No safe air for schoolchildren

The Gandhi-Nehru dialogue is one of the best resources we have to meditate on the horror that children are facing in the air of Delhi and other cities in the region.

 |  4-minute read |   07-12-2019
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Childhood signifies a protected stage of life. Parents as well the state find it tough to protect children. In mid-November, air in Delhi was so bad that the government decided to shut down all schools. It makes sense to keep children at home when the air outside is toxic.

Students, always

But were they really at home? No coaching institute declared it a holiday. How could they? In the world of coaching, not just every day, but every hour counts and is paid for. Pollution may be in the 'severe' category or 'very poor', it makes no difference to a business that starts at seven in the morning in most cities and towns. Batches of children get the best value for their parents' investment in preparation for entrance exams of various kinds. This is a parallel system of education, or the underbelly of recognised schools. Only the latter were shut on Children's Day by order of the government.

There was an obvious irony in that decision. The government is not in control of the various, well-known factors that cause air pollution. All major factors are directly linked to economic development and, therefore, business. Young voices are raised every now and then, protesting against air pollution. In 2018, several protests were made when thousands of trees were being cut down for construction of new government flats to replace old ones. Similar protests tried to stop the demolition of the Hall of Nations in Pragati Maidan. The dust caused by every such act and by new construction adds to the stickiness of vehicular and industrial pollutants.

These are all well-documented processes, yet the protests waged over the last few years have been met by the customary gesture indicating that development activities cannot be stopped. Many children know this story so well that they have become cynical long before age and experience might have made them indifferent to public concerns. It is no surprise that the shutting of schools does not discourage them in the least. I heard a child calling November 14 a 'pollution holiday'.

Whither childhood?

That is hardly the way the idea of Children's Day had entered India's annual routine. The postal department used it for advocacy of national goals concerning childhood. Special stamps to mark the day were first issued on children's day in 1957.

Three stamps were issued that year, conveying the importance of nutrition, education and recreation. These themes were reflected in other stamps too. After some time, the postal department started using children's own paintings in stamps issued on November 14. Collecting postal stamps was a popular hobby among children in India's emerging middle class at that time. New stamps were widely distributed and you could buy them at post offices in all major cities and, a little later, even in smaller towns.

That era has passed and the ownership of a new or old postal stamp doesn't seem to excite children anymore. For an overwhelming majority of urban middle class children, daily life moves between the school and coaching classes or tuition.

Oxygen for the brain

How would Nehru have reacted to the shutting of schools on his birthday, I wonder. Perhaps by wistfully remembering Gandhi whose ideas he understood well though he didn't agree with all of them. The Gandhi-Nehru dialogue is undoubtedly one of the best resources we have to meditate on the horror that children are facing in the air of Delhi and other cities in the region.

It is not hard to imagine that Gandhi would have held reckless consumerism responsible for air pollution. He would have been greatly pained by the sight of the smoldering mountains of garbage on Delhi's outskirts. He might also draw a link between low oxygen and our inability to sustain attention.

Doctors routinely tell us that the brain does not function well when the supply of oxygen is low. This is no news, of course. Children learn the role of oxygen quite thoroughly by the time they complete elementary grades. However, it is one thing to learn such a thing from a teacher or the textbook, and something quite different to apply it to understand what is going on around you. It is widely believed that coaching institutes and private tutors are doing a better job than schools.

Both, however, have the same narrow focus - getting through exams. So, neither schools nor coaching centres get very far in letting the irony of pollution sink in: Namely, inadequate oxygen impacts the brain's capacity to focus on anything, including pollution itself.

When you think of it, this irony is simpler than that of schools being shut down on Children's Day.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Also read: Delhi has a robust plan to clean the air. Will Centre do its bit?


Krishna Kumar Krishna Kumar

Author is former director of NCERT.

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