their children to these schools which are just behind their tedious places of work.

Change came two years ago when the Government of Maharashtra (GOM) made it compulsory for every child to study. The GOM also made it binding on the brick-kiln owners to send the children to send these schools, or cough up a fine of up to Rs 20,000.

What sets these schools apart is that all the curriculum is modified to suit the workers’ traditions and culture. As soon as one enters the compound of any of these Bhonga shalas, one can see digits and alphabets grown in paddy grass and a pruned map of India! The basic way to help children relate to formal education through innovative ways. One can hear the Marathi ‘Pumpkin and the old lady’ song being sung in the background, whilst in another class the harvesting season with names of grains is taught. "We hold games, contests and make them sing songs through which the cirriculum is taught. We teach six months studies so that they can go back to formal schools once they return to their villages. Meanwhile we also allow them use the brick, mud and grass for calculations, alphabets and arithmetics," says Sakharam T Dalvi, the brain behind this successful project and a former Municipal school teacher.

Picture Credit, Neeta Kolhatkar A child working in the killing kilns near Chandeep, 80 kms off Mumbai

The schools are a second home for the teachers, many of whom stay behind in these villages. Though some of the children however are compelled to go to the kilns and help their parents make bricks and carry the heavy load on their tender heads. "My hands and head aches working in the brick kilns. But my hands don’t ache when I write," smilingly says Ranjana. When asked what does she do to get relief from pain, Ranjana looks down bashfully. However, teachers aver that besides the children going to work the other problem that plagues their growth is that parents make the older kids look after their toddler siblings. One sees small toddlers screeching in the middle of a song or maths session. Whilst the older sibling has to leave the class work and look after them. However, classmates and teachers chip in to quieten the kid, one cannot deny that the child’s work is hampered. "We’ve seen that parents bring toddlers from their relatives in order to earn more money and they dump them with their children, who have to take care of the siblings besides concentrate on their class work," says Dalvi. It is a social problem that they are trying to tackle, though have little control over.

These mobile schools were started in 1995 with only five students. This project was initiated by Vidhyak Sansad, an NGO actively working for the tribals, deprived and landless labourers. However it hasn’t been a smooth ride for them. Most of the time the brick kiln owners opposed the very formation for these schools. Wanting to exploit the children, they gained from the fact that there weren’t stringent rules forcing anyone to send the workers’ children to these schools. In Rakhavlli village near Tungareshwar, the owners burnt the bamboos of the tents.

However things started changing since last two years when the Government of Maharashtra (GOM), made it compulsory for every child to study. GOM also made it binding on the brick-kiln owners to send the children to send these schools or would have to pay a fine up to Rs 20,000. With the fear of paying this fine and getting arrested, owners begun helping to set-up schools.

Today, there are 3006 students and what’s interesting is that the number of girl students is rising. The number of girls studying in these primary level schools are neck-to-neck with boys, with 1448 girls. Most of the parents too are happy to see their children studying. "I want my daughter to study and finish her schooling. Why does she need to work when my wife and I are working already?" asks Jana Pawar, a parent who wants to give his children a better future.

With supportive NGOs like Vidhayak Sansad and ‘Bhonga Shala’ projects, free and compulsory education is no more a distant dream!