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A great day of dream coming true, a great reason to celebrate!

 

1 April 2010

For someone like me who always dreamt of a world where all children are in school, enjoying education and growing as responsible citizens will never be satisfied with piece meal. However, today is a very important day in my Life. Today is the day when millions of children in my country, get their legal right to receive free education.

 

Education has always been considered a charity or one of the many state welfare measures. Starting today, it won’t be same. It is now a legal and constitutional right in India.

 

I recall the face of that six year old cobbler boy who unknowingly changed the course of my life forever. It was my first day in school and there he sat, right at the doorstep of my public primary school, Durg shala, in my hometown Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh. Me and all other children were excited and he sat there along with his father finding potential customers in us to polish shoes. I was curious, rather shocked to see this contrast. I remember the first question I asked in my school life, “Why is this boy working outside the school instead of being one amongst us in the classroom?” The terse reply was, “Concentrate on your lessons and make new friends.” He further convinced, “It’s quite common that poor children work.” I wasn’t satisfied. Watching the boy every morning and afternoon was disappointing, annoying and frustrating. I don’t know! It just didn’t let me live in peace. Then one day, I gathered all my courage, maybe in a fortnight and while leaving school, I stopped before the boy’s father and asked him straight. With fear and anger, I started, “Why don’t you send your son to school?” He looked at me as I was posing a loaded question. He thought for a while and answered, “Babuji (Sir), My father started working when he was a child and so did I. Now, it’s the turn of my son. We are born to work.” I could not decipher it then, I am still unconvinced why some people are born to go to school and enjoy all the opportunities in life while others toil endlessly. I could not do much for that particular boy but what I have been doing perhaps is attributed to that incident.

 

In 1980, when I started my journey against child servitude along with a handful of friends, I strongly advocated that elimination of child labour and education for all children are the two sides of the same coin. One can never be accomplished without other. It was not an academic conclusion or judgement but a heartfelt opinion of an ordinary activist. Now I am pleased to see the World Bank, the ILO and other UN agencies infer and opine on the inter linkages between the two. Thanks to those academicians and researchers.

 

Today, I would like to congratulate and express my immense gratitude and respect for all the volunteers, activists and members of Bachpan Bachao Andolan, parlicularly the children who dared to share the dream that education shall become a universal fundamental right one day. I would also like to applaud individuals, NGOs, politicians, celebrities and teachers organizations who campaigned to make it happen.

 

As I write this, I recall those days of Shiksha Yatra (Education March) in 2001, when we were marching across the length and breadth of the country to demand that education be made a fundamental right. We met thousands of children and their parents who did not even know which country they belonged to! One such mother along with her daughter, who worked in match works factory, was listening to me very intently in a street public meeting. When the meeting was over, she rushed to me and asked “Do you mean to say that my daughter will be able to go to school and will become a ma’m (teacher)? If so, when will that be?” Had I known the whereabouts of this mother somewhere in Tamilnadu, south of India, I would have gone to tell her that it is possible now.  

 

I am reminded of another incident which happened in a village called Pilkhua in Uttar Pradesh.  After a street play by the marchers, a young boy, must have been 10-12 years, came to me and gave me all of his earning of 2 days and said- “This money is all I have and I give it to you for liberating children like me so that we can be in schools.” I can narrate innumerable heartrending incidents from those days of the Shiksha Yatra.  

 

We braved the rains, the mud, the sun, the cold and floods in different parts of the country during this 15 thousand kilometer, six month long physical march. We were sheltered in schools, temples, mosques and paddy fields. We spent nights at a stretch at junctions and roadside hamlets. With every step we took and every mile we covered, our confidence multiplied to see people getting convinced that education is their right, no matter how poor, oppressed or discriminated they had been for generations.  

 

In the 90s, we started the Parliamentary Forum on education with concerned Members of Parliament of both upper and lower Houses. Interestingly, 166 Parliamentarians across party lines joined hands with us under the leadership of Shri Ravi Prakash Verma. Several of them held the flag high by raising questions in Parliamentary sessions. This further strengthened our movement. BBA could be credited for major accomplishments in bringing about a paradigm shift in education as a human right. For almost 2 decades now, BBA has been the pioneer in initiating, building and spearheading a movement on the right to education. We have also been able to successfully establish the theory of triangular link between child labour, illiteracy and poverty through the real life experiences and practices. Now the cause and consequence relationship between the three is largely accepted. We strongly believe that education can act as the key to open all doors for all rights.  

 

We still recall that eventful morning in year 2000 when hundreds of children knocked the doors of Parliamentarians and woke them up from their slumber in their North and South Avenue residences in the Capital, at the break of dawn. The high profile Parliamentarians were shocked to meet children who handed over the symbolic empty clean slates challenging them–“Why are our slates clear even after 53 years of independence?” Some sensitive and engaged Members raised the matter in the Parliament that very day and demanded a debate on the status of education in the country. This happened for the first time in the history of Indian Parliament. 

 

I remember several meetings these children had with Prime Ministers like V.P. Singh, I.K. Gujral, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and Presidents like K.R.Narayanan and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. They were reminded to fulfill the dreams of the forefathers of the nation by providing education for all.  

 

Almost a decade ago, there was not even a single national or regional political party that considered education to be an important issue. There are umpteen instances when our fellow activists and I would wait for hours for the manifesto writers to emerge from their offices for us to convince them how important it was to include the issue of education in their election campaigns. 

 

I can recall some interesting anecdotes from our campaigns during National and state elections. BBA launched an intensive and unique election campaign to approach all key contestants from various political parties requesting them to sign pledge letters for eradication of child labour and ensuring free and quality education for all children. Many of the candidates initially threw away those pledge letters but when it struck them that education could influence votes, they realized the popularity of the campaign. The same contestants would then call us to sign their pledge letters. Of course, those who totally declined were declared as ‘anti-childhood candidates’. BBA and partners managed mammoth success in garnering support on this issue from more than half of the constituencies in the country. 

 

Due to unprecedented popular demand for education generated through Shiksha Yatra in 2001 and intense Parliamentary lobbying, India’s Constitution was amended and education became a fundamental right. But this was not enough. We did not settle for it without making it a law. It took us 8 long years to translate it into a reality. As I mentioned above, the present law is not sufficient. Therefore the struggle for free, quality, compulsory and equitable education will continue. We are winning the battles but the war is yet to be won.

 

The good news is that numerous civil society organizations and their networks have emerged during the last decade in our country. We must appreciate their commendable work in the field of Education. It is about time that such forces join hands on a common minimum agenda for action. Besides the NGO community, some of the most important partners who ensured that this law becomes a reality are the National Coalition for Education (NCE), All India Primary Teachers’ Federation (AIPTF), All India Secondary Teachers’ Federation (AISTF) and the All India Federation of Teachers’ Organisations (AIFTO). BBA has worked with these organizations over the years and I believe we will work together in the future too to make this vision come true. 

 

First of all, we have to challenge the discrepancies in data and figures of out-of-school children. The Government should be honest and open to know and admit the actual number of such children. 7.7 million is too much underestimation whereas the National Sample survey of 2005-06 estimated 46 million who are out-of-school. Independent study by ORG-MARG in 2001 indicated 85 million children are out of school. Secondly, the people need to be awakened and mobilized against inherent tendency towards commercialization and discrimination in the present system of education. The proposed vouchure system in the 11th five year plan of the Union Government is highly misleading. It is a diversion from the state responsibility of universal primary education and an attempt to encourage privatization. Complaint redressal and legal activism has to be enhanced. It is a pity that the responsibility and authority of ascertaining a constitutional right which was naturally supposed to be with the regular judicial system has been given to a unit under the Ministry of woman and Child development i.e National Commission  for the Protection of Child Rights and state commissions, which are not constituted in most states. Government agencies and local governance institutions like the Panchayati Raj Institutions etc. have to be held accountable for enforcing the law. The special efforts for inclusion of hard to reach children like trafficked and bonded child labourers, disabled children, children especially girls belonging to indigenous communities, dalits and minorities, have to be made. Their retention in schools and quality should be ascertained. We also have to address the biggest challenge that adequate resources are made available in the Central and State budgets and spent genuinely. Civil society has to work as equal partner in planning, implementation and monitoring all education plans. We have to work with committed officials and institutions to make this a reality. This clearly means that your continued cooperation and support is not only invaluable but inevitable. 

 

Despite these important cautions, there is definitely a reason to celebrate today, as it is the day millions of dreams come true .  Cheers!!!!
Kailash Satyarthi... the seeker of truth
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