February 9, 2009 11:07:41 pm
While passing through the idyllic rural countryside of Rajasthan,gloriously covered in the winter sunshine with the green and gold of mustard fields,I wondered at first why we wish to impose our modern notions of development on the people living in these landscapes. They appear to have an unhurried life,one much closer to nature,where children learn needed skills as part of the natural process of growing up,without being pushed into artificial structures of modern schooling and education that only appear to create new and hard-to-fulfil needs and dreams.
If our modern state cannot fulfil those dreams and desires,do we really have the right to create them? Why not,it is tempting to think,let people live a near-subsistence level life whose limits they understand and whose problems they know how to cope with? Yet,the value of education and its intrinsic merits have been argued for consistently. Some challenge the kind of education being provided,but most continue to agree with the need for a broadening of the mind.
In a recent visit to Udaipur,I was presented afresh with reasons why education is needed if children are to realise their capabilities and articulate their dreams. The children I observed were attending a month-long residential education camp as part of a non-formal education programme run by an NGO. Between the ages of six and fourteen,many had never been to school while others had attended intermittently. From poor families in the villages around Udaipur,they helped their parents with farming,fetching water,cooking and raising younger siblings,in age-old gendered roles. Unsurprisingly perhaps,the girls looked duller than the boys,weighed down by domestic chores inappropriate to their age while boys still enjoyed some possibilities of freedom.
Their families dire poverty is understood when one discovers that many are sent by parents as migrant workers to the cotton fields or diamantaries of neighbouring Gujarat. Young children upward of seven are in great demand in the Bt cotton fields,where they perform what one anthropologist calls floral sex-work pollination by hand. The hands of little children are especially suited to such work,as they are to the diamond industry. Earn though they do,children of both sexes are liable to exploitation of several sorts,a fact parents are not unaware of. Girls often come back pregnant only to be married off to much older men. These migrant children lose out not only on an education but also on the kind of childhood they might otherwise have known in the village.
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Parents need to be cajoled into sending children to the residential learning camps. Initially,neither they nor their children are convinced of their value. But the qualitatively different learning experience in the camps draws the children back. Here they are taught in their own language,by dedicated and inspired young teachers,using new methods of imparting education which include the use of stories and story writing,pictorial and skill-based learning.
What do these children,poor,with malnutrition visibly apparent in their stunted physical growth,take away from these camps? Some come with scabies,others with open wounds,yet others with hidden illnesses that lead to tiredness while doing some basic physical exercises. Yet,despite all these handicaps,it is the bright eyes betraying a desire to know a different world that the teachers and even an occasional visitor encounter. On my visit,the children were collectively writing a story from a simple picture of a bear and a lion or other similar characters. Suddenly from being poor,illiterate children,they turn into magical role-players creating a varied world full of many kinds of knowledge drawn from their lived world. They learn to articulate,to perform,to communicate,to dream dreams. The hunger,not for education but for knowledge about the world,is palpable; simple things that more privileged children take for granted knowing ones own age; seeing Rajasthan,their state,on the map of India. What is a map? For children with no knowledge of who Sachin Tendulkar or Dhoni were or who the prime minister of their country was,suddenly such nuggets of random information could turn into the source of dreams and of citizenship.
But an even greater impact on the children seems to come from the new daily routine that they live for this short period. Each child gets a new set of clothes,exercise books,pens and pencils. Each child,perhaps for the first time in her or his life,wakes up in the morning to brush teeth with Colgate tooth powder,visit a clean toilet,have three assured meals in the day,learn during the day and have time to play cricket and football. It is the scope that this learning space provides for friendships and for childhood that draws the children back again and again and makes them into new little persons. We need to renew our commitment to bringing such children into the fold of knowledge.
The writer is a social anthropologist at IIT Delhi
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