Right to Education... whose right is it by the way?

Yesterday Praveen one of our class IX students from our women centre and a keen singer and musician dropped by home with our coordinator. The reason: needed the husband's help to change two guitar strings. Yes guitars are the new kids on the block at the centre thanks to a lovely young girl who ran a three weeks workshop for some of our kids. Praveen  was one of the star students. But the workshop was too short for them to learn all the secrets, one of them being how to tune a guitar! So had to rope in the husband who is also keen musician. But that is not the reason for this blog post. The reason stems from a brief conversation I had with young Praveen about his school. While he was packing the guitars now properly tuned I asked him how things were in school. Praveen studies in the local Khader secondary school. The answer I got was unbelievable and made my blood boil. Apparently the school Praveen attends has an acute shortage of teachers. Now you will never guess what solution this school has come up with. Read on.

So if teachers are not sufficient you simply stuff children in a single class. The result 150 kids studying in a classroom meant for less than half the number. Now how do you conjure such a trick. Simple. Put 4 kids on benches made for 2 and if that is not enough, then have one kid sit on the lap of another, and the rest on the floor. Let me remind you this is class IX where boys are 14 or 15 years old. Praveen told me all in his usual endearing way. No anger, no outrage, just acceptance. I on the other hand was stark raving mad. Mad at all I had heard but most of all at a system that made children accept aberrations. My mind went back to another incident that had happened in early pwhy days. A young girl perhaps 10 or so, was sobbing on the road. I stopped her and asked her what happened. She told me she had been beaten in class. I asked her the reason expecting something like - I had forgotten to do my homework, or I was talking in class. Not at all. The answer I got made by blood curdle. In between sobs the little girls said: I must have been bad. She did not even know the reason why she had been beaten. The fact that she had been beaten meant that she had been bad! Again a quiet acceptance of an undeserved punishment.

I asked our coordinator to find out more about the situation in the schools our children study in and the stories are infuriating to say the least. It seems the situation Praveen shared with us is the one that prevails in many the classes of his school. Over 100 kids crammed in a single class which has 48 seats. Just imagine the scenario if you can. Kids squeezed on desks, the rest on the floor. In many cases the fans do not work and the heat is unbearable. We are talking of senior boys. How can anyone learn anything in such circumstances. And how can any teacher, no matter how good, teach in such conditions. These are not university lectures but school classes where the children need to learn. And classroom studies is essential for such children as they do not have literate parents. Moreover their families are too poor to send the children for tuition. So they only learn what is taught at school and it seems school teaches them nothing. Praveen told us that if it was not for pwhy he would have not been able to perform well in school. Praveen is an extremely talented and intelligent boy. Given the right opportunities and an enabling environment he could aspire for the best. But even with our help many doors will remain closed to him for no fault of his. Today he attends music classes and dreams of winning a singing contest. We will give wing to his dreams as as long as we can and to the dreams of the kids who have placed their trust in us. But that is not even a drop in the ocean.

The girls too had their own tale of woes. In their school there are no desks at all in some classes. The only option is for the kids to bring their own gunny bags to sit on. This is XXI st century India. This is happening in India's capital city!  That is not all, fans often do not work and there are no light bulbs in any classroom. The class average is 80 kids. Again how any learning can happen in such conditions is a mystery.

This is the tip of iceberg. I wonder what other aberrations one will find if we dig deeper. But this is enough to realise that there is something terribly wrong. What RTE are we talking about. Every single right children are entitled to has been hijacked. And children have no voice. Neither do their parents. Try and so something like this in an upmarket school and see the what happens.

In the face of a situation like this one is helpless and the adversary is deaf, blind and uncaring. I remember writing about another aberration some time back. It was also a tale of desks, this time the government had provided desks but they were too big and the kids had to learn standing. I wonder if any carpenter was brought in to saw them to size. So let us sum up the situation of schools in our swanky capital city: some have buildings, often one storey barracks with insufficient space so students are crammed into classrooms meant for half the kids; some have desks that are too high; some have no desks at all so kids have to bring their won seating arrangement; they have no light bulbs, fans that do not work, no functioning toilets; no clean drinking water and some have no buildings at all.

Why oh god why don't they make multi storied buildings to replace the sizzling tin roofed barracks. Why is it that our capital city cannot school ALL its children and has to resorts to 2 shift schooling where boys learn in the afternoons, which is in no way the best time to learn. ALL kids should go to school in the morning! Why can't we employ sufficient staff, why can't fans be repaired and bulbs replaced! A city which spent zillions on a face lift for a 14 days extravaganza cannot find money to care for its children and give them the education they are entitled to under the Constitution.

I for one do not agree at all with the second hand solution that is purported in the much heralded Right to Education Act where kids are treated with different yardsticks with the 25% reservation in upmarket schools. I am allergic to the word reservation in any form. Why should some kids get admission in a super A grade school and other in a B or C or F grade one. The only sane solution was improving the state run schools but as you have seen these seem to be getting worse by the minute.

If I were the CEO of this city or in charge of Education I would hand my head in shame and do something about it on war footing. But I know this is a mere chimera and in today's scenario things will not change, far from that, they will sink lower. Small efforts like ours can only help a tiny number of kids. We need change big time. And I feel helpless and immensly sad.

Next week we plan to approach a well know activist and see if we can make Praveen and his pals' voices be heard. Only time will tell. But time is a commodity children do not possess. For the it is often always too late.