IF YOU EVER want to learn how not to ensure the security of India's children, watch India's news television channels when they discuss issues related to security of children, particularly when a tragedy occurs like the one that claimed the life of a seven-year-old class II student of Gurgaon's Ryan International School.
It is very rare for the country's media to stay focussed on the issue of how secure our children are when they are in school. Indian media accomplished this for four consecutive days. Prime time news anchors delved deeper and deeper into the issue, armed with cctv footage, fee details, bus and van transport details, interviews with security men at the gates and finding holes in school's explanation.
And yet they succeeded in remaining shallow. Welcome to the pleasures, and tragedies, of prime time shrillness. Nothing gets higher TRPs than obfuscating an issue as serious as the life of your child. And yet, we watch riveted because the anchor shouts "Arrest Pinto," selling it as the ultimate solution to a highly complex issue.
Much of the debate on television, and even in Delhi newspapers' local shrieky supplements, remained confined to talk about cctv cameras, security in buses, appointing special teachers with each bus, keeping drivers and conductors away from the children, ensuring there are separate bathrooms for non-teaching staff and hiring private security guards.
Welcome to the pleasures, and tragedies, of prime time shrillness. Nothing gets higher TRPs than obfuscating an issue as serious as the life of your child. "Arrest Ryan Pinto" is sold as the ultimate solution to a highly complex issue.
And all this was being discussed in the name of India's children. The fact is that the debate was strictly limited to the security of the children who study in some of the most posh schools in India's metro cities.
Majority of India's children study in schools that do not have adequate teachers; are acutely understaffed; lack enough classrooms; and often hold classes under trees, in grain market sheds, on railway platforms, and even underneath railway over-bridges. These schools often do not have boundary walls. At times, classrooms have a roof missing.
Toilets remain a problem, but slightly unlike the one Ryan International School faced. We’ll come to that in a moment.
The children in these schools often come from working families - father works as a daily wage labourer and has to stand at the town square to sell his physical strength, while mother works in other people's houses, cleaning utensils, washing clothes, sweeping door fronts. Their problems are somewhat different than the hassles faced by working couples that were being discussed on India television in the last 3-4 days.
The children of these labourer parents are some of the most vulnerable in the country. Worse, while Indian media remains oblivious to this, their tormentors know it well. So, even if caught, they are covered by a guarantee that neither the local police will act with much alacrity in case a child of poor parents is assaulted, nor will Arnab Goswami and his ilk jump and down in their chairs, promising to bring you the exclusive coverage of every detail of a difficult life that a manual labourer couple lives.
Watch any debate – most are available online – related to Ryan imbroglio, and you will see the point. For starters, watch this principal of a top-of-the-line school making clear her understanding of India, clearly gained after years spent in the education domain.
She thinks all schools in the country have cctv cameras and private security. No one on the panel, including the anchor, counters the "fact". Everyone has bought into the "stringent security check ups" argument.
What makes the life of a student more secure? More security personnel, or adequate teachers? If some elite schools need security personnel, by all means, demand that. But if you have any claims about debating the security of children in all of India's schools, please make out a case for more teachers.
Cast aside the shameless economic elitism, and you will be hit by statistics that do not bore; instead, they shame us. The Human Resources Ministry says there are 5.84 lakh vacancies in primary schools alone, apart from an additional 3.5 lakh posts vacant in upper primary schools. But as Vimala Ramachandran, professor at the Delhi-based National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA), further explains, even these dismal figures do not reflect the acute shortage of teachers in Maths and life sciences.
Up to 30% time of teachers' time is spent on non-education work, including housing survey, economic survey, industrial survey, census duty, voter identity card duty, Aadhaar card registration duties, opening bank accounts for school children, and managing the mid-day meal scheme.
The children of these labourer parents are some of the most vulnerable in the country. Their tormentors know it well. So, even if caught, they are covered by a guarantee that neither the local police will act with much alacrity, nor will Arnab Goswami and his ilk jump and down in their studios.
Half the teachers in government schools are contract employees. Some of them are often perched on water tanks, a bottle of kerosene in hand. They are an advertisement of our kids in schools not being very secure. If there are no teachers in schools, and the government is not recruiting any, then should the issue of security of children not move a little past the grave matter of separate bathrooms for bus conductors and drivers?
We are not spending enough on education. Right now, we are barely touching 4% of GDP.
The debate that you saw on TV was not even about the security of metro's children. If it was, you would have heard the travails of Delhi's 13 schools run by a teacher single-handedly, sometimes operating out of just a room.
A report tabled in Parliament revealed that more than 1 lakh schools in India run by a single teacher who is a clerk, a mid-day meal manager, an administrative staff and a peon, all rolled into one.
The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) is completely dysfunctional. No one calls any Nira Radia to land the portfolio of Education Minister. It is not a sought after job, and when in a pinch, it can be entrusted to you know who.
The truth is that the media debate over Ryan did not even deal with the problems of parents whose children study in posh schools. Had that happened, you would have seen someone questioning the tag of 'international' that Ryan carries. As a matter of fact, none of the elite private schools have any global standing.
The relentless focus on security revolved around what happened inside a toilet. One would have thought that at least the sordid Ryan saga would prompt the Indian media to talk about toilets in schools. If they had talked, you would have understood the difference between a ‘toilet’ and a ‘usable toilet.’
Data will tell you that 86% schools in India have boys’ toilets, 91% have girls’ toilets, but the moment you change the term from 'toilet' to 'usable toilet', the same date plunges to 65%.
In a country where only six out of every 10 schools have access to electricity, and one-third of states do not provide electricity to a majority of schools, we had the entire Indian media discussing security of children in school and yet succeeding in not mentioning this minor fact.
No wonder that Nitish Kumar's achievements in Bihar are discussed without mentioning that only 10% schools have access to electricity after all the claims by Lalu Prasad Yadav, Nitish Kumar and Sushil Modi, and after the tweets by Narendra Modi about changing the face of Bihar through a coalition of the honest.
Average class size in India is 42. Average class size in Bihar is 78, in Jharkhand 67. In Bihar’s secondary schools, it is 97, in Jharkhand 94. You think that is an issue linked to security of children in schools?
The Gen-next schools, or five-star culture nurseries of India's future, which were being discussed by India's top television anchors, were proof of a country living in a comma, induced by conspicuous consumption. Fraternisation in such artificial environments desensitises children to the plight of the great majority of the poor and the disadvantaged. I am not even mentioning the Allahabad High Court judgement, but does the idea of equality carry any brownie points anymore?
At times, India is worried about its image. It knows the school in Uttar Pradesh's Jabrauli may harm India's standing in the world if Bill Clinton were to point out to a boy or a girl and ask a simple question. So when the former US president came calling on July 17, 2014, the helpful government made sure that the local Convent school lent a student
to the government primary school.
The country's izzat is too important.
The television anchors waxing eloquent about separate bathrooms for conductors and drivers to ensure the security of India's children in schools are also helping build the country's izzat.
Such touching concern can have no room to ask about the wages paid to conductors and drivers, their hours of duty, the log books of vehicles, the living standards of India's drivers, the schools where the children of India's drivers and conductors study, and the state of toilets in villages and towns from where India's drivers and conductors come.
Debates on Indian television have no room to ask about the wages paid to conductors and drivers, their hours of duty, the log books of vehicles, the living standards of India's drivers, the schools where the children of India's drivers and conductors study, and the state of toilets in villages and towns from where India's drivers and conductors come.
The kind of anchoring and debating on national television that we saw in the last three or four days would only have been possible if one was sure that the soul of a seven-year-old, murdered by a depraved person, was not watching.
For the rest of us, the question of safety of the children of NREGA workers who have to walk down to the school several kilometres from their homes and whose parents cannot find brilliant solutions like carpools, remain important. A little bit more important than separate bathrooms for drivers and conductors.
It is an India often not covered by television, perhaps because it is often not covered by cctv either.
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