Ulhasnagar Hostel is in an urban suburb of Mumbai.

The pressures of life within low caste communities all over India are amplified many times over in Mumbai: alcoholism, domestic violence, bonded labour, homelessness and poverty, all set against the backdrop of caste-based discrimination. None of the hostel boys are free from these influences, and the hostel warden, Ashwajeet Maitrak, explains that most find it hard to settle at first, and may run away because they are unused to the hostel structure of care and discipline.

Sandeep Sunil Tayade is 15 years-old and joined the hostel last year. When he was 10 his dad died during an operation for a burst appendix, and while his mum worked for twelve hours a day there was no-one to keep an eye on him. So he had been truanting from school and hanging around with older boys.

Sandeep's mother, Chhaya, now 31, lives in Bhandup, a rapidly developing area of west Mumbai. She lives on a patch of waste ground surrounded by modern apartment blocks. Her home, which she now shares with Sandeep's sister, is three foot by six foot, covered by scavenged plastic sheets held together by ropes, and sandwiched on either side by her extended family.

Chhaya cooks on two broken bricks and her bathroom is an open patch of wasteland nearby. During the rainy season the sheeting collapses and her few belongings become soaked and rotten.

Having left school at nine years old when her mother died, Chhaya is still illiterate. She is one of millions of low-caste Dalits caught in unreliable, low-paid work through lack of education.

She can earn 100 rupees (about £1.20) per day collecting household waste from 60 homes and carrying it to a local rubbish dump, but Chhaya has malaria which means she often can't work, and has to rely on leftover food from the householders to feed herself and her family.

"I need more help," she says. "My son must complete his education. My life is so difficult because I have no education. I don't want my son to have such a difficult life. The only help you can give me is to support my son."

Of the 38 boys at Ulhasnagar hostel, more than 80% are from one-parent families living in poverty, so Chhaya's and Sandeep's situation is not unusual. The work at Karuna's hostels goes further than simply meeting educational needs. It is focused on developing individuals who can become confident leaders in their communities.

When Sandeep first came to the hostel he was very shy, but he received a great deal of warmth and personal attention.

"I felt scared going to the hostel, but the people at the hostel are really friendly," Sandeep said. "I didn't like going to (my old) school but the atmosphere at my new school is good. I like being on my own. I have friends at the hostel, but I am also allowed to be on my own."

A child-centred approach includes child 'parliaments' in which student representatives are voted for to act on behalf of their peers. This helps them to develop leadership skills from an early age, as well as a capacity to take initiative and responsibility.

Sandeep's eyes light up when he talks about his role as Deputy Chief Minister in this Parliament. He tries to act as a role model and liaises with the hostel wardens on behalf of the other students.

The qualities of leadership, confidence and self-sufficiency that the wardens at Ulhasnagar encourage in Sandeep are those they also look to model themselves.

The hostel currently raises 40% of its income annually through regular donations from the local community and industry, with a pool of donors who give in a wide variety of other ways.

This movement towards self-sufficiency is central to Karuna's vision of its work to help individuals become independent of their caste background, and to develop the skills and confidence they need to become leaders in their communities.

"I was elected because I have good relationships with the other students," Sandeep says. "India is a country where so many things go wrong. I want to sort out problems in society. I want to defend women. Please wish me well and help me finish my education so I can become a police officer."

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