Class(room) Politics in Dharavi's Community Schools

When people take matters into their own hands...community initiated schools in Dharavi

Parents gather in front of the Kamarajar High School gates to pick up their children. One of the largest in Dharavi, this school was founded by a Tamil trust.
Parents gather in front of the Kamarajar High School gates to pick up their children. One of the largest in Dharavi, this school was founded by a Tamil trust.

For a few hours every weekday the streets of Dharavi, usually bursting with the honks of vehicles and the cries of hawkers, are turned over to a more discreet force as throngs of local schoolchildren follow their daily path back home, the patterns of their neatly-ironed uniforms cutting a sharp contrast to the furious energy around them. In the minds of many, Dharavi’s enduring label of ‘slum’ still carries with it many of the connotations of an uneducated urban poor scratching out a living through menial wage jobs. While this may be true for some of the older residents, education here is actually on everyone’s mind, and it has become a true industry in many ways. Some of the largest structures in Dharavi are its schools, whose multi-level concrete walls rise far above ordinary dwellings and house classrooms teeming with students eager to use any foreigner as the proof of their English skills. However, not all of these schools are created equal; ask Dharavi residents what their opinion of the local public school run by the BMC is, and you’ll likely hear a list of complaints ranging from inadequate teachers to lack of supplies, each flaw a roadblock against academic success.

Yet hanging on lamp-posts along Dharavi’s main roads, it’s also possible to spy posters hailing the top marks of local students in high school exams. Many of them come from the numerous ‘private-unaided’ schools scattered around Dharavi, whose roots are deeply bound up with the evolution of the area. The various communities that have converged on Dharavi to make it what it is today have also played a significant role in its socio-political and economic form, most obviously through countless workshops and manufacturing activities but also through larger scales forms of collective organization. One of the most unique of these are what we can call ‘community’ or ‘homegrown’ schools, grassroots efforts started by local trusts during the past decades that have evolved to become respected institutions hosting more than 2000 students each. Stuck between the pressures of Mumbai’s ever-changing landscape and the constraints of the city’s perilous bureaucracy, over time communities in Dharavi have managed to mobilize along lines of caste and ethnicity to give rise to these thriving schools. During the past few weeks, and thanks to the help of Shyam, who is part of the urbz team, I’ve attempted to collect information on this phenomenon, looking at the school’s’ historical role within Dharavi as well as their current evolution to understand through the lens of education the agency of residents in shaping their urban futures.

Trustees of a local Dravidian society, who run the Ganesh temple and the associated high school. The general secretary, pictured on the top right, was kind enough to give some time for an interview.
Trustees of a local Dravidian society, who run the Ganesh temple and the associated high school. The general secretary, pictured on the top right, was kind enough to give some time for an interview.

A look back at the context where these schools were forged brings some elucidation about their present role. Indeed, although Tamil schools have been present in Dharavi since the 1920s, the current generation of schools dates back to the 1960s. At the time, the quality of public education to be found in Dharavi was dismal, and to make matters worse residents endured discrimination and exclusion from private schools outside the settlement in large part because of their lower-caste status. Trapped by the lack of social horizons, many communities had no one to turn to but themselves, drawing upon their own social ties and the resources of prominent members to organize trusts that would eventually fund these schools. Thus over the years, Dharavi has seen the establishment of various Tamil, Kannada or Marathi trusts, and from modest beginnings where students would pack into a single hut, many schools have grown exponentially to welcome hundreds, sometimes thousands, of pupils. In some cases, the schools are linked to a religious organization; for example a local Dravidian society, who over a century ago collectively acquired the land where a Ganesh temple now stands, only managed to put together the funds for a school eighteen years ago. The forms of community ties that create schools can cut across not only social lines within Dharavi but also geographical lines, as linkages between the ethnic community that started the trust and their region of origin are formed through the generosity of wealthy individuals or the perpetuation of other socio-economic ties like celebrations and the recruitment of teachers.

Poster from inside the Al Ma’Rif English School, recently established by the local Muslim community to teach various Arabic and Urdu classes to younger children.
Poster from inside the Al Ma’Rif English School, recently established by the local Muslim community to teach various Arabic and Urdu classes to younger children.

Distinguishing themselves through the instruction of classes in their native languages, such as Telugu or Tamil, it quickly became apparent that many of these ‘homegrown’ schools had also sought to emancipate themselves thanks to the constitution of their own narratives of self-assertion. Creating their own curriculum helped communities gain independence from previous constraints, and over time the ability to give their lower-caste students an independent instruction invoked pride as speakers described how “it’s a beautiful thing that those who are excluded then provide their own education”. For many, this sort of independence is inscribed in the lineage of discrimination and suffering that their forefathers had to endure because of their caste status. Schooling can also serve as a way to negotiate the modernity of so-called ‘backward castes’; with the possibilities of social uplift that education makes tangible, ‘homegrown’ schools are viewed as a lighthouse that will help dispel some of the prejudices surrounding the communities that founded them. Dharavi residents are able to show that “education is not the monopoly of one community”, but also question many of the longstanding traditions and beliefs of their own communities as was apparent when a headmaster told me that he urged the parents to donate money to the ‘real gods’, their children, and not the ‘stone gods’ found in the temples. These kinds of discourses, that aim to root residents within their own neighborhood by drawing on collective potential, contrast with those of ‘external schools’, also present but run by trusts from outside of Dharavi. For these institutions (who often manage numerous schools across India) the narrative is more one of need and deprivation, when talking about their students who are “ignorant, downtrodden, and vulnerable” but should be able to “enjoy the same standards as other schools”. Spreading education comes to be seen as more of a charitable mission than an emancipatory act, an aim different from the gospel of uplift, organization and social cohesion preached by the ‘homegrown schools’. There, the capacity to “Educate, Organize, Agitate” can even lend them a spirit of greater autonomy with regards to the local BMC authorities who are often the subject of protest.

The U.M. Thevar School, run by a foundation from outside of Dharavi and which operates schools all over India.
The U.M. Thevar School, run by a foundation from outside of Dharavi and which operates schools all over India.

Nevertheless, in the words of one of the trustees of a longtime Marathi-medium school that had recently made the conversion to English medium, “The world is going so fast, but our own students are unable to catch the speed of the world. We are 100 years behind the speed of the world.” In many ways, this statement embodies the contradictions these community schools must grapple with. On the one hand, the interviewee evokes the drive to discipline and progress that fuels these schools, yet he also acknowledges the pace he must keep up with, and the metamorphoses that his organization and its students must bend to if they hope to succeed. Indeed, schools must now face a Cornelian dilemma: to maintain the diversity they sought to represent and celebrate the communities they were created to serve, or adapt their curriculum to reflect the more ‘universal’ possibilities of an English-medium school. For most schools, this decision has already been made, with many of the community schools choosing to conduct the vast majority of their classes in English. Seen as the language that will allow their students the best opportunities to become ‘world-class citizens’, the shift to English-medium can also become problematic since it contributes to a uniformization of these schools while also robbing them of some of the advantages they could provide by teaching classes in the ‘local’ language of the communities that had founded them. Yet in another way the introduction of English has also led to an opening up of the population of these establishments; in one of the Tamil schools I visited, the interviewee confessed that the Tamil Nadar caste, who had started the school for people of their community, were now almost absent and largely sent to study outside of Dharavi while it was Muslims who were now dominant.

The presence of Muslims in this school reflects a pattern of shifting demographics I could observe in many of the schools. Indeed, it seems that the rise of Muslims as a share of the student body is taking place, as well as the more recent creation by Muslims of their own schools. Such a trend can be a testament to a few social factors; different trustees and professionals discussed the changes in local mindsets that the presence of their community schools had helped to spur on. Muslims populations, who for long were plagued with exceedingly high dropout rates and carried an aversion to sending their children (and especially their girls) to school, are now beginning to shift their perspectives. Another notable point is that these Muslim schools were generally less than ten years old, much younger than other community schools that tended to be at least a few decades old. Gradually, they had started their own trusts, and were expanding to add more classes and courses to their programs while often maintaining strong community traditions (for example through the teaching of various Arabic classes). Here, it seems that these schools started by Muslim trusts are following a similar pattern as the older-generation of community schools in Dharavi as they use education as a catalyst for social cohesion.

Entrance of the Gandhi Memorial English High School. The trustee whom I interviewed is pictured at the bottom of the photograph.
Entrance of the Gandhi Memorial English High School. The trustee whom I interviewed is pictured at the bottom of the photograph.

So what about the future of these older schools, who from their humble beginnings amongst members of a downtrodden Tamil or Kannada community have grown to become landmarks for success? Currently, it seems as if there are two divergent paths that the community schools are beginning to take as they become increasingly exposed to the winds of change sweeping through Dharavi. One possibility is that the schools will become reshaped by commercial interests. In my eyes, this scenario would be a reflection of many of the market pressures slowly squeezing Dharavi dry; as the education competition in the rest of Mumbai becomes more and more cut-throat, the reverse movement that led to the genesis of community schools will happen, and they will attract families from outside who would begin to flock to these relatively affordable and less selective schools to alleviate the stress of admissions found in much of the city. Yet, while the growing commodification of these may be difficult to halt, it is met with resistance. For example, a trustee noted these changes with mixed emotions, saying that “they [the other schools] are all commercial centers. Their motto is ‘taking so many fees’. Our motto is ‘the last man’ ” Indeed another, more optimistic path, that some of the schools are taking is the maintenance of strong moral commitment, which translated into teaching devoted to social progress, the maintenance of some native language classes, and community programs or purposefully low fees. In their own way, these schools are working to rid Dharavi of its ‘slum’ label through the efforts of its own citizens, yet as each one of the students who has passed through their classrooms know this will be an uphill battle.

Raphael Gernath is a graduate student in urban governance at Sciences Po Paris’ Urban School. He obtained a bachelor's from Sciences-Po’s Euro-American campus and has studied sociology and history at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. An urbanist at heart, he is passionate about social movements in cities, political conflicts over land use, and their materialization in Indian metropolises. He spent 8 weeks with urbz researching community schools in Dharavi. This was done as part of the urbz collaboration with Design Museum Dharavi – an art project curated by Jorge Mañes Rubio and Amanda Pinatih/em>

Posters designed by local graphic artists that emerged from the project will be exhibited as part of the Design Museum Dharavi Initiative in Mumbai.