My fight to stop discrimination began when I was only an eight-year-old school student. As the daughter of an Airman, I could not understand why a playground in Lucknow Air Force Station was reserved only for the children of officers, higher-ranked staff in the Indian Air Force.
I had read in a school textbook that all public spaces including playgrounds are owned by everyone and hence should be open to all kids, regardless of their parents’ background. But I was not allowed to play in the park reserved for officers’ children, while my under-performing classmate, an officer’s daughter, was welcomed in. I was so angry at this unfair treatment that I walked up to my school teacher and said that the textbooks lied and I would not read them anymore.
Inclusive education Is The Way Ahead
My teachers supported me when I formed a small group of children to protest against the discrimination. To my surprise, the park was soon thrown open to all children. My victory gave me hope that the doors to justice can be opened by anybody.
I was born in a conservative Muslim family and experienced disadvantages in many other ways. My parents prioritised the education of my brothers while daughters were expected to be married off by 18. But I wanted to go to school and they agreed eventually because the military school (Central school) was very affordable. Thankfully, other families too in the Air Force base were sending girls to school and that built up peer pressure.
My insistence on school education literally saved me from leading a pitiful existence. I suffered a polio attack as an infant which left more than half of my left leg paralyzed. Education was the only means for me to create a fulfilling life that would ensure social mobility.
My parents dropped out after high school but I was determined that I would not let the same happen to me. I was the first in my family to graduate from college. I later completed a degree in engineering and finished business school at IIM Bangalore, determined to be independent in every aspect of life – physically, financially and emotionally.
This determination opened up a whole world of opportunities for me. I started working in the US in a management consulting role for a leading global consultancy firm in the USA. But my hunky-dory life suddenly changed when I happened to read a book by David Bernstein on How to Change the World. The germ of an idea formed that I wanted to work for inclusive education in India and create similar opportunities that could transform my life. I chose Uttar Pradesh, uncharted territory and inhabiting a population greater than the whole of Brazil. I quit my US job and decided to work on implementing a highly resisted but extremely powerful law under the Right to Education Act. I founded Bharat Abhudaya Foundation and subsequently RightWalk Foundation with a focus on Section 12(1)(C) of the RTE that mandates private schools to provide equal access to the underprivileged.
I knew first-hand how education could be a strong medium to ensure social justice, equality and inclusion. Contrary to most people, I strongly believed that inclusive schools are possible. I had seen this during my initial years of education in central schools which admitted children of parents from high-ranking military positions to cleaners. My teachers would make all the children keep their lunch boxes in a common basket, blindfold them and make them pick any at random from which they would eat.
The provisions of Section 12(1)(C) under the Right To Education (RTE) Act had never been implemented in Uttar Pradesh. It mandates that all private unaided recognised schools reserve 25 percent of seats in their entry-level class for children from socially and economically disadvantaged groups.
I started working with school administrations, government officials and parents to build awareness of RTE. However, the big push came about when a leading private school chain refused to admit children from poor families.
We intervened and eventually, the District Magistrate ordered the school to admit those children. It ended up in a long court battle and I had to face personal attacks. I was accused of being related to a prominent politician, having a communal agenda and threatened physically. But we persisted and in September 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that the school had to admit the underprivileged children.
It was a turning point in our campaign and we have never looked back since. Inclusive education is the way ahead for a more equal society and I will continue the movement we had built with students, parents, teachers, school administrators, and government officials to ensure that every child receives his/her right to education. 4,70,000 poor kids have now been enrolled under RTE across 75 districts of UP and over 300 crore of public funds have been unlocked in the last seven years.
We have now expanded our work to more policies related to education, skills and employment, including Apprenticeships, in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
Samina Bano is the Founder & CEO of RightWalk Foundation. The views expressed are the author’s own.
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