New Delhi, India – Khushboo Tiwari has not attended any classes since his school on the outskirts of India’s capital New Delhi was closed in March last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Like millions of underprivileged children across India, the 12-year-old also couldn’t attend virtual classes because her parents, who work at a local utensil factory, could not afford him. buy a smartphone.
On Mondays, Tiwari walked to his school to get the week’s homework on sheets of paper, but the sixth-grader was not happy and missed regular classes.
Although her public school remains closed, she has found a new place to take classes within a mile of her home.
Tiwari’s house is close to the Singhu border, located on a highway that connects New Delhi with the northern state of Haryana.
For almost two months now, the site has been occupied by tens of thousands of farmers protesting against a set of three agricultural laws passed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in September.
While the government says the laws will modernize India’s vast agricultural sector and allow farmers to sell their produce directly to private companies, protesters view the laws as “business-friendly” and “anti-farmer” and fear destroying their products. means of subsistence.
Multiple rounds of talks between the government and farmers’ representatives failed to break the deadlock. On Thursday, a government offer to suspend laws for 18 months was rejected by farmers’ unions.
As the protest intensified, hundreds of tents emerged at the Singhu border despite the freezing cold, blocking the highway for several kilometers with tractors.
It was in one of these tents that a makeshift school was opened for disadvantaged children, mainly from neighboring slums.
Gurdeep Singh, a 37-year-old farmer from Rupnagar District, Punjab, says the idea to start classes came after seeing poor children picking up plastic bottles at the protest site.
“A volunteer brought them to the tent and that’s how school started. We initially only had eight students, but now the number is 167, ”Singh told Al Jazeera, adding that classes are held from 10:30 am to 2 pm on weekdays.
Although the makeshift school does not have a name, the tent is now called “Sanjhi Sathh”, which means a common place, to recreate a village tradition of discussions on important issues.
It started with the establishment of a library, which features biographies of Indian freedom fighter Bhagat Singh, Argentine Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara and other books of various genres and journals in English, Hindi and Punjabi.
Dozens of posters with slogans written on them cover every inch of the tarp tent.
“We want to help the children because they mostly come from the slums and their parents are either day laborers or work in factories and cannot concentrate on their education,” said Baljeet Kaur, a volunteer teacher from Kurukshetra in Haryana. .
Children, mostly under the age of 13, sit in small groups for their English, Hindi, math, and science lessons, in addition to painting and drawing.
“After staying away from schools for months together, when I learned of this place from my friends in the neighborhood, I couldn’t help but come here the next day,” says a beaming Tiwari, who wishes to become a doctor.
“I love to draw, but in our public school we don’t get painting or drawing lessons,” she says. “The teachers here are very nice and teach us to paint and draw sketches. We all love to be here.
As soon as Tiwari’s classes are over, she rushes home to do the housework while her parents are at work. “I cook and wash the dishes before my parents come home,” she says.
Hema Oli, another 12-year-old girl from the nearby village of Kundli, is also attending classes with Tiwari. The grade 4 student says she comes to the makeshift school every day despite her mother’s fears that the protests will turn violent anytime.
“I love studying whether it’s at school or here in the tent. I just want to study, ”says the young girl who wants to learn to speak English. “When people speak in English, I don’t understand them, so I want to learn and speak English fluently.”
Volunteer teacher Kaur says many of the children who come to the tent have never been to school, but they can have a bright future if they are fed.
“We want to develop an interest in learning and schooling in these children so that they can go to school instead of working as ragpickers or in tea stands at such a young age,” she said. told Al Jazeera.
“So I just want to help these kids wherever I am, whatever the length of time.”
Organizer Singh says the children mainly come from the local slums. “This place is open to everyone. Anyone can come and read here. “
Neither the protesters nor the children at the makeshift school have any idea how long the protests will last.
Volunteer Amninder Kaur Kang, 24, said he is in contact with some non-governmental organizations in New Delhi that can help children once the site is vacated by protesters.
“Everyone here wants to add value, to do something productive, to contribute to the movement and to society in any way they can,” she told Al Jazeera.
“It’s a collective movement and we all want to be part of it.”