Recent newspaper reports involving students and teachers in Tamil Nadu and the neighbouring Union Territory of Puducherry raise several troubling questions. The incidents reported related to student-teacher relations, corporal punishment, pathetic school infrastructure and worse maintenance, and a shocking lack of basic amenities in government-run hostels in Chennai for Dalit students.
Two months ago, students housed in 17 Adi Dravidar hostels in Chennai run by the Tamil Nadu Government, brought to light the shocking state of hygiene and other elementary aspects of their living conditions by staging a massive demonstration on the city's arterial Anna Salai (which used to be known as Mount Road).
The coordinated protest, which showed the situation had crossed all tolerance limits, ended only after the Minister for Adi Dravidar Welfare, A. Tamilarasi, rushed to the spot and assured the students that their demands for basic amenities would be met. The traffic-stopping demonstration was well covered by the broadcast media and Chennai-based newspapers. The students organised a second rally this month.
The well-known problem with media coverage of such subjects is that it is almost always episodic, triggered by crises or emergencies or dramatic, traffic-stopping events. Chronic problems such as the state of government schools in urban as well as rural areas, or living conditions in hostels accommodating young people from oppressed or extremely disadvantaged sections of society are rarely researched and featured; and even when they are reported, they are treated as tame issues.
The exceptions, wherever we come across them, in print or on television or radio, are worth highlighting. Over the last seven weeks, The Hindu came out with three features on the abysmal conditions in over-crowded hostels in Chennai. About 1,200 students were found staying in a hostel meant for only 580. “The atmosphere is not conducive to studying,” concluded one of the articles, written about five weeks after the agitation. Frontline (January 28, 2011) also highlighted the issues.
Two other recent events also drew media and public attention to insensitive, cruel, and inhuman practices that go under the signboard of ‘discipline' in the educational field. One incident related to the alleged suicide of a student of a women's college in Chennai. The suicide followed a search reportedly conducted by some teachers on her on suspicion that she was responsible for a theft complained of by another student. Following an angry demonstration by students, the lecturers were arrested and subsequently bailed out. The second distressing incident was the death of a schoolgirl. A teacher allegedly held out a threat to the girl on suspicion that she indulged in malpractice while taking an exam. The teacher has been transferred to another school.
It is not easy to establish causality in such cases. Callous, cruel practices that masquerade as disciplinary methods can cause tragedies; but sometimes thoughtless acts, or even a little insensitivity can have unintended but awful consequences — the loss of a young life or grievous harm. What is clear is that progressive educational reform must look deep into the pedagogic and management practices in schools, eliminate the awful and the undesirable, and put in place preventive measures to ensure the welfare of students as well as teachers.
But there is no mitigating factor in this distressing case reported this month from Puducherry (“Corporal punishment leaves eight-year-old Puducherry boy injured,” The Hindu, February 15, 2011). The boy who was studying in a central school has been taking treatment for about two months now in a private hospital in Chennai for a “grievous” injury in his ear allegedly caused by a teacher handing out a “punishment.” A case was registered against the teacher and a charge sheet filed in a local court.
Significantly, the incident took place two months before it was reported in the press. The delay in the information coming out has been attributed to a possible cover-up attempt by the school authorities. The report said a similar incident happened in another school in which a teacher “physically assaulted” a girl because she scored low marks in a subject. Proceedings against the teacher were dropped after he tendered an apology to the student.
What is clear is that eliminating the entrenched practice of corporal punishment, root and branch, will require sustained efforts from various sides — school managements, teachers, parents, government authorities, and prying journalists. A large number of cruel, inhuman and insensitive events have been reported from schools in north Indian States. But it must not be assumed that States and union territories regarded as progressive are free from such outrages inflicted on boys and girls in the name of educational discipline.
The high rates of dropouts at various stages of schooling are a key challenge for rising India where only 10 per cent of those who enter Standard 1 go on to higher education. Even in advanced States such as Tamil Nadu, 83 per cent of those who cross Standard 12 drop out. A leading factor that pulls down the retention rate, particularly in the case of girls, is the ill-treatment handed out to those who are branded ‘ unintelligent.' The absence of a congenial and encouraging atmosphere for studies has been identified as a reason for many students deciding not to pursue their studies. Newspapers, television, and radio must take a more serious interest in addressing such issues to enable more girls and boys to go for higher education. The media can also play a more effective role in providing encouragement and support to educational institutions in small towns and rural areas, just as All India Radio and Doordarshan used to do in the 1970s and 1980s.