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Inculcating democratic values in schoolkids

Sunday, 23 February 2014 - 8:04pm IST | Place: Ahmedabad | Agency: dna

The winding road from Gandhinagar to Shahadra is lined with Amaltas and some Gulmohar trees, sprinkled with some bright red bougainvillea.  About 4 kms before Shahadra is the road to Rajpur. One would expect a primary school here just as any other village.  But, on entering the school, right from the small amphitheatre and circular seating places, there is an aura of involvement and distinctness in this modest school with only 78 children. Speaking to Binduba Jhala, the ‘live wire’ teacher in the school, I gathered more about the special experiments going on for over 12 years in this school.  Democratic decision making is the hallmark of this school. Students elect their Cabinet Ministers following a real election with the bells and whistles of ballot paper, nominations, symbols, scrutiny and an ‘Election Commission’ too!

The portfolios of gardens, academics, health, water, cleanliness and festivities are among those assigned to the Ministers.  As the students discharge their duties through the year, they learn the meaning of planning, discussing, understanding various issues with all their complex ramifications. They have to carry their peers with them and face a general assembly every six months, which may even recall them. This experiment filled me with a lot of hope, especially contrasted against the disruptive news of the stalled Parliament that peppered the papers last week.

As against this effort, education spaces that one usually sees are mostly passive spaces that are not conducive to learning and hardly engage students. As they graduate to occupy positions in society, their lack of orientation to discussions and collective decision-making is starkly revealed. Had they been trained as in Rajpur, they would have the ability and freedom to think, question, discuss, reflect, critically look at their positions and even accept opposing points of view. Able to communicate with team members in a respectable and sensitive way, they would be able to create and co-habit a ‘shareable life world’. This would be a welcome relief from the present day dominance of decibels or deadly silences, not to mention the pepper sprays and their ilk!  

In India, from the times of the ancient vedic philosopher, Gargi and the Bhagvad Geeta, we have believed in the importance of discussing, ‘questioning’ and sharing, in the warmth of respect. Acknowledging the divinity in every individual and object has also been a base postulate of this culture.  Given these great traditions, can we set right some aberration that may have crept in over the years?

Back in Rajpur, roads that carried the trucks ferrying sand from the Sabarmati River have been re-aligned to avoid disturbing the school. This problem was resolved with negotiations, given the increased awareness with a problem solving approach. This is thanks to the tradition in ‘Mari Shala, Rajpur’, as this school has democratically named itself. A recent visit from the office of the President, Bangladesh to Rajpur led to an interesting spin off.  5000 schools of Bangladesh have initiated this project of democracy.  As Partheshbhai of Rajpur adds, these processes have also led to ease in running the school, harmony with a tangible, impact in the village for many projects and programs.   

Can we carry the scent and essence of Rajpur to our own living worlds? Can we involve ourselves in collectively discussing, debating and deciding on issues with mutual respect and clarity? Can we have a structured discussion every day in our class rooms on a few topics of common interest and concern? Can students plant saplings at school and actually nurture them?  It would be wonderful if we could design and create spaces for human beings to grow and be fully self-expressed; giving and contributing their best, being ethical, open and compassionate team members.  

Jayanti S Ravi
The author is a Harvard educated civil servant and writer, now working in the education sector

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