BANGALORE: Joy Dini started complaining of excruciating pain on her spinal cord soon after she joined a school in Himachal Pradesh. The class eight girl had to walk for about 3 kms and then climb a stepped stone path stretching for about 1 km on her way to and back from school — all with a heavy backpack on her shoulders. When the family consulted a doctor, he asked if she had been through an accident because of the physical trauma she suffered. She hadn’t, and her parents were puzzled.
Later, she was treated for tissue cancer. “And in 1997, when she was 19, we lost our beloved child,” says her mother, Muanpuii, a Christian missionary, now living in Bangalore.
Her parents are still unsure about what caused the cancer. “But that heavy backpack haunts me to this day,” says Muanpuii.
Nineteen-year-old Sara Grace spent eight years of school life lugging around a heavy backpack until she moved to a boarding school. “We had to carry all our books, and they only got bigger and heavier each year,” she says. “I’m quite tall and skinny, so with my bag weighing me down every day, I developed a terrible posture. Now it hurts to even sit straight. I have frequent fainting spells and suffer from low blood pressure.”
In 2012, a class four student in Delhi fell to his death while leaning over a railing because his heavy school bag made him lose his balance. Following this, an online, nation-wide petition was initiated in 2013 by Delhi-based Uday Foundation, Save My Back. Rahul Verma, the founder of the NGO, says, “A study by the Movement Analysis Lab of Srinivas College of Physiotherapy and Research Centre found that even bags weighing just 15 per cent of the child’s weight could affect head, neck, trunk, and the lower limb, changing the overall physical posture. Children carrying bags weighing more than 10 per cent of their body weight have been found to have poorer lung function.”
With only 716 signatures aiding the campaign so far, the campaigners, post-elections, plan to take up the cause with greater drive. “We have been silent over the past couple of months because of the elections. Now that the new government is almost in place, we’re ready to take this forward, to ensure that the guidelines in place are implemented,” he informs.
Laws and guidelines
Way back in 1993, a recommendation was made by Professor Yashpal, part of National Advisory Committee appointed by the Ministry of Human Resources Development, through a report called ‘Learning without Burden’. “It recommended that appropriate legislative and administrative measures should be adopted to regulate the syllabus and study material. It specifically observed that there is no jurisdiction for torturing young children by compelling them to carry very heavy bags of books everyday. It stated, rather vehemently, that textbooks should be treated as school property and thus, there should be no need for children to purchase the books individually and carry them home,” explains Kirti Krishna, a Bangalore-based lawyer.
Based on the recommendation received from the HRD ministry, the National Council of Education Research and Training (NCERT) was to rework school syllabus to substantially reduce the load of books. The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) also framed guidelines for its affiliated schools to reduce backpack loads.
These guidelines have not yet been implemented, he says, and there is currently no law in India to regulate the weight of school bags from time to time. “If a child, owing to the weight of his bags, suffers a sudden illness, the school may be tried for wilful negligence,” says Kirti.
Delhi-based advocate Ashok Aggarwal who filed a PIL with regard to Admissions Procedure for Pre-Primary Class believes that there’s a commercial side to the bag problem.
“There have been several Delhi HC judgements, stating that pre-primary children should not even be allowed to write,” says the social jurist, adding, “But what do we see? Even at play schools, two-and-a-half year-olds are made to write, which is against previous court orders. And in nursery schools, as soon as admissions are done, `2000 worth of books are sold, again against the orders,” he declares, adding cynically, “Everyone knows about what’s going on, but who really cares about children?”
Parents speak out
A mother (who wishes to remain unnamed) whose10-year-old son studies at Oasis International School in Hennur says, “My class five son has in total 16 text books and 15 notebooks, which weigh 9.5 kgs. He continually complains of back ache. Although the school allows children to leave some books behind, they get lost, so we’re forced to make him carry them up and down every day.”
Another mother, Suja George observes that most new age or non-traditional schools have done away with heavy school bags, but most of the kids from the conventional schools still go to school like ‘beasts of burden’.
“I remember reading about a CBSE directive about the ideal weight of school bags — for example a class one to two student should not carry a bag more than one to two kgs, but reality is far from that. Even trolley bags aren’t very helpful when the child has to climb stairs.”
However, a lot of parents are also citing positive examples.
“My child studies at Chrysalis High and the school keeps back most of the books, so his bag isn’t too heavy,” says Nima Srinivasan.
At Deens School too, a similar system is followed, informs another parent Sunitha Sailesh.
What the schools say
B S Jayalakshmi, who teaches mathematics to class one to three students at Kumaran’s Public School, says that the school has had a locker system for nearly 10 years now. “It’s been surprisingly easy to implement, and I think other schools can follow a similar system too,” she says.
The school, she says, ensures that it doesn’t load that age group with too much homework. “We have a time table — two subjects per day. It’s the teacher’s job to ensure that only those books are carried home, and we don’t send class work books back,” she says.
However, the main challenge lies in getting parents to understand. “They often feel uncomfortable unless we send all the books back. But we manage to convince them,” she adds.
Ankur Montessori on Old Madras Road deals with this problem by permitting parents to sit through classes. “So long as they tell us two days in advance, they can come on a Friday and observe,” says principal Reshmi Basu, adding that the children she interacts with, aged between two and six, are so young that giving them homework is unreasonable.
At PTA School in Jayanagar, there are no lockers, but students are encouraged to leave books behind in racks. “The classrooms are locked, so there are no problems,” says H Dwarakanath, the principal, adding that the school discourages students from bringing textbooks even.
Dr John Ebnezar, who runs an orthopaedic clinic on B G Road, says that about 30 to 40 per cent of his five to 14-year-old patients complain of issues resulting from heavy bags. “The problems range from pain in the upper and lower back, headache to kyphosis -- excessive curvature of the spine that can lead to deformity and stunted growth,” he says. He adds, “Parents must ensure that children eat a diet rich in calcium, and speak to school authorities about reducing the load children carry,” counsels the doctor.
While Dr Ebnezar recommends yoga and jogging and maintaining overall fitness, Dr Gaurav Sharma, head, sports department, St Johns Hospital says basketball and swimming are effective too.
“We also suggest that students struggling with severe back aches use trolley bags. Play time replace homework, “he opines.