x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Powerful postcards

Indian schoolchildren have been sending letters to judges of the Delhi high court asking for help with lackadaisical teachers and decrepit schools. It should not have come to this.

The tradition of direct petition to the mighty for redress of grievances exists in many societies. In modern states with millions of citizens, however, the practice is largely obsolete: if the government lets you down in some way, you file a report online, complain to another bureaucrat, or phone a lawyer.

So there is a vestigial charm in the story of India's Project Why and its letter-writing campaign: schoolchildren there sent plaintive missives to judges of the Delhi high court, asking for help with lackadaisical teachers and tumbledown schools. As The National reported yesterday, the campaign, started by a non-governmental tutoring organisation, has had some success: the judges have asked the Municipal Corporation of Delhi for explanations - and, by implication, for changes.

Despite the charm and the possible happy ending, however, this is not a feel-good story. The ordinary institutions of democracy and citizenship should long ago have solved the problems of filthy, stifling, overcrowded schools in which students have little chance to learn. The letter-writing campaign should not have been needed; for that matter why is an NGO needed to tutor in material the schools should be teaching?

To be sure, the students are clearly lucky to have the NGO. But India's institutions, too often sluggish and crowded with self-serving functionaries, need to be more responsive even when there are no sad letters.