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Private aid to prodigy puts glare on government

Lucknow, Sept. 15: A smile lit up the face of 13-year-old microbiology graduate Sushma Verma as she received Rs 5 lakh, a laptop, a personal computer and an iPhone from philanthropist Bindeswar Pathak here this morning.

However, some of those at the event who applauded the gesture also wondered whether the government could afford to leave the country’s gifted children dependent on the benevolence of kind-hearted donors.

One of them was IIT Mumbai assistant professor Tathagata Tulsi, once a child prodigy himself, who spoke of his struggles with poverty while clearing high school at nine, graduating at 12, doing his master’s at 15 and PhD at 21 before being offered his current post at 22.

Tulsi, a guest at the function, said it was Pathak, the founder of Sulabh International which promotes human rights and sanitation among other things, “who helped me carry out my studies”.

He said the Centre had launched a programme, Prodigy, in 2010 to identify and help gifted children, who experts say often tend to be emotionally and socially disadvantaged. “But from Sushma’s struggles, it appears the government needs to do more.”

An academic associated with Prodigy, who didn’t wish to be quoted, said the programme had not yet got down to identifying gifted children, let alone helping them.

Without government support, the frail-looking Sushma, who passed her Class XII boards at nine before getting her BSc at 12, had to drop a year as her father couldn’t afford the admission fee of Rs 25,000 for Lucknow University’s microbiology MSc course. She has taken admission this year.

Tej Bahadur Verma, 42, is a day labourer who earns Rs 200 a day and had sold whatever land he had to finance his daughter’s education till her BSc.

“Every child is gifted, some more than others,” Sushma told this correspondent today. They first struggle to beat poverty and then to score good marks in their exams. I thank Pathakji for his help.”

Experts say that in 1972, the Marland Report handed to the US Congress had come up with the first formal definition of “gifted and talented” children, which Prodigy too has largely adopted.

Marland made the startling observation that these children were a deprived section prone to psychological damage and permanent impairment of their abilities.

Experts say gifted children often face apathy and hostility from teachers, administrators and counsellors, and need to have their educational climates tailored to their level and pace of learning. But, they add, hardly any government anywhere adequately identifies or helps them.

IIT Kanpur teacher Manoj K. Harbola, an adviser to the government on the Prodigy programme, said it was a challenge to identify gifted children in India sifting through the layers of false claims, political pressure and diverse cultural norms.

“The government programme is under way but will take some time to develop a proper mechanism,” he said.

Sushma’s family lived at a corner of a private school where her father was the timekeeper, but he was sacked and evicted a year ago. Since then, the family of five — Sushma has two brothers — have been living in a shanty that Pathak visited this morning.

“Sushma cannot carry on her higher studies from here; I have donated an additional Rs 3 lakh to her father so he can rent a house in a good area,” Pathak said.

“The girl is an inspiration even for students from elite backgrounds. We will continue to extend all support to her.”