Right to education: just a pipe dream?

Right to education: just a pipe dream?

Late morning on a cloudy day, I was walking the countryside and a gentle breeze was blowing away the May heat. I had left behind a small village at the foot of a hill range covered in scrub forest, and in front of me was the vast expanse of black soil fields awaiting seasonal sowing.

I was at a stream that would take the rain harvested here, via rivers Mallaprabha and Krishna, into the Bay of Bengal. A few pre-monsoon showers had softened the earth and bright-green spring shoots draped the sparsely distributed trees.

There, I spotted three boys about 10 to 12 years old, herding some goats towards the dry stream. Having taught school children in central India and a couple of Himalayan states, the first question that came to my mind was — ‘Do they not go to school?’ I waited as the boys and those 20 odd goats approached, nibbling on edible shrubs dotting the earthen bunds that divided cropland into plots.

The more communicative one reached me first. Did those goats belong to them? No, some were theirs; some were either their neighbours’ or relatives’. Was that crop field theirs? No, they were only passing through; they were taking the goats to water.

This first boy had told me that he had never gone to school. Why had he not gone to school? He did not know. Should he have gone to school? Yes. Did he regret it? He is silent. Does he want to go to school now? Parents won’t send him.

In the meantime, the second boy, taciturn and indifferent, had found a rock to sit on a few paces away. Looking very aloof, disinterested and — if I am allowed to infer — with some disdain for the conversation I was beginning to have with the other two, he had distanced himself from it.

Allowing them to talk, he sat there unsmiling, quiet, holding his head sometimes as if bored. He had dropped out of school after Class 3. Why had he dropped out? He could not relate to studies. Did he want to go back to school? No. Did he miss being in school? No.

The third boy, the tallest and the senior most, was the quietest. Never volunteering to speak but responding to every question asked. He was still going to school; he was in Class 9. Did he tell his friends to go to school? They won’t go to school now. Did he enjoy being in school? Yes. Did he ever consider teaching his friends something he learnt at school? That question sounded absurd to all of them.

They spent the whole day roaming the fields and stream banks. Did they smoke beedi? The first boy said “No”. I asked again, addressing the second boy. Yes, they did sometimes, when they went to a nearby town. Did they make any money from tending to goats? They got some weekly stipend from their families, Rs 50 per week. What did they do with that money? They spent it all on a market day. On what? They get their bicycles repaired, also get something to eat, and of course, beedi.

How many children went to school? Many didn’t. How many? Giving a vague count, almost half the number of children in that village, they said.

While governments are obliged to implement the fundamental right to education, a 2011 Census pins the number of out-of-school children in the age group of 6 to 13 years at 3.81 crore.

There is enough information about such children that is trapped in national statistics, while their aspirations are confined to policy documents on some administrator’s table.

While some privileged kids would like to take a break from school and ‘go off the grid’, some others could only have contempt for that surfeit of pretense. These children may have a dream for the future, but more importantly, they have a present that is endearing.

Many a time quite candidly, sometimes poignantly they describe their life as something that just persists doggedly, without a care for the future that someone else designs for them.