Archive for September 2014

When we earn something hard, we flaunt it too often. This is exactly what has happened with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He really worked hard to become the Prime Minister of this largest democracy in the world, so he doesn’t leave any chance to flaunt his newly acclaimed status.

Delivering the Teachers’ day speech and making it compulsory for all students and teachers to listen to it was just another attempt to tell the world he has arrived. The huge Manekshaw auditorium in New Delhi was chock-a-block with enthusiastic students who asked him some well-rehearsed questions. Donning the avatar of Chacha Nehru (as India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was fondly called by children for his connect with them), he answered them spontaneously. But the tone and tenor of his answers clearly exhibited his achievement as an individual and his complacency as the Prime Minister.

Newspaper reports next day state that some section of students and teachers enjoyed listening to him. But there were many others who expressed their disappointment for being forced to be a part of this mega event.

But one thing is clear that the reason behind organising a grand event like this was that the Prime Minister wanted the people of this country to know that the degrading education system of the country pains him. He wanted to tell one and all that he is here to change the face of the education system and script a new future for the lakhs of school going children.

But he could have conveyed this message by other ways too. The Prime Minister of India should know that addressing a handful of children, who have access to television sets, while sitting in an air-conditioned auditorium is far easier than addressing the real problems that have made the education system hollow.

He should know that his real job is to reach children, for whom, going to school is not easy.

His itinerary could be reasonably long. But he should start from Gujarat, where he served as a chief minister for more than 13 years. In some villages of his state, it is, indeed, a huge ordeal for the children to go to schools. For example, in Chhota Udepur district in Gujarat, children of 16 villages swim across the Hiran river to reach their school in Utavadi village in Narmada district every morning because there is no bridge constructed over the river.

His next stop should be another state ruled by his own party, BJP, which is Rajasthan. If he goes to Dungarpur and Udaipur districts of the state, the locals will apprise him of an ongoing crisis of hundreds of children dropping out of schools and going to work in Bt cotton fields as child labourers in the neighbouring Gujarat. There are schools in these districts where teachers have been caught hand in gloves with middlemen who pack them off in trucks to work as bonded labourers. Not that their parents are not aware of it. It is the parents who send their children to work at an early age, in want of money.

Another reason why parents convincingly pull their wards out of school is that there are barely any teachers available in these village schools. There is no check by the government on why teachers never come to class even if they stay close by.

The problem of missing teachers is huge in another BJP-ruled state, Chhattisgarh. Teachers go missing from these schools fearing attacks from both the Maoists and security forces. There is no assurance from the state government that it will make proper security arrangements in these areas where schools can run uninterruptedly. Children have to walk no less than 50 kilometers in both Dantewada and Bijapur districts of Bastar region to reach schools. Textbooks reach these students only when they are nearing the end of the academic year. The headmasters of some of these schools and even heads of villages will tell the Prime Minister that how rebels often want to interact with the students and interfere into the functioning of schools.

But rebels are not the only ones who add to the woes of students. Many ashram or residential schools in both Maoist-dominated districts (Dantewada and Bijapur) have been preoccupied by the security forces. Owing to which, students have to stay in cramped barracks and their classes have been running in open fields. Ironic, isn’t it?

The leaders of Salwa Judum or civil milita have made life all the more miserable for these children studying in ashram schools. These children have been forced to carry arms and participate in the raids conducted by Salwa Judum in villages. Children have been pushed by the leaders of Salwa Judum to go to jungles, track the trails and sniff out the enemy.

The last government in power couldn’t do anything to make things better for these children of the conflict torn state. But for all the noise that Modi has created on good governance, children of this strife torn state have every reason to expect Narendra Modi to be their saviour.

But Modi’s journey to schools doesn’t end here. If he moves towards a little far off towards the north-east, in Manipur, he would know that children here cannot attend school for days because of long days of strikes called by various underground groups. At present, the state government itself has ordered an indefinite closure of schools and colleges. This is the second time in less than two months that such an order has been issued by the government because some students were injured in the ongoing protest marches demanding the implementation of Inner Line Permit in the state. This is completely a political issue but students are suffering. No effort has been made by the central government to bring normalcy so far.

In 2009, all educational institutions including schools were closed for four months in Manipur after Apunba Lup, an apex civil society group representing more than 20 different organisations, demanding the resignation of the chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh over the alleged extra judicial killing of a youth the same year.

All that Prime Minister Modi can do is make the state government improve the law and order situation in Manipur to ensure that education doesn’t become the casualty. 

Prime Minister claims to be clever, ingenious and strong. So he should not resort to the easy job of delivering a speech on Teachers’ day and expect children of his country to listen to his “valuable” advice and see him as their role model. Instead, he should make an effort to go to the most remote places of the country and find out ways about how more and more children can make their way to schools.

If he wants to be the darling of the children, his concentration should not be on the handful of students, who he interacted with, in the auditorium or via –video conferencing. His real challenge is to win the hearts of 1.4 million unlettered children who are waiting to go to school. His real challenge is to retain the children in schools. His real challenge is bring back children, who left school in search of work, to classrooms. His real challenge is to make education accessible to every child of this country.

It’s about time for the Prime Minister to start his legwork, simply for his self-proclaimed love for children. So let’s get going, Mr Modi before the next Teachers’day arrives.

The children of women prisoners who stay in jail with their mothers live under terrible conditions — despite a Supreme Court guideline to provide them with proper care. But some states are making an effort to improve their lot.

One of the most tragic fallouts of incarcerating women who are mothers is that their young children stay with them in jail. Today, questions are being raised about the living conditions of these children below six years of age, which, more often than not, are deplorable, to say the least.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 344 women convicts with their 382 children and 1,226 women undertrials with their 1,397 children were lodged in prisons around the country in 2012.

Experts point out that the Supreme Court guidelines passed in 2006 relating to the education, living conditions, food, hygiene and psycho-social well-being of these children are being blatantly flouted.

As per the Supreme Court guidelines, children in prisons are to have separate accommodation and should not share cells with female inmates who are not their mothers. They should also not be exposed to women who use abusive language, behave violently, or might be dangerous. The guidelines also mandate that a permanent arrangement be made in all jails to provide separate food to these children to take care of their nutritional needs. Unfortunately, none of these guidelines is properly followed.

“In India, children of incarcerated parents are collateral convicts. In jails, a child is treated just like an undertrial or a convict,” says Delhi-based independent child rights lawyer Anant Kumar Asthana. “At present, the children of prisoners are not covered by any law. The Supreme Court order too is not followed strictly,” he adds.

Experts who monitor the functioning of jails say that children of convicts live under terrible conditions. “Most Indian prisons do not have a separate unit for mothers and their children; so they are often housed with other adult offenders, including women convicted of having committed violent crimes. This obviously raises child protection issues,” says Nikhil Roy, programme director for Penal Reform International, a London-based, non-government organisation which works on criminal justice.

Lawmakers say that these children should have the liberty to live in an open environment as that is their fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution. “First and foremost, there has to be a provision wherein children don’t need to stay with their mothers in the lock-ups. State governments should build hostels and playgrounds for these children. Arrangements should also be made for them to go to local schools,” senior advocate K.T.S. Tulsi says.

He adds, “In a 1980 Supreme Court judgment, Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer observed that prisons are built with bricks of punitive law. This means that these children should be liberated. Since they have no role to play in the crime of their parents, their lives shouldn’t be ruined.”

A 2011 report by Haq, Centre for Child Rights, a non-government organisation, said that many jails house children above six years, and they lack the diet, medical care, recreational and educational facilities that they should have by law.

The same report also pointed out that there were instances of sexual abuse of children who live with their mothers in prison. Other kinds of torture too abound. In one jail, a mother and her two-year-old daughter were forced by other inmates to sleep on the bathroom floor for a month while she “earned her place” in the overcrowded cell.

Even as legal experts and social activists demand better living conditions for children inside prisons, government officials argue that prisons are too overburdened to put things in order.

“All our jails are overcrowded. It is difficult to provide good living conditions to prisoners. Arranging special benefits for their children is not an easy task,” a ministry of home affairs official says. “But the effort is on.”

Many child rights activists would like these children to be governed by the Juvenile Justice Act. “Under the JJ Act, these children would be entitled to basic rights and also proper counselling which would prepare them to fight the stigma of being the children of undertrials or convicts,” Asthana says.

Activists also point out that the condition of children who live in prisons of conflict-ridden states such as Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand is much worse. “As per the NCRB, at 252.6 per cent, Chhattisgarh reported the highest overcrowding in prisons. Living conditions are terrible in most jails in the state except the central jail in Jagdalpur,” Chhattisgarh lawyer Shalini Gera says. “Also, since most of these prisoners are accused of helping the Maoists or for waging war against the state, their children are never treated with compassion.”

But some states in the country are taking some positive steps for the children of prisoners. For example, jails of erstwhile Andhra Pradesh send these children to local schools. Some also have crèches for them.

The Delhi government too has recently notified a law on the financial sustenance, education and welfare of such children.

“Even when these children come out of the jail premises, their future remains bleak. Under the Delhi government law, Rs 3,000 will be given to the first child, Rs 2,000 to the second and Rs 1,500 to the third child (if a woman prisoner has three children) a month till he or she attains the age of 18 years,” says Surinder S. Rathi, officer on special duty, Delhi State Legal Services Authority, who drafted the scheme.

Financial help apart, special provisions for the education, medical care and living conditions of children inside prisons are also listed in this policy.

“It is the duty of the state to provide adequate care and protection to children for their full physical, mental and social development in a healthy and congenial environment. This should be kept in mind,” asserts Rathi.

Are jail authorities around the country listening?

A few minutes before The 100 foot journey was about to begin, my friend intimated me that this movie is about food. I must confess, I was disappointed to hear that. Neither am I a gourmet, nor a great cook, so my interest in food is limited to my meals, twice a day.

But I gradually discovered that it is not about food alone. In short, the story is about one young Indian, Hasan Kadam, who is a great cook. He runs his family restaurant first in Mumbai, then in London. But the family soon moves to a French village and opens an Indian restaurant. They were doing well till one night, the restaurant was vandalized by a chef of their rival French restaurant, run by Madam Mallory, across the road, just 100 feet away. Mallory, upon realizing that her chef was the man behind the attack, fires him and apologizes to Hasan’s family.

But Hasan realizes that if he cannot defeat his enemy, he should join them. He joins Mallory for six months to add finesse to his art of cooking. He was already in love with Marguerite (the sous chef in the restaurant), who he met on his first day in the village. Despite being in love, Marguerite feels threatened by Hasan’s presence because she knows he is a competition. After Hasan joins in, Mallory’s restaurant gets the second Michelin Star, an elite honor bestowed on only a handful of restaurants in Europe. This honor came to Madam Mallory after 30 years of receiving her first star. The entire credit goes to Hasan. The award draws national attention to Hasan’s cooking, and he is offered a job in Paris, which he accepts.

But after some time, he leaves his promising career in Paris and comes back to the village, to his family, to the girl he loved. He makes a business proposition to Marguerite that the two will work together to get a 3 star for Mallory’s restaurant. She happily accepts the proposal. And their journey begins.

There is a convincing message that the film sends across to all of us, especially professionals like us who are very career oriented. The message is that two people who love each other can never encroach on each other’s space. They will only enlarge the space where the two can comfortably stay together.

Many of us, (here, I am primarily talking about journalists) who are in our mid-careers, have really worked hard to reach where we are today . The journey has never been easy for those who had no Godfathers in the profession. It is only because of the sheer love for what we want to do and for what we believe in, that we have earned certain space in this ruthless professional world.

Having achieved whatever little we all have in our own way, I feel, we often get trapped in the cobweb of false recognition. It is the virtual world of Facebook, Twitter and many other social networking forums that rule our lives these days. We get swayed away by the number of times our stories get shared on social networking forums. We judge our work by the number of followers we get on Twitter. This constant look out for validation is slowly ruining our individualities, in a way. Sometimes, we argue for the sake of argument because the order of the day is to go against the tide. Stronger the argument, more the likes on Facebook or more the number of followers on Twitter. But if there is anyone who disagrees with us, we take half a minute to un-friend or un-follow that person. This gives us an immense sense of pleasure and accomplishment.

I feel, we are becoming self-obsessed and self-centered. Our world starts and ends with us. There is no place for someone who holds a view, contrary to ours.

In my opinion, this superficial happiness on the digital platform has taken a toll on our real life relationships. Not that we don’t want people in our “real” lives but we have prepared a checklist for them, a list which is drawn mostly in the lines of the responses that we get in the virtual world.

The checklist is like this. The person has to accommodate himself/herself according to our convenience. We should hold the right to call the shots – to befriend or un-friend people anytime. We should have the right to cut off ourselves from the other person, whenever we think is right or whenever we feel that the other person is occupying too much of our precious time.

It clearly shows that we are too impatient to accommodate the other person in our life.We think it is “cool” not to value our real life relationships because we have thousands of friends and followers in the virtual world. It is unfortunate that we lack sensitivity in dealing with relationships, even which we choose.

Conveniently,here again, it is all about ourselves. The other person doesn’t exist for us. . Our shortsightedness doesn’t allow us to look beyond this vicious cycle of deadlines, bylines,exclusives and fan following on social networking forums.It is sad that relationships are extremely short-lived these days because we give priority only to our ambition and success.

But The 100 foot journey reminds many of us that ambition and success can co-exist with various relationships in life. All we need to do is to re-work our priorities from time to time. It also tells us that we have to trust people we love. We should also understand that our partners are not intruders, nor are they threat to our flourishing career. They are not here to take away our space but to share their own space with us. They can never intrude into our privacy because they respect it as much as they respect their own privacy.

If we truly believe in this, it will be a wonderful journey together. An incredible journey of sharing and togetherness.