Ceaseless Pursuit

Poverty is often blamed for the lack of literacy among the marginalised. Poverty is only one part of the problem. Every poor tribal or Dalit wants to educate his or her child but what is stopping them? Collective social neglect.

A few among us may, in the flush of idealism, go ahead and start a school for the underprivileged, but brace yourself for challenges from the most unexpected places.

Which curriculum does a new dream school adopt? Not knowing the potential and strengths of prospective students, you may decide that the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) will be most appropriate. NIOS offers a curriculum up to Std.XII with an Open Basic Education (OBE) scheme up to Std.VIII, which gives a strong base for further academic pursuits. This is not a school dropout or adult-education programme, although NIOS was originally conceived for this purpose. The norms laid out allowed for a school or institution environment. Many schools across India have adopted NIOS as the curriculum, or its OBE scheme until std. VIII.

Just when you think you are ‘set’, you are told that, in 2009, came the ‘Right To Education’ (RTE) Act. All children between the ages of six to 14, the RTE Act mandates, have the right to get educated and in a school environment. But wait! Though the OBE scheme allowed for it to be implemented in schools, the government has indicated the withdrawal of this scheme. The argument is that the OBE is mainly meant for home schools or for after-school programmes, which contradicts the RTE mandate of a ‘school or institution environment’. This means that children studying in such institutions will have to find admission in other schools affiliated to State or Central boards.

So what is plan B? Opt for another affiliation and recognition that would award a certificate to the students at the end of 10 years? If you choose to apply to a board such as ICSE, you are in for a long-drawn rollercoaster ride, being shunted from pillar to post for that most elusive document called the No-Objection Certificate (NOC).

Until recently, an NOC from the state government was a compulsory requirement for affiliation to ICSE and CBSE. To acquire this certificate from the state government, you have to become a file, and then as a file commence a long journey — village to city to state capital, rectifying the various defects listed by the inspecting authorities. But the list is never-ending because every time the file is returned a new set of queries are presented. There seems no final list of corrective measures you can take and no one assures you that it will end.

The RTE enactment also requires all schools, including those already affiliated to established boards, be recognised as per the guidelines of the RTE and norms of the respective state governments. The mutually contradictory ambiguities between the two are playing havoc with administration of schools. When states such as Tamil Nadu insist that all schools need to re-apply for recognition every three years, insecurity grips educators, parents and students.

Recently, the CBSE replaced the NOC condition for affiliation with the recognition requirement of the RTE. But, in both cases, it is the state authorities that issue the necessary certificate. If you are a new school seeking recognition, you try and submit all the necessary papers hoping that you will reach the end of the rainbow.

To the inspecting officers, issuing an NOC or a certificate of recognition under RTE makes little difference. They are confused about the various norms, or may be they just don’t care because power is still vested in them and their superiors. State board affiliation is no different with its own set of complications once again enforced by the same officers.

But the bottomline is: Nothing will happen until money has been unfurled into the machinery. This is not just about politicians; it is a murky world of black money curated and manicured by private trusts with enormous funds who are willing to pay large sums of money to obtain all the necessary permissions.

Exhausted and frustrated, you turn to the legal system to find an answer, a direction. That is another long drawn wait.

By this time your students are ready to take the std. X examination, and their parents are worried. That is when you see how the education that you wished to offer can be stifled and strangled by the political and bureaucratic machinery.

That is when you ask yourself: Is this entire struggle really worth it? But before despondency makes you a prisoner, you remember the sparkle in children’s eyes and recall the smile in their eager parents’ faces. That is when hope returns, and energy, and you keep going. The question is… For how long?

Originally written for The Hindu

No equal spaces

Every journey holds within it a commentary on the world we inhabit. But ‘we’ are not people of the whole of planet Earth; we are residents of a tiny microscopic construct that we think of as ‘our world’. We see, feel and even listen to the ‘rest’ from within this paradigm.

Last week I travelled to two places for two very different reasons but inexplicably they got intertwined. My friend Nityanand Jayaraman took a few of us to Kodungaiyur, a suburb situated far away from middle and upper-middle class Chennai; to its ‘due North’. In Kodungaiyur is located one of Chennai’s main garbage dumps that receives the majority of the garbage generated by ‘us’. Living within and around this dump are communities making their living by segregating plastics, metals and selling the city’s waste. The sight is astounding; acres and acres of garbage, rising to a height of over 25 ft. Nearby flows — rather does not flow — a narrow toxic canal. The sight and stench are revolting.

I live in a South Chennai apartment complex. We like to think of ourselves as being an eco-friendly community. We segregate garbage and harvest rainwater. I even use solar power! But at the Kodungaiyur dump, in contrast, everything from below the surface to the smoke-filled sky was polluted.

By whom?

Their garbage is not theirs, but ours. What they live with is what we throw out of our homes. Our every act of avaricious consumption is an act of violence on these people. We have dumped our filth on Kodungaiyur and we call it a dump, meaning a place for valueless objects. Are the people who suffer our excesses also valueless?

For a child born around this dump, the aroma of life means something different from what it does to my daughter. To her, what we discard at home is something that goes into the waste bin. For the girl in Kodungaiyur, what we discard becomes her ‘common’.

Many believe that discrimination on the basis of caste is an over-exaggerated preoccupation of the self-flagellating left-leaning liberal. But if we do not realise that Dalits and other lower castes live amid the most polluting and hazardous filth, which is not created by them but by others we are truly inhuman.

A few days after experiencing Kondungaiyur, I travelled to Mumbai. Travelling for a concert is ‘secure’. We arrive at an airport, stay in a comfortable hotel or with a close friend, perform, lap up all the praise and money and head back. This Mumbai visit was no different until I came across this notice in an up-market apartment complex.

“Lift No 1 & 2 to be used only by the client & architects. Any labour or contractor found using these lifts will be fined Rs. 2,000.”

This must have been put up when the building was being constructed; may be still some work is in progress. But, really! The labourers build every inch of your house, craft your interiors, carpet your flooring and decorate your bathrooms. They make that place you call home classy for you, yet they are not classy enough to travel in the lift with you! If this is not apartheid, what is? In the Nirbhaya documentary, the rapist has said what many think. Here the notice only put into words what many feel. We do not want to travel in the lift with a worker or house help and they know it, which is why many will not enter the lift when the ‘malik’ does.

What was even worse in this notice was the accompanying fine in case of violation. Equality was made a punishable offence! We will be given many reasons for this posting, like labourers spit out paan indiscriminately or carry tool kits that may damage the lift. I wonder if we will stop the owner of the house from carrying golf kits on Lifts 1 and 2?

The hard truth is that we look at this class of people who work as labourers, domestic help, electricians, plumbers, painters as being unfit to share ‘our’ space. They are there only to serve our needs for which we compensate them. We cannot be equals; we have all the rights and power and it is up to us to decide and choreograph their place in society.

Within a few days I had seen two different environments connected in an unusual way. Places like Kodungaiyur soak up our filth to keep our surroundings clean. The labourers, whom we treat as lesser mortals, work for the upkeep of our homes. It is ironic that dignity, beauty, elegance, and functionality are stripped out of the lives of the ones who provide them to us.

Originally written for The Hindu