The Kids Aren't Alright
We may imagine that privilege will protect our children from these fates. But such a partial imagination is unhealthy
It has been a while since this soap opera has been on TV. You know, the one where we periodically watch animals eating their young. Not on the nature channels, baba. I mean on news television. Every time there is a student strike, we are treated to the sight of anchors feeding their pinko-liberal hate by denouncing students as national threats, crunching loudly on slogan-bones like 'tukde tukde gang' and 'burden on our taxes'.
The crying-into-my-kesar-thandai-over-my-lost-taxes gang must surely be reconsidering their diet (for mental health reasons) right now when they find that the JNU fee hikes and their cosmetic roll-back are opposed by all student unions, including the ABVP. That is because 40 per cent of JNU students have parents with income less than R1,44,00 a year—true for many central universities. The mark of a great society is the possibility that a diverse demographic can access a good education—the right to opportunity. The criminal thing about the debate around JNU is that the obsessive campaign to brand it a den of leftist vice, serves to obscure that many in its student body are first generation college-goers from very poor families. But why talk about poverty, when we can talk about privatisation? How dare students want subsidies to succeed, when endlessly failing corporates need them more?
I'm confused, though. What do these fancy people think taxes are for? Some statues, sure, why not. But taxes are for public infrastructure like education, healthcare. Also, there is this spin that tax means income tax. But taxes come from diverse sources and everyone in the country pays taxes when they buy something. I know, it's not cute-virtuous like educating a girl-child and getting her photo every year, "at least I know where my money is going". But, come on, let's show some ambition and also decide to support a whole system. And then, ask different questions about our tax money.
Some years ago, I made a film about toilets. We learned that girls sometimes did badly in school because the lack of clean toilets makes them miss school—either during their period or falling ill by not drinking water so they don't have to pee. Girls mostly went to free municipal schools, because poor families used their limited resources to send boys to private schools. We filmed in a municipal school, where students had to pee in a classroom and faeces floated in corridors. The principal used his money to get this cleaned when it got worse. Funds existed to build and maintain toilets, but as the Teacher's Union told us, they 'lapsed—were returned unused. The CAG report for 2017-2018 notes that Rs 94,036 crore collected under Education Cess remained un-utilised.
When there are repeated suicides of young people from Dalit and minority communities—Rohith Vemula, Payal Tadvi, Fathima Lateef to name some—we, and the media, need to ask why tax funded administrations repeatedly fail to protect students.
We may imagine that privilege will protect our children from these fates. But such a partial imagination is unhealthy. It's not as if the project to create bionic, success-driven, privileged privatised children is working for them. Mental health is a crisis. Suicide is the biggest killer of young Indians. Maybe it's true that India is achieving greatness, but one thing is for sure, its kids are not all right.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at email@example.com
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