Hitting the RTE note

As the final bell goes off in my daughter’s school, a ripple of anticipation runs through a group of children waiting at the gate. Tiny hands stretch through eager to touch those on the other side.

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As the final bell goes off in my daughter’s school, a ripple of anticipation runs through a group of children waiting at the gate. Tiny hands stretch through eager to touch those on the other side. For an instant, a single handshake seems to bridge an insurmountable distance, the meeting of the children of the two Indias: one that is elite, entitled and exclusive and the other that is deprived, marginalised and often invisible. Then the gates open.

Like many private schools, this one runs an outreach programme where children from the neighbouring slum come and interact with the school’s senior students. Most of the children are enrolled in government schools: some want help with homework, others want to paint, the boys head off to the football field. But first, every single child rushes to the toilet.

“It’s amazing how we take things for granted,” the school’s headmistress tells me. “For these kids, running water is a luxury.” So is a clean available toilet.

At the clay moulding class, objects of desire and of everyday life take shape: Mobile phones and cricket bats; a chula and a birthday cake. Rani tells me about her school where her father, a daily wage labourer, drops her off every morning. “We study Hindi-English-counting,” she says. And art? Music? There’s a blank. Akbar does not go to school at all. He attends tuition classes and most evenings, goes off to the masjid to learn the Koran. His father, he says, is ill and unemployed while his mother cleans, dusts and washes dishes in the houses of the affluent. He cannot go to school. In the mornings, he must line up and wait for the water tanker to arrive.

For Akbar and Rani the outreach programme is an opportunity to do the things that children in a democratic nation must take for granted: play, read and have fun. But just as important, the outreach programme gives the children of privilege a chance to glimpse into a world they might never otherwise encounter. It’s a sobering peep outside their sanitised bubble of malls, multiplexes and McDonald’s. “I learn just by talking to them,” says Ishaan. Adds Arushi: “It’s important to give back.”

I’m confused: who’s the giver, who’s the receiver? Presumptions of ‘charity’ vanish. To me the most remarkable feature about this programme is the insight it gives these children into each other’s worlds. Who knows what aspirational trigger it sets off in which heart? Who knows whose conscience is awakened to injustice and a flawed world?

Change happens in small, incremental steps. The outreach programme is not some grand social engineering experiment. It’s an earnest effort, one of thousands, by hundreds of private schools across the country. This week, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE) that makes it mandatory for private schools to reserve 25% seats for the underprivileged and reignited some of the criticism against the Act. Why should unaided minority institutions be exempt? How do you implement RTE when 95% of the country’s schools lack infrastructure (10% do not have drinking water; 40% don’t have toilets). What about the responsibility of the government to improve quality in its own schools?

These are valid questions. But integration in an increasingly fractured nation is crucial. Education must go beyond teaching prescribed curriculums. It must include compassion, understanding and inclusion. It must provide opportunity. For all its faults – and the RTE has many – integration is not one of them.

As the hour draws to an end, I hear the strains of a violin in the classroom next door. I peep in and ask the schoolchildren in the music class if they will play for the children of a bleaker India. Yes, they say. And they play ‘Edelweiss’. The cultural references to the Swiss Alps and The Sound of Music are too alien to explain. But the music doesn’t need explanation. I look at the round-eyed wonder on every child’s face and realise that reaching out doesn’t always need words.

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.

We say ‘bring it on’

Satyamev Jayate endorses the opening up of traditional sources of information. Namita Bhandare writes.

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That Satyamev Jayate, Aamir Khan’s reality show, is rocking TV panel discussions and newspaper headlines a week after its debut, says something about its impact. A ‘movement for social change’, an ‘exquisite piece of journalism’ and ‘television history’ are some of the more measured epithets.

Yes, the cynics are weighing in too: do you really need a celebrity to expose the gritty reality of fem-ale foeticide? Hasn’t the press been writing/talking about it for years? Isn’t this a commercial venture for a Bollywood actor?

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For me the interesting thing about SJ lies not so much in its message — yes, it’s important and every voice must be raised — but that it marks a new direction: a celebrity talk show that goes beyond chatting with Bollywood buddies. At a time when TV channels seem trapped by TRPs and news often dwindles down to ‘infotainment’ (to use a ghastly word), here is a film star who seems to be quite happy to employ some of the traditional tools of journalism including interviews, responses and even a sting operation.

As Khan concedes, he has no new information. We know that India has a skewed sex ratio. We know about our missing girls. We know that doctors and husbands and radiologists are complicit in killing off unborn girls. Journalists have been writing about this for years and, incidentally, my own column on female foeticide got zero response. But when a popular film actor makes the same point, it has a different impact.

On Twitter on the day of its debut, ‘Satyamev Jayate dominated the top 10 trends. In the real world, Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan, who has a ‘beti bachao’ campaign in his state, said he wanted Khan as a ‘brand ambassador’. The Maharashtra government wants Khan’s help in various public welfare schemes. And in Rajasthan, chief minister Ashok Gehlot promised to set up fast-track courts to try doctors exposed in the programme’s sting operation.

What will change after the photo ops? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps it’s enough that one film actor has chosen to stretch himself to venture into areas considered unpopular, un-newsworthy and unwatchable by many sections of the mainstream media. And here’s the irony: while mainstream media dumbs down with entertainment shows, film promotions and Page 3 coverage, at least one celebrity has chosen to get his hands dirty.

‘Satyamev Jayate’ endorses not just the power of celebrity but the opening up of traditional sources of information. Mainstream media no longer sets the agenda and has long ceased to be our sole source of information. And while Khan stands at one end of the spectrum — star power, big budget, extensive marketing and promos — today, anyone with an internet connection is part of the commentariat. Today, anyone with a smartphone can upload a video on YouTube. This is the democratisation of information and we are all chroniclers now.

Mainstream media has, by and large, embraced the change. Big media has a sizeable presence on social network forums seeking to engage and interact with its readers and viewers. Newspaper and TV channels along with individual journalists from Rajdeep Sardesai to Barkha Dutt have huge followings on Twitter, adding to the debate, energy and exuberance that characterises our expanded media.

Articulation is often the starting point for change. We’ve seen the power of Twitter in recent times — would a senior UP police officer have been transferred over his statement on dishonour killing had there not been Twitter outrage? Would Parliament have discussed the North-east discrimination issue had social media not highlighted the deaths of Richard Loitam and Dana Sangma? Sure, there is a dark side. Journalists by instinct don’t always follow the rules of old-style journalism (fact-checking, getting the other side) and rumour masquerading as fact can go dangerously viral.

But as more voices join the public discourse, we will learn to listen and to articulate and to distinguish between credible news and gossip, between social good and entertainment. Tomorrow morning when Khan comes back on TV with a new episode, a new debate, a new dialogue will be sparked. I say: Bring it on.

(Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer)

The views expressed by the author are personal