Back to School Edition: Mobile Classrooms Set Up in the Slums of India’s Largest Cities
A teacher instructs students inside a classroom that is also a bus. The project, called School on Wheels, was developed by Door Step School. Photo courtesy of doorstepschool.org

A teacher instructs students inside a classroom that is also a bus. The project, called School on Wheels, was developed by Door Step School. Photo courtesy of doorstepschool.org

For children in massive cities, access to education is dependent on mobility. India’s families living in marginal areas or fringe settlements face cultural, economic and geographic barriers that prevent kids from attending school regularly.

The web of tiny roads and alleyways that comprise the slums of the biggest cities in the world are often impassable and inaccessible to public transportation like buses. Plus, navigation is extremely difficult, particularly for students whose families live on the edge of urban settlements far from schools. School-aged children living in poverty may not have the time or energy to physically get to school. (See our series, “Access for All,” for more stories about improving about how we can use sustainable transportation development to ensure increased accessibility for poor city dwellers.)

Slum dwellers and squatters lack other necessities such as clean water, rights to property and land, sewage systems, and birth certificates. Empowering youth through education is widely recognized as a significant step in improving the quality of life of slum dwellers. The United Nations says that nearly a third of the 3.5 billion people living in cities live in slums. Migration and forced displacement as a result of environmental disaster, conflict or the search for economic opportunities continue to drive the expansion of cities worldwide.

So in cities across India – Mumbai, Delhi, Pune and Goa – there are now mobile bus classrooms, developed by NGOs and the Indian government. The schools-on-wheels travel to students during hours that suit their lifestyle and demands for work. Often the classes take place during the day, but in one slum of Mumbai, classes occur in the evening when youth come home from work on fishing piers.

In Delhi, as well, there are some interesting models. As of September 2009, according to an article in the BBC, 5,000 more children had access to education as part of a Department of Education Program, known as Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan. The program “seeks to open new schools in those habitations which do not have schooling facilities and to strengthen existing school infrastructure…” In Delhi, about a quarter of children, mostly those living in squatter settlements, do not attend school.

Another mobile school that serves India’s slum population is Door Step School. The organization works in Mumbai and Pune, India’s eighth largest city. To improve access, the NGO supplies transportation to children whose parents are temporary workers on construction sites. Buses bring the students to a single classroom, reaching 1,000 children a day. The agency also runs a “School-On-Wheels” program specifically for children “who live on pavements, station platforms or street corners and are often seen begging.” According to the organization “these groups are very mobile and usually there is no facility to run classes in the areas where they dwell. A bus provides the most suitable alternative for such a classroom.”

Just as it sounds, the school is a bus or van – still mobile – converted into a fully functioning classroom for elementary to high school-age children.

Another design of a mobile school deployed in Goa, India. Photo courtesy of mobileschools.org

Another design of a mobile school deployed in Goa, India. Photo courtesy of mobileschool.org

In the world’s poorest and most crowded cities, the most vulnerable population is children. These innovative programs attempt to eliminate the poor mobility of city slums that prevents children from making it to the classrooms.

It’s happening in a number of places including rural parts of Chile where former commuter buses from Santiago are now provisional classrooms after the devastating earthquake in February of 2010 near the city of Concepción. Blackboards sit in front of windshields and desks replace seats once attached to the floor.

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