When it comes to children, India continues to be an uncertain nation. It can’t decide whether its vast population of children is a responsibility, a resource or a liability. Our national confusion has found its latest expression in the new child labour law passed by both houses of Parliament in July. Between this law and the various noises currently being made in draft policy documents, there is a vast gap. Apparently, the ministry of human resource development (HRD) has chosen to ignore these gaps. Perhaps the task of drafting a new, coherent policy on education has proved much too exhausting under the circumstances.
Two years ago when the former minister for HRD, Smriti Irani, mooted the idea of a new national policy, it was welcomed. Details of the 1986 policy had faded, therefore no one thought of assessing its performance and status. Views were gathered from village and district levels, and a committee chaired by TSR Subramanian was set up to draft a document on the basis of this vast amount of data about what ordinary people want to see in a national policy. A few months ago, reports stated that the drafting committee had submitted its report, but the ministry declined to release it, saying it must first gather feedback from the states. Unhappy with this argument, Subramanian went ahead and released the report himself. As if these developments were not disconcerting enough, Irani , who had initiated the policy drafting process, had her portfolio changed in a Cabinet reshuffle, and a new minister — the fourth in seven years — took over HRD.
A new document has been uploaded on the ministry’s website. It has a strange title: Some Inputs for Draft National Educational Policy 2016. Normally, governments don’t provide inputs; they receive inputs from others. One wonders what message the ministry wants to convey by saying that it is providing ‘some inputs’. The phrase can be interpreted either as a sign of unusual modesty or something ominous —that only the ministry can provide inputs. Several of the ideas included in the “Inputs” document are drawn from the Subramanian committee report. The difference is that these ideas have now been put across more mildly. A common weakness in both documents is the absence of a string to tie the various ideas together into a coherent whole. There are sections where the second paragraph contradicts the first. One example is the section that first critiques the examination system and then recommends annual exams after Class V. This will violate the Right to Education (RTE) law promulgated six years ago.
The absence of a coherent vision has intensified with the passage of the child labour amendment Act. If the President gives his assent to this Act, the agenda of educational reforms will receive a body blow. The Act not only legitimises children’s involvement in lucrative activities, but also opens the door for all kinds of industries to hire adolescents. Even younger children, who are covered by the RTE can now join the income-generating activities of the family after school hours or during vacations. All these allowances have been made in the name of “practicality” or adjustment with the so-called Indian reality — a euphemism for poverty. The new child labour law will make RTE a pleasant memory and the dream of extending it to Class 10 a foolish dream. It will also take the last shred of substance out of the rhetoric of India’s demographic dividend. India’s vast population of adolescents and youth will now serve as an army of semi-educated workers available at low wages for low-tech industries.
With the passage of the new child labour Act, India has taken a giant leap backwards. The gains made over several decades of research and advocacy, judicial intervention and political mobilisation are being tossed away. The idea that children have rights took a vast global effort to get established as a UN Convention. The fact that India signed it was no routine matter. Our preparedness to shift millions of children from the labour market to schools was poor. It took two flagship national missions, sustained over two decades, to achieve a semblance of universal enrolment in the early primary classes. Universalising enrolment at the upper primary stage, i.e. Classes 6 to 8 posed a tougher challenge. And now, when this prolonged effort was approaching success, the revised child labour Act moots the facetious idea that schooling and earning can go together. Millions of little boys and girls can now join the two ends of a glass bangle over a burning candle when they return from school in the afternoon. I saw this activity in several homes in Firozabad a few years ago. It gave me an idea of what hell might be like. Bangle-joining is predominantly a family-run business. Along with beedi rolling, it has now been deleted from the list of hazardous occupations in the new child labour law.
As for girls’ education, the new Act implies a terrible setback. The permission it grants for letting children work in family enterprises after the school hours will soon pull the daughters of poor parents out of school. The exhaustion of work, compounded by chronic malnourishment, can be guaranteed to affect their performance at school. If the new educational policy brings the “pass-fail” system back to upper primary classes, we can easily imagine the consequences. Children, especially girls, belonging to labour families will “fail” and get disqualified for further education.
Krishna Kumar is professor of education at Delhi University and former director NCERT
The views expressed by the author are personal