Pooja, age 7, is one of the first people to run and greet me by name every time I enter the slum. I can hear her running at me now yelling, "Johnnnnnnnnnnnn" as each step causes inflection in her voice. She is confident, energetic, and, like most of our selected students, very eager to learn.
Pooja's older brother, Pritam, is 13 years old and also studies in our slum school. He has never attended a formal school and reads at a 1st grade level. Without our intervention, we fear this will happen to Pooja too.
Pooja’s father, Umesh, works the night shift at a nearby factory. I had no idea we were going to wake him up when we visited his home one afternoon last week. Although visibly exhausted with eyes glazed over, Umesh was very enthusiastic about our plans.
However, Pooja does not have a birth certificate. Like many of the others, she was born at home. Unlike many of the others, however, her father has some documentation to support her story. Today, I walked with Umesh, Mitlesh, and Mumta to the local birth certificate office at the Municipal Corporation of Faridabad (MCF). Below are some photos from the walk:
As expected, I immediately got the impression that this was going to be a long process. There were computers in the room, but I don't think they have seen any use in years. Every birth was still being recorded in massive atlas-sized books dating back many decades.
From his gestures and attitude, I could tell that the head of the office was not too interested in helping us. He insisted that each student wanting a birth certificate bring:
1) Address proof from the time of birth 2) Vaccination card from the time of birth 3) Ration card from the time of birth 4) Multiple applications 5) Witness of a midwife or doctor from time of birth 6) Witness of two neighbors from time of birth 7) Copies of multiple documents 8) Current address proof
I kept calm but I was internally fuming at what a horrible system this is. Most of our students' families couldn't come up with even current documents, let alone documents from nearly a decade ago. Our children aren't the only ones without birth certificates. Given the small sample size I have seen, there must be tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people in India who do not have birth certificates.
Still, we obeyed this man's seemingly frivolous demands. We walked to get copies of Umesh's ration cards and Pooja's vaccination cards in a ramshackle store...
...and then to a small hospital to have an M.B.B.S certified doctor notarize the copies...
..and then back to the slum to find the midwife who gave birth to Pooja so that we could get her fingerprints and validation (by the way, she is uneducated and has assisted the delivery of more than 1,000 children in the slum!)...
...and then back to the MCF office to give the man what he wanted. Then, the same man that told us to go get all of these documents said that he needed the birth certificates of Umesh's other children. "You have to be kidding me," I thought to myself. After some pressure, he accepted the application as is. Over the next ten days, he will perform an investigation of the documents and interview the midwife and other witnesses.
To say that I was frustrated with bureaucracy today would be an understatement. However, I am keeping the end goal in sight. If we have to bring in the big artillery and work with district level commissioners just to get these kids in school, we will. Just looking in their eyes motivates me.
Teresa, your donation is opening doors for Pooja in more ways than many of us can even comprehend. Without your help, Pooja would not even be registered as a citizen of her own country. We will get her birth certificate, no matter what it takes. She will thrive in school, I know it. Perhaps, someday, she will use her birth certificate to get a passport so that she can come visit you in the United States of America on her way to a new job.