No way to teach a lesson in class

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The RTE was supposed to empower poor students. Instead, they’re branded and separated like cattle in private schools. Imran Khan reports

A cut below? One of the students whose hair was allegedly snipped by the Oxford English School management
A cut below? One of the students whose hair was allegedly snipped by the Oxford English School management
Photo: Imran Khan

TWO WEEKS ago, a private school gained notoriety when it allegedly snipped tufts of hair off four of its students admitted under the Right to Education (RTE) Act, in a bid to segregate them from the other students. It revealed a deeper tension within society.

The story of these students is not from the margins, and hence must not be read in obscurity. Private schools have been opposing the idea of RTE and its implementation for long now. The Karnataka Unaided Schools Management Association (KUSMA), an organisation of private schools, has been fiercely opposing the idea since its inception. KUSMA president GS Sharma had to quit on 18 July after his remark that students gaining admission into private schools under RTE were like “sewage flowing into clean water”. In the case of Oxford English School (OES), a member of KUSMA, parents allege that the school management cut off their children’s hair to humiliate and ostracise them. According to the parents, the school has been systematically discriminating against them from the beginning. Even to get the RTE form, parents claim they had to resort to protest.

In a class of 40 students of Standard I at OES, eight children were admitted under RTE. “They were made to sit on the last bench, their names were not included in the attendance register and no books were provided to them. They were not given neck-ties, belts, or even homework. And on top of that, the teachers used to check their tiffin boxes — asking them if they’d brought the previous day’s leftover ‘since you’re from poor families’,” says Geeta, mother of one of the victims.

The above incidents have shocked the people of the state and nation. What perturbed many was the fact that such a thing could occur in Bengaluru, known for its cosmopolitan culture, IT hub, and presumed to be a liberal bastion. What shocked even more was that this took place in the field of education, which is meant to bridge gaps within classes and communities. More than 60 years after Independence, recent events prove that not only has the gap not been bridged, but in this neo-liberal set-up, governments are throwing out ‘welfare schemes’ and handing them over to private players.

Education is now the latest commodity for sale. Even in fields like water and mid-day meals, the Karnataka government has been more than enthusiastic in handing them over to private players. In some districts, the state has handed over the supply of drinking water to the Tatas (it wants to emulate the model for the entire state), and the supply of nutrients in mid-day meals is slowly being handed over to the mining giant Vedanta.

The recent RTE row in the state, and the resistance that followed, certainly expose the design-discrimination on the part of the state. What has come out is that even if laws like RTE are passed, governments are least bothered to implement it seriously. When KUSMA refused to implement the scheme and went on a week-long strike, the state government could have taken action against it under the RTE Act, but it chose to overlook it.

On the one hand, government schools in the state are dilapidated, both in terms of infrastructure and teaching, making primary education elusive for large sections of the society. While on the other, it has privatised higher education at large. Recently, the BJP-led government was on a drive to close down schools that had fewer students, rather than resolving the attendance problem. Though the government had plans to shut down more than 3,000 schools, opposition from civil society forced it to bring down the number to 600.

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What this act could do

• According to the District Information System for Education (DISE) data for 2011-12, the total number of government lower and higher primary schools in Bengaluru North is 511 and Bengaluru South, 891. The enrolment for Class 1 in these schools stands at 9,728 and 16,707, respectively, as on September 2011

• In contrast, the number of unaided private LPS and HPS schools in Bengaluru North is 937, and 1,377 in Bengaluru South. Class 1 enrolment in these unaided schools stands at 43,045 and 65,774, respectively

• If 25 percent reservation is observed strictly in all unaided schools, the number of those currently going to government schools can be absorbed by the unaided schools over the next few years. This would go a long way in creating mixed schools, with equal opportunity and quality for all

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Meanwhile, schools run by private players want to profit from the education business (hence RTE is not good business). So, the indication sent by them is: no entry if you can’t afford ‘quality education’.

As Nayaz Pasha, an auto driver and father of Madeen Kausar, 6, whose hair was allegedly snipped by the OES management, says, “I was thrilled when I heard that through RTE, even my daughter could afford quality education. But I am scared to send her there after all this; we may opt for a government school now.”

Karnataka boasts of getting nearly 45,000 students admitted under the RTE quota this year. But almost every second home that saw the RTE at play talks of subtle discrimination, elitism or harassment. RTE activist Yasir Mohammed spent more than two months convincing parents to send their children to private schools, but convincing schools was next to impossible. Yasir says he approached nearly 18 schools to implement RTE. “Apart from three-four schools, the rest gave us the cold shoulder. Some even called the police,” he says.

Karnataka has a deep-rooted sense of caste, and politics here is strictly caste-driven. For this reason, privatisation and caste assertion go hand-in-hand in the state. The caste orientation brings discrimination into sharp relief, be it the cutting of hair to differentiate, or forcing lower-class people to roll on leftover food in temples, or like in Mangalore, the Hindutva hotbed, where girl students wearing burkhas are banned from colleges.

Take the case of the upper limit of income under RTE. Among the southern states, Karnataka has the highest upper limit for students to be admitted under the RTE quota. With an upper limit income of Rs 3.5 lakh, it beats even Tamil Nadu, where it is Rs 2 lakh. In Kerala, only BPL cardholders are eligible for the quota. This is certainly a critical point and consequently, the deserving and deprived class won’t gain from this law. It is also argued that government officials and employees will enjoy the benefits of RTE and upper-limit liberty.

AFTER TWO days of protest, the OES management tendered an apology. However, OES spokesman Ajith Prabhu attempted to dismiss the accusations that it was a discriminatory exercise, saying that other students also had their hair cut. It was allegedly done by a student in a crafts’ class, while the teacher was busy drawing on the board. Prabhu added that there was no discrimination on part of the school.

Meanwhile, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) has asked the state government to clarify on this issue. Taking cognisance, Karnataka Primary and Secondary Education Secretary G Kumar Naik informed the press that he has initiated an inquiry and sought a report from zonal officers. However, even before the committee could inquire into the incident and bring out its report, Primary and Secondary Education Minister Vishweshwar Hegde Kageri has cast aspersions on the Dalit organisation (Karnataka Dalit Samrajya Samiti) that helped bring this issue to light. Kageri has said on record that the whole incident was orchestrated by the organisation, which had some issues with the school management.

Amid all the mudslinging, the right to quality education remains a distant dream for children from poor families.

Imran Khan is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.
imran@tehelka.com

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