A plea for education

Print edition : October 07, 2011


The Tamil documentary Enakku Illaya Kalvi?' powerfully portrays the state of school education in Tamil Nadu.

I have a heart full of dreams To emulate Lakshmi, my neighbour, Who merrily goes to school; To wear skirts in gorgeous colours; To become a Collector and travel in a car; But, alas, trapped in a heap of matchsticks I am still far from free! Chorus in the Tamil documentary Enakku Illaya Kalvi? (Don't I have the right to education?).

THIS song sung by a group of children working in a matchstick factory in Virudhunagar district and many other scenes in the documentary depict the sorry state of affairs of the school education sector in Tamil Nadu.

The film, produced by the Institute of Human Rights Education (IHRE) and directed by the writer and orator Bharathi Krishnakumar, stresses the need to liberate the sector from the stranglehold of commercialisation and also from caste- and class-based prejudices.

It cautions against the adverse impact of neoliberalism under governments that withdraw gradually from the vital service sectors, including health and education, or restrict their role drastically, leaving the field to private players, driven mainly by profit.

The release of the documentary coincides with the struggle by educationists, students, teachers, parents and other sections of civil society for an equitable standard of education in the State. The Supreme Court and the Madras High Court have, in their judgments, favoured the implementation of a uniform school education system with a common syllabus, called Samacheer Kalvi. Educationists see this system as the first step towards achieving the goal of an equitable standard of education.

The documentary neatly weaves into it 60-plus minutes interviews with educationists, students, parents, teachers and activists of the Left parties and Dalit organisations on issues ranging from poor infrastructure and non-appointment of sufficient number of teachers to lack of basic amenities such as drinking water and functional toilets in schools.

The documentary has sparked a debate in the districts on school education in the State. It points out that in the prevailing situation the State government will find it difficult to realise its promise of setting up elementary schools in all hamlets, ensuring free and compulsory education to all children in the 6-14 age group, bringing down the dropout rate, and eradicating illiteracy. It calls for urgent government intervention as over 67 per cent of the 1.30 crore students in the State attend public schools.

The State boasts an almost 100 per cent gross enrolment ratio in the primary and upper primary levels, but in terms of quality, particularly in the rural areas, a lot remains to be done. The enactment of the Right to Education Act, 2009, and various other measures taken by the Central and State governments have failed to make an impact so far in the in the school education sector, say experts.

Speaking at a function on July 9 in Chennai, where the documentary was released along with the Chennai Declaration' on school education, Dr V. Vasanthi Devi, Chairperson of the IHRE and former Chairperson of the State Women's Commission, expressed anguish at the continuing lacunae in the school education sector. She said: The situation has worsened during the last four decades owing to an unprecedented level of commercialisation and caste and class discrimination.

She pointed out that social audits and public hearings on school management committees had revealed that many schools in certain parts of the State lacked basic amenities. She also stressed the need for a common school system and neighbourhood schools to make the right to education a reality.

Planning Commission's views

The Planning Commission has acknowledged that there are many gaps and disparities to be addressed in terms of access to services and the quality of these services including in health and education.

DIRECTOR BHARATHI KRISHNAKUMAR. He visited villages and towns in 20 districts to capture on camera the plight of students.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The IXth Plan approach paper of the State Planning Commission has said there is a need for a closer study of the nutritional needs of children in districts which have been ranking among the lowest in terms of nutritional grades including Cuddalore, Nagapattinam, Villupuram, Virudhunagar, Tiruvannamalai and Ramanathapuram. It is not a coincidence that some of these districts have a high population of Scheduled Castes and [Scheduled] Tribes and figure among the districts with the highest poverty ratios.

Though the Commission claims that impressive showings have been notched up in respect of enrolment in elementary education and the availability of school infrastructure, it also speaks about the prevalence of inter-district disparities in, among other things, enrolment and the dropout rate at the post-primary level.

The gross enrolment ratios at high school level also highlight a gender disparity in districts like Villupuram, Cuddalore, Dindigul and Tiruvannamalai, it points out.

On the quality front, the paper says: [T]here is a large urban-rural, rich-poor and even a north-south divide in the quality of education offered in our schools. Attainment of basic knowledge and skills fluctuate sharply between children of relatively privileged background who attend private schools and poor children who attend public schools in the more backward regions of the State.

It also stresses the need to focus on the reasons for the chronic poor performance of some schools and to put in place interventions that enable children, particularly those who are first-generation learners, to cope.

Stating that a significant proportion of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe population is economically backward and still lacks access to education, proper health care and employment, it calls for serious measures to integrate Dalit children in general schools.

Various studies on the state of school education have also brought out the gaps in the education service in the State. According to one report, only 54 per cent of the primary schools, 42 per cent of schools with primary and upper primary sections, 62 per cent of schools with primary, upper primary and high sections have pucca buildings; around 35 per cent of schools at the primary level have fewer than 50 pupils; about 48 per cent of schools do not have toilets; and around 30 per cent of schools do not have toilets for girls. Some experts say that the government primary schools in rural areas have, on an average, two regular teachers and that 4.7 per cent of the primary schools, including those in the private sector, are single-teacher schools.

Krishnakumar and his team visited several villages and towns, including those in the hilly areas, in 20 districts, covering a total distance of around 10,000 km to capture on camera the plight of students, child workers and school dropouts. Among the districts covered were Chennai, Tiruvallur, Kancheepuram, Tiruvannamalai, Vellore, Tirunelveli, Madurai, Theni, Nagapattinam, Nilgiris, Virudunagar, Erode and Coimbatore.

More than 70 lakh children all over Tamil Nadu study in schools run by the government and the local bodies, but these schools do not have the necessary infrastructure or basic amenities such as drinking water, toilets and blackboards. Teachers have not been posted in adequate numbers in many areas. Textbooks, stationery and uniforms have not reached the students on time, Krishnakumar said. The documentary covered all these issues, he added.

The film also notes that many schools lack an environment conducive to learning. Corporal punishment has not vanished in many of them. Some school managements changed the names of their schools after they were the scenes of major tragedies such as a fire, as in the school in Kumbakonam in 2004, or an accident, as in Vedaranyam involving a school van in 2009.

Another stark reality is the discrimination against Dalits. In some schools, Dalit students have been asked to clean toilets. In hilly areas, students have to trek three to five kilometres to reach their schools. The absence of neighbourhood schools has resulted in a high dropout rate. This amounts to denial of education to children in backward areas. This also leads to the alienation of oppressed social groups, whose children form a sizeable percentage of the student population in these schools, Krishnakumar said.

Expressing concern about the quality of education imparted in schools, he said that even the government had admitted that only around 15 per cent of the students who complete school education go for higher education. The documentary notes that the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) has pointed out that a large number of students who have reached Standard IX cannot read even the lessons meant for the primary classes.

According to Krishnakumar, though Enakku Illaya Kalvi? focusses on the not-so-satisfying conditions prevailing in government schools, it does not mean that the requirements are fully met by private schools. A few private schools are run well because of the exorbitant fee collected from students. But in a large number of private schools, the situation is worse than that in the government schools, he said.

The director, well known for his powerful oratorical skills, said: The purpose of the film is to generate a constructive discussion from viewers so as to bring about a change in the school education system in the State in the near future. Elated by the response to the documentary in the 12 districts where it has been screened so far, Krishnakumar said there had been useful interactions with the viewers, who raised important issues pertaining to curriculum, infrastructure in schools, escalating costs in private schools, impact of liberalisation on school education, and caste discrimination against students.

Making of the film

The Enakku Illaya Kalvi? team comprises, among others, S. Arulmurugan (editing), Selvam (camera), R. Prabhakar (music) and Ira. Thanikkodi (lyrics). The title runs against the backdrop of a potter at his wheel creating ceramic vessels of different sizes and shapes. This is perhaps a powerful message that society has an indispensable role in shaping the future of children by putting in them the required energy through a sensible and equitable education system.

Krishnakumar said: The title of the documentary, Don't I have the right to education?', is a question that has been looming large in the minds of people. This is a query posed by the entire nation, and not just by any one person residing in a remote village or an urban slum. The denial of education to a large section of the population for centuries is a continuing reality.

Krishnakumar has brought out two other social documentaries Ramayyavin Kudisai (Ramayya's hut) in 2005 and Endru Thaniyum? (When will it recede?) in 2008.

Ramayyavin Kudisai documents the December 1968 massacre in Keezhavenmani in the composite Thanjavur district landlords burnt to death 44 landless farm workers who had demanded a small increase in wages ( Frontline, January 27, 2006).

Endru Thaniyum? is based on a fire at a private school in Kumbakonam in 2004, in which 83 children were charred to death. It exposes the lack of safety measures and infrastructure in many schools. Recalling the circumstances that led to the shooting of the third documentary, Krishnakumar said: We had actually started off highlighting the importance of Samacheer Kalvi introduced by the previous government in Tamil Nadu. Soon we realised that this was not the only issue affecting school education in the State. So, we decided to bring into focus all discriminations and injustices heaped on children in rural and urban areas under the present system.

The team was pleasantly surprised when students and elders volunteered to narrate their tales of woe about the conditions prevailing in many schools. However, in many places, teachers were not forthcoming with their views or suggestions on improving school education.

We decided against approaching government officials for their opinion, in view of our bitter experience with them during the shooting of Endru Thaniyum ? By and large, the bureaucracy in the State is afraid of speaking out and as a documentary producer I had genuine fears that it would even sabotage the entire project, he said.

Love for art

Krishnakumar's sheer love for art and literature made him enter the film world, bidding adieu to his erstwhile job in a bank, in the late 1990s. He worked as an associate of film-maker Bharatiraja in two feature films Taj Mahal and Kadal Pookkal. Then I decided to switch over to documentaries, which speak the truth and only the truth.

On his future plans, he said: Some documentary films are in the pipeline. My immediate project is making the second part of Ramayyavin Kudisai, which will talk about the hitherto untold truths about the Keezhavenmani killings. Another project that is being given a serious thought is on the various forms of untouchability in the State. Apart from these two, I am planning a feature film that speaks about the value of life.

According to him, documentaries have carved out a niche for themselves in the Tamil film world. He said: Earlier, there was not enough space for them in the Tamil film world. But in the past five years, several documentary films have been produced and many creative persons are working in this field. The content is also becoming more progressive.

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