The lanes are packed with vehicles unloading their goods and hawkers yelling to sell their wares. The rusted windows of cramped cubicles, like jigsaw puzzle painted blue and green, are decked with satiny curtains. While you are occupied figuring out the chaos around and reasons why certain things are unusual, recitation of Marathi Barakhadi in chorus plays in the background. An ordinary building at the end of the road in Budhwar Peth, the third largest red light area in the country, invites you to take a peek. This is Nutan Samartha Vidyalaya, a school involved in providing a holistic education for the kids of women involved in prostitution.
Growing up in this forbidden area is a hard reality for the children of the sex workers. Denied of their basic rights and a life of dignity, a coordinated network of organizations and schools work for their empowerment, thereby restore their rights. Clueless of the profession their mothers are involved in and social discrimination they face, children in the red light area are vulnerable to all sorts of misguidance and ill-businesses. Girls are more prone to be pulled in this profession that their mothers are unfortunately stuck in. Human trafficking is the obvious consequence they face while growing up in that area. Several organizations are working as a single unit to save them from the grips of people and racketeers of human trafficking.
Established in 1926 by late Hari Bhimji Pansare, father of Chandrashekar Pansare, the present head of Nutan Samartha Vidyalaya, provides free education to children in the red light area. Along with primary schooling till the seventh standard, moral education is imparted on the importance of values. Their academic routine is infused with various activities to enhance their individual growth. They are made to read newspapers every day. They are counseled every month to nurture their sentient. The Savali Seva Trust takes responsibility for their education from the eighth standard by sending them to Huzoor School in Budhwar Peth where they are taught till their graduation. If the child does not want to continue further studies, they generate employment opportunities. They are given training so that they may become a mechanic or a nurse. Documentations and government formalities for further studies are carried out by Savali Seva Trust. “Their mother’s name gets added in the document as their second name since most of them do not know their father’s name and even if they know, we cannot use it,” says Pansare. The staff and the study material in Nutan Samartha Vidyalaya are provided by the Zilla Parishad, whereas the uniforms and most of the clothes for these kids are donated by Navchetanya Hasya Parivar, a community group in Pune.
Volunteers like Danwanti Mohite travels all the way from Pimpri every weekend to teach these children. “For me, it’s a social satisfaction and an honor to teach them,” says Mohite. The Inner Wheel Club of Pune, a catering service, manages meals for these children. Their other expenses are taken care of by volunteers who regularly donate to the organization. “We don’t need to buy anything per se, shops give us things for free when told that this is for the school; especially, grocery,” says Pansare, while appreciating the help he gets from the shops in Budhwar Peth.
“Only educating them would change their situation and make things better,” states Pansare, insisting that these kids are vulnerable and a huge responsibility. “Once they reach the eighth standard, they realize what their mothers do to earn and that’s a difficult phase for them. Therefore we conduct counseling sessions every month to make them understand their situation.” While Pansare is busy hunting for files with details about the donations, 11-year-old Suraj Thapa walks in. On being introduced and asked about his future plans, he immediately replies, “I want to become a police officer. I want to punish everyone who does wrong.”
The women involved in prostitution cannot make time for their children, but they care. They cannot invest their time. However, they are involved in their lives by investing in them financially. Amulya, 10, is ready to leave with her mother, Asha, who usually visits her school to pick her up. She loves mathematics and aspires to study further at Huzoor School. “I always remind and insist her to study when she is home [sic]. She tells me everything she learns here,” says Asha, hoping for a better career and future for her child. Even Pragati and Nandani, age 10 and 11 respectively, enjoy mathematics and are made to practice it daily by Swadhar Institute of Development for Women and Children (SIDWC). “Women hand over their babies to us first then search an accommodation for themselves. This is the goodwill we’ve built,” says Naina Deshmukh, head of SIDWC, Pune. Swadhar was started as a baalwadi (play school) by Meenakshi Apte. It has evolved into a whole day and night care center for children in the red light area in the last 20 years. It is the only pilot project in the entire country to uplift the lives of more than 75 children from Budhwar Peth. They not only provide shelter to these children when their mothers are at work but also take responsibility for their education, periodic medical tests and social conditioning. “We are taking them to the Dutta temple today for the maha-aarti,” says Deshmukh explaining to us how they try to involve them in the society. “A lot of my friends invite these children to family functions. We take them there. It is a good way to conditioning them socially and culturally,.” smiles Pansare.
Since the last two years, Deshmukh and Sharayu Pandit; her companion in Swadhar, are organizing a day trip exclusively for these children and their mothers in and around Pune. Such trips are solace for both the mothers and their children. Meanwhile, a group of children, holding their latest piece of art, approaches us. The children had made a carpet using old newspapers. Deshmukh and Pandit proudly describe how compassionate and honest these kids are. “They come to us running and say, “Madam, isko apple nai mila, isko bhi do”. They have learned the art of sharing at a tender age. Pandit adds, “They are honest too. We just keep the basket of eatables open and tell them to take one and circulate. They’ll pick up only one and pass till everyone gets one and bring you the rest.” Despite their circumstances, these children are disciplined, matured and very well-behaved.
As the winter sun is ready to set, Pansare walks towards his school, to wind up the day and as he climbs the first step he turns and utters; simultaneously raising his index finger and eye-brows, “Whatever good can be done, should be done when you are alive.” The children in the red light area are our responsibility as a society. After all, they too have a dream waiting to come true.