Government, schools and parents make light of Mumbai students’ heavy bags
Although the Maharashtra education department brought in a policy to reduce the weight of school bags two years ago, students in Mumbai continue to stoop. Activists, educators and parents complain that the weight of the bags is still one kg to two kg above the prescribed limit owing to the introduction of heavier textbooks, lack of checks by the education department and emphasis on short-term solutions.
The government framed the policy on July 22, 2015, after Swati Patil, an activist from Pune, filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Bombay high court.
On February 13, 2015, state education minister Vinod Tawde weighed schoolbags in some schools and found them heavier than the permissible weights of 1.75 kg to 3.65 kg, set by the government earlier. The government then formed an expert panel to suggest solutions on how to unburden students.
The panel recommended 43 steps to be taken by the government and schools. It among others recommended that the weight of the bags should be less than one-tenth of the child’s.
But activists complain that children are lugging heavy bags because the policy has been poorly implemented.
In an ongoing hearing, Patil informed the high court that the government did not accept major recommendations of the expert panel, which offered long-term solutions. One of the suggestions was to divide textbooks into four terms. It also encouraged 100-page notebooks against 200 pages.
While most of the schools have now unanimously switched over to thinner books, the government is still to come up with a plan to break-down the contents. Worse, the new textbooks for Classes 7 and 9 are heavier and contain more pages. This has increased the weight of the bag by approximately one kg, said activists.
“The new textbooks are much bigger,” said Father Francis Swamy, principal of St Mary’s School (ICSE) at Mazgaon, and joint-secretary of the Archdiocesan Board of Education, which runs 150-odd schools in Mumbai.
Routine checks in schools to ensure that they abide by the prescribed limit were conducted in the first year with much gusto, but the department lacked the manpower to continue them.
Although a government resolution was issued last month directing education officials to conduct monthly checks from this academic year, they have not yet begun. “We do not have enough officials to visit schools daily. For two to three months, our staff are engaged in conducting centralised admissions for Class 11,” said BB Chavan, deputy director of education, Mumbai region. “We can send officials on a case-by-case basis if we receive complaints from parents,” said Chavan. Ironically, there is no grievance redressal system for parents.
While the policy directs all education boards to provide online version of their textbooks, educators say this is not practical. “Firstly, not everyone can afford devices to access e-books; secondly, they cannot entirely replace textbooks,” said Rakhi Mukherjee, principal of Utpal Shanghvi Global School at Juhu.
Schools, too, admit they have failed to curtail bag weights because of various factors. Mukherjee said her school had installed lockers for international board students and introduced books with perforated sheets, but bags continued to be heavy.
“Unless, there is a change in students’ and parents’ attitude, this drive cannot be successful,” said Mukherjee. “Although schools have taken many proactive steps to reduce bag weight, students continue to carry books and material for after school tuition classes and other activities,” said Mukherjee.
‘Lax implementation and schools’ apathy undermine bag policy’
The sight of her children carrying heavy school bags moved activist Swati Patil from Pune to file a public interest litigation in the Bombay high court, seeking a directive to the government to make the bags lighter. Patil, head of the NGO Lok Jagruti, told HT how the government and schools have failed to bring down the weight of school bags. Here are the excerpts from an interview:
Q What made you take up the case for lighter school bags?
Being a parent, I see my children stooping under the weight of school bags. They were studying in Classes 4 and 6 when I realised the seriousness of the situation. Their school bags weighed six to eight kilograms and were getting heavier every year. They carried their bags up three-four floors in the school and at home. It caused chronic neck and shoulder pain, and a hunched posture. This prompted me to moved the Bombay high court in 2014 against the state government.
Q Following your petition, the state framed the school bag policy in 2015. How far has it succeeded?
The issue of heavy school bags came into the limelight after my PIL in the HC. This put the pressure on the government to come up with a plan. The school bag policy received wide attention at the time. But two years later, it has been forgotten. The government is not implementing the policy strictly, and as a result, schools too have stopped taking it seriously. Today, few schools are actively taking steps to keep the weight in check. The rest have shirked from their responsibility and shifted the blame on parents .
Q Have school bags become lighter?
The state recently announced that the bags have turned 80% lighter after the implementation of the policy. But our surveys show that the weight has actually dropped by one to two kg, which does not meet the prescribed weight limit. The policy mandates that the bags must weigh less than 10% of the child. For instance, a Class 1 student weighs around 20 kg so the bag should be of 2kg. But in reality, it is still four to five kg.
Q How many of the recommendations suggested by an expert panel have been implemented?
None of the long-term solutions suggested by the expert panel have been worked upon. One of the most important suggestions was to divide textbooks into four semesters. Instead, the government has now introduced heavier books. The new Class 7 and 9 textbooks are bigger. This is going against the spirit of the policy. The government is also silent on publishing term-wise textbooks. Their focus has shifted to e-books, but not all students and schools can afford devices to access them.