GELSENKIRCHEN - It was just a few days before summer break that nine-year-old Lisa Bahlhaus (not her real name) came home in tears. The teacher had announced that after the school holidays the whole class would be presenting a play, and she’d assigned roles. Of all the kids, only Lisa didn’t get a role.
The teacher also made this announcement to the class: Lisa wouldn’t be returning in the fall, as she would be going to a special needs school. To Lisa and her classmates that meant just one thing, and Lisa expressed it to her mother this way: "I’m stupid anyway, Mom, but now I have to go to a school for stupid kids."
A few weeks before, the teacher had put a note about Lisa having special learning needs in the child’s official school records. Translated, the note’s mumbo-jumbo of politically correct wording boiled down to this: Lisa is disabled.
And yet Lisa’s parents have a medical certificate saying that Lisa is not disabled. The certificate says that Lisa suffers from Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Syndrome (ADHS). "The teacher just wanted to get Lisa out of her classroom," says Lisa’s father.
Lisa Bahlhaus’s case could of course be unique – a regrettable mistake on the part of the teacher and school authorities. After all, an official policy of integration and inclusion in German schools has been operative for the past three years following Germany’s signing of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which became binding in Germany in March 2009.
The Convention says that every human being, disabled or not, has a right to share all areas of life. In German schools, that meant that some 500,000 special needs children were to be integrated into the regular curriculum that would be adjusted accordingly.
But what’s going on in many places in Germany right now is exactly the opposite: children with learning difficulties, who are prone to out-of-the-ordinary emotional displays, or have trouble sitting quietly in their chair, are increasingly being described on their school records as disabled and being shunted off to special needs schools.
Bad at math, or disabled?
Lawyers specializing in education law report that since the UN Convention became binding in Germany they have been, with noticeably increased frequency, consulted by parents facing this problem – parents whose kids have been told by their teachers they need to go to a special needs school. And yet often the child in question may just be bad at math, or, like Lisa, suffer from ADHS.
Some sort of alliance between teachers in regular schools who are feeling out of their depth, and the 3,300 special needs schools in Germany that seek to compensate for demographic problems by actively recruiting, apparently underlies the phenomenon. Hubert Hüppe, the German federal government’s commissioner for the disabled, believes that it is possible that some schools shunt “problematic children” off in this way. "A particularly emotional child, or a child who keeps running through the classroom, obviously requires a different approach from the teacher. And some of them apparently can’t deal with it." Observers say they have seen the way this dynamic plays out.
"What has increased particularly are the numbers of cases in which schools attempt to pigeonhole kids either as having learning disabilities or as suffering from social and emotional problems," says Andreas Zoller, a lawyer specializing in education law who has been hired by Lisa’s parents.
A decentralized education policy
That this is even possible, three years after the UN Convention became binding in Germany, is down to German federalism. The states, not the federal government, determine what happens in schools – and when the federal government decides that the 9.6 million disabled Germans can no longer be excluded, this is not to say that the states are going to incorporate that into their education policies.
The state of North Rhine-Westphalia is currently in the process of drafting inclusion legislation, but it won’t be approved until the end of the year, and a great deal of time will doubtlessly elapse before the legislation actually goes into force.
In Gelsenkirchen, Peter Bahlhaus, Lisa’s father, shifts around nervously on his garden chair. The Bahlhaus family lives in a small, well-maintained terraced house at the edge of the city. They have four children, all girls; Lisa is the second youngest. Lisa had problems in her class from the beginning, Bahlhaus says. She didn’t integrate well, in fact, she often felt disturbed by other children. And then one day, he noticed that there was a difference between the homework Lisa was given to do and what the other kids were doing in class: "Her homework was asking her to add four and five, but in class they were multiplying four times five. So obviously she got bad grades."
Special needs schools need students
Bahlhaus takes a sheaf of papers out of his file, including a written request by Lisa’s teacher to school authorities to have the child transferred to a special needs school. The teacher mentions an attitude of denial, a lack of ability to concentrate; she also says Lisa has a tendency to mix up letters. "The quantity of material to be learned was cut back, and after talking with Lisa’s mother it was agreed that we would adapt German and math to a level Lisa could handle."
Lisa’s parents say this is a lie. The teacher never spoke with them about Lisa being on a slower learning track than the other kids. The news that Lisa had learning difficulties thus came totally out of the blue for them -- and they are particularly disturbed because what’s in the records could have life-long consequences for Lisa including her not being able to get on the track through high school that would make it possible for her to attend university.
Lisa’s dad pulls another document from his file – eight pages on which Lisa’s teacher’s evaluation is essentially backed up by the head of a local special needs school. He suggests that Lisa should come to his school, which is not surprising as schools like his need more students or else they will be shut down.
For Lisa Bahlhaus, the little girl who supposedly can’t sit still in her chair and doesn’t grasp her pencil in a firm grip, the ordeal continues. Zoller won her the right to stay where she is for now, so she doesn’t have to go to a special needs school this fall – but she has to make up as quickly as possible what she missed because the teacher didn’t think she could learn it, and that’s 110 pages in the math text book.
And Zoller’s win is only an interim solution. At the end of the year, school authorities will once again tackle the issue of whether or not Lisa can stay in her school. Her parents are skeptical; they don’t think the teacher will accept keeping the child in her class long-term. “It would mean admitting she was wrong,” says Lisa’s mother.
Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?
BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.
The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.
This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.
Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.
"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.
Can you trust environmental officials?
For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.
This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.
It could have sunk because of the rain.
After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.
The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.
"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.
"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.
Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water
A questionable claim
That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.
"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.
He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."
Living in pollution
The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.
"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.
He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.
The mining work should have been stopped long ago
Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.
The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.
In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.
The mine has affected the landscape around the villages
Resisting lignite mining
The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.
The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.
They were dependent on others' land for work.
Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.
In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.
The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.
"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.