Kids studying in government schools in Kerala seem a lucky lot. They learn in hi-tech classrooms that have laptops, ceiling-mounted multimedia projector, high-speed internet connection, projection screen and USB speakers.
But these very kids, showered with such 'futuristic' benefits, are also subjected to certain medieval injustices. The Kerala State Commission for the Protection of Child Rights has found that many government schools engage children in menial jobs. These schools, because of the lack of staff to do the menial work or the reluctance of existing staff to do their assigned job, force children to clean up the toilets and latrines.
An order issued by the Commission on December 23 prohibits the use of children for menial jobs in schools.
When it received complaints about the injustice, the Child Rights Commission directed the Director of General Education (DGE), General Education Department, to give a status report. As expected, the DGE replied that he had asked deputy directors to inquire into the issue and that all of them had reported back to him saying there was not a single instance of a child being asked to clean toilets in any of the government schools in Kerala.
The Commission was dismissive of the DGE's status report. "The DGE's report would make it seem as if there are enough FTM (full time menial) workers to clean the campus, classrooms and toilets of all the schools in Kerala and that they were carrying out their responsibilities with absolute commitment and, therefore, there was no situation that necessitated the deployment of students for the job," Fr Philip Parakkat, the Commission member, said in his order dated December 23.
The order then states that the reality is contrary to what the DGE was made to believe by his subordinates. "What has been revealed during the Commission's school visits, and also from various complaints received, is that in many schools there is a serious shortage of FTMs and office attenders and that appointments were not being made and in many cases, to prevent the dirt from accumulating beyond uncontrollable levels, children were directed by teachers to clean the premises, classrooms and toilets," Fr Parakkat says in his order.
In many cases, children were pressed into service even when there were enough staff to do the job. "It has also been revealed that FTMs and office attenders were simply wasting their time without doing their jobs. Such a situation should change," the order said.
“All government schools should appoint FTMs in proportion to the size of the campus and the number of classrooms, urinals and latrines,” the order said.
To this end, the Commission has ordered all schools under the General Education Department to report the required FTMs and office attenders based on the campus size, number of classrooms, number of teachers and students and also the required number of urinals and latrines.
The district education officer (DEO) should collect the information and pass it to the DGE. The Commission has asked the DGE to issue a circular to this effect. Indicating the urgency of the situation, the Commission also asked the DGE to fill FTM vacancies temporarily till PSC appointments are carried out.
The order also said that it was up to the main teacher of the school to make sure that the FTMs do their jobs. "Disciplinary action should be taken against those unwilling to do their jobs," the order said.
The order unequivocally stated that children should not be used for menial activities. "If at all they are used for sanitation activities on special occasions, the students should be convinced that it is not a punitive or a discriminatory measure," the order said. A top official of the Commission told Onmanorama that in certain schools, children from socially underprivileged families were singled out to do menial jobs.
The order also states that whenever the child is asked to do such work, the teachers and non-teaching staff should also join in. And in these rare occasions, the order says that the children should be made aware of the dignity of labour. "The children should take up such work with pride, understanding it as part of social responsibility and public service," the order said.
The office of the General Education Minister, V Sivankutty, informed Onmanorama that it was not aware of the Child Rights Commission's order. It therefore wanted more time to respond. (The minister's response will be updated)