The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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There are always certain signs that a society is composed of normal people. Such a society sits up in alarm when children start killing themselves. But suicides by school-going and school-leaving children are no longer a new phenomenon in West Bengal. So it is not as if the five suicides recently by Madhyamik candidates are a novel horror, they merely remind society that this is a horror that can no longer be evaded.

But to confront it, there is first one question that has to be answered honestly. What has this society ' parents and policy-makers ' turned childhood into that it should end abruptly with such precocious, intolerable pain' It is not merely insecurity in an increasingly competitive society that drives parents to enforce on their children an inhuman regime that shall ensure each child becomes 'the best of all'. It is also a pathology that demands wish-fulfilments, made seemingly possible by numerous new opportunities, rapid mobility upwards, and the fancy images of success and high living projected by a globalized idiot box. Parents compete with one another to provide for the most far-reaching dreams they have for their children, thus placing on them an unbearable burden. Such an attitude percolates down to less prosperous households within and outside the city. The problem is slightly different there. A good institution for higher studies is the stepping-stone to a better life. For the urban child, schooldays become a nightmare of classes, tasks, tuitions and an enormous range of extra-curricular activities, in all of which the child is expected to show excellence, irrespective of his wishes, aptitude or temperament.

No sane, humane society can wish on its children a regime that makes them unhappy and unstable, fragile, fearful and hypersensitive. A little girl of Class III drinks up a whole bottle of pesticide because she has made mistakes in her annual examination. Children kill themselves long before school-leaving examinations are on the horizon. Their world has narrowed to a dark tunnel of task and performance, where each examination is like a life-and-death battle. Perhaps the parents' education did not teach them a sense of proportion. The inconsistencies of the system contribute to the terror. When wise policy-makers deliberate over ways to make examinations stress-free, they might recall that seats in higher secondary classes have been drastically reduced, so that it is not even enough to achieve over 80 per cent in the Madhyamik examination. There are not enough seats to accommodate the high-scorers, let alone those who have got less. The huge gap in standards between the top institutions and the middle-rung ones has grown, so going to any place but the best is now shameful. There are two things that are totally forgotten in all this. One is learning, also known simply as education. The other is, of course, the children themselves.

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