In India, Can Schools Offer Path Out Of Poverty? India recently passed a law providing children with the right to free education. But public schools are inadequate and child labor remains common. As a result, many parents turn to better-equipped -- but costly -- private schools. On the Grand Trunk Road that crosses South Asia, NPR explores the plight of young people in this series.
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Philip Reeves reports

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In India, Can Schools Offer Path Out Of Poverty?

Philip Reeves reports

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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MORNING EDITION's journey through India and Pakistan on the Grand Trunk Road reminds us of a big difference between America and the developing world. You can live a rich life here, symbolized by the decorated trucks we see on this highway, painted bright reds, greens and yellows.

But there's a much thinner line between failure and success, even between life and death. Consider the painted truck we saw overturned just a short way back down the road.

Here in Pakistan, many people ride to work while standing with their toes on the back bumper of a truck. The risks of life here become apparent as we report on South Asia's young people. A majority of Indian Pakistan's population is under 25. Some of the world's future is in their hands, if they're lucky enough to claim it. NPR's Philip Reeves makes our next stop along the Grand Trunk Road in the Indian city of Kanpur.

PHILIP REEVES: This is where Mohammed Zaffer Kurshi Vasi(ph) works. It's a back alley workshop where leather's treated. Leather from here will one day be on the feet of an Indian soldier or an Italian supermodel.

There are piles of it lying around in the warm, feted gloom. Mohammed's 20. He's from India's large Muslim minority. This business is run by his family. Mohammed's grandfather sits close by, beneath a white cap, a long beard, and a pair of sunglasses. Life was going pretty well for the family. Then suddenly, 10 years ago, Mohammed's father was blinded in an acid attack.

M: (Through translator) He couldn't keep working, so I had to step into the family business.

REEVES: The police never solved the case. The family suspect the attacker was a jealous rival in the leather trade. Mohammed was taken out of school and put to work in the family business. He still broods over this.

M: (Through translator) Sometimes, I still feel like I should study more. Sometimes, I still - I have that urge to study more, but it's very difficult right now because I have to help out.

REEVES: Mohammed hopes to go back to school one day.

M: (Through translator) Who knows? My luck might change.

REEVES: The young Indians we've met so far have often been ambitious, hardworking, devout, and deeply tied to their families. They grapple with barriers and prejudices about gender, caste, religion and more. They also often live in an intensely crowded and hazardous environment. Lives can be ruined in an instant. To survive and prosper requires luck.

Tehazeed Fatima(ph) is 21 and a Muslim. She's had her share of ill luck. Six years ago, her father died suddenly from a heart attack. She was at an age when many Muslim families withdraw their girls from school, but her brothers wanted her to go to college.

M: (Through translator) Lots of people have to say that, you know, your family is really different, you know. In most other Muslim families, the girls are very severely restricted at times.

REEVES: We meet Tehazeed in the grounds of Aligarh Muslim University, several hundred miles along the Grand Trunk Road from our last stop. This is one of India's most renowned centers of Islamic learning. Tehazeed recently graduated from here and is now planning to do a business master's. Even now, she's not entirely free. She says her brothers won't allow her to travel abroad. Student life sounds - well, a little restricted.

M: We dance in our rooms. We go to the malls. We go out for movies. We go out and have dinners. So we do all of those things, but we don't go to discos.

REEVES: We've come to the countryside a few dozen miles out of Aligarh. Lunch is being served.

Hundreds of girls, from tiny ones to near adults, file into the room. They sit down, packed closely together on mats, and begin to devour their lentils, bread and rice at breakneck speed. No one here fusses over their food. These girls are all from families below the poverty line.


REEVES: This is a school, a training center and a factory rolled into one. It was started by a man called Sam Singh. The girls greet him like a dignitary.


REEVES: Singh is from a wealthy, local family. He spent his career in the U.S., working for the industrial giant DuPont, and is an American citizen. When he retired, Singh returned to his Indian village and plowed all his savings into setting up this center. He seems delighted with what his school's become.

M: You can see all these girls. You will not believe that they come from the family who make 30 cents a day. I mean, they will look like any girl anywhere.

REEVES: The school has close to 1,200 girls. Half their day is devoted to study.


REEVES: This is what many of them do for the other half of the day. They're being trained to make home furnishings: cushions, tablemats, bed covers and so on. They also make sanitary pads. The absence of these in rural India is a significant threat to the health of women. Products made by older pupils are sold to raise funds.

Singh's biggest battle is keeping the girls in school. Child marriage is common around here. The school has an ingenious solution. Each girl has an account into which about 20 cents is paid every day she attends school. If she makes it through 10th grade, she keeps the entire fund, accessing from the age of 21. Singh says this has been successful, though not with Muslim families. Muslim girls almost never stay beyond the onset of puberty.

M: Our dropout rate in Muslim community is 90-plus percent. I have only one girl - Muslim girl - who have at least 12th grade in the last 10 years, only one.

REEVES: That one girl is 18-year-old Shahenzle Tunna(ph). She says her family is educated and understands the value of education. I ask her why there are no other Muslim girls of her age in the school.

M: (Through translator) Some of it might be related to financial problems, but within us Muslims, there's a lot of things about keeping the girl behind the curtain - keeping her at home, not allowing her to go outside.

REEVES: Singh's school is testimony to the government's failure. India's just passed a law giving every child from 6 to 14 the right to free schooling. How do you enforce this in the depths of rural India? Singh says government schools in this area are terrible.

M: It's a sad thing because there are no teachers there and hardly any students there. There is no education going on. And even if somebody go, zero girl is going.

REEVES: No girls at all.

M: No girls go there, you know.

REEVES: Back on the Grand Trunk Road, we stop at the first government-run village school we come across.


REEVES: It has hardly any desks, and no chairs. We see no shelves or books. There's no electricity. The school's power line was stolen 10 months ago. The principal has more than 60 kids in his class. Luck is not on the side of these children, though you wouldn't know this from the happy sendoff they give us.

U: (Singing in foreign language)

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News.

INSKEEP: We'll continue our reporting tomorrow and through next week along the Grand Trunk Road. And you can take the journey with us at


INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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