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Children & the Commonwealth Games

NEW DELHI, 01/04/2010: Primery School Students coming out after attending the School even as the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the Government committed to ensure education to all children irrespective of gender and social category and fund constraints would not be allowed to hamper implementation of the Right to Education Act, in New Delhi on April 01,2010 .Photo:Sushil Kumar Verma   | Photo Credit: Sushil Kumar Verma

The law endowing on India's children the right to education (RTE) carried a date. So did the decision to host the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. For the vast numbers of out-of-school children of the city, the law has brought no change. When the schools reopen next week after the summer break, they will be no better prepared to receive and retain the thousands of children who have either never enrolled or were eliminated by the system. Nor will life at school be any more child-friendly for those who have got used to the cramped, often cruel, conditions of Delhi's municipal schools. The authorities have made no preparation for implementing the new law, which seeks to transform India's schools and end the apartheid that divides private from state-run schools.

Under RTE, all private schools and Kendriya Vidyalayas were supposed to offer one-fourth of their seats to children of the poor living in the vicinity. Some private schools of Delhi have done this following an earlier court order, and some have made a provision for an afternoon shift for the poor, which violates RTE. The Kendriya Vidyalayas have taken no steps whatsoever and the Pratibha Vikas Vidyalayas, for which the Delhi government screens children at Class VI, are carrying on with this practice. This too violates RTE.

It can be justifiably argued that the scale of systemic changes the RTE demands would require a gestation period of more than the three months that have elapsed since its promulgation. Fair enough. But one cannot miss the contrast in the preparations made for implementing the RTE and the Commonwealth Games. The authorities have put in an extraordinary effort to stage the games in October. Quite literally, no stone in Delhi has been left unturned to make the event a historic achievement of national glory. The contrast between the apathy to RTE and anxiety for the Games reveals the official meaning of national pride. True, the Commonwealth Games are a one-time event whereas the RTE involves a vast, sustained effort. Both call for a massive investment in physical infrastructure. Preparations for implementing the RTE would mean judicious deployment of available resources and mobilisation of new ones. Neither process has begun. In the case of the Commonwealth Games, officials have gone overboard to squander a pumped-up emergency budget to dress up Delhi in time to stage them.

Not just the venues where the Games will be held and people will stay, but the city at large is undergoing expensive plastic surgery. Roads and sidewalks are being dug up and redone. Wherever you look, piles of freshly purchased tiles waiting to replace the existing ones greet you. Parsimony is out; extravagance is in. All along Willingdon Crescent (now known after Mother Teresa), raised flowerbeds are being installed. For this, the beautiful and extensive sweep of well-maintained grass stretching from the Teen Murti House to the Lohia Hospital is being removed. Terraced flowerbeds and tiles will cover the stretch. Tiles seem to be the favourite among contractors and officials. Even the ones installed only last year are being replaced. The surroundings of India Gate are witnessing a similar relaying of perfectly acceptable sidewalks with garish cement tiles and sandstone curbs. The story of the Delhi University campus is probably the saddest. Here, an angular, tall rugby stadium now stands facing the old Vice-regal Lodge which was restored to its original architectural ambience only three years ago at an enormous expense. Hundreds of mature trees have been cut down to build an ugly parking lot. Access to it has been provided by destroying another park which, till now, marked the university's platinum jubilee.

No doubt the chaos will soon settle down. The glitter of the Games will erase the memory of all doubts and dilemmas. The city will go on, coping with its endemic problems such as chronic water shortage, air pollution and lack of sanitation. Both the manner and style in which the preparation for the Commonwealth Games have proceeded will exacerbate Delhi's problems. Let us take water shortage, for instance. All along the freshly tiled sidewalks, a strip has been left open for flower bushes. Who will water them after the Games? The dried-up beds will remind children going to school that sustainable development is a nice slogan and a topic to elaborate for marks. The bricked tree enclosures erected to welcome Queen Elizabeth a few years ago along her route soon became convenient garbage dumps. During the days ahead of U.S. President Bill Clinton's visit, a magistrate was sent around in a van to fine anyone throwing garbage on the street. Each time such a thing is done, we bring back to life the British stereotype of Indians as people who will starve and save for years in order to spend millions on a wedding night. It seems we have learnt no lesson whatsoever about the meaning of modernity as an exercise of reason and judgment for human goals. Had these been applied for the staging of the Commonwealth Games, it could have been planned differently, with austerity and warmth, to convey India's original vision and priorities as a nation committed to equality and a new world order.

Schools are going to stay closed during the Games. When they reopen, sports will remain as inaccessible and exotic as they are now for the majority of children. Playtime will be cut in general, to make up for the closure during the Games. In schools which have the misfortune to be located in the vicinity of a stadium or practice grounds, life has been tough. In one such government school, the sports ground was used for storing cement, bricks and sand for developing a nearby Commonwealth practice field. The Games' contractor chopped down the volleyball poles and left the ground littered with rubbish. For a whole session, children could not play. The coming session promises no relief. This school was lucky to have a playground. Most schools in Delhi have none. And college students are only slightly better placed in this respect. Inspiring the young was apparently not intended to be an outcome of the Games. Like everyone else, children were expected to act as spectators of a five-star extravaganza.

The RTE represents the Republic's dream of recognising every child as an active learner and a national asset. The law assiduously lists the systemic conditions that must be met to realise this dream. These conditions include a room for every class, special classes for older children who were never enrolled, 1:30 teacher-pupil ratio, higher qualifications and in-service training for every teacher, and a child-friendly environment in schools. A lot of hard work should — and could — have been done to meet the RTE standards in Delhi's schools before April 1 when the law was to come into force. Now, after the summer break too, schools and teachers will be no better prepared to receive the tens of thousands of additional children the RTE intends to bring into the system. Nor will teachers have any clearer understanding of what it means to allow children from diverse socio-economic backgrounds to study together.

Private schools will continue grooming children of the richer classes for elite roles. Not one school in Delhi has emulated the example of Sister Cyril's historic achievement of turning the Loreto school in Calcutta into an exemplar institution where children of the poor study with the rich. Many corporate houses have now entered into the business of running schools. Fitted with centralised air-conditioning and close-circuit television cameras, the schools are chilling symbols of India's new apartheid culture. Under this culture, the poor have been thrown out to the margins of cities like Delhi. Their children are supposed to be content with the sub-human conditions which prevail in schools meant only for the poor. The RTE rejects this situation and seeks to transform it so that education becomes a means of accelerating social cohesion rather than conflict. The governments of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, among others, have declared that they do not have the funds to meet the RTE norms. The Delhi government might do the same. Never mind the tiles.

(The author is professor of education at Delhi University and a former director of NCERT.)

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Printable version | Nov 1, 2020 6:22:45 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/Children-amp-the-Commonwealth-Games/article13663652.ece

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