How can we get school dropouts to go back?

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I met Kavitha, a chirpy girl with a winning smile, on the first day of the dropout survey carried out by volunteers of Child Rights and You. “School hogthira?” I asked, “Do you go to school?” She looked up and nodded, half-yes, half-no, then shyly turned away. “Tamil teriyuma?” I egged on. It turned out she did. For the next half hour she became my translator, translating my pidgin Tamil into Kannada as we went from door-to-door preparing a list of children who had dropped out of school in a sprawling urban slum in NS Palya, Bangalore.

The area, which has not been notified, lies in the looming shadow of a proposed Taj Gateway project. There are 597 slum areas in Bangalore city, of which 387 have been notified under the Karnataka Slum Areas (Improvement and Clearance) Act, 1973.

Kavitha is all of ten. She dropped out of school last year. She lives with her father and three younger siblings in a small shanty in the slum. Her younger brother Jairam shows signs of severe mental retardation. Born prematurely, his head was undersized, and his limbs thin and spindly. He was eight but looked like a toddler. When he smiled, his carie-filled, crooked-teeth grin stretched from ear to ear. There were two more children, one four, the other less than a year old.

Kavitha’s father had pulled her out of school to look after her younger siblings. If the boy could be sent to a special school, he said, he would send Kavitha to school. He was reluctant to send the younger children to the nearby anganwadi, as he felt the anganwadi teacher and helper did a half-hearted job of looking after the children. There are at least 250 kids below six residing in the slum area, but only about thirty to forty go to any of the nearby anganwadis.

In urban slums like NS Palya, anganwadis are often a pale imitation of what they were envisioned to be under the Integrated Child Development System (ICDS), mooted by the Indian government in 1976. Under ICDS, anganwadis were expected to function as one-stop crèche and nutrition centres for children from the age of zero to six, and for expectant mothers. Every anganwadi is run by an anganwadi teacher and a helper. They are expected to give children basic pre-school education, provide them one nutritious meal in a day, and ensure the children receive vaccines and mineral supplements on schedule. Anganwadis were set up to be the first defence in detecting and correcting malnourishment in children.

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Although the NS Palya slum has three sanctioned anganwadis, only two have been functioning in the past one year. Neither is equipped with toilets or electricity. In a room barely large enough to seat twelve, twenty to thirty children sit cooped together.  One of the residents said she did not send her kids to the anganwadi because there were no toilets. Another felt that the anganwadi teacher did not look after the kids properly.

One of the activities volunteers from Child Rights and You(CRY) engage in, in Bangalore is to conduct monthly surveys in the community, to isolate and work on issues where child rights are being violated: eg. Conducting regular detection of cases of malnourishment (by weighing children), enrolling children in anganwadis and collating the details on dropouts in a particular community. The focus is primarily on the right to education, nutrition and health. Volunteers meet community members to convince them to send their children to school or to the nearby anganwadi. It is a hit-and-miss approach, one liable to fail, but each success is a big deal for us. This year, we succeeded in getting around twelve children enrolled in school, but ensuring that they continue to go to school remains a herculean task.

Armed with information collected from volunteers across the city, CRY members engage with Block Development Officers in each area to push for basic facilities and draw attention to issues being sidelined. CRY has been mildly successful in this regard; in Koramangala, volunteers put up posters seeking recruitments for the post of anganwadi teacher when the post fell vacant and succeeded in getting a teacher recruited. After much badgering, authorities constructed a pakka floor in one of the anganwadis in NS Palya in 2012.

When we met Kavitha two weeks later, she was looking after her siblings, carrying her little sister on her hip. This had become her routine. When the other children in the slum donned their yellowed uniforms to march to school, she stayed back to cook, sweep the house and look after the little ones. Where’s your mother? I ask. She’s at work, she replies. She gives the same reply each time.

Children engaged in informal labour form a major percentage of dropouts in the country. Several kids drop out because both parents work and there is no one to look after the younger siblings. Anganwadi centres should ideally help in this regard, but the dinghy cramped quarters of anganwadis in most slum areas are hardly conducive for nurturing toddlers. During the survey, we encountered a few children who said they did not go to school because the teachers beat them.

More worryingly, some of the children in the community were engaged in formal child labour as well. In a stone quarry close to the slum, we spotted children as young as ten and twelve breaking stones into smaller chunks. After a conversation with the quarry owner, she agreed to send the children to school, probably out of fear of being reported. All five joined, and a month later, three were continuing classes.

Another major reason for dropouts, cited by teachers at the nearest government school, was migration. Quite a few slum residents were daily wage earners working with construction companies and moved from area to area depending on the availability of work, disrupting their children’s education.

Several teenagers in the area, who had dropped out of the system for various reasons, were keen to continue their studies. Mani, 17, left studies after class six and now worked in a mechanic workshop. Kumar, 16, was employed as housekeeping staff at a marriage hall. He was eager to get a 10th pass certificate so he could improve his job prospects. He dropped out in class eight. Both are examples of children who fall out due to a crack in the Right to Education Act: it addresses the needs of children till the age of 14. From the age of six to 14, according to provisions under the Act, no school can deny a child admission on the basis of lack of documents.

Unfortunately, as soon as the children reach an age when they begin to think for themselves and understand the need for an education, the law forsakes them. As for the girls, many were made to stop studies when they hit puberty and were married off early. Even though they looked barely fifteen, but had learnt to answer “eighteen” when asked their age. One such girl had just delivered a baby that was beginning to show signs of malnourishment.

Meanwhile, there was little progress on Kavitha’s front. Her father said he had checked with several special schools but none were willing to admit Jairam. Nearby special schools did not have pick-up-and-drop facilities and one residential school for special children that was willing to admit the boy, was far from the city limits. Although under the Right to Education Act, children with disabilities have as much right to access to free and compulsory education, this rarely works out given ground realities. Government schools, which are crowded and understaffed in poorer neighbourhoods, lack the expertise to deal with such children. Special schools are expensive, and the few that cater to the economically-disadvantaged get filled up quickly.

Over the weeks, her father seemed less and less optimistic about getting Kavitha and Jairam into school. Even Kavitha seemed to have lost her sprightly manner and had resigned herself to domestic drudgery.

In September, when we met them last, Kavitha’s father begged us to leave him alone.“I have gone to every school possible and no one is agreeing to take my son,” he said.

The cycle of poverty is hard to escape from. Kavita is a bright child. Her father, at least initially, was keen to get her back to school. But who would look after her siblings, especially Jairam? He could not be left at the anganwadi. No school was willing to take him so late in the year. A special child requires a lot of care and treatment, and it was nearly impossible for his family to provide this. Then there was the issue of the younger children. Perhaps a better-run ICDS system would have helped reduce Kavitha’s burdens. How does one get a girl to school when she had three younger siblings to look after, one with mental disabilities? How do you convince her that she can get out of this vicious cycle?

Jairam put his arms out, signalling that he wanted to be picked. Someday, his sister will grudge him for stealing her childhood. Till then, she will carry him, bathe him and feed him, while government machinery and society pointedly look the other way.

(Based on a survey of drop-out children conducted between May and August 2014 by volunteers of Child Rights and You in NS Palya, Bengaluru. First published in thealternative.in. Photo credit: Sakshi Jain. Figures on number of slums in Bengaluru taken from http://ksdb.kar.nic.in/ )

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