A country of punishments: Not a safe India for children

opinion | Monday, September 11th, 2017
T S Sudhir

Is that slogan too Utopian in present-day India? Yes. Because India's cities, schools, neighbourhoods, market areas, even families are not child-friendly. 

Hours before Satyarthi's tryst with Kanyakumari, a terrible incident from Hyderabad came to light. On 9 September, a 11-year-old class 5 student went to school in civil dress, with her parents explaining the reason in her school diary for not wearing the uniform. Despite that, a non-teaching staff member punished the student by making her stand in the boy's washroom. The act of abuse affected the personal dignity of the child and she refused to go to school hereafter, overcome by a sense of shame. ``Dad, please don't send me to school anymore. I will learn cooking, washing clothes and help mother in her home tasks,'' she told her father.

The school authorities defended their action. Not surprising given that in the past, a complaint about beating a student with a stick was dismissed as part of disciplining a child. It was only after a media outcry that the police have filed a case against the school principal. 

This student case in fact came just a day after a class 2 student in another Hyderabad school was beaten up mercilessly on the back for being unable to read what was written on the blackboard. The boy's back had gone red with the assault, his spirit shaken and traumatised. Hyderabad for all its claim to be a smart city, scores poorly on parameters of being a child-friendly city.

In neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, where chief minister Chandrababu Naidu has been exhorting parents to produce more children, the situation is no better. A student of a junior college in Kadapa district suffered a fracture in his hand, after he was allegedly assaulted by a college official on Friday. 

At the same time, in Bulandshahr in Uttar Pradesh, a four-year-old child was held hostage for over four hours at his school because his farmer father had been unable to pay the fee. The incidents come at the same time when a 7-year-old student was found murdered at Ryan International School in Gurugram, have only reinforced the feeling that India is an unsafe zone for children.  

In all cases, an individual - a bus conductor, a support staff, an official - is made the villain of the piece and it is assumed once he or she is removed, all will be hunky dory. Wrong because it is like curing the disease of corporal punishment with band aid. 

Child rights activist Isidore Phillips points out that the problem is more elementary because the Right To Education Act does not talk about safety standards in schools. ``It only talks about teacher training, not about what kind of training. The focus is only on academic qualifications of teachers,'' says Phillips. The result is strong-arm tactics are resorted to by teachers untrained to handle children. 

Primarily, school managements have to be held accountable. Suspending the errant teacher or peon is not the end of the matter. It is the school authorities who have recruited him and it is therefore necessary that supervising his conduct should be the school management's responsibility. It is dereliction of duty when that is not done. 

The governments often walk away scotfree and it is almost seen as if a minister or a senior bureaucrat is doing a favour by interceding in the matter. It is his job. Because as Phillips points out, handing out recognition to schools is big business and that makes the government and the education boards the regulators. The government along with schools have to be held accountable and not allowed to get away pretending to be a holier-than-thou saviour. 

But in a country where the entire school management walked out free this year in the Kumbakonam school fire tragedy in which 94 students were charred to death in 2004 is proof that authorities are all-powerful. If Satyarthi's yatra has to make a difference, he needs to push the education ministries in different states to be more effective regulators, sensitive to ensure that no child is scalded in the name of enforcing discipline. 


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