Results for nursery admissions were out last week in most cities in the country. Despair and joy was evident as parents rushed to see if their three-year-olds had made it to the list. Some had applied in as many as 18 to 20 schools, hoping to make it into at least one.
There were heartbreaking scenes as mothers wept on facing rejection. Three-year-old children waited in cold weather next to their parents wondering what it is that they had done to bring such sadness on their parents' faces.
What about us? The government pays no attention to the woes of toddlers, as they are not part of the electorate, and do not make a difference to poll results
There are 4,500 nursery schools in Delhi, which means that for every seat there are about 53 applicants. In Mumbai the number of nursery schools is less than half of Delhi's. In smaller cities and towns the situation is just as bad. Middle-class parents spend close to half their salaries on admission fees and donations to private pre-schools. Many of the schools give no receipts for these donations varying from Rs 30,000 to Rs 1 lakh. Naturally, no prospectus ever talks about donations. But, sadly in most, if not in all schools, this is the norm.
Desperate parents have no choice. There is an abysmal shortage of schools in the country, whether in cities or towns. From the very poor to the middle class, there is awareness that quality education is the key to a better quality of life. Yet, local governments do not plan for schools in master plans. Townships mushroom without any care for educational requirement of the population.
The result is that children have to commute long distances to the too few schools. Local governments lay down strict guidelines for admissions to private pre-schools, yet every year, these rules are flouted and bribes/donations are paid and received to admit three-year-olds into nursery schools.
Children of Armed Forces personnel or other government employees who regularly get posted to different towns and cities every two years face this trauma with every posting. Schools refuse admission to children giving no consideration to the fact that the children, for no fault of theirs, may not have learned the local language.
A parent I spoke to said that the interview went as follows. Principal: your child does not speak Marathi; he will not be able to mingle with other children. Parent: He is three, has come from Chandigarh, he will pick it up. Principal: Why should I block a seat, you will get posted out in two years again. Parent: Ma'am, I am serving in the army, there is little choice I have in the matter. Principal: The army should build schools for children of their personnel. I am sorry; I cannot accommodate your child.
Where was he to go? There was a Kendriya Vidyalaya in his neighbourhood but we all know the standard of education in KVs and there too, it isn't easy to get admission. There is also now a point system in place in some towns and cities. So male children score lesser points. If a sibling in not already in the school your child loses more points. Not within the prescribed distance radius, lose more points.
The three-year-old who should actually be safely in his or her home playing with toys and in the care of parents or grandparents is dragged from school to school being 'interviewed' and tested for writing skills and conversational abilities.
The school principals say they are helpless. There are too many parents applying and too few schools, so they have to cherry pick. It is unfair, many admit, but then so are college admissions. Brutal knocks of life start early in India; as early as three years. No government pays attention to the woes of a toddler. He doesn't have a vote. He cannot agitate and demand more schools, better schools, lighter school bags, lesser homework, fewer tests.
In the past two decades as the Indian economy has grown phenomenally, so have its cities and towns but educating its masses to keep pace with this accelerated growth is not a priority for our law makers. The central government has committed to spending 6% of its GDP on education but there are rural schools with no roofs or toilets. The teacher-student ratio is pathetic. Is it any wonder then that our school drop out levels are so high? The three-year-old has to be empowered.
Smita Prakash is Editor (News) at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash