It is said that in children we find reflections of God. But in developing countries like India, millions of children do not have access to education. Leave alone education they do not have access to a normal life, enduring extreme poverty along with their parents, they do not have access to basic amenities even. The story of Juin Dutta and her team of magnificent women is worth telling because I believe it is an inspiration for those who want to do something for these disadvantaged children but find it hard to find a way to do so in their everyday busy lives. And for the superb efforts of these ladies and for a brighter future of these children, this story must be told.
QUITTING FOR A NEW BEGINNING
Juin Dutta, the primary impetus behind this initiative came to Baroda, a sleepy town in western India, in the year 1998. Between 2002 to 2013 she worked for central board schools as a teacher. She formed a group of good friends who used to perform cultural programs together as a hobby. However, as the group grew close that consisted of Mousumi, Reena, Shukti, Arpita, a feeling started growing strong within them that they must do something more to give back to the society. They started with collecting some money and donating it to a local NGO, like most of us generally do. However, the drive to do something more concrete at the grassroots was growing within them. Finally, Juin Dutta decided to quit from her job in April 2013. She received wholehearted support from her family.
Juin and her friends did not start with a very concrete plan or a project. They just wanted to do something worthwhile for the disadvantaged children. Like most of the developing towns and cities in India, Baroda’s landscape was also changing and there was flurry of construction activity all around. Along with it came migrant construction workers who lived mostly near or at the construction site along with their children. Juin decided to start with the children of construction workers and on one fine day in May 2013 she and some of her friends walked into a nearby construction site. Juin had noticed that children of construction workers accompany their parents to the construction site and waste their whole day in running around the place under unsafe conditions. Their offer to educate these children was however flatly turned down by the parents of these kids, who perhaps did not trust their intentions as much. They could not be blamed but Juin Dutta and her friends were no the one to give-up or get disheartened. They knew that the road less travelled is the one filled with ‘boulders’ and at times ‘thorny bushes’. If they wanted to keep moving ahead, they needed to have the courage and strength to clear their path or take an alternate route to realize their vision and dream. That is exactly what they did when they gatecrashed into an under-construction sports complex and had a discussion with the project manager. He was happy to let them in when he came to know that Juin and her friends wanted to educate the children of the construction workers. For the next two days they visited the site, distributed food to children and got themselves familiarized. From third day onwards they carried books, registers, colouring books and pastels. This started their journey of educating the disadvantaged children.
‘PAATHSHALA’ – HOSTEL IS BORN
However, this did not last too long. As the year drew to a close, they were being advised to vacate the place as the construction of the sports complex was almost over. They were told that the place was to be handed over to the client, as well as construction workers would also leave. And, within few weeks the exodus of construction workers began. When Juin and her friends were preparing to move they were approached by 3 families of construction workers who requested them to keep their children and educate them. They didn’t want their children to roam with them from one construction site to another site and just waste their time. This was the first trigger towards creating something that would later become an institution in itself known as ‘Paathshala’.
All Juin and her friends had was a compassionate heart and a dream to transform the lives of these kids. They bought two adjoining one-bedroom houses financed by Juin’s husband and turned that into a hostel. ‘Paathshala’ was born.
It was 5th June, 2014 to be precise when ‘Paathshala’ received its first 9 incumbents, children of the three families of construction workers.
Alongwith that in May 2014, Juin Dutta and her team started teaching slum kids on footpaths in three different locations in the city. Spurred by sponsorship of an NGO Mahaveer International, a lot many slum kids could be brought in the fold. Juin and her team never let space be their constraint and hence roadside footpaths became classrooms during initial days. As days passed and kids grew more confident, they were also enrolled into Navprerna school – a school for underprivileged children run by Nav Rachna International School, a prominent school in the city of Baroda. But this move also saw some kids dropping-out.
Success always came with small setbacks for Juin and her team. But they never looked back and the unrelenting attitude always created path for new horizons. Juin and her team desperately needed space to educate these kids and their good work and good intentions did not go unnoticed. Their footpath classrooms was noticed by a senior IAS officer Ms. Shamina Hussain, who at that time was Managing Director of GETCO [ Gujarat Electric Transmission Company]. She recommended the work being done by Juin and her team to her husband who was also the Police Commissioner of the city. Under a social upliftment project, Juin and her team were accorded a classroom in the Police Training Academy. This was a shot-in-the-arm for Juin’s team and things were very smooth for the next about 8-9 months, until the new commissioner took charge. Priorities and plans of the academy changed and Juin’s team and the slum kids had to once again scout for a new space.
‘PAATHSHALA’ HOSTEL EXPANSION
Setbacks were not new for Juin, but she realized that these temporary spaces were not working out. This was 2016 and Juin seriously started contemplating for a bigger hostel. This was also prompted by the fact that the performance of the nine kids who were staying in ‘Paathshala’ (existing hostel) was far better than the rest of the kids. Hostel kids were receiving proper care, secured shelter and proper nutritious food that definitely contributed to their better performance. Gradually, the number of kids in the hostel increased from nine to seventeen. But this was still not enough. Juin envisioned a hostel that could accommodate atleast about 100 kids. But this needed investments that would not be easy to secure.
Juin’s husband and Ms. Shamina Hussain came to her rescue first. While her husband helped her buy the land needed for expansion of the hostel, Ms. Hussain using her administrative clout could ensure that they received corporate social responsibility funds meant for social good and welfare. This gave them a head start for constructing the building. But funds they had secured was still meagre compared to the total project cost. There were administrative hurdles as well related to the land that took about a year of constant following-up to be streamlined. However, funds were still and issue. Few well-wishers also tried to warn them that starting without securing a sizeable donation could stall the project midway. But with hope in their heart and dreams in their eyes, Juin and her small team of noble women-initiated construction of the new hostel building.
Like one cannot bind the fragrance of an aromatic flower, similarly the fragrance of noble intentions reaches far and wide. As the word started spreading, more willing corporate sponsors supported them, and funds kept coming. Added to this the contractor of the project was a noble man supporting their cause. He never demanded money and accepted payment as and when Juin’s team could arrange for the funds. A small step became a movement and the new spacious hostel built on a sprawling open space was ready. Today ‘Paathshala’ accommodates more than 80 underprivileged kids and takes complete care of them. Juin says that education will definitely change the lives of these kids but more than anything else, she wants these kids to grow-up as good human beings, who have great human values and are not restricted by narrow mindsets and hatred. Juin and her team also started ‘Pathbhavan’ – a library cum activity centre in the slum area being managed by Mousumi, one of her team members.
‘Churni’ is another initiative of Srotoswini Trust started by Juin Dutta that manages ‘Paathshala’ and ‘Pathbhavan’ as well. ‘Churni’ is an initiative for disadvantaged women, many of them mothers of the kids whom they had started educating in the footpath classrooms. Back in 2015 when the footpath classrooms were running, upon being prodded by Juin Dutta the mothers of these kids showed interest in learning new vocational skills. A tailoring class was arranged for them and they started doing exceptionally well. First exhibition of the material created by these women was held on 5th September, 2015, which was a sold-out event, supported by the benevolent citizens of the city. This sparked greater motivation. The women were given sewing machines, tailoring lessons and more women joined the group. By 2017, ‘Churni’ became a self-sustaining project, no longer requiring funds from the trust. In 2018, ‘Churni’ got its first retail outlet and in 2019 another chapter of ‘Churni’ was added with more women from disadvantaged section funded by a company known as Thermax. The funding also allowed them to make ‘Churni’ more organized. Women involved in ‘Churni’ earn much more than one earns in the market as the entire profit is distributed to them. This has positively impacted their lives by empowering them financially. It would be a surprise for many and hard for us to believe that some of these women in ‘Churni’ project and kids in the ‘Paathshala’ project used to beg on streets for arranging their food at one point of time.
A LESSON FOR EVERYONE
Juin and her team have come a long way since starting a class on the footpath and so have the kids. And they have found many well-wishers and likeminded people in the course of their journey, who have volunteered to help in their own ways. Take for instance many doctors who voluntarily look after the health of these kids and women, without charging any fees. Many people have joined online from various cities, thanks to the very popular ‘Paathshala’ videos on social media that depict everyday life of these kids, their celebrations, sports events with fascinating commentary by Anisha, another active volunteer working with Juin Dutta.
There is a great lesson to learn from what Juin Dutta and her team have achieved. One doesn’t need a lot of money or means to help people in need, one just a strong good intention and an unrelenting attitude to convert every setback into an opportunity. Today Juin and her team have given disadvantaged kids and women a better present and a future to dream, but they have also created a movement and given an opportunity for millions of people to join hands and contribute. Where there is a will, there is definitely a way!