Children should not be made into activists to fix the failings of the system | opinion$Comment | Hindustan Times
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Children should not be made into activists to fix the failings of the system

Quick acceptance of a demand voiced by children also distracts attention from the deeper crisis the system is facing. Children’s civic awareness and activism can hardly compensate for the absence of a sense of responsibility among authorities.

opinion Updated: Jun 28, 2017 20:57 IST
Taking a cue from the success of Rewari school girls, the students of a government school in Kadarpur  protest outside their school demanding upgradation in Gurgaon, May 2017
Taking a cue from the success of Rewari school girls, the students of a government school in Kadarpur protest outside their school demanding upgradation in Gurgaon, May 2017 (Sanjeev Verma/HT PHOTO)

In recent times, school girls have been making news in many parts of rural Haryana. They have been demanding the addition of two years to their schools which currently run up to Class X. This upgradation will make commuting to a neighbouring village unnecessary, thereby protecting girls from harassment. Authorities have been ready to accept the demand, which is hardly surprising. It is a lot easier to add two higher secondary classes than to control harassment on rural tracks. Whether the upgraded schools will get adequate number of qualified teachers for +2 level optionals is, of course, a different matter.

This kind of child activism makes good headlines and leaves everyone happy. Politicians acquire merit by responding to a public protest made by children, especially when these children happen to be girls in Haryana. By accepting their demand, the State improves its record and poor public image in gender equity. Attractive though this potential benefit is, it contributes little to the State’s capacity to make sound policies and implement them. Also, upgradation does not respond to the core issue, i.e. the insecurity that girls feel commuting to a senior school located in a nearby village. Precipitous upgrading of rural schools ignores and dents the prevailing policy. According to it, schools covering different stages should be networked physically and academically in order to maximize the utilization of scarce resources.

Quick acceptance of a demand voiced by children also distracts attention from the deeper crisis the system is facing. It is sharply divided between fee-charging private and free government schools. This division has exacerbated caste, class and gender gaps. Families that cannot afford to place both sons and daughters in a private school leave the latter in government school.

This larger picture is not confined to Haryana. Last year, girls in a Rajasthan village had staged a hunger strike in order to draw attention to teacher vacancies in their school. Their action was resented by officials. Shortage of teachers—caused by chronic postponement of recruitment--is a common problem across northern India. State governments and the HRD ministry at the centre are well aware of this problem. Nothing much has changed even at the elementary stage since the Right to Education was promulgated almost seven years ago. In secondary and higher secondary schools, the situation is worse, and there is no law to compel a government to fill up teacher vacancies quickly. It is worth wondering about why governments now need laws to feel motivated to fulfill a routine responsibility. Children’s civic awareness and activism can hardly compensate for the absence of a sense of responsibility among authorities.

Child abuse presents a similar case. Responding to frequent stories of small children being sexually abused while at school, many urban parents now train their children to recognise their vulnerability and to resist abuse. Children are taught to differentiate between ‘good’ touch and ‘bad’ touch. They are also told to report their everyday school experience when they come home. Thus, children as young as three or four are now expected to protect themselves because the school and higher authorities cannot protect them. The consequences of early awareness of sexual vulnerability are both complex and open to debate. What is not debatable is the failure of society and state to accept their responsibility towards children.

When small boys and girls are told to practice wakeful vigilance for their own safety and security, something precious is subtracted from their experience of childhood. As a society, we probably don’t recognise children’s need for childhood perhaps because we ourselves feel insecure leaving children in institutions that we don’t fully trust. The idea of a monster can’t be a fantasy if a child is required to expect one at school. Turning children into perpetually alert, self-defending activists can hardly resolve this institutional crisis. State functionaries who say that they cannot resolve it without social support are evading the truth.

Problems like chronic scarcity of teachers or stodgy recruitment and training procedures can’t be laid at the door of society. If the State is unable to ensure the human quality of the adults who have access to children at school, parents can’t compensate for this failure. Nor can their attempt to find a personal solution help improve the system. Though it may help to cope with a larger problem, child activism signifies policy failure. It also indicates India’s mutation from a welfare state into a laissez-faire raj where children must fend for themselves.

Krishna Kumar is former director, National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT)

The views expressed are personal