Why death of 2 kids in school tanks failed to spur anger

Are we ashamed of ourselves or not? I don’t see any public upheaval or a media campaign. Two children, less than six years old, die in a septic tank/water harvesting tank in two different schools of Delhi and India is almost quiet. There are indeed more important things to do. There is Pakistan and Arunachal Pradesh; the corporate world and the GST etc.

Ankit (5), died in the septic tank of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi School No. 2, Kapashera in south-west Delhi. It is alle-ged that while going to the washroom, he ‘accidentally’ slipped into the open septic tank and was suffocated to death. All teachers and staff had left at 12 noon. How could they leave Ankit behind and not ensure that he reaches home? Parents and other conce-rned authorities were informed rather late.

Two days later, Divyansh (6), fell into an open water harvesting tank in the prestigious Ryan International School in Vasant Kunj in south Delhi. The school authorities ask the parents (who were informed very late as was the medical help and the police) to keep quiet because that’s what would benefit them. They also allege that Divyansh suffered from the most ‘fashionable’ recent American ‘Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder’ (aren’t most children hyperactive; they are also not always attentive; that’s why they are children).

The school claims that it paid special attention to Divyansh. All the more reason to ask how he fell into an open tank. When it comes to negligence and insensitivity, death does not care whether you study in an MCD school or an International Public (that is a private) school.

Indeed what are the limits to human negligence and insensitivity? To what extent can we afford to get dehumanised in a democracy that never tires of talking about ‘acche din’ and increasing growth rates?

If we think in terms of carefully planned and ruthlessly executed cruelty of say the Hitlers, Amins, Pol Pots or the British empire, there indeed are no limits. Your whole project is to excel in dehumanisation. But in a supposedly carefully planned and meticulously implemented democracy where the claimed focus is always on the groups on the margins of society, such levels of negligence and insensitivity are completely unacceptable.

We have been a free country for over 69 years and a republic for over 67 years. We resolved to constitute ourselves as a ‘sovereign socialist secular democratic republic’ (original) and to secure to all our citizens social, economic and political justice; liberty of thought and expression; equality of status and of opportunity; and to ensure every citizen dignity. We cannot save small children from choking to death in septic tanks on the school premises; how shall we ensure all that is promised in the Preamble of the Constitution?

The fact of the matter is that education has never been a priority for any government except in terms of rhetoric for getting votes. A friend explained to me that this country simply cannot afford a comparable common school in the neighbourhood for every child; the scale is so big and the costs huge. There is no way, he said, we can cut on say, the defence budget. He said: If you want to walk as a free citizen on the roads of your country, we need the nuclear bomb and more.

Philosophical underpinnings

No, my dear friend, I don’t wish to walk as a free citizen in a country where children choke to death in open septic tanks. We have had illustrious reports and documents on education such as the Kothari Commission Report and the National Curriculum Framework 2005 among many others. It appeared that the Right to Education Act would solve many problems.

However, the issue of education in India has perhaps never been comprehensively addressed. We have perhaps never clearly outlined the philosophical underpinnings of our education system; there are ideas about education from Gandhi and Tagore to modern times, aplenty. But do we have a comprehensive curricular, infrastructure and assessment framework that is rooted in questions such as: What is education all about? What are its goals? How shall we achieve them? How will they get reflected in the curricula, classroom transaction, the school environment and infrastructure, linguistic and cultural practices children bring to school and assessment systems? How do children construct knowledge? What should schooling mean for a child?

At the moment, it simply means the marks you score, the rank you get and the corresponding pay package you are offered. Is this education in any sense? This formulation of education serves only the rich and the aspiring middle class well.

Deaths of Ankit and Divyansh would invite some knee-jerk reaction of an inquiry-committee and some persons/ institutions may attract some insignificant punishment and then the whole issue will be buried in the tanks where the two small children choked to death.

We need to retrospect and be ashamed of ourselves. This is not just a question of infrastructure and passing administrative orders to cover septic tanks. What does philosophical and constitutional commitment to individual dignity mean? That’s what we need to examine. Every child is entitled to a decent school in her neighbourhood, a school that is inclusive in the true sense and provides quality education in an environment where both teachers and children engage in a joint venture to examine past knowledge and entertain new ideas.

Such a school cannot function without adequate infrastructure and recreational facilities. Even today, I don’t think we have a single school in the country that’s inclusive in the sense that all children, blind or deaf or having physical or mental disabilities, can study can study together.

(The writer retired as Professor of Linguistics, University of Delhi)

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