Beyond the fields
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While passing through the idyllic rural countryside of Rajasthan, gloriously covered in the winter sunshine with the green and gold of mustard fields, I wondered at first why we wish to impose our modern notions of development on the people living in these landscapes. They appear to have an unhurried life, one much closer to nature, where children learn needed skills as part of the natural process of growing up, without being pushed into artificial structures of modern schooling and education that only appear to create new and hard-to-fulfil needs and dreams.
If our modern state cannot fulfil those dreams and desires, do we really have the right to create them? Why not, it is tempting to think, let people live a near-subsistence level life whose limits they understand and whose problems they know how to cope with? Yet, the value of education and its intrinsic merits have been argued for consistently. Some challenge the kind of education being provided, but most continue to agree with the need for a 'broadening of the mind'.
In a recent visit to Udaipur, I was presented afresh with reasons why education is needed if children are to realise their capabilities and articulate their dreams. The children I observed were attending a month-long residential education camp as part of a non-formal education programme run by an NGO. Between the ages of six and fourteen, many had never been to school while others had attended intermittently. From poor families in the villages around Udaipur, they helped their parents with farming, fetching water, cooking and raising younger siblings, in age-old gendered roles. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the girls looked duller than the boys, weighed down by domestic chores inappropriate to their age while boys still enjoyed some possibilities of freedom.
Their families' dire poverty is understood when one discovers that many are sent by parents as migrant workers to the cotton fields or diamantaries of neighbouring Gujarat. Young children upward of seven are in great demand in the Bt cotton fields, where they perform what one anthropologist calls 'floral sex-work' — pollination by hand. The hands of little children are especially suited to such work, as they are to the diamond industry. Earn though they do, children of both sexes are liable to exploitation of several sorts, a fact parents are not unaware of. Girls often come back pregnant only to be married off to much older men. These migrant children lose out not only on an education but also on the kind of childhood they might otherwise have known in the village.
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