Right to Food
Why Right to Education, Right to Health and Right to Food Go Together: A Report by Geetisha Dasgupta
The seventh annual meeting of Pratichi (India) Trust was held on 7th and 8th August, 2008 at the Gitanjali Auditorium premises in Bolpur. The meeting was co-organised by Sarva Shiksha Mission, Birbhum and Birbhum District Primary Education Council. It was attended by several primary, pre primary school teachers, head masters, guardians of children going to such schools, people involved in the administration of primary education in West Bengal, research personnel, academicians and journalists. The meeting was also attended by the Finance Minister of West Bengal, Asim Dasgupta, Primary Education Minister, Partha De and the noted Economist, Amartya Sen. The central theme was public participation in the augmentation of quality of primary education in the State.
The thematic outline of this meeting was a watershed. It was for the first time perhaps, that, there was so much dialogue on qualitative aspect of a service the State had promised to provide, a service, on whose quality, the future of millions is directly dependent. Primary education is necessarily that stepping stone on which every other aspect draws heavily. Therefore the meeting emphasized, the lookout should not only be universal enrollment, but also the work that follows it. What kind of education is given, whether the children are able to get smooth promotion from one class to another within the minimum requisite time and whether they get to eat a full meal before they sit down to learn, were the concerns that received the highlight repeatedly.
It was inspiring to note the enthusiasm on part of the teachers and guardians alike, in the betterment of primary education scenario in their respective areas of work. The promise on their part was readily palpable.
The two day programme began with some introductory comments inviting the teachers and the guardians to share their experiences in being directly involved with the primary education system. The first session was convened by Professor Achin Chakrabarty of Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata and Smt. Subhra Chattopadhyay of Bikramshila. The feeling gathered initially was that there was a general disinterest in the upgrading of primary and pre primary education in some of the districts. There were complaints about loopholes in the resource distribution mechanisms. Several activities, it was complained, are found to happen only on paper. There is, it was said, a lack of nutrition of the child students still prevailing, despite the measures taken over a period of time. The speakers pointed out several reasons. Some even complained the Mata Shikshak Committee system to be a failure altogether, while others discussed the relative merits of this body. A two pronged system was found imperative in raising the standard, one arm being the teachers, the other being the people at home, keeping an interest in and vigil over the children, once they returned from school.
It was repeatedly emphasized that, the school should be able to ensure a free and fearless environment. It would be best if the child finds that people from her home and locality keep coming to the school. The alienation between the guardians and the teachers should be removed as soon as possible and reliability of the guardians to be garnered. Mid day meal was complained to be an added pressure for teachers who are already overburdened with the work of teaching. There is, in any case, a huge gap between the number of teachers required and the number present. Moreover, there are different kinds of learners among the students, who demand variable degrees of attention from the teacher. Aftabuddin Hazari, an education worker pointed out that the Sarva Shiksha Kendra system had shown much rapid development than the primary schools.
SSK has directly shown the relation between nutrition and education, said Prof. Sen, rounding up the arguments of the first few speakers. It has received great support from almost all quarters. In ensuring the full fledged participation, he said, not only the huge number of opinions, but also the variety thereof must be brought into fair count. Greater official legitimacy was demanded for the MTC. The mother should be made more conscious with regard to her child’s education. This should in turn, be effective in bringing down the drop out rates. More personal involvement was sought from the teachers.
China Paul, a primary school teacher from Naxalbari pointed out that she had been able to reduce the absence and drop out phenomena by directly interacting with the mothers and circulating the word of mouth deputing other children in order to induct the absentees and drop outs back to school. On the other hand, Ila Paira, a teacher from Paschim Medinipur, who teaches at a school meant for Adivasis, said, there was no arrangement whatsoever, for handicapped children. Moreover, she argued, external assessment method was always antithetical to the interest of primary education as children of that nascent age must be given familiar grounds to prove themselves. Child psychology must therefore be taught at the training and orientation exercises for primary teachers. No children can be categorized as advanced or backward, as, children come to school as white paper, and it is the failure of the teacher that differences crop up between the understanding and performances of two children, after they begin to learn. Ila also pointed out that, in most cases, training has been a futile process and many a teacher does not understand how to go about mathematics or science teaching. The method of teaching is as important as the content of teaching or the person to be taught.
Rekha Banerjee, another teacher remarked, often mothers do not want their children to be confined to school premises when they could earn a hand if they were sent to work. This situation had to be mitigated by constant dialogue with the mothers, especially in situations where the male guardian was addicted to drinking and alcoholic. In such cases, where the children are the first generation learners from one particular family, voluntary organizations or volunteers were required to drive the children to school. The teacher cannot be expected to do all. Nihar Bibi, a guardian from Shujpur, commented that the daily allowance of two and a half rupees per child for mid day meal was completely insufficient and as long as was not increased, there could not be expected any rise in the nutritional meter of the children.
Asim Dasgupta, in his presentation on the second day of the programme, said that there has been a rate of 98.5% net enrollment at the age of 5+, while the gross enrollment rate is of 116%. He claimed that: 1) Of the net 1.5% of out of school children, many go to schools that are not affiliated; 2) There has been a marked decrease in the rate of drop out also, over the years. There are 88,000 Anganwadi Centers, which take care of the pre primary education in the State. Almost all schools have an ICDS centre attached to itself. The methods followed in teaching at these centers are often very innovative. For example, in one such center, a child is asked to enumerate whatever it saw while on way to school as “Ajker Khabar” (Today’s News). This is nothing but an attempt to make the child eloquent in the mother tongue. The ICDS would propel the child to the primary school but is not itself a place to hammer the child with alphabets or numbers. The Finance Minister blatantly pointed out, immediately the long syllabi at primary level should be done away with. But the syllabi should be qualitatively good. About the Government’s decision to revive English teaching at the primary level, he said, the influence of the environment is too profound on the children now. And that environment rotates on the axis of English, contrary to the reality 30 years ago, when English was dropped from primary school curriculum.
The Chairman of Bardhaman District Primary Education Council pointed out that a primary condition behind mass involvement was the emotional quotient. This emotional propeller has been there throughout the past. Of late, there has been a lowering in the sense of belonging. This has to be resuscitated. In case of education, there is now total dependence on the teachers. The teachers must also take adequate initiative to reciprocate this sense of dependence in order to make the parents or guardians, equal sharers of the responsibility. Earlier, the parents and teachers used to be familiar to each other as they principally hailed from the same locality, same village or at least the same block. In today’s context, the teachers, coming from distant places, totally alien to the localities where they teach, have less credibility. The guardians cannot always trust the teachers and let their children off. In case of mid day meal, Self Help Groups must be involved right away.
The Chairman of Howrah District Primary Education Council said, the age has not yet arrived, when the teachers would only teach. Involving the teachers in any other work, whatever it is, mars the teaching initiative on their part. The Service Record updating must be streamlined, so that the teachers are not unnecessarily bothered or hassled. There should be a Service Record Guarantee system for this. Another issue that came up for discussion was that of transfer.
In his final comments, Professor Sen remarked, it was curious enough to note that we, as a people are very tolerant of the low level of primary education, or rate of education as such in this country. The gaps do not figure in political or social dialogues. The lack of nutrition, health facilities, education, and social consciousness hurts the wheel of development the most. One cannot disintegrate these social goods. The entire nation is stuck in this lack and poverty stems from this. General education, it has often been found, to raise the level of health, nutrition, as it guarantees a rise in level of consciousness through better communication abilities. Education enables at least to read the newspaper, or any bit of writing that is available, which in turn ensures the minimum knowledge about health requisites. He discussed a study by Harvard scholars, wherein it was found that, as school education was made available to more and more children, their overall health condition was raised, thus establishing a direct relationship between the fundamentals of education and health. The children were not additionally trained in hygiene, but the sheer ability to communicate better made them understand the necessity of healthy living. It has been proved time and again, that child health has a direct bearing over education. The mid day meal scheme is one step towards that. The Rights to Food, Education, Health, therefore, should be compositely treated as essentials. We cannot afford to treat them separately, as one does not stand without the other.