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Last Updated: Monday, 11 December 2006, 21:49 GMT
India's poor children raise their hopes
By Karishma Vaswani
Business correspondent, BBC News, Mumbai

Indian school children
Many young Indians see learning English as a route to a better life

It hasn't been an easy life for 15-year-old Shehnaz.

Her early childhood memories are of living on Mumbai's streets begging with her mother, father, and baby brother just to make ends meet.

Finally, a few years ago, the family managed to find a shelter in one of Mumbai's many slums.

Now, they have a roof over their heads, and three square meals a day. Shehnaz's father has found work, cleaning luxury buses.

But for Shehnaz, this life isn't enough. She wants a way out of the poverty.

"When I grow up I want to work in a call centre... so I can make lots of money, and get my family out of this place," she says, her English clean and crisp, highly unusual for a young girl who has spent most of her life working on Mumbai's streets.

Fighting chance

Shehnaz's ticket out of the slums?

Learning the English language.

Although she attends a state school, educational facilities there are threadbare at best.

Call centre worker in India
Will India have enough qualified staff to work in call centres?

For the last few years, she has been taking English classes at an after school programme for Mumbai's street children, run by volunteers.

Attending Shehnaz's classes, it is stunning to hear how well the rest of her classmates, all children off Mumbai's streets or from Mumbai's slums speak English.

And they are good readers too, as can be seen by the literature they are working with - including The Outsiders by SE Hinton.

"They like this book," muses Anjali Shahani, one of the programme's volunteer teachers.

"It gives them something to identify with.

"Some of them have really tragic stories themselves. They've lived with abusive parents, alcoholic dads, and had to survive in the most desperate of conditions.

"But they're hungry, yearning for a way out. So what if they're not from the best schools. English will give them a fighting chance in the world outside."

Fading dream?

It is the modern Indian dream. A job as a cyber coolie in one of India's booming technology firms.

The IT sector here has provided millions of young English-speaking Indians with plump pay checks.

Now it makes up 40% of India's economy, which soared by more than 9% in the last three months to September 2006.

Woman weaving basket in India
India has the largest child workforce in the world

But even this dream is starting to show signs of fading.

A recent study shows that although more than half of India's population is under 25, there are not enough young Indian children equipped or armed with the skills they need to work as the country's call centre workers, software engineers, or computer scientists.

It is obvious that although India has one of the largest populations of young people in the world, it is starved of educational opportunity, and its youth do not have the skills they need to get jobs in the future.

Millions of young Indians have seen their incomes rise thanks to growth in the Indian economy, but there are millions more who have been left out of the country's economic growth.

High-end jobs remain elusive for the 60 million Indian children who have to work to make a living.

Yet India has the largest child workforce in the world.

The challenge facing India is to make sure all of its children get a fair chance to participate in its economic growth.

Its next generation is at stake.


SEE ALSO
Indian firms facing talent crunch
11 Oct 06 |  Business
India's faltering education system
18 Aug 06 |  South Asia
Growth gives hope to India's poor
18 Apr 06 |  Business



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