Geeta Dharmarajan was saddened by the plight of slum children. She was worried looking at the state of affairs as far as children’s education of low-income groups was concerned in India, but specifically in Delhi. She observed that in Chennai , most children went to school. But, in Delhi, Geeta was shocked to see poor children not going to school. She found it extremely worrying and wanted to change the situation.

At that time, Tamasha, the rural children’s magazine that Geeta had started, had a readership in the slums of Delhi. The Commissioner of slums wanted Katha to start a community library there. She wanted to begin some work for the education of children residing in the slums of Delhi.

Geeta recollects that she didn’t know much Hindi, at that point. It annoyed her and she made huge efforts to become a quick learner (she shares an anecdote that while driving, she wouldn’t overtake a bus, until she could completely read and comprehend the sign on its back, which was in Hindi, even if that meant she would run late for a meeting. But, hindi thoroughly confused her, especially the matras and gender.) Her personal struggle with Hindi made her empathise more with the non-literate students and understand their plight. She felt when she was finding learning a new language so tough, in places where the literacy level is low, it was even more difficult to read.

In 1990, Geeta started the Katha Lab School in Govindpuri, initially with 5 children on a shoe-string budget of INR 2 lacs.  Part of their strategy was to hire teachers from the community. To achieve this end, Katha started a teacher training programme. They began training girls from the community who had finished their 10+2 or were graduates, to become teachers.

First of the problems she encountered was that parents were sending off their children to work, instead of school. Just to earn their lunch. The situation was pathetic. The family income of these slum children was so low, that the parents couldn’t let their children NOT help out in earning a living. In many cases, women (mothers of the slum dwelling children) were sole bread winners, with men very often squandering their earnings in alcoholism. This made Geeta work out a plan. She initiated an income generation programme, just for women. The average family income of people living in slums was INR 600-800. Geeta thought if she could somehow make the women stand on their own feet, that would solve a lot of problems. Thus, Katha started the women entrepreneurship program, in the school.

Another problem was that very often, girl children were taking care of the younger siblings, thus, missing school. This made Geeta start a crèche, to facilitate girl children to go to school.  Students at Katha school jumped to 50 children, then 300 children, now it has about 2000 children. Number of girl children also increased, now half the students are girls.

In 1995, one of the girls at Katha school was threatening to commit suicide because her parents were getting her married. She wanted to stand on her own feet first.  It was then that Geeta decided that just education was of no use unless the students were fruitfully employed later. Thus began the Katha school of entrepreneurship, where various skills were taught. Katha invited Taj chefs to teach baking, the students were assisted to keep their accounts. A number of vocational courses were taught to make them job-ready and placement services were offered.

The whole idea was encapsulated in Katha KREAD (Katha Relevant Education for All-round Development). It’s aim was not only to find employment but was meant to provide value education to students to make them responsible citizens and to bring about change in the community.

The teaching methodology in the Katha Lab School is unique – it is a story-based pedagogy, which discourages the students from learning by rote, rather explains the concepts effectively, through a story. This unique pedagogy is patented by Katha.

Written by Lakshmi Nijhawan