The elephant in the room

What if our children had books that got them to think about compassion, kindness and caring for all life forms, including the many humans who have no voice of their own? What if schooling helps break stereotypes and reiterate ideas of equity and equality?

Written by Geeta Dharmarajan | Updated: July 28, 2017 12:29 am
Indian population, Right to Education, Education in India, Schooling, Child labour, RTE, Parliament children, Indian Express The RTE is focused on free and compulsory education till class VIII. It does not prescribe preschools for the poor. Or education beyond class 8. Nor does it talk quality or equity. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

By 2030, India will have 590 million people — nearly twice the current US population — living in its cities. The youth segment of this population is expected to include 170 million workers. These are the preschoolers of today. And yet this very important constituent is practically overlooked in all our policy plans and pronouncements. So much so that in a 2016 UN report on world cities and their outlook (UN World Cities Report 2016: Urbanization and Development — Emerging Futures), “children” or “education” have not even a sub-section.

India pegs her aspirations on big numbers — $1.2 trillion as capital investment to build cities for 2030, 700-900 million square metres of commercial and residential spaces, 2.5 billion square metres of roads. But who is going to work in these places or use these roads? Who is going to make India the super force some say we are destined to be?

Sixty years after it was due, we passed the Right to Education Act, with great foresight, on April 1, 2010. The RTE is focused on free and compulsory education till class VIII. It does not prescribe preschools for the poor. Or education beyond class 8. Nor does it talk quality or equity.

The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 was enacted to protect children under the age of 14 from being employed in specified occupations and processes [the Schedule listed 83 such). The new Child and Adolescent (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Act, 2016, passed in July 2016 in Parliament is touted as “progressive” for it covers adolescents (up to age 18.) But it lacks the national commitment to abolish child labour in all forms.

Firstly, a clause in the law permits children to be employed in “family or family enterprises” or allows the child to be “an artist in an audio-visual entertainment industry”. Secondly, the list of hazardous occupations and processes has been slashed from 83 to just three. Now, adolescents can be put to work in chemical mixing units, cotton farms, battery recycling units, brick kilns, among other places. Even this ban can be removed by state governments, at their discretion. No Parliament diktat needed!

We claim helplessness in the face of entrenched poverty. We talk about our innate goodwill for families in marginalised communities. We would never dream of cutting a branch that we are perched on; of engaging children in building the glass and concrete aspirations of modern India. But we — as individuals, as governments — exploit every loophole our inadequate child labour law allows.

The pre-primary and primary school children of today are going to be the work force of the 2030s. But there are few programmes for early schools goers. What the 21st century needs are creativity, innovation, problem-solving, entrepreneurship and a drive to excel. But basic education seems to be less important in the grand scheme of things than the mission of skilling Indian youth by the lakhs.

So we are not fazed by a UNESCO report of September 2016 that says India will be half a century late in achieving its universal education goals. Hence, we will achieve universal primary education only by 2050; universal lower secondary education only by 2060; and universal upper secondary education only by 2085.

The best and brightest from more privileged backgrounds will choose to go abroad — in spite of Trump. But we seem to have no plan and no real sense of urgency when it comes to those left behind.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We, the people, can make a difference. We can question governments and advocate on behalf of children. I’ve met hundreds of compassionate individuals in the course of my work who believe that “we do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”

A situation in which 50 per cent of 300 million children in school can’t read, needs action. And the call is more urgent when we know that 150 million of those children are 5-10-year-olds.

Creativity and critical thinking are the prerogatives of all children. Imagination is the most important requisite. The softer skills every leader needs are quality in thought and deed, an ability to contribute to society, make and belong to civil society; to be a responsive and responsible citizen who treats every life form with kindness.

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales,” said Albert Einstein. “All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree.”

That “tree” is imagination and it is something we need to nurture for all our children. The elephant has been in the room for a while and it’s time we acknowledged its presence.

So I end with some questions and a request: What if our children had books that got them to think about compassion, kindness and caring for all life forms, including the many humans who have no voice of their own? What if schooling helps break stereotypes and reiterate ideas of equity and equality, while enabling children to move away from the debilitating forces of mass media to a more gently critical culture? Let’s make testing more rigorous, but let’s ensure that passing/failing is a combined responsibility of the child, parent and teachers.

What if educators were thought leaders who fill curricula and classrooms with imagination — fiction, non-fiction and poetry that originates in India, from our different bhashas, in translation into all school languages, so helping children culturelink, understand where they come from, who they are. Stories that will encourage them to delve into the depths of life’s predicaments, giving children the space to be confident, creative, critical thinkers. What if our children then went ahead to create a nicer, more sustainable world for themselves, through reading supported learning, realising the importance of gender equality, global climate change, sustainable consumption?

It is serendipitous that we have 150 million children who can read and 150 million who cannot. Each one teach one: What a simple elegant solution to a vexing conundrum. (There is a reason why I am often called an eternal optimist.)

These goals are the motivation behind the 300 Million Challenge, — developed by us at Katha, the “profit for all” social organisation, with help from a group of incredible and passionate partners — spanning individuals, small to large nonprofits as well as the corporate sector.

We want to ensure that all 3-10-year-old children are reading well and for fun at an early age. School readiness is a critical factor for lifelong learning and sustainable education. We strongly believe that the government school system should be made more robust. And that all children need equitable, quality democratic education for sustaining our democracy. And that, when children understand they can bring sustainable change to themselves they begin to understand the emotional and the economic purpose of education, leading to, inshallah, sustainable lifelong learning.

Disruptive and collaborative innovation in primary education is possible only when we all join hands, when we together make children’s sustainable learning happen. Let’s make it everyone’s business and our collective mission — to be a country where every child counts.

The writer is founder and executive president of Katha, a nonprofit started in 1988
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