Calcutta’s conventional school is fixed, brick-mortar and a place that students go to. A 33-year old lady from Calcutta has dared this model. Mukti Gupta’s school is mobile, metal and ‘goes’ to students. Calcutta’s School on Wheels — a bus equipped to teach 30 students at a time and 100 a day — revved its accelerator in neutral and was formally launched in January 2013.
This unusual experiment was really the culmination of how opportunities came dressed as challenges in everyday living and how one individual kept pushing the envelope to create something of relevance for citizens, city and country.
More than a decade ago, when Mukti encountered yet another urchin knuckling on her air-conditioned car pane with ‘Didi, teen din se kuch khaya nahin’, she didn’t respond with a dismissive ‘Maaf karo’. She went home and proposed, ‘Can we set up a school for them?’
When somebody hinted that perhaps she would do well to manage the family’s business (mall and proposed five-star hotel) and simply write out a ‘pay to’ to those already engaged in running large schools, she and friends formed an NGO (Help Us Help Them) to launch a school in Mullickpur for hands-on experience.
When relatives saw the grand turnout of four students and pronounced sweeping judgement with a concise ‘Ab?’ she went proselytising the big cause house to house in the vicinity until she crossed her 200th enrolment.
When observers hinted ‘Itna sub kuch khada to kar diya, but where will you get the funds to sustain this?’ Mukti wrote personal letters to Calcutta industrialists she didn’t know from Adam until the cheques began to trickle in.
When acquaintances said, ‘Big deal but what’s the difference between your school and another?’ Mukti went without appointment to the UCMAS regional director with a request to train her teachers in advanced mental arithmetic gratis. The result is that the Malaysia-headquartered institution made its first exception to engage with a relatively unorganised semi-urban Indian educational initiative as its CSR.
When the skeptics wondered if the well-meaning initiative would for all practical purposes remain mofussil in character, Mukti commissioned a six-machine computer lab with courseware designed by NIIT.
When some parents wondered if their children would ever get the benefit of a ‘balanced’ education, Mukti set about creating a swimming facility in a neighbouring pond supervised by a leading swimming coach.
When the doubters asked, ‘Who will part with expensive property in Calcutta for your school?’ Mukti responded de Bono-like with ‘If we create a school inside a bus then we don’t need real estate at all!’
When the bean counters quietly nudged her with the seven-figure cost of setting up such a mobile facility, she wrote cold to the person managing the Tata Motors CSR practice in Mumbai who put her on to somebody, who put her on to somebody, who felt that ‘We’ve never received such a crazy proposal’ and the result was that five months later, Tata Motors had couriered its contribution (the rest came from Oriental Bank of Commerce and family sources).
When people like you and me indicated that buses are for commuting in and not for running schools, Mukti stripped off the seats to create a clean 175sq ft sitting facility with desks and a ‘wall’ plasma TV for audio-visual learning.
When someone suggested that urchin-entrepreneurs are too busy scraping a living to go to school, Mukti proposed that her bus school would teach the kids a vocation for immediate monetisation and provide them with fruits, so that once they saw this as financially and nutritionally rewarding, they would prefer to come back (and only then be gradually drawn into the teaching programme).
When someone cautioned her about hygiene challenges among these students, she went about appointing ayahs whose primary job would be to scrub the urchins, fit them out into uniforms and then get them into the mobile classroom environment.
When the doubters indicated that her school would be best used in some of the ghettos of the city where ironically there would be no place to park, Mukti went to the CMC for parking permission in Sealdah station (home to more than 300 juveniles) and outside the Park Circus Maidan.
When the analysts explained that the monthly expenditure (teachers, fuel, food, courseware) would soon drain her out, Mukti countered that once the positive results would begin to emerge, an increasing number of corporates would support month-to-month; she was bang-on as Oriental Bank of Commerce announced a year-long support even as soon as the vehicle was still being inaugurated, giving her room to launch more buses in one of the most under-serviced cities of the world.
Mukti Gupta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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