In April this year, 11-year-old Shanno Khan, a student of a municipal school in Delhi, collapsed and died after having been made to stand for two hours in the hot sun and being refused a drink of water. 15-year-old Rinki Kaushik, who was hit by her teacher in class, died after remaining in coma for three months in March 2008. Angered by 30 students laughing at him when he fell off a broken chair, a teacher in Behala's Satiprasanna School bashed every single one of them with a ruler. Another master returned with a shaved pate from a Tirupati pilgrimage. When the boys of his class laughed at his new look, he promptly brought in a barber and had their hair shaven off too.

A teacher in a school in Delhi's Preet Behar, threw a duster at Kanhaiya, studying in Class VII. The duster hit Nitin Rai who sat next to Kanhaiya. His glasses broke, piercing an eye. Later, Nitin complained that the teacher did not even bother to warn the students that he was about to throw a duster at them.

Welcome to the ugly and very real world of 'corporal punishment' - the deliberate infliction of physical pain, intended as punishment or correction from some sort of wrong action. This punishment can take many forms - spanking, whipping, beating, slapping, striking, or lashing. Because there are no rules involved in such acts, there is no limit to what exactly constitutes corporal punishment. Corporal punishment is widely recognised as a form of child abuse, and has been outlawed and banned in some countries, including India. But it goes on nevertheless, in cases where a teacher uses a subjective definition of 'punishment' and 'correction' and abuses power over the child - sometimes fatally.

Babli Ghosh, 11, a Class V student of the state-sponsored Andal Girls High School in Durgapur failed to copy a poem from her textbook which her teacher, Rekha Bhagat had asked to do in class. The furious Bhagat hit Babli with a duster on the back of her head and slapped her repeatedly. Her classmate Mousumi Goswami said when the torture became unbearable, Babli fell on the floor of the classroom and started vomiting. A non-teaching staff came running and cleaned up the floor to try to hush up the matter. Other teachers tried to comfort Babli for more than an hour. They finally took her to a private nursing home when her condition deteriorated. She was declared brought dead at 5 PM the same day, May 14.

Babli, originally from Bamunmura village near Barasat in North 24 Parganas, used to stay in her maternal uncle's house in Andal. Her father Shibendra Nath Ghosh is a supplier of automobile components. Ironically, he had sent his daughter to the Andal school because his father-in-law had praised the quality of education imparted there. Hundreds of villagers stormed the school, which had suspended classes to mourn Babli's death. They demanded that the accused teacher either be handed over to them or be arrested on a murder charge. The culprit absconded almost immediately.

Condemning the incident that led to the tragic and untimely death of Babli, state school education minister Partha De said, "It is unfortunate that in spite of repeated instructions to teachers against the use of the rod on children, such incidents keep happening". But his government's record of action of this 'unfortunate' front is quite poor, and his words ring hollow when seen in that context.

The judiciary steps in

On 27 November 2008, eight-year-old Iftesham Chowdhury, a student of Vidya Bharati School in Mominpur, Kolkata, was slapped by his teacher, Anita Das. His head hit the wall. He suffered extensive haemmorage and died. These cases, as records state, are traced back to 2004 when two school students died after being mercilessly beaten up by their teachers. These deaths prompted a division bench of the Calcutta High Court, headed by then Chief Justice A K Mathur to declare corporal punishment illegal and order the government to issue a notification stating that 'stern action' would be taken against teachers found guilty of torturing students. Copies of the notifications were sent to the schools. But nothing has come of it, and children continue to be beaten up brutally.

Corporal punishment has been around for ages. But increasingly, this punishment has been deemed as cruel and ineffective with extremely long term negative effects on the recipient. Robert E Fathman, President of the National Coalition to Abolish Corporal Punishment in Schools in USA, said it best: "Good school discipline should be instilled through the mind, not the behind."

 •  Children's rights in India

Soon after the hue and cry over the tragic death of Babli Ghosh, the division bench of Chief Justice S S Nijjar and Justice I P Mukherjee passed a series of orders last month while hearing a public interest litigation by lawyer Tapas Bhanja who alleged that corporal punishment in schools was on the rise as the government had failed to enforce the ban. Bhanja submitted that the school education department had not issued any notification announcing the ban despite being asked to do so by the Calcutta High Court.

"Before filing the petition, I visited many schools across the state and enquired whether the authorities had received the notification. Not a single school was aware of the ban," said Bhanja. The case is scheduled for a hearing in the third week of June, by which time senior government officials will submit their affidavits. Chief Secretary Ashok Mohan Chakrabarti will have to inform what steps the government has taken against teachers found guilty of beating up students. Home Secretary Ardhendu Sen will file another affidavit detailing the steps the government has taken to implement the ban on corporal punishment. The third affidavit will have to be filed by the secretary of the school education department, who has been asked to compile a list of institutions that have received the state notification announcing the ban.

Under-regulated, unenforced

The mode of conduct for teachers instructs them against the use of the rod as a disciplinary tool. The rule book issued to teachers lays down the steps that are to be taken in case a teacher is found to flout the regulations. Included among the various measures that can be initiated against a teacher are: (a) issuing a show-cause notice to the concerned teacher, (b) canceling the teacher's increments, and (c) any other action as recommended by the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education. But most teachers indulging in corporal punishment are not punished. No one knows how many show-cause notices have been served or whether any have been served at all.

Public interest litigations and human rights organizations' loud protests are as short-lived as are media hypes around an incident when it happens. No one, at the school administrative level, the management level, or the state secondary education board level, bothers to set up monitoring machineries to take preventive steps before one more young life bites the dust. "This generates the idea that teachers who indulge in such crime can escape punishment, particularly teachers owing allegiance to the ruling combine," says Ashok Maiti, general secretary of the West Bengal Headmasters Association. "Every school should form a separate committee that will identify teachers who accord corporal punishment. The school should take action against the teachers. Under no circumstance can the teacher use the rod," said Dipak Das, general secretary of West Bengal Government School Teachers Association.

Impact of Corporal Punishment on School Children - a research study conducted by Saath Charitable Trust, sponsored by Plan International (India), New Delhi, points out that corporal punishment is an accepted way of life in schools and at homes. Almost all teachers and parents covered under the study openly accepted that they physically punished children. Many argued that it was difficult to discipline children without subjecting them to physical punishment.

The team reports that in every school they visited to collect data for the study, they found that the teachers either carried a stick or kept one somewhere in the classrooms. Common forms of physical punishment include, (i) hitting with the hand or with a stick, (ii) pulling by the hair of by the ears, (iii) asking children to stand for long periods in various positions, (iv) making them stand on the bench, (v) caning and pinching, (vi) making them kneel outside the class and enter class only after they had finished their work, (vii) making them keep their school bags on their heads, etc. etc. The incidence of such punishment is not only common but also quite frequent. The report goes on to say that some of the senior teachers repented their use of the rod.

The Department of Women and Child Welfare's Study on Child Abuse, India, 2007 observes that 65 per cent of school-going children in the country have been bashed up in school by their teachers. 85 per cent of children victimized by corporal punishment in schools in West Bengal study in government schools. The storm created immediately after the event dies down, allowing the guilty teacher to go scot-free and even go back to the school while the grieving parents continue to shed tears not only over the death of their children, but also for not being able to get justice for the death of innocents.