Through my window, through the trees, I can see them. In their blue and white uniforms, arms and legs scissoring in attempted unison, they make their ponderous way around the nearby park. They try hard, but really they cannot coordinate their movements, and the arms, specially, are a blur of out-of-time swinging.
It's that time of year, of course. Readying for sports meets in the New Year, schools all over Bombay send their students out to practice ... marching. Left, right, left-right-left, bang the drum slowly, E-Y-E-S RIGHT! That time-honoured rhythm must be engraved in the minds of generations of Indian school students, few of whom ever really managed to synchronize their steps with their next-in-line or further-down-the-line comrades, but all of whom went at it with teenaged enthusiasm. This is the only time of the year schools do this, so the hope that they will achieve synchrony in these few sessions is a futile one. But yes, they go at it.
Like this blue skirt and white shirt girls' school, clomping around the park.
I raise my eyes just a little bit, looking over their heads at the rocks in the sea beyond. There, a small cloud of birds mists across my line of vision, wheeling so they catch the sun and are suddenly a gleaming white, then as suddenly back to dull brown and barely visible against the rocks. These are stints, known for this behaviour. They wheel in perfect unison. No drums to guide their flapping wings, no left-right-left. Just smoothly coordinated flocking.
Why is it so easy for birds, so difficult for blue-skirted girls? (Not that boys do any better).
But if that's a question without much of an answer, the really interesting question is, why do this at all? Why do schoolchildren need to demonstrate, once a year, how well they can march past a podium, eyes right to where their principal, or some other starched chief guest, salutes? Little else in our school curriculum has this vaguely martial tinge to it. The marching proves nothing, demonstrates nothing, it's not important enough for somebody at the schools to take the kids in hand and really get them moving as one.
So why do it?
By now, someone reading this is angrily muttering, but it teaches the kids discipline! Inculcates a feeling for the Army (soldiers march about, after all), thus a sense of patriotism. What's wrong with that? In fact, there's everything right with it!
Yet ... if that's really the reason, I wonder: is patriotism built by marching practice? By the connection made, via marching, to the Army?
I have a 1996 publication from the School Education Department of the Government of Maharashtra (GoM). This glossy booklet, Landmark Decisions On School Education, lists various then-proposed steps: creating additional primary school teacher posts, free education upto the secondary level, a free bus pass programme for schoolgirls, making NCC (National Cadet Corps, a military training programme) compulsory for one year, more. For all these steps, the GoM set aside Rs 1.34 billion that year.
Of which, the largest chunk -- by far -- is for the NCC scheme. How large? Rs 1 billion.
Free secondary education, in contrast and for example, will get all of Rs 30 million.
Now according to the booklet, the money for the NCC scheme is money well spent, for it will help students "imbibe values like leadership, nationalism and discipline."
The military connection again, to promote those values. Is such a connection the only way to teach them? Is it working?
Looking at marching students just as uncoordinated as I was in my time, I have at least part of an answer. Thinking about such other values as corruption and injustice and flinging garbage about, I have another part of an answer. The birds may have the rest.