Time is slow to pass and easily wasted in airport lounges. I used to regard the dead time between the rituals of checking in and eventual embarkation as a period of ennui to be endured, frustrated by constant glances at a slow moving clock face or a seldom changing announcement board, impatiently anticipating the eventual walk down a tunnel for the final shuffling into a seat prior to take off. These days I have become better prepared to make some use of these hours. The availability of wireless internet connections in most airports has made it possible to catch up with marking or other work, though I must admit that the varying noise levels of airport lounges with their constant announcements and security instructions often make this a less than satisfactory experience. I am sure it would be possible to form a league table of airports conducive to effective working – Bangalore good, Hong Kong better, Birmingham poor, Heathrow worse.
When travelling other than for work the challenge of the airport lounge is somewhat different. I am reminded that I am supposed to be on holiday. The computer is banned as a nefarious means of maintaining communication with the university or my students and I do so at my peril! This is, of course as it should be and there are numerous compensations to be sought on these occasions. Not least is the acquisition of reading materials that I would normally overlook, but which are manageable within the airport context. So it was recently that I found myself seated in Birmingham airport en route to a relaxing few days in Cyprus with Sara reading the Sunday Independent, a newspaper with which I am largely unfamiliar.
My attention quickly fell upon an article written by Andrew Burcombe under the title “A better future lies under the railway arches.” In this short feature the journalist provided an account of the dedication of Rajesh Kumar Sharma who in 1997 gave up his lucrative business as a building contractor to found a school for the children of migrant workers beneath the arches of a railway bridge in Delhi. Burcombe in this article uses the words of parents such as Bhauti who has come to the city seeking work, as so many have in recent years. She expresses her desire for her children to obtain the education that she was denied as a child in order to gain greater opportunities in their lives. It is with obvious pride that she describes how as a result of the education that her two sons are gaining at this unofficial “Under the Bridge School”, they are now beginning to teach her how to read and write.
The article provides a strange juxtaposition of hope and despair. The commitment of Rajesh Kumar Sharma and his unpaid teachers who dedicate their time to children from one of Delhi’s poorest communities provides hope that at least some of these children may have a better future. But I also found myself pondering on how it can be that successive Indian governments have stated their commitment to including all children in school and have overseen initiatives such as Sarva Siksha Abhiyan and the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, but have tacitly failed to ensure that these are implemented for the children who have most to gain from their enactment.
I have seen the children of migrant workers in cities in several parts of India. With the help of local friends I have spoken to their parents and know them to have aspirations for their children to thrive in a modern India. I have in mind as I write a picture of infants no more than three or four years old sitting playing in piles of sand whilst their mothers porter building materials on coloured platters atop their heads. These invariably tiny ladies exhibit the strength of much bigger men as they labour all day in the sun, often carrying their loads up makeshift bamboo ladders in order to supply the men who are laying concrete or building walls. These women and their children live unimaginably hard and dangerous lives far from their own homes. They provide a service through their endeavours that has enabled the Indian economy and infrastructure to grow with unprecedented pace in recent years. Will the future of their children be any better I wonder? The contribution to improving their lives is greatly enhanced through the dedication of men like Rajesh Kumar Sharma and his colleagues. Sadly there are too few like him, and too many children who continue to be deprived of the most rudimentary opportunities to acquire an education. There is an election under way in India at present – let’s hope that some of the candidates are being asked the hard questions that need to be answered.