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Retired not tired: Why Kanchan teaches for free in Jammu & Kashmir

Starting with 3 children, she has now enrolled more than 100 students

In 2004, Kanchan Sharma, 62, was walking through a slum in Trikuta Nagar, Jammu, when she saw children about 8 or 9 years old begging on the streets. The parents of the children had migrated from Pipri, a village in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, over the past 30 to 40 years in search of better economic prospects. 

It was the start of something that won’t just shift her perspective but change the lives of many.

Begging is a common issue in Jammu, where families migrating from other states take shelter in makeshift homes built from recycled materials such as tarps, bamboo or cardboard.

“Children often collect recyclables or beg to help their families”, says Kanchan Sharma, a retired lecturer who has been teaching vulnerable children free of cost for the last twelve years.

Sharma was posted as a teacher at the government girls’ high school Gandhi Nagar, Jammu, in 2004. First, she convinced three children who were involved in street begging to enrol in her school.

As the kids joined in, Sharma knew she could do more. 

“I started raising awareness about education and motivating them to take classes at school. My idea is proven results-oriented. At first, only three slum children came to school, where I was posted as a teacher. It was a great moment for me,” Sharma told South Asian Today. Her continued effort saw 40 children getting enrolled in Gandhi Nagar high school. She says empowering children with education can result in better social, mental and emotional impact than providing temporary relief with money.

But when she was transferred to another school later that year, all 40 children dropped out within a month after her transfer.


Sharma then approached the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan — a flagship program of the Universalization of Elementary Education formulated by the Government of India — for help but did not get any positive response. She then decided to open a makeshift school in Maratha Mohalla, a slum area north of Jammu, just meters away from where she first met the children.


With the permission of the Jammu and Kashmir Ministry of Education, Sharma’s school ‘Sangarh Vidya Kendra’ officially opened in 2009. It has just one aim: Provide children with free education. The students are also given free uniforms, school bags, and stationery.

In the beginning, student numbers fluctuated as families searched for a stable livelihood, but now more than a hundred children gather under makeshift tin roofs to study. 

The first challenge, Sharma says, was to win their parents' trust. Sharma told them she would provide all kinds of help to their children if they agreed to send them to her school. The real challenge was to convince their parents that educating their children could lift them out of poverty, which is naturally difficult to understand when some families depend entirely on their children's income.

In some cases, one or both of the parents suffered from addiction and relied on their children’s panhandling to earn the family an income. “They were not in favour of sending their children to school,” Sharma said.

Sharma, along with a team of four other teachers, often organises extracurricular activities at her school, such as sports and debates, “to clear their minds” from abuse.  “Now they participate in literary and physical activities, taking care of their bodies. It helps,” she adds. 

“We have tough challenges here,” said Monika Sharma, 25, one of Sangarh Vidya Kendra's teachers. “But we will leave no stone unturned to change their way of life”.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, which ravaged the country, schools in Jammu were closed for almost two years. While other schools learned online, Sharmas students couldn’t afford smartphones for class assignments. Despite her purchasing smartphones for her students, many went back to begging. And so, she decided to hold a two-hour offline class weekly so students could regain focus on their studies.

Amit Shankar, a father of two students told us, “We feel fortunate that Kanchan ma’am has started this initiative to raise us through education.”

Abbas, a student at Sharma's school, said, “I was begging on the streets and carrying tons of plastic waste on my back, but after joining the school, I consider myself the luckiest kid in the world to have a school bag on my back now.” 

Under the National Policy on Education of 1986, the government provides free and compulsory elementary education to all children under the age of 14, but these facilities are not available to students of Sharma’s school, which is considered a private entity, and “there is no protocol of the government to provide any assistance to private schools”.

Consequently, she’s been bearing the costs of operating the school out of her pocket, paying her teachers’ salaries through her savings and retirement funds. 

Despite winning various awards over the years, no outside funding has come in to support her school. After 14 years of personally financing Sangarh Vidya Kendra, at long last, Sharma is running out of money.

Her dream of turning the school into a brick-and-mortar building will have to wait. “I wish the government would come forward to help me so that the future of these slum children will be brighter,” she added.

About the author

Irshad Hussain and Mubashir Naik are independent journalists based in Kashmir.





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