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Human Rights Education in Asian Schools Volume Ⅰ

The National Initiative on Human Rights Education in Schools and the Role of National Human Rights Commission

Lakshmi Singh
New Delhi, India

Background

India became independent on 15 August 1947. After a hectic struggle, the shackles of colonial rule were thrown off. When our leaders began taking stock of the situation, they were appalled at the very low literacy rate prevalent in India. The percentage of literacy was just about 14 and the total educational expenditure was Rupees 57 crore. Today after five decades, independent India is witnessing a completely changed educational scene wherein India has one of the largest educational systems of the world with the largest number of primary schools and the largest number of graduates from Indian universities. This has happened because our national leaders were determined that India needed education for all as a matter of principle. It is said that if you are planning for the future, educate your children and that is exactly what our founding fathers have done.

   The Constitution of India in its chapter called Directive Principles of State Policy enunciates the need for education of children. Article 45 of the Constitution which is a part of the Directive Principles lays down that the State shall endeavor to provide, within a period of time from the commencement of this Constitution, for free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of 14 years". The Constitution has also kept in mind the special requirements of children coming from the depressed classes. In consonance with such thinking, Article 46 specifically mentions that "the State shall promote with special care the educational and economic necessity of the weaker section of the people, and, in particular, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and shall protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation.

   The Constitution of India has come into existence from January 1950 but till now we are not in a position to say that we have implemented the directive of the Constitution regarding children's education. The fulfillment of this responsibility poses formidable problems in India. According to the 1991 census, some 328.9 million are unlettered and according to the latest estimates of the Planning Commission some 61 million families or 305 million people live in abject poverty. With the passing of time, the number of both is now substantially higher.

   Despite this however, the literacy rate which had been fairly low in 1947 has gone up now to 52.11 percent. The educational expenditure today is more than Rupees 20,000 crores and in the budgetary outlay it is next only to Defense. 95% of the rural population covering 8.26 lakh habitation have a school within a walking distance of 1 kilometer from their house, 84 percent have a school within 3 kilometers and in areas where a child is unable to go to school, the school goes to the child in the shape of a Non-formal Centre of Education. About 2.80 lakh of such centers are functioning in India. Girl education is free throughout the country up to class 12 and in certain States it is free even at college level. We now have a National Policy on Education which also includes vocational courses. The National Literacy Mission, the District Primary Education Project and the Operation Black Board Project are some of the major steps taken by the Government of India to promote education.

   Despite the shortcomings of the existing educational system - the most obvious of which is the lack of free and compulsory education up to the age of 14 years - a grievous shortcoming that must soon be redressed - any effort to spread human rights literacy must of necessity begin with the educational system itself. The Common Minimum Program of the United Front Government has resolved to make free and compulsory elementary education a fundamental right and to enforce this through suitable statutory measures. The Committee of State Education Ministers has submitted its report on the implications of the proposal to make elementary education a fundamental right. That report observed inter alia that a sum of Rupees 40,000 crores would be required to achieve free and compulsory elementary education in India. The dimensions of the problem may be discouraging but ensuring free and compulsory elementary education will depend, in large measure, on whether or not the Central and State Governments will also be able to harness the skills, resources and talents of non-governmental organizations and the private sectors in the pursuit of this great national objective. In the State of Kerala which has a literacy rate of over 90%, 2,633 primary schools are in the public sector while 4,150 such schools are in the private sector. Contrastingly, in Bihar where literacy rate is about 44% some 52,500 primary schools are reported to be in the public sector with only 545 such schools being listed in the private sector.

   Section 12 (h) of the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993 requires the NHRC to spread human rights literacy among the various sections of society and promote awareness of the safeguards available for the protection of these rights through publication, the media, seminars and other available means. To merely hold seminars in India would be to mock the circumstances of the unlettered and the poor. For them, the way to best protect their rights is through good governance, responsive to their needs of food, clothing, shelter, education and health. A life of dignity and a capacity to better understand and assert their rights would flow out from good governance. Holding seminars for the comparatively privileged is also not enough. The Commission has accordingly sought to follow a strategy of many parts in its efforts to meet its responsibilities under the provision of Section 12 (h) of the statute. The Commission has therefore, tried to mobilize the educational system. It has worked intensively with the Department of Education ( Ministry of Human Resource Development), the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) and the National Council for Teachers Education (NCTE) in respect of the manner in which human rights issues could be introduced into the schooling system.

   Consequent to these efforts, text books were reviewed for their contents, and a Source Book was prepared for teachers by the NCERT. That Source Book has, in the current year, been translated into Hindi, an Urdu version being due in 1997-98. Further, the NCERT undertook a study of human rights awareness among schoolchildren in India, as part of a 4 country project sponsored by the International Centre for Inter-Cultural Studies, Institute of Education, University of London in preparation for the Commonwealth Educationists Conference, which was held in Botswana in July, 1997. The study covered eight schools, two each in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Rajasthan keeping in mind the need "to reflect the ecological, geographical and sociocultural diversity of the country as well as the student population of both boys and girls from the various socioeconomic strata". The findings of the study can be of great value to the Commission in the period ahead as they relate to matters covering (i) the curriculum, (ii) Perceptions of Law and Administration, Justice and Equality of Opportunity; (iii) Colonialism, Independence, Democracy, Civil and Social Rights and Responsibilities; (iv) Consumer Rights and Violence; (v) Perceptions of Identity. The recommendations of the study, which have further developed ideas regarding the curriculum, teaching and learning methodologies, pedagogical practices in the development of print, audio and visual materials, the value of in-service training programs for teachers that are integrated with pre-service training curricula, could well be of immense help as human rights education increasingly finds its place in the educational system of the country. In this connection, the NCERT is also engaged in devising a National Curriculum Framework, in the elaboration of which its work on human rights education could prove to be a valuable input.

   For its part, the NCTE, which had prepared a five unit module for teacher training, has now had this module developed in a Hindi version as well. In addition, two video films have been made of the modules. A significant development in the past year has been the organizing, for the first time ever, of a national-level training program on "Human Rights and National Values for Teacher Educators". Some 40 participants, drawn from all parts of the country, attended the week-long program which was addressed by members of the Commission. The participants will, in turn, conduct similar programs for teacher educators in their respective regions, of whom there are some 25,000 in the country. In December, 1996, the NCTE held an Orientation Workshop for key resource personnel, structured around the subject of human rights education.

   The issue of human rights education is one which requires a long-term strategy and the involvement of all possible players, both governmental and non-governmental. The period 1995-2004 was designated by the United Nations as the UN Decade for Human Rights Education. While the ground work has been laid by the Commission and its partners in the past two years for the observance of this Decade, far more needs to be done to bring its various elements and possibilities together. The Commission has therefore been in touch with the key Ministries concerned, so that a cohesive program is devised for the country as a whole, drawing upon the talents and enthusiasm of all those who are interested in this subject. Further, with the 50th Anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights due in 1998, an excellent opportunity arises to stimulate nation-wide interest and activity in the furtherance of this great cause.

   The National Human Rights Commission has been supporting major seminars on human rights education. Among these seminars was one on Human Rights, Terrorism and Human Rights Education held in Bangalore in August 1996 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It was addressed by the Prime Minister of India and attended among others by the Chairperson and Members of this Commission; the Chairperson, the Vice Chairperson and two Members of the United Nations Committee on Human Rights, the Chairpersons of the State Human Rights Commissions, distinguished Justices, Diplomats, human rights activists and scholars.

   A most constructive two-day seminar was jointly organized by the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the National Human Rights Commission of India in February, 1996. This was pertaining to human rights education. The President of India inaugurated the seminar. In addition to the delegations of the two Commissions the seminar was attended by the Special Adviser on National Institutions to the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights and a former Member of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights. The quality of the seminar was greatly enhanced by the participation of the senior representatives of the competent Ministries and Organizations of the Government of India and also of the Armed Forces. Three State Commissions were represented in the seminar and leading human rights activists from the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and non-governmental organizations such as People's Union for Civil Liberties and the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre as well as representatives from the academic community, UNICEF and other organizations participated in the seminar. The papers and proceedings of the seminar have been published as a joint production of the two organizing Commissions.

   The Commission has been successful in involving media including Television (Doordarshan) and All India Radio for the enhancement of human rights awareness. The Commission has suggested for instance that the 10-minute slot between two national news bulletins in the evening could effectively be used for telecasting programs on human rights issues.

   Likewise, Doordarshan has been advised to consider a half-hour program each month to provide a round up in the manner of "Human Rights Watch".

   The subject of human rights education should be viewed along with the ground reality in India. The main problem is that we have yet to realize 100% literacy in our country. Out of a total of 575,926 villages in India, it is estimated that about 48,566 villages do not have any school at all. While we may be talking about human rights literacy, it is essential that children have access to literacy first of all. Without the facility of education, it is felt that not much can be done about human rights literacy. The latest World Bank Report on Primary Education says that "India's primary education glass is 2/3 full and 1/3 empty". There has been a national initiative to enrol children for primary education but 35% of these children dropped out before completing the primary level. It has also been found that about 15 to 20 percent of children enrolled do not attend school regularly. India has an ambitious plan of "Education for All" by 2004 A.D. And it has committed itself at the 1990 World Conference on Education for All that it will ensure necessary resources for fulfilling this promise. The problem therefore, is to provide primary and secondary education to the children in the first instance which could be followed up with human rights literacy side-by-side. "Education for All" thus continues to be the focal point. For achieving this a two-pronged strategy of universalizing adult literacy and universalization of elementary education in a mutually supportive manner is being followed.

   The NHRC is aware of this serious problem. But that has not deterred it from taking up human rights literacy in schools. The Commission is of the view that human rights literacy could be introduced at different levels using different concepts through stories and anecdotes. At higher academic levels these values and concepts could be dealt with in greater detail. In fact, this approach has already been recognized a decade ago by the Justice S.M. Sikri Committee set up by the University Grants Commission. The effort to introduce human rights literacy in schools has also focussed on textbook evaluation. As part of the ongoing project of textbook evaluation from the point of view of national integration, textbooks from different States of the country are evaluated to identify materials prejudicial to human rights. Evaluation reports along with recommendations for appropriate action are sent to the concerned educational authorities in the States. The NCERT is undertaking during 1997-98 period preparation of guidelines and materials for the observance of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in schools.

   As part of the growing effort to create an awareness of human rights in the educational system of the country, the Central Board of Secondary Education, the Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan, and the National Open School have decided to observe 10 December each year as Human Rights Day. The State Education Secretaries have been asked to encourage this observance each year, while the Department of Youth Affairs and Sports has decided that Nehru Yuvak Kendras will also do so.

   Human rights education is essential to create an awareness of and respect for human rights. Acquaintance with such rights is but the beginning of awareness. The NHRC has observed a clear linkage existing between the creation of society that is just in economic, social and cultural terms, and one in which a culture of human rights could take root, be sustained and flourish. The task at hand therefore, is to inform the weak about their rights in order to learn how to defend them, and to inform the strong so that they may learn how to respect them.


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