Twenty-year-old Shashikant Jaiswal can tell you the exact date when Mahatma Phule Nagar, a slum cluster adjacent to IIT Bombay, came up. “It was in 1991 that migrants living near the Powai Lake were moved here following a beautification drive of the city,” he explains, adding “A large number of our neighbours are migrants from Maharashtra, mostly from Satara and Aurangabad. Those from UP and Bihar are in a minority like us,” he adds with a smile. Mahatma Phule Nagar has a large population of Dalits. “I follow Babasaheb’s writings. They are remarkably insightful especially when all around people are so strongly divided by caste.”
Shashikant’s grandfather came to Mumbai sixty years ago. He spent almost his entire life as a daily wage worker. He put all his savings in setting up a cloth shop in Wadala. He married twice. Shashikant’s father is the son of his first wife. Due to domestic feuds, Shashikant’s father was not allowed to participate in the family business. He found himself in the same place as his father - selling peanuts in the day and working as a guard in the night till he joined a mill as a daily wage worker with a salary of Rs 3000 per month.
“My father’s income went in buying food for a family of four. We had to borrow money in case any of us fell ill or had to buy books for school,” Shashikant shares. With no extra income to support his education after the seventh standard, Shashikant took to doing odd jobs like distributing newspapers, helping political parties set up their billboards, to make money. “I would earn Rs. 500 a month and give it to my mother. All of it went to pay my school fees,” he says.
There were insurmountable hardships. There were also some eye-opening lessons. “Despite extreme poverty, my mother was not expected to step out to work. Women stepping out in public to work and earn is still looked down upon in my family. When my elder sister finished her Bachelors, I negotiated with my parents to let her get a B.Ed degree. In reality, I fought with them and their mindsets. My sister always wanted to be a teacher. She is married now but I am happy that she is still keen on getting a job,” he observes.
Shashikant believes that a gender equal society is possible but the change has to begin at home. This conviction had its roots in the training he underwent in Magic Bus as a Youth Leader. “In my tenth standard, I felt this strong urge to do something for my community. I wanted children here to go to school and learn well. It might seem to be a most ordinary, achievable dream outside Mahatma Phule Nagar but it is not so in a community of so many out-of-work youth taking to substance abuse, a community that is yet to wake up to importance of education. As a Community Youth Leader I get to mentor these children using a deeply engaging activity-based curriculum. I also run support classes for children in my neighbourhood so that they can keep up with the pace of learning at school,” he shares. Shashikant dreams to open a school in his neighbourhood for underprivileged children – a learning environment modeled after the gurukul system of education. “Every child nurses a dream. Poverty stifles that very dream. My education will hold a light to those who are fighting to save their dreams from the clutches of poverty,” he explains.
Shashikant has other dreams and most of them concern his family. He wants to buy land in Allahabad, his home town, and build a house of their own. “We have always lived in other people’s homes. We could never afford a house of our own,” he reasons.
Although he started working since the eighth standard, Shashikant was aware that only a salaried job can put an end to the financial distress at home and also support his dream for further education.
“I was in the first batch of Magic Bus’ Livelihoods programme at Vikhroli. Back then, I was certain I could be an entrepreneur. Through the Livelihoods training, I actually got an insight into my skill sets and drawbacks. They helped me develop a roadmap for my career, “he says, adding, “It has been three years since I completed my livelihoods training. Yet I still fall back on my mentors from the Centre to guide me on my career decisions. I have firm faith in their ability to suggest the best way for me.” At present, Shashikant works as an Account Representative in a multi-national software company, Accenture, earning Rs 25,000 per month.
Most of his income goes in paying off the family’s debts but he saves enough to support his further education and also his dream to have a house of their own in their hometown.
Apart from balancing a demanding work life with education, Shahshikant is still Magic Bus ‘bhaiya’ for numerous children in his locality – someone they laugh with, share their sorrows, anxieties, and listen to.
If you were to pass Mahatma Phule Nagar on a Saturday and Sunday, you might meet an enthusiastic 20-year-old, surrounded by an excited bunch of children much younger and smaller than him, matching him in step and energy.