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Dreaming of a Better Life: Teenager Looks Beyond Poverty

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Here, in India's rapidly expanding city of 17 million people, little girls in tattered clothes beg on highways in the pouring rain and knock desperately on the windows of your taxi for a rupee, the equivalent of two cents. Stray dogs haunt large dumps of overflowing trash, scavenging for food.

Almost everywhere you look there are slums. It is a city where it is not uncommon for eight to 10 people to live in a single tenement with no bathroom, the shanties often made of recycled sheets of corrugated aluminum and roofs of tarpaulin weighed down by old car tires.

In one such slum lives Sachin Salvi, an 18-year-old who doesn't look a day over 14. He is barely five feet tall and has only a slight sprinkling of facial hair. He never stops smiling as he talks.

Inside his home, Sachin Salvi, 18, at left, tutors children from his impoverished Bombay neighborhood. He charges a small fee for the tutoring.
Inside his home, Sachin Salvi, 18, at left, tutors children from his impoverished Bombay neighborhood. He charges a small fee for the tutoring.
—Vaishali Honawar

I met Sachin at one of the city's busy tuition classes where privileged children pay thousands of rupees each year to supplement their high school education in math and science so they can go on to bright futures as doctors and engineers. Sachin is not a student but works there as an office assistant, answering the telephone and running errands. He makes $20 a month for five hours of work, seven days a week.

But Sachin's ambitions are big. In broken English, the friendly, talkative young man who is obsessed with computers told me within the first two minutes I met him that he wanted to one day create an operating system like Windows to become the next Bill Gates. It may sound like an impossible dream for someone who failed his exams for junior college, the two years of transitional study between school and university, and who lives in one of suburban Bombay's poorest slums.

Still, Sachin somehow makes it seem possible, perhaps because he carries so much fire and ambition inside his slight frame.

Living in Bombay’s Slums

After locking up the classrooms at 8:30 one night, Sachin took me to see his home, tucked behind dark gullies so narrow that you have to walk sideways. The house itself is just two rooms—a 10-feet-by 6-feet "living room" and a closet-sized kitchen— where he lives with his father and an older brother and sister. The walls, once painted green, are peeling and cracking, the plaster at most places has fallen off to expose red brick.

One entire wall is nearly given over to framed pictures of Hindu deities. Along another narrow wall is his pride and joy: an old Philips computer that he hopes will one day deliver his dream. It stands on a rickety shelf that also holds the family's clothes and is so high that he has to stand up to work at it.

They offer me one of the two folding metal chairs in the house and ask if I would like some tea. Or at least some water.

Sachin's brother, Nitin, put together the computer from spare parts he picked up from a computer hardware firm where he works. Nitin couldn't afford an education in engineering, but he managed to take a much cheaper, yearlong certificate course in computer hardware that landed him the job. In India, where the number of computer engineers and colleges churning them out is multiplying every year, there is still employment to be found for people at every rung of the business, although experts say that may soon change as the field saturates with new graduates.

Sachin is proud of his brother, but his ambitions are greater. He wants to go to college, or at least to one of the numerous technology institutes in the city. At an institute, he can get a basic education in computer software for a fraction of what it would cost to go to engineering college, which can cost as much as 70,000 rupees a year, almost $1,700 in U.S. dollars, and a fortune even for most middle-class Indians.

The students Sachin tutors range from 5th graders to 10th graders. The two adults, standing, are Sachin's father and a local woman who helps him teach the children.
The students Sachin tutors range from 5th graders to 10th graders. The two adults, standing, are Sachin's father and a local woman who helps him teach the children.
—Vaishali Honawar

His mother died when he was 11, and he tears up even now as he talks about her. Poor but proud, he tells you only when prodded about how his father, then the sole breadwinner for the family, lost his job as a driver of an autorickshaw, one of the many three-wheel, open-door taxis that plow through the streets of Bombay's northern suburbs. Forced to work, Sachin, who was already sleeping barely four hours a night in order to study for his exams, could not keep up with his studies and failed his junior college exams.

But he's determined to pass the exams on the second attempt, although there still is little time in his day for studying. He has been staying up oftentimes until 4 a.m. to study, teaching himself the intricacies of geometry, algebra, physics, chemistry and biology—subjects that figure prominently on every exam, but which are barely skimmed over in colleges and schools where teachers have little time to complete the lengthy syllabus. That is one of the reasons “coaching classes,”—which are basically review sessions for those subjects—have proliferated over the last couple of decades. Sachin’s administrative job is at a school that runs these classes.

Teaching Others

But Sachin wakes each morning before 7 for another project: inside his tiny house he runs a class in math and science for children in his own neighborhood, ranging from 5th graders to 10th graders, more poor children whose parents cannot afford an expensive class with a more qualified teacher. He charges the students a small fee for the class.

Nitin started the class two years ago, and Sachin took it over after Nitin found a job. The 12 children in the class live in neighboring homes in the slums. Sachin charges them nominal amounts for a year's worth of four hours of instruction each day. He teaches them in Marathi, the language of the locals and the medium of instruction in all of the municipal schools. The schools, run by the city government, are squalid and often do not have basic amenities such as bathrooms.

The Indian government is working hard to enroll all children in school over the next decade. But in a country where nearly a third of the population lives under the poverty line, you wonder if the nation will ever be able to achieve that goal.

Still, ambitious and determined young people like Sachin make it possible to believe there is hope. After all, he could have given up long ago to drive an autorickshaw and make a reasonable living like his father.

But, of course, that is not how a young Bill Gates would think.

Editor’s Note: Education Week staff writer Vaishali Honawar is on assignment in India to report on the country's education system. During her visit, she is also filing occasional reports for edweek.org.

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