New Delhi: A children’s poem in Class 1 Hindi textbooks published by the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) has been the subject of criticism on social media.
The poem ‘Aam ki tokri’ uses the word ‘chhokri’ (a non-derogatory slang term for girl) to talk about a six-year-old girl carrying a basket of mangoes over her head, apparently to sell them. The theme has also been criticised for ‘promoting child labour’.
It was first shared Thursday by Awanish Sharan, a 2009 batch Chhattisgarh cadre IAS officer, who works in the state’s technical education department. Sharing a screenshot of the poem from the textbook, he called the literature low quality, questioned the credibility of the poet, and asked authorities to remove it from the syllabus.
ये किस ‘सड़क छाप’ कवि की रचना है ?? कृपया इस पाठ को पाठ्यपुस्तक से बाहर करें. pic.twitter.com/yhCub3AVPR
— Awanish Sharan (@AwanishSharan) May 20, 2021
Other Twitter users were quick to pick up on the tweet and started questioning the poem and the NCERT for including it in the syllabus. “This is giving rise to child labour,” said one user.
ये बाल मजदूरी को भी बढ़ावा दे रहा है। https://t.co/U02QIH87yO
— मै भी अम्बेडकर (@villageBahujan) May 20, 2021
Another user expressed shock that children are being taught such poems in schools.
— Abhilasha Rajan (@abhilasha789) May 20, 2021
The poem ‘Aam ki tokri’ has been written by an Uttarakhand-based poet Ramkrishna Sharma Khadder, who pens children’s literature, and it has been part of the NCERT textbook Rimjhim since 2006.
Underneath the poem, on the same page, the publishers have listed additional exercises for the students, asking teachers to talk to them about child labour. “Ask children whether they know any such kids who sell things in the market and if they go to school? If they do not go to school, then how can the children help them get admission in schools?” the book recommends.
It also clearly states: “The girl in the picture is acting like she’s selling mangoes. Ask children to mimic eating different things like mangoes, lemons, bananas, sugarcane, peanuts, apples and medicine tablets in the class.”
A day after the controversy erupted, the NCERT made a public statement, saying that the poem was included according to the National Curriculum Framework (NCF), 2005, with an objective to expose children to vocabulary of local languages. It also added that the NCF is now being revised according to the new National Education Policy, 2020.
“With reference to inclusion of poems in NCERT textbooks: It is to state that, in consonance with NCF-2005 perspective and with an objective to provide children an exposure to vocabulary of local languages, these poems were included at that time,” the NCERT tweeted.
With reference to inclusion of poems in NCERT textbooks: It is to state that, "in consonance with NCF-2005 perspective and with an objective to provide children an exposure to vocabulary of local languages, these poems were included at that time.
— NCERT (@ncert) May 21, 2021
“In the light of NEP-2020, the process of new NCF has already been initiated. New textbooks will be developed based on the principles of NEP and recommendations of new NCF thereafter,” it added.
Experts divided on ‘chhokri’ use, child labour
Not many reviews or criticisms of the poem are available online, and the few that are there do not see the use of words like chhokri and the representation of a young girl carrying fruits as problematic.
One such review by one Manohar Chamoli ‘Manu’, a teacher who is also from Uttarakhand and works on children’s literature, says the poem and its composition has been designed specifically to teach children the sound of ‘aa’ and ‘ka’ in Hindi. Other sounds and syllables like ‘na’, ‘ma’, ‘ae’ etc. have already been covered in chapters before this one.
The review adds that the poem can make children think about street kids who sell fruits, snacks and other paraphernalia; kids who do not go to school and are “different than them”.
On the usage of the word ‘chhokri’, often considered a cheap way of addressing a girl, Chamoli says: “Why take objection on the usage of the word… A word is just a sound in fact… Many words that seem like a curse word in one language are proper usage in other languages.”
ThePrint spoke to one current and one former NCERT official, both closely associated with the books division, and both said the controversy is “uncalled for”.
“I do not see anything problematic with the poem. It’s meant to teach children syllables and use of Hindi alphabets; the controversy is uncalled for,” said the current official.
A detailed text message sent to former NCERT director Hrushikesh Senapaty did not get a response till the time of publishing this report.
ThePrint also approached the media division of NCERT through an email, but did not get a reply. This report will be updated if a response if received.
However, others such as renowned Hindi poet and former Lalit Kala Akademi chairman Ashok Vajpeyi said “more attention should be paid to what is being taught to children in classrooms”.
“About the word ‘chhokri’, per say, I do not have a problem, because it is not used in a negative manner; it’s often used in an affectionate manner in Hindi. But about the depiction of a six-year old selling mangoes, I must say it can hurt people’s sensitivities. Everyone is aware about the ills of child-labour now, so the poem can give that kind of a meaning, hence the authorities should be more careful of what they include in the syllabus,” Vajpeyi told ThePrint.
He added that if the poem is still being taught, teachers should be more careful and explain the nuances of child labour to children and make them aware of its ills.
Meanwhile, Sushil Shukla, director of Ektara Bal Sahitya Kendra, a centre for children’s art and literature in Bhopal, said the criticism is coming from people who do not understand literature and its nuances. Shukla has worked extensively on children’s literature in Hindi and has also been a part of NCERT committee on Hindi books for children.
“People who do not understand literature say things like that. Hindi language has various forms, and I do not think the word chhokri is bad. The word chhori has also been used by Surdas in his poetry for Lord Krishna and Radha. Will you then call Surdas an amateur?” he told ThePrint.
On the issue of the poem purportedly promoting child labour, Shukla said: “In my opinion, the poet is talking about a girl who is playing with a basket of mangoes, she is not selling them, because the poet also says ‘nahi batati daam hai’ (she is not telling the price of the mangoes). It is good to be aware about child labour, but this is not the correct way to raise awareness on the topic. This poem has been targeted for a long time and I think it’s totally unnecessary.”
This report has been updated with NCERT’s statement, and to reflect that Hrushikesh Senapaty is a former director of the council.
(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)