In a squalid slum below a partially-built flyover in eastern Delhi, Satyendra Pal stands by a whiteboard propped against a straw hut, with half a dozen children wearing masks and sitting on the floor looking up at him.
This is Pal’s open air classroom, where he teaches children in their early teens, giving them their only lessons at present after India’s schools shut four months ago as part of a lockdown to control the spread of the coronavirus.
While the lockdown has been eased in recent weeks, schools are unlikely to re-open anytime soon, as experts warn the peak of the virus in India could still be months away.
The government has pushed for classes to move online, but in India only 23.8% of households have access to the internet, according to a 2017-18 government report.
A maths graduate who hails from a village in Uttar Pradesh, Pal said he was inspired to teach by his readings and faith in Buddhism. Students are not required to pay for his classes. “I take whatever they give,” he said.
Pal’s students live in the slum and many spend their days helping parents as farm hands after class. There is no power in the area, and water supply is erratic.
“Our school has online classes, but there is no proper internet here,” said Preeti, a Class 10 public school student. “I could not study on my own. I do feel scared about the virus but I am also worried about exams.”
Pal began teaching a dozen or so kids in 2015 under a tree in the slum, but by early this year he had some 300 students. With the help of his fellow slum-dwellers he built an indoor classroom inside a hut. Desks and benches were donated.
“I stopped the classes in March because it was too dangerous, but parents requested me to teach again,” he said.
He restarted the classes in July for a limited number of students to ensure social distancing. Charities helped provide masks and sanitisers.
His parents, he says, often tell him he could be earning better by working another job.
“I want to earn money, but if I focus on myself I will earn alone. If I help these kids, they will all earn with me.”