Innocent chatter and pranks, part of every child's school life, are just not acceptable at zilla parishad (district level) school, Loni Khand, about 30 kilometres from Pune. In a first-of-its-kind move, the school has installed Closed Circuit TV (CCTV) cameras in all its classrooms to keep an eye on the students.
So, when seven-year-old Atharva Kshirsagar's teacher steps out after giving the class an assignment, Atharva resists the temptation to lean over and chat with his mate and instead quietly completes his work. For, even before he can utter a word, a voice booms out from the speakers in the classroom commanding all students to get to work.
Of course, Atharva is just one of the many children who are at the receiving end of such instructions. The school authorities believe that the presence of cameras helps in maintaining discipline. Says G.R. Zurunge, the principal, "The main reason for installing closed circuit cameras in the classes is that there are more than 40 students in each class and it is difficult for one teacher to control so many students."
Strangely, while most zilla parishad schools in the state are battling with a shortage of competent teachers and inadequate infrastructure, the school at Loni Khand seems to be catching up with some of its pricey private counterparts, as is evident by the installation of CCTV cameras.
The system was installed in January this year with financial support from some local politicians. All the 10 classrooms in the school have cameras and they are connected to the principal's room, from where Zurunge monitors the operations. Any signs of "indiscipline" are quickly quashed with a reprimand over the public address system present in each classroom.
However, this move has not gone down well with educationists and experts. Enforcing discipline thus, they claim, is authoritarian and almost akin to keeping the children in a prison. While there is no denying that technology has its merits, using cameras in schools is tantamount to invasion of privacy.
"The children will be affected by the constant electronic watch on them. At times they may show signs of high-energy playful behavior, but there may also be times - away from the cameras - when they burst out at a fellow student in anger. This kind of pressure on children is only going to harm them," says Dr Namita Singh, a clinical psychologist based in Pune. She says that cameras "can only be a safety measure to avoid some accidental situation, if proper monitoring is done and the personnel handling the cameras are well trained".
Dr Singh also suggests a different approach to handling children in school. "In order to control students, instead of opting for CCTVs, the school should go in for giving better salaries and perks to teachers and also providing them with training on child development so that they are equipped to handle the pressure," she says.
Some time ago, filmmaker Avinash Deshpande had made a documentary film, 'The Great Indian School Show', on a school in Nagpur that was using cameras to track its students and staff. The film triggered a heated debate among the community at large and even the National Council for Education Research and Training (NCERT) had expressed its displeasure at such a system of surveillance.
Despite the fierce opposition, Zurunge claims the system is working to the school's advantage. "I would say it has made a 75 per cent difference. Though the cameras are mainly to keep an eye on the students, I have observed that even teachers pay close attention to the students in the class, while the students are always on their guard, as they know that somebody is watching them. The difference is specially visible in smaller classes like Class I and Class II," he says.
He also insists that the parents are very happy with this system as they can come and see what exactly their children are doing in class. "The system also helps us to closely monitor the progress of children with learning disabilities and other handicaps," he says.
Even though Zurunge has been constantly highlighting the positive aspects of installing the CCTV cameras, experts and psychologists believe it will have a negative impact on the students. Seems like they will have to learn to cope with the uncomfortable reality of being under constant surveillance.