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India Sets Weight Limits On Students' Backpacks

Aug 13, 2019
Originally published on August 13, 2019 5:29 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Imagine this - you're going to school, and you hear that the government has banned homework. Wouldn't that be the best day ever? Well, it actually happened in India. The government said there would be no homework for students in grades one and two. The reason - heavy school bags. Sushmita Pathak has this report from Mumbai.

SUSHMITA PATHAK, BYLINE: It's late afternoon in Mumbai, almost the end of the school day, and Swati Patil is waiting outside the building. She pulls out a weighing scale from her bag and places it on the ground. She's an activist, and she's here to weigh kids' backpacks. Her first candidate is a shy seventh-grader wearing a red hairband. Patil asks the girl to step on the scale, first without her backpack. She weighs 31 kilos. But with her backpack on...

SWATI PATIL: Thirty-seven.

PATHAK: ...She weighs 37 kilos. That's six kilos, or about 13 pounds, that she's carrying on her back. That's illegal according to rules passed by the Indian government in November.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Well, in breaking news coming in, the government has restricted the weight of school bags for children.

PATHAK: The government set weight limits for backpacks depending on the students' age and scrapped homework altogether for some of the younger kids. One survey estimates that the vast majority of 7 to 13-year-olds in India carry backpacks weighing nearly half their body weight.

SHREEDHAR ARCHIK: Yeah, sometimes they're so heavy that you can see kids actually falling backwards. It's just ridiculous.

PATHAK: Dr. Shreedhar Archik is an orthopedic surgeon in Mumbai. He has treated school kids who suffered slipped discs from carrying heavy backpacks. That's what Swati Patil, the activist, is worried about.

PATIL: (Speaking Marathi).

PATHAK: She started her campaign a few years ago after discovering that her skinny sixth-grade son was carrying a 15-pound school bag. It prompted her to file a court petition, which she plans to take to India's Supreme Court in September. Over the years, Indian authorities have ordered schools to limit backpacks to 10% of a child's body weight. They've done surprise inspections, but Patil says the rules remain largely unenforced. The burden on children is still there.

PATIL: (Speaking Marathi).

PATHAK: These young children are the future of our country, she says. If their health is at risk, how will our nation progress?

VISHNU KUMAR CHHEDA: My name is Vishnu Kumar Chheda. I am 10.

PATHAK: Fifth-grader Vishnu recently moved from Ohio to Mumbai. He's adjusting to a lot of big changes, including carrying a 22-pound schoolbag. Back in the U.S., most of his books were on an iPad, he says.

VISHNU: But in India, we have textbooks, a lot, a lot of textbooks.

PATHAK: The issue of heavy backpacks isn't specific to India, but the lack of digital learning here makes it worse. Francis Joseph runs an education nonprofit in Mumbai. He says publishers keep churning out more and more books for parents to buy and children to carry.

FRANCIS JOSEPH: The additional material, additional worksheets, so that is just growing on and on because they are competing in the market. Now, they forget that this is all adding on to the weight.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORNS BEEPING)

PATHAK: Back in central Mumbai, Patil approaches a group of young kids to check how much their backpacks weigh.

(Speaking Marathi).

ARYA: Arya.

PATHAK: (Speaking Marathi).

ARYA: Second.

PATHAK: Second-grader Arya has just finished school and is going home with her mom. Her bright pink bag is nine pounds, one-quarter of her own weight. It's too heavy for her, so her mom ends up having to carry it. For NPR News, I'm Sushmita Pathak in Mumbai.

(SOUNDBITE OF EDAMAME'S "MARAYA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.