Policy to control school bag weight has been a failure
The Thane Municipal Corporation, which runs schools with over 35,000 students, has announced that bags carried by the children will be lighter when classes start in June for the new academic year. Students will no longer have to carry to school daily, books meant for the entire year. The municipal corporation is planning to print lighter books.
This is not the first experiment in Thane to reduce the weight of schools bags. A few years ago the municipal corporation had looked at the idea of having locker rooms where students could leave their books after class without having to cart them from home and back. The idea was never implemented.
Maharashtra is struggling to implement its five-year old policy on school bags. In 2014, the state government announced a policy to reduce the weight of bags carried by school students. The policy said that the bags should not weigh more than 10% of the child’s weight.
The committee, which had been created by the government to suggest solutions to the problem, had a list of 44 recommendations to reduce weight of bags. Suggestions included replacing books with e-tablets, bags made of lighter material, water and food facilities in schools so that students did not have to carry bottles and lunch boxes. To ensure that schools followed the rule, the education department was to do regular surveys of bags carried by children.
Parents and education activists cheered the policy as there is evidence that heavy school bags can cause lifelong damage to the body. A study in 2015 by the city’s largest public health facility, KEM Hospital, said that heavy bags are a prominent cause of Low Back Pain (LBP) amongst school going children. The study found that nine in 20 children had complained of back pain caused by heavy school bags. The problem is so severe that many parents take time off their work to help their children carry the bags.
The government and citizens groups, which are campaigning for lighter school bags, have never agreed on the extent of the problem. In June 2017, when schools resumed classes after the summer holidays, education activists said that the bags were, on an average, heavier by one kilogram because the education department had introduced new textbooks that were heavier.
The government has been claiming that the bags are lighter. In December 2017, the education department said that 88% of the bags in the city were lighter were before, but citizens groups are suspicious of the claim because the government had surveyed only 10% of the total schools in the state.
In 2018, the state government announced that the policy was a success, with their survey showing that out of over 400,000 students surveyed by them only 5,000 were found to be carrying heavy bags. This data suggested that only 1% students in the state carried heavy school bags. The government said that no students in the Mumbai city district were found with bags that violate the weight policy. The government said that their study had covered 23,443 schools.
Swati Patil, a Mumbai resident, who filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Bombay High Court in 2015, is sceptical of the claim. According to her not more than 7-8% of schools implement the rules.
In 2018, the government’s response to Patil’s query under the Right to Information (RTI) Act revealed that there were no district-wise survey reports.
“There have been four orders from the high court on the subject but the government has done nothing to implement the rules. Schools have not bothered to implement the rules,” said Patil. “The government’s reply to my application under the RTI law shows that not a single school has been prosecuted for breaking the rule. The government’s claim is laughable.”
The high court disposed of the petition in 2019. Patil is now planning to go the Supreme Court to get the government to enforce the school bag rules.