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The age of innocence

With its cream walls and a navy blue gate, the Byculla Women’s Prison located at Clare Road is just another decrepit-looking building. It shelters over 200 women and 100 men from various walks of life who are facing charges for crimes like murder, forgery, and drug peddling, while others await trial.

But also nestled in these premises is a balwadi that promises a new lease of life to the children of these female inmates.

Rise and shine
When I visit it on a Tuesday morning, I am welcomed by a cream and light green wall adorned with paintings of bees, flowers and pictures of various Walt Disney characters such as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy. Cupboards full of soft toys and games decorate the opposite side of the room.
But an eerie silence shrouds the area. Almost immediately, however, the stealth is punctured by the shrieks and laughter of kids aged three to six. That’s when I see tiny tots dressed in yellow and blue uniforms clutching their neon-coloured water bottles, making a beeline for the room, located on the right of the jail premise’s entrance. As they proceed to take off their chappals, which are adorned with cartoon characters in bright shades of yellow and purple, teachers from Sahaara Charitable Society, a non-government organisation, instruct them to stand in a line. It’s prayer (prarthana) time. The children clutch their hands, close their eyes and sing Itni Shakti Hamein Dena Daata, prodded by their teachers. Soon, they are asked to thank the almighty and seek his blessings urging him to ensure that they don’t fall in bad company, commit a crime or abuse anyone.

The class is in session
Once the preliminary prayers are done, the kids settle down on the floor and start repeating the names of alphabets, animals and fruits and flowers after their teachers. Following the oral lessons, they are supplied with slates and chalks to practise some writing. Later, they are treated to chocolates and biscuits. Munching merrily on them, they run around the room, push each other and indulge in some camaraderie.

While four year-old Yasmin, the daughter of a Bangladeshi inmate, cries after her favourite toy is snatched away by her classmate Siya, five year-old Yunus enjoys a ride on a bright yellow and green bicycle. Soon, they are asked to stand in a queue, wear their chappals and are taken to the nearby playing area. While one of them rushes to the swing, the other jumps onto the see-saw. The two-and-a-half-hour class ends with the kids being ushered back into the classroom where they stand in a circle, hold each other’s hands and sing Ringa Ringa Roses and Johnny Johnny Yes Papa. The teachers then entrust the children to lady constables who escort them to the jail where they spend the rest of the day with their mothers.

A learning curve
Set up on July 26, 2004, after the Supreme Court made it mandatory for women’s prisons to have a play school and nursery for kids of inmates, the balwadi is a haven for these children. Satish Karnik, superintendent of Byculla Women’s Prison, says, “Before 2004, classes for the kids would be held within the prison itself. Usually the most educated inmate would teach them on a voluntary basis. But after the SC verdict, we tied up with various NGOs so that well-qualified teachers could tutor these children. We also approached Walt Disney Company (India) Pvt Ltd to provide us with toys for the balwadi. In order to sensitise the kids to the outside world, they are also taken to zoos and parks. The purpose of the initiative is to make them self-reliant and enable them to learn new things.”

Though the prison houses 204 women inmates, at present, only 10 kids attend the balwadi. Karnik says, “Sometimes, as many as 35 children attend the balwadi. The numbers aren’t consistent, as the kids leave the premises as soon as their mothers are let off. Most of the children are Bangladeshis whose mothers are arrested under the Foreign Act and await deportation. At times, kids of the jail staff also attend the balwadi. Every month, we take a monthly update of what is being taught at the school from the teachers and a report is submitted to the regional Inspector General.”

Surendra Kumar, inspector general of prisons, says that grooming these children in their formative years can give them a better future. “The kids shouldn’t be deprived of their childhood because of their parents. We ensure that they are taught good etiquette and manners which will be helpful to them in the long run.”

The balwadi has also proven to be a learning experience for teachers. As 20-something Sonali Bundke, who has been teaching the kids for the past six months, says, “Earlier, I would take home tuitions. This is the first time I’m teaching children at a balwadi and it has been an eye-opener. I learn new things from these young ones every day. For instance, since most of them are Bangladeshis, they teach me how to speak Bengali. And it works because it helps me understand them better, like when they want to go to the loo or drink water.”

But her duty doesn’t end within the four walls of the balwadi itself. Since only kids upto the age of six are allowed to be kept in the prison, they are unable to continue their education in the longer run. In such cases, Bundke and her colleagues follow up with them and sponsor their education even after they leave the jail premises. “In April this year, we approached the parents of five children, residing at Mira Road, who have agreed to take up our services. In cases where the kids are Bangladeshis, we provide them with books, which they can read.”

Pallavi Kadam, senior jailor of Byculla Women’s Prison, explains that plans are afoot to build an aanganwadi for the children. “We want to provide them with good education and nutrition, which they won’t be able to afford in the outside world.”

Real tales
The kids are clearly benefiting from attending the school. Six year-old Samrun Khatun, a resident of Bihar, who has been attending the balwadi for the past 14 months, says cheerfully, “Maine ABCD bolna sikha hain or kaafi kahaniyan jaise pyaasa kauva bhi seekhi hain. (I have been learning ABCD and different stories like that of the thirsty crow). Yahaan par sab mere dost hain. (All are my friends here).” Ask her what is her favourite song and she starts reciting Itni Shakti Hamein Dena Daata with an air of sincerity.

It’s been only five days since Yunus Rahim Shaikh has been attending the balwadi. But he admits it seems he has known his classmates forever. “Mujhe yahaan par sab ke saath khelna achcha lagta hain. (I love playing here with everybody).”

Spending two hours interacting with these tiny tots within the confines of the jail premises, I realise that the authorities, teachers and the kids themselves are taking efforts to ensure that their innocence isn’t lost.
 

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