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13 June 2009

Remember Aakriti?

A month or more after the shocking incident of an asthmatic girl's death inside a Delhi school for its authorities' negligence, the pressing need for sensitisation of the schools to the issue seems to have been relegated to the backburner
Nithin Sridhar

The Government had, on 19 November 2007, set up the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights as a statutory body which would be authorised to summon and enforce the attendance of any person from any part of India and examining them on oath. Under the Commissions for Protection of Child Rights Act, 2005, the national commission would have all the powers of the Civil Court while inquiring into matter under the CPC.

The national commission, while inquiring into a matter, could warrant any document and receive evidence on affidavits from authorities concerned. It could also requisition any public record or copy thereof from any court of office. Apart from having the power to forward a case to a Magistrate, the commission is also authorised to issue commissions for the examination of witness the documents. What has been the efficacy of this commission?

On April 23, The Indian Express reported: "A leading private school in New Delhi faced the wrath of angry parents and fellow students of a girl who died due to an asthma attack in school premises forcing the authorities to order an internal inquiry into the alleged death due to "negligence". Trouble started when the parents along with fellow students of 17-year-old victim Aakriti Bhatia disrupted a press conference organized by authorities of Modern School, Vasant Vihar, to clarify the stand of the institution on the issue."

It was further reported that Aakriti Bhatia (17), student of Class XII, Modern School, died on her way to the hospital. She had complained of breathlessness to her teacher around 10 am, but she was not taken to hospital till 10:40 am. Instead of calling for ambulance or making arrangement for taking her to hospital, the principal waited for Aakriti's family to send their car. This shows the callousness of Goldie Malhotra, the principal of the said school. Aakriti’s friends say when she first complained of discomfort, the principal did not take the matter seriously and later the nurse said she couldn't come over to take a look at Aakriti. One of the close friends of the dead girl said the nurse refused to come down and asked her to come up instead, explaining, "Later, when her condition deteriorated, we forced her (the nurse) to come down. No one in the school was concerned,” This is a typical case of death of a teenager due to rash negligence of school authorities.

But this is neither the first nor the only case of premature end of a promising life due to negligence of school authorities. On 18 April, CNN-IBN had reported the death of 11-year-old girl student, Shanno Khan, allegedly due to corporal punishment. She was a second grade student at a Municipal Corporation school of Delhi. She was allegedly beaten by her school teacher on Wednesday, 15 April. The teacher Manju had reportedly banged the child’s head against a table before making her stand in the sun for over two hours. In 2005, Pratik Khanolkar, a nine year old student Ram Ratan Vidya Mandir at Uttan, drowned in the swimming pool of his school. In a similar case in 2007, Harekrishna, a six-year-old student, drowned in the swimming pool of Janki Devi School in Versova due to negligence.

It's a sorry state of affairs that, rather than ascertaining how much the schools have been successful in playing their ideal role as temples of learning, aided by gurus who remove ignorance with knowledge; we have been forced to discuss whether our children are safe at all when in the custody of their teachers. In the name of discipline, the teachers of this era harass students.

Discipline should be a self-imbibed value and not imposed by others. In my own school days, I was at times punished or I saw students being punished because we had soiled the floors with muddy shoes or because we had not clipped our nails or we were late to school or because the home work was not done or even simply because we did not perform some exercise the way we were supposed to. The punishment varied from heavy beating on hands and legs to making us stand in sun or on backbenches, making us clean the whole school, running many rounds in our school ground.

It is not that students were right in not doing things properly, but as children we were too innocent and did not understand why we were being treated harshly. We neither understood discipline nor needed it. All we needed was love and care and someone to explain us everything. But all we got was atrocious treatment. These punishments did not make us disciplined; it created a fear psychosis in us. One of my classmates would be constantly treated so badly and taunted repeatedly for years because of a single mistake he had once committed. If today he keeps wrong company, the whole blame lies with our teachers.

For teachers and school establishments, education is no longer a service but a business. They have no responsibility nor any care for children. There was a time when teachers used to mould students' character; today they are only concerned about their salaries. This is clear in Aakriti's case, where principal needed her parents to send their car to take her to hospital.

It’s time strict actions were taken against school authorities for negligence and harassment of students in the name of discipline. It should be pointed out here that often teachers who expect students to follow certain rules and discipline are themselves not practicing them. That is, they fail to lead by examples.

The then Union Minister for Child and Women Development Renuka Chaudhary had gotten away, paying a token visit to the house of the dead girl who was better off even as she blissfully forgot to be equally courteous to the family of the poorer girl, Shanno. And to her, the setting up of the NCPCR in itself was a great achievement of her government in this regard! One fails to understand if the commission in itself is an achievement, why it took more than a month of young Aakriti's death for the Delhi Government’s Directorate of Education to direct the Vasant Vihar branch of Modern School to suspend its nurse and discipline in-charge. The school management has also been directed to appoint a full-time medical officer as per the Delhi School Education Act, 1973. For Aakriti's family that may be too little, too late.

For the rest of us, the vigil must not end. It is true that the DoE had already sent an advisory to all recognised schools to appoint a full-time or part-time medical officer as per their requirements. Moreover, the Government of Delhi issued guidelines pertaining to medical facilities to all aided and unaided schools in the city to deal with any emergency. The guidelines were being prepared in consultation with the health department and were to be issued "in a couple of days' time" as per Delhi's Education Minister Arvinder Singh Lovely as on 22 May.

Strangely, however, no news source reported on 24 May whether those "couple of days" were over. And no one has discussed Aakriti ever since — not newspapers, not television news channels, not people at large. At the moment, ‘racist’ Australia is where the news is! This notorious short memory of the candlelight-protest generation will prove society's bane some day.

With inputs from Surajit Dasgupta

The writer is a Mysore-based student of civil engineering

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Surajit Dasgupta treats no individual, organisation or institution as a holy cow.