After a long wait, child stars from the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire have moved into their own flats, provided by the good-hearted samaritans who produced the film. But nine-year-old star of Smile Pinky, another Oscar winner in the documentary category (made by an American, Megan Mylan), has little to smile about. A poor Dalit girl from the backwaters of eastern Uttar Pradesh, Pinky was born with a hare-lip and lived the life of a social pariah, heckled by her schoolmates and neighbours, till a kind-hearted plastic surgeon working for a voluntary organization transformed her face and her life by a simple surgery.
When the father and daughter returned from a fairy-tale trip to the US after attending the award ceremony, Pinky’s beaming father Rajendra Sonkar told the media that he would soon be sending his daughter to an English-medium school in Varanasi: “Hum ta Pinkiya ka Banaras mein Angrezi padhaub!” (We shall give our Pinky an English-medium education in Varanasi).
Politicians such as Mulayam Singh Yadav from the Hindi belt may react sharply to Pinky’s father’s dream of teaching his child the language of India’s ex-colonial masters. But fact is that every powerful man in the India today, from the prime Minister to the finance minister, uses English when delivering an important speech about the pro-poor policies of the government, or while presenting the Union Budget in Parliament. And top policy wonks, government officials and charity bosses who hold the keys to the vital funding for all pro-poor schemes, also seldom consider communicating with the common man in an Indian language.
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It is natural, therefore, that Pinky and her dad, when promised big money and various kinds of help for the little girl’s education, would began to dream of her going to an Angrezi (English) school in Varanasi and mastering the language of power discourse in India.
During the general election, Pinky was quickly projected as a mascot by Dalit leaders such as Udit Raj of the National Dalit Front and Ram Vilas Paswan of the Lok Janshakti Party from Chandauli to Varanasi. They felicitated Pinky publicly and addressing the uniformly poor rural voters of the area in Hindi, predicted a great future for her and her community of Dalits. National and international media then followed the Sonkar family to their humble hut in Kheria Purwa village and showed the villagers singing and dancing around Pinky. Everyone wanted to be photographed with her. Mayawati, the Dalit chief minister of Uttar Pradesh who then had prime ministerial dreams, also announced the gift of a free house, complete with a hand pump, to the family under the Maha Maya scheme .
A few months after the elections, though, everyone is back to business as usual and Pinky is forgotten.
The monsoons are just around the corner, wails Pinky’s mother Simla Debi, and we are still without a dependable roof over our heads. Making the shell of the so-called home habitable, has already cost the family around Rs60,000, but even now the roof and the floor remain incomplete. Chances are they’ll be spending the monsoon huddled under a leaky roof. Village head Sushil Debi Vishwakarma told the visiting media that according to government rules, the beneficiary must pay the masons for finishing the floor and the roof out of their own pockets.
With her father vending jamun berries door to door once again, paying for renovations or going to a private institution in Varanasi remain a distant dream for Pinky and her family. Before her surgery, she had been attending the primary school at the nearby Sagaha village and this April she was admitted to Balika Vidyalaya at Ahraura awaiting admission to a private boarding school in Varanasi, but lately she has dropped out and now helps do the dishes at home and take the goats for grazing .
Will the passage of the Right to Education Bill help realize Pinky’s dreams? That’s unlikely; the draft of the Bill that seeks to make it the right of each child between the ages of 6 to 14 to receive school education, makes two things clear: one, that the state intends to use the government school system as the only instrument for meeting its obligation; and two, that the teaching will be provided through the band of permanent regular teachers appointed by the government in these schools. This means that children such as Pinky who attend government schools in villages, unlike those that attend private schools in urban areas, will be receiving their education in local languages. With Mulayam Singh Yadav and others like him insisting on keeping English out of the government school system, Pinky will not be taught English as a language either.
India spends less than 4% of its GDP on education, and the latest budget has provided almost nothing extra for the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the project that seeks to support universal free primary education for children of the poor. With the finance minister and the minister for human resource development focusing mostly on higher education , chances are that the low-cost primary schools run by the government in rural areas will continue to be inherently discriminatory and anti-poor. The never-ending debate about English versus the mother tongue as the medium of instruction in schools is only a diversion. In educating Pinky, India comes against a major social and political problem and it has to tackle that before Pinky will smile again.
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan.
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