BAREFOOT: In spite of the RTE, education continues to elude a core group of variously disadvantaged children.

In restlessly industrialising India there are millions of children who are unlikely ever to see the inside of a school. Formal education, with all its limitations, alone carries within it the potential to free these children from life-sentences of hard labour in poverty and want, to which they are otherwise condemned.

The law today mandates that there should be a functioning school within two kilometres of every child’s home. Governments have exponentially expanded the network of government primary schooling, bringing schools physically closer to most children in the country (although the quality of many of these schools remains a huge problem). But there remains a core group of children who are unable to enter these schools, or remain in them, even if they are literally located across the road from where they sleep.

Excluded children

Who are these children, and what are the formidable barriers they face to enter schools, and remain within these? There are masses of children whose childhoods and dreams of education are lost in labour in the mines, kilns, agricultural fields, factories and home-based work. Child workers are expected by their own families to be at work and not in regular school, and long hours of work are physically, emotionally and mentally draining, even if there are provisions to attend non-formal schools after work.

Children who are disabled find it difficult to enter school, negotiate its infrastructure, keep pace and continue education, and often face ridicule and shame in the hands of school management or even fellow-students. Children living in conflict zones are unable to access schools in a climate of abiding fear and insecurity; often schools in these areas are occupied by security forces. Children whose parents lead nomadic and semi-nomadic lives, or migrate to the cities due because there is no food and no work in their villages are effectively barred from schools. Several hundred thousand children who together with their families live and work in brick kilns of India, for instance, find it difficult to access schools — even if those are located near the kilns.

Children of stigmatised parentage such as those living with HIV/AIDS or leprosy, or those engaged in manual scavenging, sex work and so on, face intense forms of societal and educational discriminatory exclusion. The unjust stigma of their parents is transferred to children in the shape of multiple discriminations and humiliation heaped on them — in school and outside school. I recall all teachers in a small district town I worked in threatening to strike work if I insisted on admitting in schools children of parents who had leprosy and begged for a living. Children of manual scavengers report being shamed by being forced to clean toilets in schools.

Millions of children are condemned never to enter schools because they have no home, or no family, or both. The streets of every city house children who have run away from violent and abusive families, who recycle waste, retail at traffic lights, or beg for a living. Some who live on the streets may have one or both parents, but they are destitute and homeless, and feel they have no option except to send out the child to work on the streets.

The Constitution of India envisaged free and compulsory education for all the children within 10 years of the promulgation of the Constitution. Fifty nine years later, the Indian State finally passed the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act in 2009. However, since the actual realisation of this right by children of powerless and marginalised communities remains limited and problematic, this requires special provisions and additional investments for such children.

Need for hostels

For certain disadvantaged children — like children without adult protection such as orphans and street children; and children of migrants and nomadic communities; internally displaced children and children in some conflict areas; or children of remote tribal communities — it is impossible to access their right to education without safe residential hostels or schools. A child who lives and works on the streets, or without adult guardians, for instance, cannot be expected after sleeping the night on the streets, waking early to pick rags, to simply walk into school. This right of these disadvantaged children to residential schools, and not just neighbourhood day schools, needs to be written into the law specifically, otherwise the right to education of these children will simply remain on paper.

The law makes a modest provision, bitterly contested by elite private schools, for admitting disadvantaged children from a private school’s neighbourhood to 25 per cent of seats in the earliest class of the school. But almost no schools recognise a street child, or child worker in eateries of factories, or migrant children, as eligible for this small reservation, and they remain excluded even from this opportunity.

The law laudably provides that a child should be admitted into school at an older age, even if the child has not been to school before, and special training classes should be held in every school for these children. But this rarely happens, as teachers are not trained or sensitised to respectfully accept and work with these older children. There is no reason why an out-of-school child should not be taught in a class within the same school, run at the same time as regular classes; and why the child should not otherwise be fully integrated with other activities of her or his age-appropriate class, such as sports, extra-curricular activities, and mid-day meals.

Since they are the most vulnerable of our children, ensuring the rights of these “last” children should be the first obligation of every Government. In later columns, I will describe what can be done for specific categories of excluded children to bring them into schooling. But for this to actually happen, these children, condemned by violence, neglect, oppression and poverty to difficult lives, should be the country’s highest priority; they should be recognised as the first duty of any government, and our hidden national treasure.

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