The press conference had been called to discuss a weighty issue: their schoolbags. So Rugved Raikwar and Paritosh Bhandekar, 12-year-olds who share a bench at Vidya Niketan school in Chandrapur, a city 150 km from Nagpur, sat facing media persons at the local Press Club and spoke: “Everyday, we carry at least 16 books for eight subjects… sometimes 18 or 20 books. Our school bags weigh between 5 and 7 kg. Our classroom is on the third floor and it’s exhausting to carry our bags all the way there.”
That was on August 22. Since then, the boys have got lockers in school and Rugved, who led the press conference that day, has turned into a celebrity of sorts. He was invited by a prominent Nagpur-based newspaper for an interaction at a prominent city school, after which the Nagpur school too introduced lockers for its students. He was also invited for panel discussions on TV channels and travelled to his parents’ hometown of Aurangabad to address another press conference.
After more than a week of his whirlwind campaign, he joined school on September 1. And when he did, he came back to a somewhat indifferent benchmate — Paritosh has all but pulled out of the campaign — and a principal who thinks it’s time the 12-year-old put his activism on hold and got back to his books.
Paritosh’s father Sunil Bhandekar, a construction contractor and a farmer in Chandrapur, says, “Rugved told my son about the press conference. My son, in turn, asked me if he could go and I said okay. The press conference has served its purpose and I have told my son that now, he should concentrate on his studies.” Paritosh, whose father has decided to speak for him today, manages to sneak in a sentence of his own, “I agreed to go with Rugved (for the press meet) only because he asked me some 50-70 times.”
Rugved, meanwhile, looks completely at ease in his new role and is determined to shoulder the burden of the schoolbag campaign, all 5 kg of it, by himself.
Rugved lives with his maternal uncle Mayur Raikwar and grandparents Anil and Jaya Raikwar at Saibaba ward in Chandrapur. His parents live in Aurangabad, nearly 500 km away. Both Anil and Mayur Raikwar claim to have worked with several social and political outfits in Chandrapur, with Mayur saying that he was once an “active leader” of the All India Students’ Federation and later joined — and quit — the Aam Aadmi Party.
Why did the family decide to let Rugved fight the campaign? “Pain can best be explained by the sufferer himself,” says Mayur. Rugved steps in to say, “It was my decision.”
His grandfather Anil adds, “Has the government ever done anything on its own? If they had, would the high court have had to step in and direct the government to restrict the weight of school bags? We thought the sight of children speaking up against the torturous practice would have an impact.”
In July 2015, a government-appointed committee had said that the weight of school bags should be one-tenth the student’s weight. Last November, the government issued a general notification specifying this. In July this year, the state government told the Bombay HC, which is hearing a PIL by social activist Swati Patil, that compliance of the notification is “up to 87 per cent”.
For the record, Rugved weighs 24 kg and his schoolbag should ideally weigh 2.4 kg. “I think this weighs about 5 kg,” he says, hauling his schoolbag by its shoulder strap.
Soon after the press conference, the family tried to take up the matter with a few politicians — State Education Minister Vinod Tawde, Chandrapur BJP leader and Finance Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar and Chandrapur BJP MP Hansraj Ahir — but hasn’t got a favourable response yet. “We will wait until October 2 for their response. If they don’t, Rugved will begin a hunger strike,” his uncle Mayur says.
Rugved insists that the campaign is for the larger good of “children across the country burdened by schoolbags” and that it isn’t directed at his school. “We like our school. We have no other problems there,” he says.
Principal Sapna Pittalwar isn’t amused. Though she moved swiftly to install lockers for all students in the school — within 48 hours of the boys’ press conference — she says the school has never encouraged heavy schoolbags. “We have always advised students to bring only relevant books. One of the eight daily periods is of music or crafts or subjects that require no books. English and social sciences have two periods each, which means, one book for each. So overall, students needn’t bring books that weigh more than 3-4 kg. They also needn’t bring water bottles since we provide purified water in school. But the bags that children use these days themselves weigh about 1 kg,” she says.
The principal also says Rugved and his guardians have never brought up the topic of schoolbags at any of the parent-teacher meetings. Rugved, however, claims he submitted a memorandum to the principal. Pittalwar denies getting any. “I asked Rugved about the memorandum he supposedly gave me. He said he had put it on my table. He also said he had given it to the peon. When I asked him why he didn’t hand it to me personally, he had no answer,” says Pittalwar.
At the press conference, the boys had said that they have to trudge up to the third floor with their bags. Pittalwar points out that their classroom is on the first floor. “What I meant was that there are many students who have to go up to the third floor,” says Rugved.
The principal says it’s time Rugved got back to his studies. “I have asked him to attend school more regularly and concentrate on his studies,” she says.
“Yes, I will now focus more on attendance and studies,” says Rugved, sitting at home and talking about his “dream” of growing up to be a collector. But before that, there is the October 2 hunger strike to plan for.