From Ragpicking to Nation Building
Chandini Khan, and Dev Pratab Singh - inspiring in every way
Two 'rag pickers' chose to rise from the ashes society had heaped on them and have changed the narrative. The story could well be made into a superhit film. The story begins in Chambal district of Madhya Pradesh. The riverine valley area immortalised by Bollywood as the home of dacoits, guns, and ambush.
Locals, however, recall that Chambal's feudal exploitation and poverty was a big reason why some people in the region took to arms to escape. Dacoity provided them significant economic incentives, and so guns roared in the region for decades.
But every story has two sides, so do the ones from Chambal. Meet Dev Pratap Singh, whose ambitions were always different from those of his peers in their village in Chambal.
Dev was just 10 years old when he left his native village and came to Gwalior.
However, it was not to start school, Dev was going to work as a rag picker, to earn and feed himself. Like many others like him, Dev soon became a drug addict, and was detained by the police at the age of 14.
Soon after Dev left rag picking and started working as a waiter in a restaurant. That too is now a thing of the distant past. Now Dev and his wife Chandni work together towards ensuring education for children living in the slum!
Chandni too was born and brought up in the slums and was just five years old when she started work as a rag picker. Now at the age of 25 she is running a school for the children living in the slum.
Chandni and Dev may have both been ragpickers as children. However, he had a completely different beginning. Dev was born into a middle-class family in Chambal Sambhag district. His father worked in the Life Insurance Corporation of India, and his mother was a housewife.
As a child Dev was inspired by the local ruffians, and wanted to become like them. "Usually kids are inspired by film and sports' stars, but in Chambal it is the rowdies who rule. They were my idols, and I wanted to become like them," he recalled.
"I was very scared of my father as he was strict and we got into many altercations at home. So at the age of 10 I left home with just Rs 130 in my hand and took a train to Dabra, Gwalior. The money was enough for me to have good meals, and even coca cola for two days. But on the third day I didn't have any money left. So, I thought of doing some work but no one gave me a job.
"I didn't want to go to my relatives' place, as I was scared they would tell my father. At the Railway station I saw some kids of my age segregating garbage, and selling the rags, so I joined them and began working as a ragpicker.
"I had to deal with that horrible smell of garbage, but I got used to it. I spent nights at the railway station, but soon I got addicted to smelling 'whitener' like the other children over there," he added.
To fund his addiction, Dev would indulge in petty theft, and ended up in jail for 15 days at the age of 14. "I wasn't aware of juvenile laws then, nor were many of the other children there," he said.
Meanwhile, a stranger bailed him and the other kids out of jail, and helped Singh get a job as a waiter at a dhaba. Dev soon became the popular 'tea boy' and a corporate office, where he had to make tea and serve them. He soon became friendly with the corporate customers, who would also transliterate English phrases into Hindi for him to learn.
Singh recalled the moment he decided to change his life's track, "when I got detained by police I decided to leave ragpicking and asked that person who bailed me out to get a job somewhere. He took me to a dhaba, where I first cleaned the dishes and made tea.
"But my ambitions were different, and one day a waiter was on leave and I got the chance to be one. I got a tip from a customer, and I thought I would just serve the tea and earn money. I became a waiter and soon moved to Goa to find a job there. After wandering the streets of Calangute, Goa, I found work at a beach shack for Rs 4,000 per month."
Turning point for Dev came when he moved to Delhi a few years and found work in sales, moving from place to place. He was promoted to area sales manager and earned Rs 45,000 after two years.
"Few years later I decided to start my own venture and saved money for it. I opened a mobile phone shop. Once a stranger came to my shop and somehow convinced me to lend him around Rs 2,100. He returned the money as promised, and we became friends.
"Unfortunately after one year my landlord asked me to leave the shop, and it was this man who came to my rescue. He helped me land interviews, and I chose to take up a sales job. I did that for two years, and was promoted as marketing supervisor, and then as sales manager," he said.
Then, after many years, he finally reunited with his mother in Agra in 2012, which was a very emotional moment for both of them. "Unfortunately, her happiness was short-lived, as she died the next day in a car accident. I lost the strength of my life, my only reason to live. I was depressed for one year," he recalled.
Two years later, while still dealing with the grief and other woes, he met Chandni Khan. The two realised they had a similar life story. Chandni first held a pencil at the age of ten, and is now aiding and abetting slum children in rewriting their future.
Chandni, like many other children from the slums, began working at a young age. "I used to travel with my father from the age of five to perform street magic shows, dance, and play with snakes, even late at night. I also collected rags at the time," she recalled. When her father died unexpectedly, Chandni became responsible for her family's survival.
"I had to work for someone else and earned only Rs 30 per day. I started rag picking when I was seven years old. Verbal abuse and dog bites became a part of my daily routine, and I eventually ended up in jail on false theft charges. I was changing jobs all the time, from selling flowers to corn.
During one of these monotonous days, I was fortunate to meet a few NGO volunteers who were educating slum children. I discovered my purpose and enrolled in Badhte Kadam at that point," she said.
Chandni persisted, and after a month, she was enrolled in the open school programme. This was a watershed moment for the young girl, who went on to make street children's education her life's work. "I attended as many events as I could, encouraging community members and even parents to allow their children to study," she said.
"It wasn't long before I encountered my first hurdle, two children were imprisoned after being accused of stealing. I remembered the day I went to the police station to get the kids out. It was one of my proudest moments, and it was then that my life began to improve," she added.
She continued to work for Badhte Kadam, assisting them to open new education centres and connecting more children to these centres. She was quickly promoted to District Secretary and then to National Secretary.
It also provided an opportunity for Chandni to work with Balaknama, a slum-kid-run newspaper with a circulation of 5,000. "Because of my eagerness to learn, I became a reporter for Balaknama, documenting compelling stories of slum children. We were eventually able to begin its English edition, and my work was widely praised. This led to the position of editor at Balaknama, where I oversaw the newspaper's entire structure and edit meetings.
"This is a part of my life that will always be memorable because we did a variety of stories about the lives of street children, sexual abuse. Child labour, police brutality, and stories of hope and positive change," said Chandni.
When the couple saw the plight of other children collecting garbage like they did several years ago, they decided to form an NGO. But neither had the funds. "I sold my laptop for about Rs 10,000, bought a smartphone for about Rs 6,000, and used the rest to get a PG room," said Dev.
Dev and Chandni then began visiting the slums and conversing with the children. They couldn't proceed,because they didn't have any money. However, social media on the smartphone provided them with new opportunities.
The desire to make a difference by starting something on their own drove Dev and Chandni to found Voice of Slum. "The NGO was founded to help those in need, especially those under the age of 18 who were turned down by other organisations. The goal is to provide basic necessities such as health care, education, and shelter to street children. We accomplish this with the assistance of our contributors, volunteers, and mentors," said Chandni.
Voice of Slum organises various activities for children while keeping three basic needs in mind: health and nutrition, education, and shelter. "We engage them through street plays to generate interest and confidence. Then, gradually, we begin to educate them, we work on skill development, personality development, leadership training, and self-defence," said Dev.
This empowerment process has been aided by social media. "I noticed that everyone was using social media and embracing new technologies. I realised the value of digital skills and taught myself to use Facebook, where I discovered I could connect with millions of users and raise awareness about Voice of Slum and how we are attempting to change society," said Chandni.
She began by creating a profile page and learned how to use tools such as Facebook Live and 360 to tell the stories of street children. "We didn't want to start a school in the slums, we wanted to have a similar structure in Noida so that we could encourage these children to come to school," said Dev.
"Today, Voice of Slum is run by a team of over 30 salaried employees who teach these children and manage the NGO. The children are taught the basics, with an emphasis on practical knowledge rather than theoretical knowledge," he added.
Every year, the NGO admits about 100 children, who are educated for two years before entering a regular school. Their school fees are paid for by the organisation's donors and well-wishers. "Our goal here is not just to educate these kids, but to ensure that they can break free from poverty and influence the next generation of children," said Dev.
The NGO faced significant financial difficulties. The fact that both founders were uneducated posed a greater challenge. While many people promised to assist them in building their organisational structure, they eventually backed out, causing them to lose their hard-earned savings.
"Even though we aren't taking any help from anyone now, it was difficult for us to convince people because we were two uneducated people who were ragpickers as children," said Chandni.
"We want to open a formal school by 2023, and expand our operations to more places, we are also expanding our efforts to Madhya Pradesh in order to assist more children in the future, shared Dev.
Dev Pratap Singh and Chandni Khan got married on November 10 this year. They come from different religious backgrounds but all their differences fade in the face of their love, and unified goals.