When I was in boarding school, one of the girls in my class legally changed her name. The word was that her father had changed the family name to suggest a lower class so that by the time she was old enough to go to college, she would be eligible to get in via the SC/ST quotas. For those who may not know, this is the reservation category. In many educational institutions and so on, places are kept for the classes that never had a chance. This way they are ensured a leg up. When the whole reservation debate came about I was still studying in Delhi. I remember hearing about a young boy lighting himself on fire because he was protesting how unfair it was. You see, while it helps the people who never had a chance, it also ensures that candidates who are qualified and worked hard now have lesser seats to compete for. And now the argument is on again. I've been wondering what my take on it is. At one level I do agree it is important to ensure that everyone has equal opportunity to education. But at another level I feel it’s unfair to those who work hard but do not get seats in these educational institutions because they do not belong to a special quota. Many who argue against the system point out that many of these reserved seats lie vacant in colleges, and many of the students who do get in via quota do not even finish their degree. The fault, of course, lies in the level of education PRE college. If your basics are weak, even if you are granted a place (or the place made easier) in medical school or engineering college, it really is not your fault if you cannot keep up- or be able to complete it. So what does one do? In a country where reservation is a highly political and contentious issue, there is no easy answer. However, basic education- and good education IS.
When I was about 15 or so, I set off to make a documentary about a village in the Himalayas with some friends from school and our mentor Mrs. Chandna. On the trek up to Neuri we passed a bunch of village men, enjoying their afternoon. We stopped and asked them questions about which political party they supported and about life in general. A day or two later we went to see the local school up in Neuri (the village we were staying at). The previous night some school children had come to us to recite poetry in front of our video camera and through them we learnt that their school-teacher had been a no-show for a few months. So when we got to the school, we found it empty. But soon we had a visitor. He introduced himself as the school teacher and made up petty excuses for not taking class when we grilled him. Much later, back in boarding school, we noticed that he was one of the men we interviewed during our trek up. So he had just given up on performing him duty altogether, although still collected his government pay check. Mrs. Chandna went up to Neuri later and told us that we had caused quite a stir in that part of the hills. Because we were asking questions about education and classes, the school teacher thought we were from Doordarshan (the Public Service Broadcaster) doing an expose. That’s why he came to the school to justify what he had been upto. Power to the media indeed.
For my dissertation, I am looking at the role of the public service broadcaster in India. With a plethora of private channels catering to every demand- entertainment, sport, news and so on, what need is there for a government sponsored channel, otherwise called BO-ORING! Well, there certainly is. And in my opinion, education is the name of the game. I'm looking at the AIDS awareness campaign in India (DD and the BBC). I don't think I realized how much I was interested in the AIDS epidemic till I realized I was. Sounds wierd; I know. It’s just that I get very angry at situations when people are victimized for no fault of their own. If you know how you can contract the disease and are still not careful, then you're an idiot. But for the majority this is not the case. The first time I ever addressed the issue was (again) in high school when we had to come up with a play for an Inter-School play competition where the topic was 'Life in the next century'. I scripted it. Others went on to perform these plays with space suits and aliens. We had a simple plot. A young girl had AIDS (we never mentioned how she got it) but her mother was furious and wanted to disown her while her best friend was being supportive- but asking some poignant questions. The point was this: the next century is now. (This was in 1998 or 1999). If you don't deal with diseases and issues you are facing today, your dreams of a futuristic world will remain just that- futuristic. The message was education. It’s the best way to help people not only deal, understand but prevent such tragedies from taking place.
This issue of Newsweek (June 5, 2006) has a special report on AIDS. In many instances it talks of women being powerless to insist on condom usage. But in some communities the health workers managed to unite the sex workers to insist on using them- and it worked. As someone says in the report- you cannot just ask people to make better choices but you have to give them the power and tools to make them with. A slogan will not cut it. It needs to be hands on. And it needs to be sensitive to what people feel and think right now.
One of my best friends recently said to me about his job-- that he knew that he- and everyone else in the same line was just in it for the money. I didn't think much of it then but something about that line chills me to the bone. No doubt we need these financial geniuses to keep the world going round but it made me feel desperate about finding a calling. Something I could give my life to. It makes me want to learn more and more so that I can help people to open their minds. It makes me want to be better.
And so, back to the quality of education and what it can lead to. We all know this. I just really, REALLY, really don't want to wake up one day and read an article about how India could have been a superpower but lack of education and the spread of disease stopped us. India. I guess it might just be calling??