India has over 25 crore schoolchildren, aged 6 to 17. At least one-quarter of them feel unsafe or unhappy in school, according to a survey by an international agency. That means millions of our children are growing up in fear. Then why should we be surprised that India has the highest threat perception from the hazardous online game, “Blue Whale Challenge”, which ends with the suicide of the player?
Home and school are the two spaces that children inhabit. Compromising the safety of either one is a violation of children’s rights. But India’s education system is indifferent to the safety of children, much less to their mental and physical welfare.
Over one-third of Indian children (35 per cent) go to private schools, because the standard of education is generally better than that of government schools. The expectations of the parents are therefore higher. But so poor is the regulatory oversight by state government agencies, that these private schools get away scot-free even when a child dies. The Ryan International School, Gurugram, is being held accountable for the brutal murder of a Class II student in the boy’s toilet on September 8, allegedly by the conductor of a school bus. But before Pradyuman, there was six-year-old Devansh, who fell into a water tank at the Ryan International School in South Delhi and drowned on January 30, 2016.
Children have died in avoidable accidents – by falling into septic tanks, being injured on the sports field, drowing in swimming pools or crushed under the wheels of a school bus. The authorities react only after the death of a child and the case usually registered is of death due to negligence (IPC 304A), which carries a penalty of a fine and imprisonment up to two years. Sexual assault of children on school premises is also increasing. In the last few years, many instances of sexual molestation, either by teachers or older students, have been reported in the National Capital Region, the latest case being the rape of a five-year-old by a peon in an East Delhi school.
Surely, the state government must share the responsibility for Pradyuman Thakur’s death? Should officials of the Directorate of Education not be held accountable, for failing in their duty to ensure that the school followed safety standards?
Safety of children does not merely mean protection from physical harm. Section 17(2) of the Right to Education Act states that physical or mental harassment of a student is illegal and liable to “disciplinary action under the service rules applicable to such person.” It recognizes that while children have a fundamental right to education, their right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution is even more important. In 2005, the Commission for Protection of Child Rights was set up to ensure that children are protected from domestic violence, terrorism, riots, torture, exploitation, etc.
Laws exist to protect children. Yet, the freedom and dignity of our children is violated every day in schools across India. They are physically or mentally assaulted by their teachers, causing permanent mental and physical trauma and even death. The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) has issued guidelines for the eradication of such punishments, stating that it makes children aggressive, destructive, depressed, anxious, suicide-prone and poor in studies.
The survey by ChildFund International found that one in every five children lives in fear of being physically or emotionally abused in school by teachers or other students. When such children are exposed to the internet, they become victims of online bullying, like the ‘Blue Whale’ game. Seen in the light of the fact that India has one of the highest suicide rates among teenagers in the world, Google’s alert that the maximum number of searches related to Blue Whale are in India, is frightening but understandable. The game is designed to attract children who are depressed about their lives, encourage them to harm themselves and finally, to commit suicide.
Parents are helpless in the face of this system. Parents’ associations have very little say in how the schools are run, because private schools take advantage of the fact that the demand for seats is much more than the availability and bully the parents. Often, a parent will not complain if a child is slapped by a teacher for being ‘naughty’. This is either because they are not aware of the laws protecting children from abuse by teachers in the name of discipline, or because they are afraid that their child will be vcitmised by the school staff.
In the survey, the majority of children wanted a clean and safe building with security measures like protection from strangers and supervision by teachers. They also wanted the school to ensure clean toilets, facilities for sports and sometimes even boundary walls. Even the best schools fail to follow CBSE guidelines like having psychologists and child counselors, or identifying children with learning disabilities like ‘dyslexia’ or ‘dyscalculia’. Our school system is a factory, churning out so-called ‘educated’ individuals, in order to inflate literacy figures. Children are seen as lumps of clay, to be brutally hammered into a standard shape.
Parents have a sacred duty to protect and nurture their children. When parents entrust their children to a school, that sacred duty devolves on the school. For the school to fail in that duty is an unpardonable breach of trust.
The author is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines.
She is now an independent writer and author.