The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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A will to live together and let the kids learn

In spotless dresses, Sajina, Ashish and Gouri trudged from pandal to pandal in search of the best pujas. The eerie hovel leading to the resplendent court of Hirak Raja at Jatra Shuru Sangha, Garia, caught their fancy. So did Adarshapalli in Behala, or Bosepukur Sitala Mandir. But that didn’t stop the little judges from riddling the organisers with miscellaneous queries.

On Saptami, 35 children were taken out by Banchbo, an NGO for slum and streetchildren, to select pujas for the Bharat Petroleum Sharad Shiromani 2002 prizes. On other days, some 23 kids flock to a three-storeyed house in Garia for coaching from a bunch of college students.

“The children come from slums stretching from Garia and Boral to Peerless Hospital; some of them study in primary schools as well. They can’t afford private tuitions and we try to make up for that. Sometimes we provide them with pencils and snacks, or even their school fees, as incentives,” says Dr Dhires Chowdhury, founder-member of Banchbo and a National Medical College graduate.

While still in college in 1995, Chowdhury teamed up with a friend and formed Banchbo with the aim to run a free education centre for streetchildren from Classes I to X.

The unit now comprises 35 members — all fresh faces beaming with enthusiasm. A few of them make weekend trips from Shibpur BE College and Burdwan Medical College to take classes. “We try to make learning more interesting for them by telling stories or holding drawing classes. Occasionally, the kids are taken on educational tours to Science City and film festivals,” says Arnab Ghosh, teacher-in-charge at Banchbo and an economics student at Dinabandhu Andrews College.

Coaxing the children to attend the two-hour classes six days a week is always an uphill task, says Arnab. “We are planning to intensify our door-to-door campaigns about the need for education.”

A medical unit, held alongside on Saturdays for the kids’ families, has recorded warm response with around 25 people dropping in every week. Banchbo also conducts health check-up camps every month in remote areas like Usti and Ghoramara and distributes medicines for free.

“A library has been started with our meagre resources. We also publish a literary magazine featuring their write-ups,” says general secretary Tapan Kumar Sen. Plans are in the offing to introduce self-employment schemes for the children and their mothers, a mobile health unit and counselling facilities for students. “We have approached Binodini Girls’ High School in Dhakuria and Naktala High School for the counselling sessions,” Chowdhury adds.

When the teachers croon a tune or two in their spare time, the kids pick them up with amazing adroitness. “We want to start a cultural group where the kids can sing, dance and act,” signs off Arnab, full of enthusiasm.

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