Every Republic Day, the president of India awards schoolchildren the National Bravery Award for acts of bravery. It is an award for individuals, but this year the president must make an exception and award all girl students across the states. Attending school every day has come to constitute an act of bravery.
One of the laudable initiatives of the government is Beti bachao, beti padhao (Save the girl, educate the girl). The slogan has got the sequence right. First the girl child must survive childbirth and foeticide, then she must be sent to school, and thereafter she must be able to go to school.
In Haryana, the idea of beti padhao must travel via the High Court. Earlier this week, five girl students of the Girls Senior School, in Manesar, which is also known as the pride of Haryana, approached the Punjab and Haryana High Court seeking the court’s intervention and directions to the state to ensure their safety just so that they could attend school.
The girl students face sexual harassment on their way to school, which passes through a public park which is apparently a favourite haunt of drunkards, suffer comments around the school by lumpen elements visiting the local panchayat, post office and health centre, and cannot focus in the class as creepy characters positioned at the windows leer at them.
The students complained to the teachers, who could not help. The principal of the school apparently couldn’t address the issue either. The students complained to the local police and filed FIRs on July 12 at the police station in Manesar. After repeated attempts by students and parents to get assurances failed, the girls approached the High Court.
To appreciate the collapse of governance at multiple levels, consider the chain of failures. Education in Haryana is governed by the Haryana School Shiksha Pariyojna Parishad chaired by Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar. At the grass roots of education there is the school administration, the block education officer and a District Implementation Unit. Law and order in Haryana, like other states, follows the police station to SP to DGP chain. The system flailed consistently.
It is not as if there are no laws. Neither is it a lack of systemic apparatus. The problem is with the approach—in Haryana and many states, the issue of education and law and order is wedded to social mores. Frequently, the concept of zero tolerance remains in pious speeches. It can’t be that the issue was not known within the education department or the home department—surely there were ten days between the registering of the FIR and filing of a petition for the administration to act. And if it was unknown, what does one make of the system’s monitoring and oversight mechanisms? Obviously, negligence is par for governance, and clearly the schoolchildren did not get the attention of any of the worthies in the system, nor did the elected representatives find it worth their time!
This is not the first incident of its kind where students, parents and communities have had to raise the ante. In 2016, over 80 students, supported by the community, went on a hunger strike complaining of harassment on their way to the secondary school in Kanwali in Rewari, and forced the authorities to upgrade the local schools. This triggered a series of protests in Gurugram, Sonepat and five other districts.
In 2017, the authorities did not bother to appoint teachers for Sanskrit, Hindi, science and mathematics at the senior school for girls at Kabrel in Hisar—all 24 students at the school failed the board exams. Unsurprisingly, despite its development level and per capita income, Haryana figures at the bottom ten among India’s states.
The incident in Haryana is not an aberration but is symbolic of the state of affairs. Access to facilities and safety of the girl student has been repeatedly identified as a perennial cause for dropouts. The enrolment of girls at the primary level is higher than that of boys, but nearly four of ten drop out. Three factors are listed as determinants of outcomes in female education—distance to school, existence of facilities, and safety.
One factor which enhances the sense of security is a boundary wall—among other issues, the school in Manesar didn’t have one. What is the national picture? India has, as per the latest data, 10.94 lakh government-run schools—of these, 4.36 lakh, or roughly four of ten, do not have boundary walls. Of the total 15.58 lakh schools, only 10.38 lakh schools have boundary walls.
The government prides itself on the Swacch Bharat initiative. What about toilets for girls? Over 32,400 government-run schools do not have girls-only toilets—across all types of schools, 60,510 schools do not have girls-only toilets. Lighting is critical for safety. Household electrification has been praised all around, yet over 4.76 lakh government-run schools do not have electricity to light the classrooms and corridors.
In the current session of Parliament, Members of Parliament Ramya Haridas and Poonam Mahajan asked the HRD ministry about self-defence training for girl students in schools across the country. It is an idea worth support. But to learn – self-defence, Sanskrit or science – the students must be able to get to school first. As in the slogan, for families sending the girl child to school, beti bachao precedes beti padhao.
Author of Aadhaar: A Biometric: History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and Accidental India