Odisha has set a new and exemplary trend. The government authorities in Ganjam district in the south have declared that Saturdays will be “no bag days” for students in government schools up to Class 5. The initiative is being tried on an experimental basis.

A perceptive student of Mahatma Gandhi’s collected works would unmistakably find that this is a step towards fulfilling Gandhi’s vision. Advocacy for including “non-violence” in the Preamble to the Constitution has also been made in the state, on the occasion of Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary.

Gandhi deeply regretted the heavy pressure of textbooks on school students pursuing education. On September 9, 1939 he wrote a piece on ‘Text Books’ in Harijan. Critically observing that “The craze for ever-changing text books is hardly a healthy sign from the educational standpoint” he noted “It is a pathetic sight to see boys and girls going to school loaded with books which they are ill able to carry. The whole system requires to be thoroughly examined.”

No-bag day is also a step towards the vision of celebrated writer R.K.Narayan, who passionately wanted to lessen the burden of schoolbags for children. For several decades now the issue of heavy schoolbags has agitated the minds of educationists and all those striving for students’ balanced development of heart, head and health.

In the late 1980s Narayan, as a nominated Member of the Rajya Sabha, made a Special Mention on heavy bags for schoolchildren on the floor of the House. He observed, “The hardship starts right at home when straight from bed the child is pulled out and got ready for school even before his faculties are awake. He or she is groomed and stuffed into a uniform and packed off with a loaded bag on her back. School bag has become an inevitable burden for the child.

“I am now pleading for abolition of the school bag by an ordinance, if necessary. I have investigated and found that an average child carries strapped to his back like a pack-mule, not less than 6-8 kg. of books, notebooks and other paraphernalia of modern education in addition to lunch box and water bottle.

“More children on account of this daily burden develop a stoop and hang their arms forward like a chimpanzee while walking and I know some cases of serious spinal injuries in children too…

“It is a cruel harsh life imposed on her and I present her case before this House and the Hon’ble members to think over and devise a remedy by changing the whole educational system and outlook so that childhood has a chance to bloom.”

After that sensitive Special Mention by the Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha said, “The entire House associates with Mr R.K.Narayan and I feel that whole of the country will notice it and the government will take note of it.”

Narayan’s indicting observation that “School bag has become an inevitable burden for the child” and his plea “for abolition of the school bag by an ordinance” brought out the sense of urgency in dealing with this substantive and symbolic problem.

The no bag day for school students introduced in Ganjam district is a positive step. By also teaching them sports and play and other extracurricular activites such as drills and manual work for the growth of their body and mind, a trendsetting measure has been taken that is worth expanding to the national level.

S.N.Sahu served as officer on special duty and press secretary to President of India the late K.R.Narayanan, and was director in the Prime Minister's Office and joint secretary in the Rajya Sabha Secretariat.

Cover image: R.K.Laxman