There are hundreds of passionate activists working with the most vulnerable communities across India. Arise spent the day with four such people. They are Salesian Sisters from Chennai who witnessed the need in the Kanngai Nagar slum and decided that they could not just sit by. Their innovative prevention work can ensure a child stays in schooling for as little as $200 a year. 

Salesian Sisters

Two of the sisters who are committed to serving those in Kanngai Nagar

Kanngai Nagar is Chennai’s largest slum and is home to over 150,000 individuals. It was created about 20 years ago, when the Chennai municipality demolished 72 smaller slum communities and moved their inhabitants to an area just south of the city. Kanngai Nagar neighbours the IT corridor in Chennai, but the communities live in completely different worlds. 

Each family in Kanngai Nagar has one room, with one window. Toilets and bathrooms are shared between at least two families. There is no running water. Public taps are only turned on a few days a week when families have to stockpile. Cooking is done on the street over open flames. Under half of occupants are literate. The school drop out rate is estimated to be 50%. Trafficking and child abuse are almost daily occurrences. Drug use is high across the slum. Most parents are too scared to allow their children outside alone after dark.

One water tap that supplies over 50 families in Kanngai Nagar

While visiting, Arise spoke to 10 women about their experiences. All of them grew up in the slum, and many of them are currently raising their own families there. They spoke of their fear for the safety of their children, and their hope for a better life for them. When asked what single thing would make a difference to the slum, all women responded with the same statement: ‘a good education for children’. They see education as the key to break the cycle, lifting future generations out of the their current hopelessness.

The sisters only began working in January, but have already gained the trust of hundreds of families. They have established five ‘school centres’ providing informal education for children aged 3 to 10. These classes, taught by teachers from the slum themselves, each educate about 25 children giving them basic literacy and numerical education.

The informal study centres are held wherever the sisters can find space. The teachers clear this space before fitting 25 students in, and using the walls as boards.

These centres are operating wherever they can: two of them are in the front porches of the teachers’ houses, while three are in alleyways behind houses. Before they can begin, the teachers must clear space for the children to sit, moving the tubs of water the families have stockpiled to last until the water is turned on again. It is hoped that through this the children will win places at good government schools and continue their education to college level. They estimate that it will take only $200 to keep one child in school for a year, including equipment, transportation to school and even providing them with clean school uniforms. 

The sisters have also rented rooms in the slum to provide older students with a calm – and safe – space within which they can study. Soon they will be living within the community itself. On the weekends one of the sisters bring toys for the children allowing them a small chance to play in a safe space. All the parks in the slum are closed, thus meaning this is childhood pleasure that has previously been denied to them.  

The Salesians are taking the long term view. When talking to Arise they spoke of their systematic plan to branch out to the whole slum, gaining the trust of the communities street by street. They recognised that it would be many years before they can make a large change. But as the only people offering support to this community they know that their work is the only chance of hope for many of these people. Each of the sisters is committed to this work, knowing that the Salesians are beginning a project that will last for decades.