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Archive for May, 2012

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The previous blogpost (“Of questionable dreams and violent youth”) about “educated” male youth turning violent when denied government jobs raised some questions about what education might mean for young males in rural and small town India.  

 This story explores yet another facet of the social dynamics of male education in this same locational context.   

 C.M. Jatawa is “educated”.  Which means that he has done 10 years of school.  He  works as a village level organizer for one of the major national political parties.  Basically, this gives him the licence to look important and spend his time visiting important local people like the Sarpanch (elected chief of the Village Council),  the Patwari (government revenue official at the village level), and possibly various  government functionaries and political workers of his party at the district level.  He uses the visits to generally sit  around in their offices and become privy to the matters they attend to, to be welcomed into their homes including  for special family celebrations like marriages, etc., and generally become a familiar presence in the area as a fixer and conduit. 

 Jatawa likes to be addressed as “C.M.”.  C.M. is the accepted acronym in the corridors of political power in India for the Chief Minister of a state, and the title gives Jatawa a great kick, causing him to strut around like a political leader in the waiting.   Part of the accessories of such a self-important self image is that  C.M.  likes to sound vague about “small” things.  In other words,  he conveys that he is a man who is on to big things and has no time or inclination for inconsequentials.  This came home to me when we ran into him recently in the village.   

 C.M. is one of six brothers.  They are jats, an intermediate caste in the Hindu caste hierarchy, whose traditional vocation has always been agriculture; they are known for their skill and industry as tillers. C.M.’s family used to be  tenants of our family in the feudal era of big landlordism; they have since Independence and land reforms  become land owners and now till their own land.  The six brothers own and till their land in common – a well tended green expanse – and also jointly own assets like tractors, tube wells, mechanized threshers,  a common granary, a workshop etc.  The homestead is a huge compound consisting of six large independent houses in a row that are  not individually walled in.  But each house has its own kitchen, so the daughters-in-law are the mistresses of their own homes.  Among jats, both men and women of the family work together on the land.  The women of the Jatawa extended family are no exception to this.  They also socialize together, the children play together, and the family’s patriarch and matriarch sit on plastic chairs under the trees along the front of the houses, looking  inquisitive, important and relevant.

I happened to visit the Jatawa homestead one day, in the course of a camel cart ride through the farms in the area along with a visiting friend.  We were invited into the compound, entertained with chai, and introduced to all those who happened to be present, with their relationship status clearly spelt out.  We admired the babies, asked after the schooling of the children, oohed and aahed over the gleaming kitchens that the women proudly led us to, watched the thresher reduce residue stalks into finely chopped cattle feed, and generally showed our appreciation for the neatness and prosperity of the place.  My friend also took lots of photos of the family on her digital camera, much to the enjoyment of all.

Just before we left, one of the women – the wife of the eldest brother – showed us a small skinny boy who looked five but who she said was actually ten years old.  She showed us his spindly legs and asked us what could be done about the fact that he could hardly walk and  almost not run, because his legs were too weak.  Due to  these reasons, the boy was irregular in school attendance and also did not play with other children.

It seemed to me an obvious case of severe Vit. D deficiency.  “Would you help?”, she asked, “it is after all the question of a boy’s future.”  I had half a mind to ask her what she thought of girls’ futures, but held my tongue.  I was a guest and had to know my limits.  I assured her that the child was treatable and promised to give them a letter of introduction to a good pediatrician in the city whom I knew, in addition to advising them, if they wished, on diet and exercise and general care of the child.

Within a few days, the parents came to visit with the child and left with the promised letter  to the doctor.  I also asked them to phone me from the doctor’s clinic so I could speak with the doctor to learn more about the case and help with follow up.  I felt that being illiterate and quite clearly also totally lacking in health literacy, the parents might not be able to report back to me cogently.  A couple of days later, the doctor called me; he confirmed that it was indeed rather severe Vit. D deficiency and told me what line of treatment he had put the child on.  It was a happy end to the first part of the story. 

I had been meaning to visit the child to find out how he was progressing with the new treatment.  In the interim we ran into C.M.  On hearing that he was one of the six brothers and that he lived right next door to the child, I asked him how the child was doing.  His face and voice changed immediately.  From looking respectful and animated about making his acquaintance with us, he allowed a veil of indifference to descend over his face.  His voice became vague and began trailing off… “Child?  What child?  Whose? Was there a health problem that you found in my family?” Then with a self deprecating laugh,  “Where do I have the time to take notice of such things.  I am so busy…” 

Realising by then that we were quite familiar with his family background, his voice suddenly changed to a brisk, “Actually I have something important to attend to.  Could I take your leave please?  I will come back to see you in a few minutes.”  So saying, he  made his getaway and of course,  never returned.    

 My husband and I looked after him stunned.  Here was a very close relative of the child in question, a member of the same family, who lived right there.   Here  was the youngest of six brothers and the only “educated” one among them. Clearly, the otherwise illiterate family had invested in his education because he was a male, and because by virtue of his birth order he was simply the luckiest of all his siblings to be able to reap the advantage of the new social wisdom that children ought to be sent to school.  And the extended family was still investing in him.  They had not only supported his entry into politics (probably with the hope of harvesting some long-term benefits for the family),  but were continuing to  support him by taking care of his wife and children, since he was making no contribution to the general kitty through cash or labour.  

But what was the response of this  “educated” male, who the family must  have hoped would lead them to a better future?   C.M. was too busy turning his so-called educational advantage  towards his own self aggrandizement and political future.   While riding on the shoulders of his extended family for all his needs, he had atomized himself totally when it came to the benefits,  ignoring his obligations towards the larger collectivity that was supporting him. 

In this specific instance, he had not bothered to allow his education to be an asset to his extended family, by giving a thought to how he could help his  brother and sister-in law in the matter of their health-disadvantaged child.  Over and above that, he could not even bring himself to, at the very least, respond to the show of interest and active support in the matter from us, total outsiders to the family.     

Even granted, that he saw himself as a politician in the making, isn’t this concrete evidence of political indifference at the ground level to matters relating to local health isues and preventable disability among small children?   What good for the community can be expected to come out of C.M.’s entry into politics?

 What does all this say about “male” education?   

 If one were to extend this argument further, policy interventions such as the NAREGA (the government’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) are predicated on leveraging one member of every family to the hypothetical benefit of the whole family (under NAREGA one member of every family is entitled to 100 days’ wage employment in a year) .  But the institution of the family even in rural India– and in rural Rajasthan, which might well be one of the last bastions of tradition – is changing rapidly.  It is now each man for himself. Advantages accruing to one male member no longer trickle down to the rest of the family.

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On Friday May 18, in a little town on the outskirts of the city of Jaipur in Rajasthan, the federal Indian Government’s 123 Territorial Army Grenadier was conducting an open recruitment rally.  More than 15,000 young men reportedly attended the rally in pursuit of a secure government job.  By the evening of that day, the shortlist of recruits was announced. Those rejected ran into tens of thousands.  Almost all were rejected on “medical grounds”. 

Instead of returning home, the rejected candidates proceeded to go on a rampage to vent their anger against everything and everybody in sight. Private vehicles and citizens, police vans and personnel, railway trains and passengers, petrol stations and their attendants, schools and classrooms, all became targets for the several hour long violence that ensued.  Road vehicles and passenger trains were set on fire, train and bus drivers and related transport personnel were beaten up, railway carriages and passengers were pelted with stones, passers-by were stopped and assaulted and their vehicles confiscated for their combustible contents which were then used to set fire to public property, and passing trucks were commandeered for the rioters to move further afield and continue their acts of arson, including smashing the windows of a school and attempting to set fire to classrooms.  Pictures in yesterday’s newspapers showed the rioters to be aggressively-charged young men, waving fists and jeering, and generally looking uncontrollable. 

The state government’s analysis of the situation is that it was a mistake to permit such a large number of applicants to congregate, and to have been unprepared with sufficient number of police forces for crowd control.  Newspapers have not gone beyond offering graphic descriptions of what that little town witnessed.

But there are larger questions that this dreadful incident raises. 

What is it about the nature of the recruitment policies that they first permit applicants to participate in numbers that are grossly in excess of the demand, and then  reject them wholesale, invariably on so-called “medical grounds”? 

What is it about the police, military and law enforcement agencies in general in the country that attracts so-called “educated” young men from rural and small town India in such large numbers to aspire for jobs in them? 

Since these jobs call for not more than 10 years of schooling, what is it about being “educated” and “being male”   that gives these youth the feeling of entitlement to aspire to such jobs and go on a rampage if denied them? 

Finally, can ordinary citizens feel safe in the hands of  agencies composed of potential recruits such as these?   

Quite clearly, jobs in the police and related agencies fulfill two deep-seated and related hungers in the Indian context.  The power to instill fear that goes with proximity to the State.  And the  potentially unlimited illegal income over a lifetime that access to State power gives to an incumbent.  It is for these reasons that law enforcement agencies and related recruitment policies and procedures are so politically manipulated, so full of corruption and lack of transparency, and so rife with intimidation by those holding the reins of office.  Persons who successfully wade through this minefield of obstacles to acquire such jobs then feel entitled to begin their careers with initimidating citizens, extorting monies from every encounter where citizens that have the misfortune to have to relate to them or, if neither of these is possible, at least place needless roadblocks to a citizen’s pursuit of straightforward tasks which require some minimal coordination with the police. 

Ashish, a native of Uttar Pradesh, came to work for us through one of his fellow-villagers who told him about a job possibility with us.  Within days of his joining us we learnt that this was just a filler, since Ashish’s true aspiration was to become a police constable.  As someone from a farming background who had done high school, Ashish believed that he now deserved nothing less than a government job.  And that of all government jobs, one with the police would make him rich soon.  “How would you become rich?”  I asked him innocently.  “By taking bribes”, Ashish smiled.  He didn’t even imagine that I might be horrified by his reply.  He told me how his main problem was that he did not have the Rs. 200,000 for a bribe that could fix the job for him. 

Ashish’s story would be funny if it wasn’t also so tragic.  He had already applied twice when two major recruitment drives were publicly announced.  And he had been rejected both times on “medical grounds”.  Ashish is a very healthy 22 year old, over six feet tall and muscular, and a huge eater.  Every morning he would wake up at 4 a.m. to go running.  He told me earnestly that for years he had been practising “daud” (running) – the main physical test for police recruitment – and that his timing was excellent.  However, he was failed after the test.  When he went  – to whoever – and asked why, he was told that he had been rejected on medical grounds.  They showed him a thin  inch-sized scar on his inner wrist and said that that disqualified him. 

Undeterred, Ashish applied a second time, and practised his daud for months before the test.  This time, again, he was declared unfit on medical grounds.  They told him that it was because he had wax in one ear.  Ashish went promptly to a specialist Ear Nose and Throat doctor in a nearby town and paid Rs. 500 to have his wax status checked;  the doctor pronounced that he had no wax in his ears at all.  When he went back – again, to whoever – with the doctor’s report, he was told that the recruitment decisions had already been made,  and that he could  apply for a third time if he wished. 

Ashish had come to us after applying for a third time and was basically waiting for his test call.  Every morning he would go running for two hours.  And every evening he would come to me with a shy smile as I sat in front of my computer,  to see if I would track his application number on the Uttar Pradesh Government’s website.  I was more than happy to help, even if only to understand how these government recruitments worked.  Imagine our joint horror when   the website claimed that his application  number did not exist at all.  Every day we would try again, and also punch in a few numbers preceding and a few numbers following the number that he had been officially given, just in case “they” had slyly manipulated numbers so as to drop him off.  Or even just been plain inefficient in feeding in the number in question.  We even tried random permutations and combinations.  None of them “existed”.  The website  announced that several hundreds of thousands of application forms had been given out for just a few hundred jobs.  “Sold” would have been a more correct word; with each application form costing Rs. 750, the state government must have made a killing on that alone.  And who knows whether Ashish’s form was a genuine one or a counterfeit one – with a fake number – printed by some insider wanting to make money on the side? 

Every evening after our futile little exercise Ashish would bravely keep his smile on his face, but his eyes would fill with unshed tears as he turned away to leave my desk.  For all his huge presence and dreams of making it big, he was only 22 years old. It was hard to believe that he already had the responsibility of  a wife and new baby, back home.  By now I was too heartbroken for Ashish to ask any more questions about the middlemen that he might have bribed along the way to acquiring each of these three application forms, and how much debt he had already run up. 

But most depressing of all was that even as sweet and relatively innocent and young a person as Ashish thought that it was perfectly normal to aspire for a job that brought in several times one’s salary in the form of bribes.  Who knows whether he, too, may have retaliated violently if he had been part of a faceless mob rejected on spurious “medical” grounds?

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Sonu is a 20 year old college student in the village where I currently live, the younger of two daughters in a family consisting of parents and four siblings.  Her father works as an unskilled labourer in a cement pipe manufacturing factory along the highway, about 6 km away; he has been steadily employed there for  nine years and brings home Rs. 5000 every month.  Since he does not drink, almost all his money comes into the family kitty.  His work requires him to leave home early in the morning and it is late by the time he returns.   He is a mild mannered man, and Sonu suspects that he keeps long hours so he can escape being harangued by his shrewish wife.

Sonu’s mother is the virtual and tyrannical ruler of the family and holder of the purse strings, in which she is ably supported by her older daughter who left her husband after a quarrel and has since returned to be a permanent resident of her natal household.  One would imagine that, having experienced an unhappy marriage and having freed herself from it, she would be a source of support to  her younger sister in her life aspirations.  But that is not the case. While Sonu has the support of her father in her decision to go to college, her mother and sister – both illiterate – are determined to wean her away from such dreams, and either get her to work and contribute to the family, or get married to a person of the family’s choice.  Sonu contributes to the family what she can from her earnings, and for the rest does most of the housework, rather than engage with her mother and sister who spend their free time stretching their legs and gossiping after their return from their daily wage labour.  Since the family’s earnings are controlled by the  mother who objects to her college admission, Sonu has been earning her college fees every year, doing daily wage labour on farms in the area.  This is how we met her, when she came to work for us.

Since she introduces herself to me as a college student, I am naturally interested and find myself warming up to her as she slips into her work routine.  In a region where girls and boys go to school ritualistically, and drop out in relief along the way, Sonu definitely stands apart.  She arrives for work on time, listens to instructions and executes them efficiently, and asks questions and gives suggestions pertaining to her tasks.  Definitely a rare phenomenon in these parts, where work is simply a way to earn money by being reluctantly present but actually doing virtually nothing.  Her movements are brisk, and she doesn’t hesitate to run between tasks.  And she takes pride in finishing each task quickly and asking or more work.  I certainly find her refreshing.  She is different from her peers in other respects as well.  She looks different; wears her hair tied back at shoulder length, a soft fringe falling over her eyes, and comes to work in neat salwar kameez and occasionally in jeans and a T shirt.

Sonu, however, seems reluctant to have a conversation with me beyond the disclosure of the fact that she goes to college.  The reason is that I seem to ask too many questions.  I learn that apart from the day when she went to pay her fees, she has hardly ever been to the college to attend classes.  I can’t help asking why?  What was the point in joining college if she never ever went there?  She says that it would cost her close to between Rs. 50 and Rs. 60 a day to make the trip to the next village where the college is located.  It requires changing two buses which run to erratic timings and could take up to two hours each way.  Once in college, it is anybody’s guess whether the lecturer concerned is present for the day, or willing to take the class.  At home, she is expected to be back before dark, and help in the housework both in the morning and the evening.  Where does all this leave her with the time or money or flexibility required to lead the life of a college student?

The fact also is that Sonu’s college is a private one, where the main interest of the management is in her fees.  Once she pays her fees for the year, she is assured of being marked present even if she attends only on the odd day, and at the end of the year she will be allowed to sit for the exam.  For most of the students of these private colleges, this is the pattern – full fee payment in advance, laissez faire attendance by students, absence of teachers, and hardly any evidence of actual teaching and learning.

I am sympathetic to her plight but am nevertheless totally mystified that she persists in being “college going” in the face of such blatant non-performance by all concerned in the educational system that she inhabits.    I change the topic to asking her what her subjects are…”English Literature, Political Science and Sociology”, she announces.   I know then that she is doomed.  This is  region where even the economically and socially better-off and better-educated youth, and school and college teachers, can barely speak or write correct English.  So Sonu’s  B.A in English Literature is quite a bit of a slippery slope.

My enthusiasm for and interest in her makes me insensitive to the panic in Sonu’s  eyes as I continue to ask questions…Would she tell me what books she is reading for  the subjects she has mentioned?  If she doesn’t attend college, she surely must be studying on her own?   “Books?” asks Sonu, her face a picture of total incomprehension.  “I don’t read any books.”

My husband who has been watching this charade with growing sympathy for Sonu’s discomfiture, and pity for my inability to understand, steps in here to rescue her.  “Run off, bitiya (child)”, he says to her.  “Don’t take it to heart.  Madam here doesn’t understand.  She doesn’t know that in this region, students don’t read books in college.  You must be having some guides that will help you pass the exams, don’t you?”  Nodding vigorously in obvious relief, Sonu shoots me a final  alarmed look and flees while I try to arrange my face to look understanding and wise despite feeling totally depressed by this raw evidence regarding the state of higher education in the country, outside of a few elite metropolitan pockets.

Sonu’s aunt, Pooja,  who also works for us but on a regular basis, tells us later that the big issue in Sonu’s  family at the moment is not so much her insistence on “going to college”, as her new insistence on marrying a young man of her choice.  She has announced to her family that she has met a young man whom she has grown to like.  They have known each other for three years, and although they have not met since that first encounter, they have been talking with each other on their mobile phones and have found the desire to marry each other.  Sonu thinks that since he belongs to her caste, her family ought not to object.

It transpires that Sonu  has come to work on our farm only out of the compulsion to get away from her mother and sister, who taunt her day and night about her “boyfriend” and her dreams of marriage.  They taunt her because he is an orphan and has no one who will show up for the marriage.  They taunt her that because he lives near Delhi, she will be leaving home to go into the “wilderness” – a place beyond their ken, certainly –,  and they warn her that if she comes to grief she should not count on them for support.  Sonu’s  mother declares that she cannot allow such a marriage to take place, to a man who has no one to call his own, and if it takes place inspite of her objections, she will not attend.

Sonu’s sister has her own objections to Sonu’s decision to get on with her own life.  Since the family are dalits (former untouchables), remarriage is an accepted norm in their community.  Sonu’s sister is hoping to remarry and would like the family to spend money on her marriage before exhausting resources on Sonu’s.  One night, she even got one of her suitors to come into the house and beat up Sonu as she lay asleep.  For this reason of her own safety, Sonu has moved in with Pooja and has stopped talking with her mother and sister, although she continues to do all the housework in the family home every morning and evening as her part of the contribution to the family.  Couldn’t she expect support from her father?  Sonu says she empathises with his plight; there is no way he can get a word in edgewise with his wife.  He has given his implicit consent for the marriage by not saying anything in support of his wife’s objections.  But that is about all; Sonu  knows that he will not take any positive action on her behalf.  In fact, she tells me, one reason why she would like to marry a man of her choice is the lesson of her father’s marriage to her mother.

I realize that Sonu has indeed fought quite a few battles.  She has finished school in an environment where most girls drop out.  She has gone on to enroll in college and sees herself as becoming a graduate, of whatever quality ( for she is not to be blamed for not having the wherewithal to be more discerning in this regard).  And she has been able to formulate a notion of a consensual marriage on her own terms.

And that is not all.  Sonu aspires to be a working woman for all of her life.  It is a positive affirmation of identity and not a choice born of economic helplessness.  Towards this end, she runs around tirelessly, ferreting out information about possible exams she can sit for, jobs she can apply for.   I know of at least three professions she has in mind:  Village Health Nurse, Police Constable, and Village Patwari (government appointed village revenue functionary).  The fact that she has opted for higher education makes her dare to believe that all these life choices are open to her and that it is her right to exercise them.

From a position of opposition to anything that is not good quality education, I am beginning to see that for the girls of this country even a token education is better than no education at all.

Postscript:

Sonu dropped out of work after a month, without notice.  We learnt that she had gone away to an uncle who had promised to get her married to her boyfriend.  We learnt that she swore, when leaving home, that she would never return there.  Eventually, Sonu did get married in her uncle’s home to the young man of her choice, with neither of her parents present.  Pooja and her husband officiated as parents to give away the bride.

I have no idea what will come of Sonu’s college enrolment.  She will probably go on to give her exam as required.  She may even acquire a B.A. degree, without having read a single book.  Like millions of graduates in our country, who are uneducated and unemployable in any real sense, but whose dream of education has changed them forever in terms of the way they think of life choices.

In Sonu’s case, the dream gave her the courage to persist through school and go on to college,  resist being married off at a pre-sentient age, refuse to be married off without her consent, and decide to engage with society as a working woman.  Staying unmarried until 20 is still very rare for girls in most rural areas of this country, but Sonu achieved it.  If nothing else, she will have her first child when her body is mature enough to carry the child to full term, and she is mature enough emotionally and mentally to be a worthy mother.  Who knows, the knowledge that her/his mother was a “college graduate” might even motivate her child to go in for real education.

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