The death of innocence


Candle march to pay homage to PradyumnaThe recent gruesome murder of seven-year-old Pradyuman Thakur, a Class 2 student of Ryan International School in Bhondsi, Gurgaon, has opened a can of worms. These worms have been infesting on the rapidly growing and lucrative business of education in our country. The public outcry and the subsequent media spotlight has thrown up uncomfortable questions about a plethora of issues that have long been buried under the weight of apathy from the government and the public alike; the structure of the education system, class hierarchies, student safety and most importantly child abuse in India. Schools are more than just temples of learning. They also provide the social space for overall nurturing and development of a child. Their managements cannot evade their responsibility when it comes to providing a safe and happy learning environment. How safe are our kids in their supposed safe havens?

Just a few months ago, I was hanging out with my girls, many of them young mothers and a few like me expecting to join the bandwagon soon. Somebody mentioned a recent newspaper report on child sexual abuse in India. “But how does that affect my boys?” a well-to-do mother of toddler twins asked quizzically. Gender, income or education does not provide our progeny immunity from harm or abuse. In India, more than 50 per cent of children have been abused in some or the other form and a large number of them are boys. Most abused children never report it. Too often, societies ignore child physical abuse owing to family pride or fear of stigma. Some kids are silenced by discrediting their discomfort as an overt reaction to routine matters. Most Indians like to dismiss even reported crimes against children as something that does not affect them, like the ignorant mother in our group. We, as a society, have been taught to push uncomfortable truths under the carpet and obsess with the greatness of our gender, class, caste, religion and/or nation. Perhaps if we read the warning signs early enough, such tragedies can be averted.

The murder of a young child in his own school, belonging to an affluent group, is not only shocking but a grim pointer that no place is safe and no section of society immune from the evil of child abuse. It also rings an alarm bell for the lack of regulatory oversight to ensure the safety and security of our children in schools. In an era where educational institutions in India are springing up like mushrooms after the rain, it is hardly surprising to witness
holistic education and regulatory obligations taking a back seat. These institutions are an easy tool to invest dicey capital, earn handsome profits as well as respectability vis a vis the noble business of education. There is no doubt why everybody with the moolah, politicians, actors, businessmen et al, is hankering to open a school or college in India.

Though we would like to place the entire blame on lackadaisical government policies and school managements, we as a society are equally responsible for the rot in our system. We are a nation obsessed with getting our children to score the highest marks and become engineers and doctors. Demand triggers supply. Thus we are producing mass factories in the name of educational institutions, with little regard for quality and regulations. The burgeoning Indian middle class is ready to pay through their noses to get their children admitted to reputed private schools like the Ryan group, so that they can keep up with the rat race. The focus is more on vital stuff like how big the school brand is, whether the classes use air conditioners and projectors and what kind of crowd attends the said school.
Parents rarely enquire enough at schools about their regulatory maintenance, teacher qualification, student- teacher ratio, safety parameters, etc. The pseudo class system in India allows us to believe that making our kids attend good schools and mingle with a good crowd makes them immune to abuse and harm. Such ignorance allows schools to maintain their status symbols with managements that rarely have any clue about the requirements of running an educational institution. Maybe that is why the recent rape of a minor girl student by one of the staff at a government school in Delhi was quickly forgotten and the drowning of another young boy last year, at another branch of the Ryan group in Vasant Kunj, could be passed off as an accident without much hue and cry. Even though the schools are different, the insensitivity and callousness of the Ryan group management in handling a second incident on their premises can easily be attributed to their confidence in inaction from the public and the government after the first incident.

Indian boards like the ICSE and CBSE have a customary rulebook of regulations that their schools are supposed to adhere to. But a lack of disciplinary repercussions and apathy of the government allows such rules to remain buried in files without ever being implemented. Most school managements use their ‘connections’ to get their approvals. Till they maintain the look and feel of the school, they can cut corners on staff employment and regulatory structural modifications, which would require substantial upgrade in expenditure in some cases. The Ryan International Group of Institutions (RIGI) itself is not new to scandals. The Pinto family that heads the group has expanded their empire exponentially in the last decade. From maintaining mutually beneficial ever changing political connections to running membership drives for the BJP on its campus in 2015, from dubious affiliation and land allotment records to using minority status to secure grants from the government, RIGI has enough controversies in its closet. The Pinto family itself was a part of financial fraud in the Indian share market not so long ago. The successful expansion of RIGI despite all odds is a testimony to what government oversight and ignorance of the general public can do.
With doubts arising about the initial investigations in the Ryan school murder and the role of the school in it, the need of the hour is prompt government action and a more aware and accepting society. Actions need to be taken to make security more stringent in and around schools through surveillance, detection and penalties. Setting up a proper security infrastructure, securing reliable school transport, counselling students, conducting child abuse awareness programs, conducting background checks of all personnel and more is required. There should be strict government policies regarding penalisation for regulatory lapses in educational institutions. But the change will only take place when we as parents are vigilant enough to notice and demand it.

The Supreme Court’s has issued an order to CBSE, the Centre and the Haryana government for realising the true status of safety measures observed in schools, but that hardly guarantees any stringent action against child abuse. In a country where, according to reports, almost every second child has faced some form of abuse, the government as well as society needs to snap out of its slumberous stupor to ensure that children retain their innocent childhood with a secure future.

The writer, an erstwhile embedded programmer, turned to writing to rant about illusory existential dilemmas facing India.