Among the most enduring images from India’s national lockdown that began in March were those that captured the plight of the thousands of migrant workers attempting to return to their homes and villages. Those images shone a light on the conditions migrant workers have had to endure on a daily basis that had worsened overnight, illustrating the stark socio-economic divide that has existed in this country. The migrant workers’ existence is fragile and they are not taken seriously, which can result in exploitative work arrangements in cities that end up taking away their voices. This socio-economic divide is not unlike a disease in that there is no single cure that can remedy it. Unlike COVID-19 however, this problem is not a recent one.
Several organisations are attempting to bridge this gap in several different ways. One of these organisations is the Gubbachi Learning Community. Gubbachi, as it is known, is named after the Kannada word for ‘sparrow’, and is meant to embody the playful spirit of the children the organisation works with and for. Gubbachi is a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) based in Bengaluru that aims to integrate the children of migrant workers, many of whom are school drop-outs, back into mainstream public schooling through a variety of programs. To understand the organisation and its work, as well as the conditions endured by those who the NGO serves, we spoke to Manimakalai Raja, one of the Founding members of the Gubbachi team.
The Gubbachi Learning Community has 3 main programs: Gubbachi Connect, Gubbachi Transform and Gubbachi Enable.
Gubbachi Connect – Reintegrating into the Mainstream
Gubbachi’s road has been a long but rewarding one. As Mani elaborates, “The seed was planted around August 2015 but we had no children. Our first child enrolled with us on October 2nd. We signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Department of Education (DoE) that would lead us to start our first Bridge Learning Centre at the Kodathi Higher Primary Government School. We started off by admitting 25 'out of school' children and their younger siblings from neighbouring construction sites. Within that school, we had just 2 rooms. We soon had 30+ children. We realised, however, that if an older child was a dropout, he/she was usually caring for a younger sibling. As a result, a Bridge Learning Centre would be pointless without an Early Childhood Care (ECC) program. Our endeavours are centred around the needs of the children. So we ended up using one room for the older children and one for their siblings”.
“Under the Bridge program, we can’t work endlessly with the children. Irrespective of their age or learning level, we get anywhere from 9 months to a year to work with the children before they are mainstreamed into a government school. During our 1st year, we mainstreamed about 24 children. At that time, the government school in Kodathi had 2 teachers and 1 Headmaster for around 70 children from Class 1 to 7. Add the 24 children we were mainstreaming and it became too much for the government teachers to handle. The learning environment was not very productive and we saw signs of regression in our children due to the different teaching methods being used, which could have resulted in them dropping out again. Even the government school teachers were looking for help”.
Students at Gubbachi Buds, the NGO's ECC program for the siblings of the Gubbachi Connect students
Gubbachi Transform – Revamping the Mainstream
“As a result, we went to help with Class 1 and 2. Our aim was to get these children proficient in basic literacy and numeracy. Government schools in Karnataka practise the ‘Nali-Kali’ education system, which is a multi-grade, multi-level activity-based learning system that was started in 1995 as a small UNICEF-assisted pilot project in Mysore. Nali-Kali means ‘Joyful Learning’ in Kannada. We knew about the philosophy behind it and how it was broadly based on Montessori principles. However, we did not know how to translate that system into practice”.
“During our 2nd year, we sourced the entire set of Nali-Kali teaching-learning materials and trained ourselves in the Nali-Kali methodology. We also reached out to the Azim Premji Foundation, which has world-class teacher trainers. The Nali-Kali system is a fantastically put together curriculum. By the end of the 2nd year, we were getting used to working with it and by February 2017, we had a thorough understanding of the pedagogy. However, we still had a lot of questions regarding classroom management. With this in mind, 8 of us spent 5 days in the summer of 2017 on a training program run by the Azim Premji Foundation, eventually obtaining all the answers we were looking for”.
“Once the 3rd year began, we started implementing the Nali-Kali program in the truest sense. Multi-grade, multi-level activity-based learning systems have been implemented in various states. However, the shortage of well-trained teachers and a warped teacher-student ratio means that such a fantastic system is not well applied”.
“Due to the dearth of teachers in the schools in our vicinity (which are away from the main road in semi-urban areas), we currently work with 4 government schools to help strengthen the Nali-Kali program”.
Students at Gubbachi Transform, participating in a Nali-Kali class
At this point, it’s worth taking a step back to look at the structure of what are Gubbachi’s increasingly complex operations:
• Gubbachi Connect – This vertical, which we talked about under the 1st sub-heading, is where migrant children who have dropped out of the education system are prepared for reintegration into the mainstream government schools in Karnataka. The Bridge Learning Centres are a part of this vertical, and there are currently 3 such centres operating. Every year a new set of dropouts in the vicinity of each centre is identified and brought in.
o Gubbachi Buds – This subset vertical is the Early Childhood Care program that ensures that the younger siblings of the ‘Connect’ students are looked after and given a strong pre-school foundation.
o Gubbachi ProActive – This subset vertical is for children who are 9 or 10 years old and are from out-of-state, with no Kannada skills. This means that they cannot be mainstreamed into a Kannada-medium government school. These children are fast-tracked using a program from the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) to ensure they achieve their Class 10 certification.
• Gubbachi Transform – This vertical, which we talked about under the 2nd sub-heading, serves to strengthen and support the Nali-Kali program (the foundational literacy and numeracy program) in a variety of host government schools.
• Gubbachi Enable – This is the overarching vertical that works with the communities of the children who are already learning in the Connect and Transform programs. Gubbachi Enable aims to help these marginalised communities live a more dignified life by helping them obtain Aadhaar and Labour cards, open bank accounts and conduct regular health check-ups, among several other initiatives aimed at creating positive social impact. These help families become equal partners in the education of their children.
Asked to sum up her feelings on Gubbachi’s journey so far, Mani says, “We are very happy with how far Gubbachi has come. We started off with 6 people. Now there are 30 of us across 4 government schools and 2 Bridge Learning Centres”.
“Furthermore, the children are extremely bright and motivated to learn. We have not had any behavioural issues with these children. What separates these children from those in the other socio-economic classes is their sheer hunger to learn. 95% of our children live in blue plastic tents with no electricity or water. Even then, these children will be studying as long as there is sunlight. The kind of investment we see the children putting into their own learning encourages us to go the extra mile!”
“They are taking charge of their learning beautifully. Every single moment spent with these children is worth its weight in gold because the children are so receptive with a huge desire to improve!”
Gubbachi’s Response to the Pandemic
Dealing with the pandemic required a different kind of dedication, as Mani explains, “The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent national lockdown resulted in our activities being halted in mid-March. We took that time to create practice worksheets for the children. We had to do this as our children don’t have any resources at home to study on their own. Until May, our teachers were busy making worksheets that were closely tied to the learning trajectory in the Nali-Kali system. We made multiple worksheets for each concept in Kannada, Maths and English. These worksheets were intended to help them reinforce their basics. Additionally, our art facilitator made art worksheets and we distributed art supplies and drawing books to the children”.
A Gubbachi teacher checking in on her students at their home during the COVID-19 pandemic
“When things started opening up again in May, our teachers identified the children who remained in town and went to the homes of our students twice a week, armed with masks, sanitisers and face shields. We would give worksheets to complete and collect the ones that had been completed. The children looked forward to our visits and the parents were more than happy due to the fact that their children would now be occupied at home. They were very hesitant to venture out due to fear of the virus coming home. The teachers would also have one-on-one interactions with their students to understand what the children were doing well in and struggling with. That period from May to August was extremely productive”.
“Our worksheets were so well-received that government school teachers started putting the worksheets on their WhatsApp statuses, which led to our work becoming recognised by other government schools in the vicinity. We slowly started getting requests for worksheets. As of today we have distributed worksheets to 33 government schools and 2173 children from Classes 1-5. We are thrilled by the positive response we have been receiving from our partner schools”.
“It is a known fact that the mid-day meal is something that has been a driving force for education among these communities. The pandemic halted the provision of these meals. As a result, we combined our provision of educational supplements with nutritional supplements. Thrice a week, we would give our children 1 boiled egg, a banana and an energy bar”.
Gubbachi distributing nutritional supplements and rations during the COVID-19 pandemic
“There is no way we could have done online classes, given the kind of communities we work with, where a parent pays Rs. 10 to charge his/her mobile phone at the local bakery. It is just not feasible. We work with around 450-500 children in the government schools alone. Given the current circumstances we have faced, we are happy with the way our teachers have risen to the occasion and with the number of children who have been positively impacted. We are now seeing an influx of children from private schools into our government schools. In Kodathi there are 37 new admissions”.
The National Education Policy of 2020
To conclude, we asked Mani for her thoughts on the NEP, to which she replied, “The Kothari Commission recommends that at least 6% of the State’s GDP should be invested into education. In Karnataka, 2.6% of the GDP is currently allocated to education and there are no signs of a budget increase for education. Grand plans need a lot of money to back them up. While we have lots of schools (which were constructed during the District Primary Education Program), most of them are missing basic infrastructure such as water and toilets, and most importantly teachers! We have a dearth of nearly 30,000 teachers in Karnataka alone. We can comment on the NEP only after what is laid out on paper gets translated into large-scale improvement on the ground”.
Gubbachi teachers correcting their students' worksheets during the COVID-19 pandemic