In what is called a landmark judgement the Supreme Court has upheld the constitutional validity of the right to education (RTE) act. Actually what was being challenged by petitioners was the constitutional validity of the RTE law that requires private schools to earmark 25 percent seats for poorer students. The petitioners were, needless to say, public and private schools. The judgement is being lauded by many activists as a historical one. Wow now children from underprivileged homes will be able to access the best of schools. What an achievement! Or is it?
Let us not celebrate to soon. I would like to share some of my concerns which are in fact quite disturbing. The Right to Education Act provides for free and compulsory education of equitable quality to all children of the age of six to fourteen years.This right is now enshrined in the Constitution and thus it becomes the duty to the state to provide free and compulsory education of equitable quality to all children in India privileged and underprivileged. In an ideal situation the state should run schools that provide free education of equitable quality in every neighbourhood across the land.
Now the new RTE Act with is rather absurd reservation of 25% seats in all schools has been heralded as the panacea for all ills. However in a state like Delhi around 9000 poor children will benefit from this, for the rest the poorly run Government schools will have to do as nothing pertains to their up gradation in the new bill. In all the euphoria following the ‘landmark’ judgement one tends to forget the dissenting order of one of the judges. Justice Radhakrishnan said the duty was entirely on the government to establish sufficient number of neighbourhood schools. Sadly his voice went unheard.
So according to this new RET Bill a handful of students will enter the hallowed ground of goes by the name of public schools in India and encompasses the uber rich school with its AC classes and marble hallways to the small local public school that barely has a ground for the children to play in. The fees of these schools range from a paltry 500 Rs to a whopping 10K per month! It is true that schools with limited facilities have been told to up grade them in a given span of time or face derecognition and/or closure. What we may actually see is the closure of many such schools and thus less privileged seats for the under privileged.Oops I forgot to mention that the government would pay private schools a monthly amount for the poor children ranging from 500 to 1500Rs. Needless to say the schools are up in arms and wondering where the missing numbers would come from. The option that jumps to mind is the increase of fees thus passing the burden to parents of ‘rich’ children. This is terribly unfair as many middle class parents scrap the barel to send their children to a good school.
I was amazed and shocked at the suggestions proffered by our Minister in a recent interview. When questionned on the issue of funds for the disadvantaged children pat came the answer: If they have their surpluses or reserves, may be part of that can be spent here. But if not that then you have many corporations who are committed to corporate social responsibilities with 2 per cent of their entire turn over for corporate responsibility. So now profit making schools stand be in line with NGOs to seek corporate funding. The whole interview is subject for a Marx movie. Do read it. The gem is: the government is in no financial position, to ensure high quality education to all our children in government school alone. We have a right to equitable education but the government is shirking from its duty to give every child this right.
Anyway let us carry on and put this whole nightmare into context. In India 20% children go to private school, the remaining 80 attend government schools or not school at all. The Bill does not do much fro the 80% except offering them 25% seats in the schools the 20% go to. Mind boggling to say the least. Try and work out the maths. I can’t! Anyway the 25 of 20% are supposedly open to all the 80%. To put this in perspective a school in Delhi received 1500 applications fro 20 reserved seats. So 1480 kids who should have got good education will have no option go to a government school. Now let us for the sake of argument imagine the school life of little Mina, one of the 20! Her parents live in a one room slum tenement, a room shared by her parents and 4 siblings. Mina is a bright kid but her parents are illiterate. She goes to a swanky school but comes home to a hell hole. Now who will help her with her homework, her school projects etc. Her classmates have access to parents, tutors, Internet et al. She does not even have a table to study on. Now let us say she overcomes every hurdle – a miracle in itself – and reaches the age of 14, what happens to her? Who pays her fees? I cannot even begin to imagine the options.
Now the remaining 1480 kids will have to go to a government school. I would like to share some data that brings to light the sad reality of the state of education in our country, and thus the options open to our 1480 kids:
Only 53% of habitation have a primary school.
Only 20% of habitation have a secondary school.
On an average an upper primary school is 3 km away in 22% of areas under habitations.
In nearly 60% of schools, there are less than two teachers to teach Classes I to V.
On an average, there are less than three teachers per primary school. They have to manage classes from I to V every day.
1 in 40, primary school in India is conducted in open spaces or tents, let alone furniture or fans..
This is a reality, and not just in remote villages but in our very own city. Even furniture, if any, is not the right size. This is what the Government has to offer in the name of equitable education. A sad joke played on voiceless children. With the State passing the buck for some and giving up on others, the right to equitable education seems nothing short of a chimera.
It is not that the State is incapable of running a good educational institution. Look at the Central Schools or the Navyug schools. They are wonderful and enabling centres of learning. This is what every government school should strive to be. The half baked education on offer is not acceptable. Once again the Government has proved that they thrive on reservation policies and are masters at conjuring new ‘castes’ for want of a better word. Now poor children will not only have a religion and a social caste but will acquire the new label of being or not being in a private school. And this division is unique as it may even apply to the same family! I am flabbergasted at hearing the Minister call this approach an inclusive one. Why then is inclusion reserved to a small minority of underprivileged children.
Coming back to how the private schools will manage the financials of having to accommodate 25% underprivileged children and whether they would pass the burden to the parents, our Minister retorted 90 per cent can give 10 times the fee that they are paying. I think he was referring to the uber rich. Or perhaps our Minister has not got his facts right. There are many parents who scrape the barrel to put their children in good public schools. Many underprivileged parents also put their children in smaller public schools by tightening their belt till it hurts. I do not know which 90% the minister is referring to.
The RTE in its present form will not bring about equitable education to all the children of India. It is only when the Government finds itself in the financial position to upgrade all school to the required level that the children of India can hope to be educated.
The case of a severely undernourished three year old abandoned by her grandmother in a hospital brings up the spectre of malnutrition. One can never repeat enough the ignominious statistic that should make us hang our heads in shame: 5013 children die every day of malnutrition related causes. Every day, that is 3 children every minute. While we sip our morning tea 3 children would have died. Just take a minute to ponder about this. Each time I do I get goose bumps and my blood runs cold. Every single day: 5000 children that is more than 5 times the number of children in project why!
What prompted to right this post was a recent expose in Tehelka magazine entitled: The raja who stole from the poor. Do read it! It is nothing short of shocking. What was stolen is food meant for the poor. The loot was conservatively estimated at 200 000 crores. One crore is 10 million rupees! It is mind boggling to say the least. The spoils were shared by the usual nexus: politicians and bureaucrats. The grains meant for the poor are sold on the open market or smuggled to neighbouring countries. We all know corruption exists in our country and exists big time but the idea of food for the poor being hijacked in this manner is nothing short of galling. And yet even with the cat out of the bag we all know nothing is going to happen. Maybe a lull in nefarious activities till the dust settles and new ways of plundering are devised.
I guess for things to change it is civil society that will have to take up the cudgels and move from its present catatonia. But will we. The children who die are too remote for us to be truly touched. All the programmes meant to alleviate hunger are far too often hijacked. That is the sad reality in India. We have great programmes but poor implementation. Programmes become means to line pockets. Had the ICDS (integrated child development scheme) worked, no one below 30 would have been malnourished, but just visit any balwadis (creche) run under its ageis in the city and you will know that it has been set up not for the benefit of children but as a moneymaking and political gratification tool.
Let me once again share some statistics as I feel that it is only by repeating ad nauseum the stark reality that we may perhaps give up our immobility and act: 43.5% of children are underweight; 50% of children’s death are attributed to malnutrition, 46 per cent of all children below the age of three are too small for their age, 47 per cent are underweight and at least 16 per cent are wasted; anaemia affects 74 per cent of children under the age of three, more than 90 per cent of adolescent girls and 50 per cent of women; non availability of food seems to be the major cause of malnutrition. In India more than 5 million children die every year as a direct or indirect result of malnutrition. That translates into one child death every 10 seconds. ONE CHILD EVERY 10 SECONDS. Do we realise what this means. Ten seconds is the time taken to type 3 words, take a sip of tea, walk a few steps. And each time we do any of these one child dies quietly, just another statistic.
On the other side of the invisible wall dustbins and garbage dumps are filled with edible stuff, plates are unfinished in parties and eating places. And that is not all: every year food grain rots in the open for want of storage space. What is even sadder is that eve in slums food is thrown with impunity as if throwing food was an essential step in social mobility. I always shudder at the amount of food that lies on the streets after the regular religious feeding frenzies that dot the year.
Our Prime Minister called malnutrition deaths a national shame. I guess it was only lip service as nothing seems to have changed. 5000 children still die everyday. What will it take to change things?
Enough is enough. It is time to set the record straight and teach the basics of genetics to men in India and maybe elsewhere too! It is time to put a stop at the suffering of women accused of the impossible and blamed for not having sons. It is time people learnt the facts of X and Y! I mean chromosomes. A woman was strangled to death for giving birth to a daughter. She was strangled by her husband of 10 years because she had yet again produced a daughter. It is time this bloke and others like him been told that actually HE was responsible for the child’s gender, he and he alone. His poor wife did not have what is needed to make the child a son. The required Y!
It is time Governments the world over, organisations and family planning programmes launched Project Y. One cannot begin to imagine women are abused, slandered, vilified, taunted, repudiated and now even murdered for not giving birth to a son, as if they had they were responsible for the same. Let us not forget the millions of little girls who are killed before they are born and after. Little Afreen is just a poignant reminder of this cruel and horrific fact. What makes it all more incomprehensible and puzzling is that this happens in the very land that celebrates Goddesses with alacrity and misplaced fervor.
And don’t live under the false impression that such behaviour is only seen in villages or urban slums. It is all pervading though the taunts may be subtler as one moves up the social echelon. Girl foeticide is rampant is middle class India where money easily subverts loose laws. There are sufficient medical practitioners willing to perform sex determinations tests for the right amount of gold. And what is worse is the absolute denial of genetic laws by so called educated people. I remember an instance when an educated person whose son had produced a second daughter and who I was trying to ‘educate’ promptly retorted: My son can do no wrong! Read ‘wrong’ as be responsible for the gender of his child. Come on! On what planet are we living. And what is it that makes us hate girls so much. It seems like we have lost our bearings completely. Would strongly recommend you see Manish Jha’s disturbing film Matrubhoomi: A Nation Without Women to visualise this reality. The film won many international awards but needless to say barely ran in Indian theaters. I guess no one wants to see reality when it is thrown at us, it is just too disquieting.
I still wonder why the X/Y story is not screamed for every rooftop. It should be. As were it to be many women would be freed from age long pain and distress and men would see themselves in another light. If men were to understand that they are the ones responsible for determining the sex of a child would they still kill their daughters? It is a million dollar question but one worth addressing.
I have been putting off writing this post for a long time but it is time I do, as much for myself as for all those who shared my dream and supported it. Sadly this dream did not become reality. I am talking of Planet Why, the guest house with a difference that would have allowed project why attain sustainability. Many of you do not know how far we went in our dream.
Planet Why was to be a green guest house with 23 rooms. Solar energy, recycled water, geothermal cooling and heating, you name it, we had it. A beautiful building in red bricks – no need of yearly painting just a good scrub needed – designed in Laurie Baker’s inimitable style and sound principles, made it a delight for the senses and the heart. Juxtaposed to the guest house and separated by an open air amphitheatre was the children centre a haven for differently abled persons and women in critical situations. The centre also had the capacity to house a foray of activities for children of local deprived communities. Planet why would have also been a training ground for project why alumni in a wide range of skills.
We dared to dream and dream big. The Fates did seem to be on our side. True there were some small hiccups but we were able to find and purchase a lovely plot of land. In spite of our lack of business acumen we came up with a plan that was validated by internationally renowned professionals. We meticulously budgeted for all our needs to the smallest spoon or saucer. A beautiful architectural model was designed by an eminent architect. All that was needed were the funds and even here we seemed to be on track as an investor promised us the needed amount. Even the most sceptics amongst us were on cloud nine! The dream was bound to become reality!
Alas that was not to be. The investor backed out suddenly about a year ago. I knew at that moment that the dream was dead but held on hoping against hope that a miracle would happen. But as days became months I knew the miracle was not to be. Planet Why would not happen and it was time to lay it to rest serenely and stop looking back.
However the failure of such a sound and beautiful project has left me quite disturbed. I cannot stop beating myself and wondering if and where I did go wrong. I cannot hide myself behind investors who reneged. The bottom line is that I was unable to raise the needed funds. From day one, fund raising has been my responsibility and I was unable to fulfill it at the most crucial juncture of project why. Perhaps it is because of my having chosen to become a social recluse for reasons I once found sound. Had I continued being the good spouse and accompanied my better half to the innumerable soirees he is invited to, I may have met more people with heavy wallets who could have extended help. So many ‘mays’ and coulds’ make one wonder if that was really the way to go. Given the past record of such individuals when approached for tiny sums, I do not think my pleas, however impassioned, would have made them loosen their purse strings. Perhaps my failure comes from my not having been pro active enough and depended on others. There may be some truth in this and I do not have much to say in my defence and anyway the harm is done and one cannot turn the clock back. I will have to bear the cross of this failure for times to come as I know that we will never have a sustainability option as wondrous as planet why.
Before I end this post allow me to dream a little and share with you what Planet Why was meant to be.
The building on the left side of the picture above is the Planet Why Guest house. It has 23 rooms, each one being decorated in a minimalist and functional style reflecting the rich heritage of India. Each room is wheel chair friendly. The building is eco friendly and has very little carbon emission. On the ground floor is the reception manned by Preeti, a physically challenged young girl who has a smile to die for. A small lounge and coffee shop would serves wholesome organic breakfast to the guests and meals can be ordered in advance. Airport pick up is ensured and handled by well trained project why alumni who double up as enthusiastic guided ready to make you discover the real India. An efficient housekeeping team consisting of challenged persons, project why alumni and local residents under the watchful eye of seasoned professionals ensures that the place is spotless.
The right side building is what we call the ‘children and women centre’. It is home to Preeti and many of her physically and mentally challenged friends. A place where they work, laugh, and live together. It is also home to women in distress who come for a short or longer time to rebuild their broken lives. But that is not all. The centre offers a host of activities for local children and women based on the successful project why model: after school support, computer classes, creative activities, tailoring, beauty classes and more. It is always buzzing with activity. Special workshops are also held for project why alumni in order to get them ready for the outside world.
In the kitchen professionals and trainees are busy preparing meals for the residents. They also make mouth watering pastries and delicious breads they have learnt from a French baker during a workshop. These are sold to regular clients across the city as a means of supplementary income.
. Guests can also learn Hindi and Bollywood dancing.
Planet Why is a no profit organisation that support project why activities.
That is what Planet Why was meant to be. You can imagine how difficult is is to let go of the dream.
If you are born a girl in India nothing can prepare you for what you may endure. You see no one wants girls. So in the very first months of your life, instead of hearing soothing lullabies and being rocked to sleep, instead of tender caresses and loving words you may be burnt, bitten, bashed, smothered and even killed. Ask little Afreen just 3 months old who succumbed to the ignominious treatment metered to her by very one who gave her life. Her crime: to be born a girl. The perpetrator: her own father. The motive: his desire for a son. No one wants little girls. If they are not killed in the womb itself they are likely to be brutalised, abandoned, unwanted, ill treated, abused, traded and always reminded of the fact that they are a burden.
But another tragedy counterpoints Afreen’s. The silence of her mother who watched her baby being tortured by her husband for three long months. Afreen’s mom is just 19 and in a country where women are too swiftly shifted from their parental homes to the husband’s with a one way ticket the options were few, silence being the easiest. The alternative was unthinkable. Where would she go? It is only when the child was almost moribund that she found her voice. But it was too late for Afreen.
The plight of little girls in India is disturbing. Last week we were ‘treated’ to three shocking cases in a single news item: a baby girl left at a busy bus stop, she was barely 3 days old; a severely malnourished 3 year old girl abandoned in a hospital and a custody battle for a girl child born in a hospital but not accepted by her own mother! This is the tip of the iceberg, the few cased that have made it to the headlines. Little girls are unwanted. They are more likely to die then their male counterparts. A girl child aged between 1 and 5 years in our country is 75% more likely to die than a boy. A girl child does not get fed the same way as her male sibling, does not get the same support for education. She is often a second class citizen in her own home. Little girls are unwanted. That is the sad reality in a land where Goddesses are revered and worshiped. Little girls are not.
It is time we did something. Simply watching such news items and clucking sympathetically is not enough. I wonder if such news items make it to page 3 parties. I do not think so. And the reason is that these little unwanted girls are born on the other side of the fence. How can we be so heartless? These little girls are voiceless and need us to lend them our voice, to take up the cudgels for them, to fight for their right to LIVE with dignity and love. What is the use of our so called education if we cannot find compassion?As long as we remain silent such aberrations will continue. It is time many mindsets were straightened the first one being the fact that women are responsible for gender determination. You will be surprised by the number of people, even supposedly educated ones, who believe that men have no role in determining the sex of the child. Millions of women are repudiated for the simple fact that they are unable to bear sons. But women do not have the much sought after X chromosome. I wonder why family planning programmes never highlight this reality. Were they to do so, many women would be freed from terrible pain. It is also time that the importance of girls in society is given prominence. I find it impossible to understand why little girls are not viewed as potential wives and thus mothers. The very men who hurt little girls have mothers.
Come to think of it the real problem is as always money. Our society has instituted a form of marriage where the girl’s family bears the brunt of all expense from the dowry to the actual marriage festivities. Were we to turn the situation on its head and have the boy’s family bear the financial burden would little boys be done away with? But jokes apart maybe it is time to bring some balance in wedding celebrations that have become not only outrageous but galling. Why can marriages not be simple affairs and not business transactions where the boy and girl becomes commodities. Maybe we as educated people should take the lead. But will we?
Will the death of little Afreen open our eyes? Or have we mastered the art of looking away to perfection? Only time will tell.