yet another senseless death... and a tale of two Indias

A young girl died on Monday. She died in her school. She suffered an asthma attack and the school was unable to give her the required care. What is shocking is that this was one of the most reputed school of the capital. This is the second death of a child in school in a week. Little Shanno lost her life after being brutalised by her school teacher.

In both cases it is the friends and family of the two girls who have taken up the cudgels for them. In both cases pathetic and deplorable cover up operations are being carried out by those in power. But that is where the similarities stop as Shanno and Aakriti belong to two different Indias.

In little Shanno's case the witnesses are little slum kids whose voice cannot carry far. In Aakriti's case the witnesses are young articulate English speaking kids of rich India whose voice is loud and purposeful. Whereas Shanno's family and friends did protest they were not invited to talk shows and TV programmes, their voices soon died out and no much happened. Instead of seeing the arrest of the teacher, one saw her boldly and brazenly denying facts and clamouring her innocence. Aakriti's friends were heard and the principal of the school has to resign. Ministers promised prompt action as they made the right noises.

Both cases highlight different issues. In one case it is abysmal and inhumane practice of corporal punishment that prevails in schools in India and in the other it seems to be gross and unacceptable negligence. I would like to share with view what a volunteer who had come to pwhy some time back wrote after hearing of Shanno's death:

It is sad to read about Shanno's departure first thing in the morning. This thing about corporal punishment is something that bothered me a lot when I was with Pwhy in 2007, and till today I am still intrigued. I am no sociologist or anthropologist, but my belief has always been that common social practices are often present at more than one site.

The way I see it, corporal punishment in school is highly relevant to parenting beliefs, which in turn affects how children view themselves in situations of physical abuse. My own observations of pwhy children are that they do use physical force on one another - they seldom fight, but they give each other a strong hit on the back to express satisfaction.. and even when just playing they push each other around. The same goes even for some Pwhy teachers - "pats" on the back is common, and in my opinion, both children and teacher alike think nothing of their behaviour or perhaps they are not even aware of what they are doing.

Extend this to the community and I believe this is how children interact with one another (they even showed this in "Slumdog millionaire"), and I think it is also how parents educate their own children. Schools are viewed as an extension of home education, so it isn't surprising to see teachers behaving in the same way or to walk around with a long thick cane yelling at the latecomers. Singapore was once like this as well in the early years of Independence. My parents grew up being punished physically, so they used the same tactics on me when I was young. Mishaps are viewed as "accidents", the only difference is that parents will feel remorse at their own actions while teachers may not. Thus, my own opinion is that such practices, what is termed as a disciplinarian "hidden curriculum", cannot be mandated because the jurisdiction of school leaders and teachers have a lot more weight than regulations on paper.

To change how things are, I would think start with convincing the parents (maybe at parents' meeting). I believe there will be a lot of skepticism and doubt as to whether such change in ways of children education will raise effective kids. If this resistance can be overcome, then kids need to be educated too. They need to stop believing that adults have the right to punish them physically, and that no matter what happens they need to tolerate. Shanno may have survived if she had known that it isn't right for her to stand under the sun for 2 hrs and learnt to protect herself. I'm not participating in the blaming game, but I think the solution should be bottom-up instead of top-down. We need to try starting with the community, because if parents make principals and teachers accountable for all actions of corporal punishment, that is when such behaviour will begin to diminish. As for students I think it is important to alert them to the need for "defense" - not to fight back in defiance, but to know how to protect themselves if they were treated unreasonably

I will leave you to react on the above but I feel that it makes a lot of sense. Corporal punishment cannot be abolished by laws and orders alone. It is endemic to our society and a bottom up solution needs to be found. At pwhy we do try to raise awareness about the dangers of corporal punishment but the road is a log one as lifting your hand of a child seems to be ingrained in almost indelible ways.

Aakriti's case is different. It is a case of gross negligence that even reeks of arrogance. The school in question is one of the best up market schools, where getting admission is almost viewed as a privilege only given to the few. That the child was not given proper attention is unforgivable. We are a very tiny organisation with meagre resources but even we have a drill that is t be followed in case of any child being sick or hurt. We have a contract with a local nursing home which attends to any problem that may occur. Teachers are told to rush the child there in case of any mishap. No one needs to await any instruction. It is an absurdly simple model that works.

I do not know whether enquiries and probes will solve corporal punishment or negligence. The issues are far greater and very complex. They require well though of solutions and answers. In my humble opinion it is the entire school system that is at fault and the two deaths we have witnessed are very representative of this: little Shanno's death reflects the sad state of the state run schools which are going from bad to worse, and young Aakriti's death reveals the almost hubristic attitude adopted by so called good schools that seem to have become impervious to any form of censure. What is worse is that there seems to be no end to this situation. Once again I will make my plea for a common school but know that too many vested interest will ensure that I am never heard.