In the days preceding January 26 or August 15, you find children selling the Indian flag at every traffic signal. I happened to ask one child if he knew what he was selling, and he said, “ Maloom nahin. Par log bolte hai ki yeh azadi hai. [I don’t know what it is. But people say this means freedom.]” He said he didn’t know the meaning of freedom.
Is Mumbai a city of dreams only for a select few?
Mumbai is a city of contrasts, with a clear divide between the haves and have-nots. As per the census of 2011, 41.3% of Greater Mumbai’s population lives in slums, where every family battles the fear of losing their home to a demolition drive or a natural calamity. At the other end of the spectrum is the visible economic development of this buzzing metropolis, which has given wing to people’s aspirations, largely reflected in their lifestyle.
The two halves of Mumbai meet on the threshold of aspirations: both aspire to have smart phones and good education for their children. You can get by with a cheaper smartphone. But while a good education it is an achievable aspiration for one half of the city, the other half battles extreme odds just to send their children to school.
How do we stops kids from dropping out of school?
We need to have a happy city with equitable distribution of resources, with a special focus on children. Development of a city should be gauged on whether the city’s children are happy, are not on the streets, and are safe and protected.
An estimated five to seven per cent of children of school-going age are not enrolled in school. In number terms, it is at around 11,000, which is good progress from the past when the number of out-of-school children was much higher. However, children who go to school are dropping out and those in school are not learning.
Education of children over 14 years of age is a big concern for both boys and girls. They tend to drop out, unable to continue their private school education. And at age 14, they are out of the purview of the Right to Education Act (which makes education compulsory for children in the 6-14 age group).
The concern is compounded for girls: they drop out in higher numbers. Over the years, enrolment in government schools has dropped drastically, even though these schools have excellent infrastructure and qualified teachers. There are two major reasons for this: most government schools do not have a pre-school programme; and they have classes only till Class VIII. A pragmatic parent, however poor, would want his or her child to be in the same school from kindergarten to Class X. And, we have observed, they don’t mind paying for it.
Almost 64 per cent of children in Mumbai go to private schools and the rest to government schools. Private unaided schools in slum communities are not necessarily of good quality, but their attraction is that they are in the same neighbourhood, and teach in the English medium.
The answer: Make government-run schools more attractive
The government should give aided and civic-run schools an annual per-child cost, so children from the neighbourhood can complete their education. Not just that, all schools should start offering vocational training to students.
Also, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation could extend the provisions of the RTE Act to cover children up to the age of 18, so they complete at least Class X and XII.
Private schools attract the poorest of the poor because somewhere they feel the government has failed them. So they don’t mind spending on their child’s learning.
Government schools need to go in for some image-building. Many of us in Mumbai have spent our early years in municipal schools. These schools need to be strengthened so that both the rich and the poor from the same neighbourhood go to the same school.
How can we protect vulnerable children?
Out-of-school children are also the most vulnerable. Children who beg on the streets, or who work to support their families: many of them are out of school because their families face critical economic issues. Do we as a city like to see this? We are legitimising the out-of-school children by not paying adequate attention to them. As a society, we should not allow children to be exploited.
Whenever these children have been rescued and mainstreamed in a school, they have showed their love for learning and going to school. It is all about opportunity and a rigorous follow-up. It is the government’s primary responsibility, and also that of the citizens of Mumbai, to ensure no child is on the streets.
Another concern is child sexual abuse and children involved in crimes. From our experience, many of these boys involved in crimes are adolescents when they drop out of school and have nobody to guide or talk to them. They seek quick fixes and have a low tolerance level. They want their desires to be fulfilled. When we talk about safety of children, we only talk of girls, but we have missed out on boys; their need for a good family life, education and sex education in school.
We blame things on the government and the police, but the root causes haveto be addressed.
The answer: Mentoring children
Citizens can visit a government school, mentor a child and stay alert to children who they identity as out of the education system.
There is no policy to make the city a child-friendly one, and we need to change that. We need to create spaces for children in the city. Mumbai’s development plan should include recreational spaces only for children.
Special care is needed for boys between 15 and 18 years of age. They have to be understood, and mentored. The city needs parenting programmes. Earlier, Juvenile Guidance Bureaus were in place and it’s time they are revived. These are places where children can come and talk.
To arrest incidents of child sexual abuse, not only should schools have counselling programmes that involve parents, but awareness messages to alert every child to the threat should be spread, using every possible media.
How can we prepare teachers for new challenges?
We often see in government schools that children are not learning. A Class VIII student doesn’t know Class V maths. The government is making efforts to correct this, but we need to employ problem-solving methods in our education and do away with rote learning. Children should be able to learn to learn.
Another big concern: children have stopped reading, so their comprehension is a problem.
In international baccalaureate schools, the student–teacher ratio is low. They set a lot of emphasis on group learning, and leave the children to explore things for themselves. Can one get some of that atmosphere into government schools?
Another challenge that will surface in the years to come will be the drop in population of school-going children. The Census 2011 recorded a 7% drop in the number of children in the 0-6 age group. If this trend continues for the next two or three decades, and the slum population reduces, the whole school infrastructure will have to be revisited.
The remedy: Reading hubs, online tools
In government schools, you may not have the ideal student–teacher ratio, but even then, teachers can work as enablers. Teachers should understand that they are no longer the only source of knowledge and should make other sources of knowledge accessible to children.
The children who do not read? They are extremely active on tablets and phones. We need to provide opportunities to optimise their learning and talent using those devices.
In most wards, there is no space to build new schools. Using the existing education infrastructure more imaginatively is one of the solutions. School buildings can be used as community hubs, with reading rooms and libraries equipped with internet facilities. Can these schools be a place where even out-of-school children can test their abilities?
With the shrinking of public spaces in Mumbai, libraries are closing down. Reading corners in the city can be created in places such as nana-nani parks, where the elderly can read stories to children, which will benefit both age groups.
Another source of good learning would be an exchange between the privileged and the underprivileged. Children from privileged backgrounds can learn from less privileged ones. There are many high-end schools in Mumbai with good facilities. The time has come for these schools to volunteer and share their good practices with other schools, adopt other schools and hold interactions and exchange programmes.
Nothing is impossible. We need to find creative and imaginative solutions. Michelangelo once said the greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is low and we are satisfied reaching it. But for all our future and that of the children of this city and country, we need to aim high and be determined to succeed.
The time has come when all politicians, our government, and us citizens must come together to make our city truly beautiful.
(As told to Roli Srivastava)
About the author
Farida Lambay has been former vice-principal College of Social Work Nirmala Niketan with 35 years of teaching and field level experience. She is founder CO of Pratham, an NGO which has a mandate of every child in school and learning. her specific contribution has been rescuing around 50,000 children from Mumbai’s informal sector with the help of government and the police. She has been a child activist and spearheaded many child rights movements. She has won many awards, the latest being the HT award for change-maker in Mumbai for her work in education and child labour