How civilized a society is can be judged by how it cares for its weak. Women, children and the elderly enjoy special privileges in advanced societies – children in particular, because they are a society’s future. The reverse is true for the fractured society we live in, where the law of the jungle prevails – the survival of the strongest – and weaker sections are at a disadvantage. In such environments, children do not count as a priority, or do not count at all.
In healthcare, for example, the lone children’s hospital in Kashmir is always in the news and invariably for the wrong reasons. It took the deaths of hundreds of children to move the authorities, and that too only to making some perfunctory changes and ambitious announcements that are yet to be implemented. Most schemes never move beyond paperwork, and take birth and die between file covers. Even during the recent floods, the children’s hospital was left to its own devices, leading to more preventable mortality. In some other state, this would have made news for years to come, and been considered a national tragedy, but here in Kashmir anything goes. There is usually so much of bad news around that a particular incident is forgotten soon because something even worse comes up.
Concerns about the education of flood-affected children came to be voiced early on in the post-flood situation. Now, of course, it was not that there really was any concern as such on part of the authorities. It was just that the deluged administration happened to be fumbling about for a foothold after its ineptitude became glaringly evident during the flood. Entire colonies remained submerged for nearly a month. Promised relief did not arrive. Free rations did not materialize, and were reduced to a debate on whether it was 35 kg of rice or 50 kg the government had promised would be distributed to the flood-affected, and by extension even to those not affected. If the flood had overwhelmed the authorities, the post-flood scenario was even more overwhelming for them. Confusion was rife and the panicking government was desperately seeking a foothold. Having failed to establish its writ elsewhere – be it errant babus who preferred to stay away from their offices, or pilfering employees who diverted free supplies to the open market – the government suddenly got hold of a lifeline. Come what may, authorities announced boldly and brazenly, the education of our children cannot be allowed to suffer. Education comes before everything else, they announced sanctimoniously, even before survival. Nutrition, housing and other basics of survival, that too for the vulnerable section of people that children are, never featured in the list of priorities. The beleaguered authorities issued a diktat that the schools should open, and that was it. The government had proved that it existed. QED. And that it had merely been in a state of suspended animation while the flood was doing its job.
Not that it was as simple as it sounds. Not at all. Concerned authorities actually tripped over themselves by issuing one order first, that of holding exams on schedule, and then withdrawing it and issuing another one, postponing them to March. Meanwhile children continued to be at home, the lucky ones, that is. The flood-affected ones were busy sifting through the muck that had been their homes looking for their uniforms and text books among other things. There was talk of mass promotions from some quarters, but authorities shot down this preposterous suggestion. The standard of education could not be allowed to fall, especially when everything else was witnessing a steep rise, prices for instance. Of course there is already a law of sorts that excludes detention, that is, non-promotion of children up to class 7, but in the distraught situation the authorities have found themselves in, no one in his right mind could expect them to remember such niceties. Exams will be held, the authorities decreed, just wait till March. Of course, it stands to reason too, if the flood-affected little ones will have survived the cold and misery of their tents and the not-affected kids the tedium of poring over the same books for an additional academic quarter, they will weather the exams too. So the fuss parents and schools have created, only some parents and some schools mind you, is just the usual trouble-makers at work. Besides, the diktat from the authorities has kindled a lively debate between various schools and the people in general, which serves the most useful purpose of keeping peoples’ minds away from other contentious issues.