By Gladson Dungdung
Tehelka 8 August, 2008
In a Bokaro school, children demanding textbooks make themselves heard by organising a sit-in and refusing entry to grown-ups.
Free and compulsory education is one of the constitutional rights of children and the State is duty-bound to realise it. The Centre and State governments provide free textbooks, uniforms, midday meals, scholarships and other facilities to the poor children who cannot afford it. For this very reason, when the children of Utkramit Madhya Vidhyalaya in Chandipur of Bokaro district (Jharkhand) were denied these rights, they started relentless resistance against the authorities. Subsequently, they managed to get themselves heard.
The problem of unavailability of the textbooks began with the introduction of the CBSE curriculum in 2002. The state government’s promise to provide free textbooks to the children up to class eight was never fulfilled. The children did not get the books in 2003. While in 2004, the books reached the schools in the month of November, the session passed away without books in 2005. A copyright dispute between the state government and the NCERT meant the children got their books just in time for their annual exams of 2006. It is August 2008 and the last time the children got a fresh set of books was in October 2007. No wonder children of Chandipur School were anxious.
A child rights organization “Dhara” organized “Bal Sansad” (children’s parliament) in the district on June 13, 2008 where the children discussed the issues of unavailability of textbooks, midday meals, scholarships and bicycles. Then a delegation of 15 children in led by Vinod Kumar (12), Kartik Kumar (13) and Raju Kumar (10) of Chandipur School met Alku Das the Block Education Officer (BEO) of Kasmar on June 20. Das assured them that the books would be distributed on July 15 as per the directions of Bandhu Tirkey, the Education Minister of Jharkhand. But when he failed to meet the deadline, the delegation again met the BEO in his office on July 16. In an alarming development, an upset BEO threatened to have the children put behind bars. ‘Stop politics and get back to school. Otherwise I’ll throw you behind the bars,’ is what the BEO told the children. Adding fuel to the children’s anger, the incident pushed them to a strike till they get the books.
Mobilising their classmates, they locked the main gate of the school. They started shouting slogans “Bhikh Nahi, Adhikar Chahiye” (we demand our rights, not charity) and “Khichdi Nahi, Kitab Chakiye” (we need books, not mixed-rice). The children’s agitation continued for four days. Durga Das Mahto, the head teacher of the school got into the act threatening to expel them from the school.
Bhagwat Mahto the chairperson of the ‘Village Education Committee’, who oversaw midday meals in school, put pressure on children and convinced their parents to get their children to call off the agitation. Most of the parents succumbed to the pressure but fortunately, the members of ‘Mahila Samiti’ recognised the children’s concerns were genuine and backed them. The chairperson of the Samiti, Basanti Devi said, ‘Shame on us because we did not support our children’s demand. We cannot even understand the fact that the children cannot study without books.’
Finally, the matter caught the attention of the District Superintendent of Education (DSE) Shivnarayan Shah. On a July 22 visit to the school, after his request to unlock the gates was heard, he conducted a meeting in its premises with children, parents and teachers. Representing the students, Vinod Kumar complained about the BEO’s response when they approached him. He was informed that the scholarship has not been offered for the last three years, that the girl children are not given bicycles and the mid day meals are also not being served properly.
Furious about the state of affairs, Shah had the head teacher Durga Das Mahto transferred. He dissolved the Village Education Committee and ordered the constitution of a new committee within a week. Books were to be provided immediately, five sets of them to the children of class 8. He also ordered an investigation into the matter of scholarship and distribution of bicycle to girl children. ‘The officers will be punished if found guilty,’ he said. BEO Alku Das apologised to the children in the presence of the DSE. Blaming the inaction of the BEO and the head teacher of the school for the debacle, he said, ‘They did not do their job and also failed to report to me.’
The children were inspired to assume the mantle of the elders by the activists of ‘Dhara’ through various training programmes, where they are being taught about their rights recognised by the United Nation Convention on Rights of the Child 1989, ratified by the Government of India on 12 November 1992. Vinod Kumar explains, ‘Here, we learn about our rights – rights to development including right to education, participation and protection”.
According to Jeevan Jagarnath the director of Dhara, the children in every village form ‘Bal Akhra’ (children group); organise various training camps, ‘Bal Sansad’, cultural programmes and they go on field trips, where they learn about their rights, issues and redressal mechanisms. ‘We are committed to making sure that the children enjoy their rights, to the extent promised by the government of India,’ he said, adding, they had approached the parents first but it was the children who set about exercising their rights—a good sign of things to come.
This successful campaign of children for books has inspired the children of other schools in the district. The children of Baraikala and Baraikhurd middle schools have also started agitations demanding books and other facilities. Bablu Kumar (10) of Utkramit Madhya Vidhyalaya, Baraikhurd sounded a warning. ‘We will also resort to an agitation if the books do not reach us by the end of July’.
There are 44058 government and government-aided schools in Jharkhand, 1740 schools in Bokaro district alone but not one of them has received the textbooks four months into the new academic year. Neither are textbooks available in the market. Herein lies the question mark on the children’s right to education.
Gladson Dungdung is a Human Rights Activist. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org