BANDUNG, West Java: Dressed in their red-and-white uniform, 58 students assembled in the courtyard of Public Elementary School No 29 in Bandung's sub-district of Cilengkrang.
Minutes before, a pickup truck from the Bandung Agriculture Agency arrived, delivering a sack of rice hulls and a cardboard box full of seven-day-old chicks, meant to be handed out to the fourth graders.
The students seemed enthusiastic, bringing along cardboard boxes which are meant to be the chicks’ makeshift coops.
But their enthusiasm appeared to wane once an official from the agency took the microphone and explained the various steps needed to raise a chick. Bored and confused, some of the students began talking and joking among themselves.
The programme aimed at weaning children off their smartphones has sparked controversy, with detractors saying it carries risks for both the children and animals.
The authorities, however, argue that the initiative will teach children about discipline as well as science.
In an interview with CNA, Bandung Mayor Oded Muhammad Danial said the chickenisation programme does more than battling cell phone addiction.
“This is not just about stopping children from getting addicted to gadgets. We want to build children’s character so they will have discipline, a love for the environment and teamwork,” he said.
WHAT IT TAKES TO RAISE A CHICK
Since Nov 21, the agency has handed out 1,500 chicks to elementary and junior high school children across Bandung in a programme named “chickenisation”. Elementary School 29 was the last school in the programme’s trial run.
According to the agriculture officials present at Elementary School 29, a chick must be kept away from extreme heat of the sun as well as rain.
They also told the fourth graders that the coops must be cleaned regularly so bacteria wouldn’t grow and the chicks must be protected from predators.
Chicks must also be given a special feed called the starter mix before they are old enough to feed on leftover rice.
The officials then went on to explain how to modify empty water bottles so they can serve as containers for the chicken feed and water, as well as the importance of maintaining the water’s pH level.
So far, only 10 elementary and two junior high schools participated in the programme, Bandung Agriculture Agency chief Mr Gin Gin Ginanjar told CNA.
"We will wait and see until the chicks are fully grown, which can take between three to four months. If the trial run is successful we will implement it to all elementary and junior high schools in Bandung,” said Mr Ginanjar.
The city has 273 elementary schools and 67 junior high schools.
Mr Ginanjar said that all chicks given to students have gone through a selection process to ensure safety.
“For a start, we only use local chicken breed which is more resilient to our climate and weather. All of the chicks handed out to students have been vaccinated and we only handed out chicks which are seven days old, which is way past their vulnerable stage.”
The programme was conceived amid growing concerns among Bandung parents about the hazards of cell phone addiction among children.
On Oct 10, the head of the West Java Psychiatric Hospital, Dr Elly Marliyani revealed in a seminar in Bandung that her hospital has been treating children suffering from cell phone and online games addiction. Some were as young as five.
The children, the doctor told those at the seminar, were admitted by their parents because they had been throwing tantrums when their cell phones were taken away from them, resulting in damaged household items and sometimes physical assault on their parents.
The doctor did not elaborate on how many children the hospital had been treating and how prevalent the problem was. But Dr Marliyani’s presentation, which was widely reported by local media, prompted parents to put pressure on the city government to act on the findings.
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Activists and experts say the programme may result in pet abandonment and affect public health.
Education and parenting expert, Mdm Yanti Sri Yulianti told CNA: “The Bandung government is not using common sense when they introduced this chickenisation programme.
“Children have different interests and needs. When the programme is in full swing, what will happen to the students who are not interested in raising chicks? What then will happen to these living creatures?”
She said the programme is more suited to rural areas across Indonesia and not a city of 2.4 million inhabitants.
“Bandung is a city with a dense population. What about the risk of an avian flu outbreak? When you put the chicken in a classroom or at home, children will be more exposed to possible infection.”
Studies have shown that chicken faeces can sometimes carry E. coli and different strains of salmonella, transforming schools or homes that keep chicks into a potential breeding ground for these pathogens.
“When a child is not interested but forced to do it, that will already be a burden for the child psychologically and socially. If the chick dies under the child’s care, the child would feel like a failure. The programme is creating more problems than it solves,” she argued.
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Mdm Yulianti said there are more effective ways to address mobile phone addiction.
“The root cause (of cell phone addiction among children) is negligent parents. The priority should be educating parents about the dangers of letting their children spend too much time on their phones,” she said.
“If the goal is to teach responsibilities, discipline and get children to spend time away from their phones, why not devise a programme which doesn’t carry so many health risks and side effects? Why not sports, art or gardening?”
She added: “(The government) should have started by asking children what their interests are and devised programmes which suit their interests and needs and still teach the same values."
Meanwhile, Mdm Herlina Agustin from animal rights group ProFauna Indonesia questioned whether the programme is suitable for all children.
“It takes many skills and knowledge to raise a chicken. Not everyone is born to be a farmer. Not everyone is born to be an animal lover and have pets,” she told CNA.
“Chicks are vulnerable to disease, weather changes and people’s behaviour. Chicks are vulnerable to stress. They are after all separated from their mothers,” Mdm Agustin continued.
“Will these children have the discipline to feed and clean their cages? A few may be interested in raising chicks at first. But will they be able to retain their interests? Raising a chick is not as simple as repurposing an old cardboard box and giving them leftover rice once in a while.”
The animal rights activist also expressed concern that many of the chicks handed out will die. “But at what percentage, we still don’t know yet,” Mdm Agustin said.
The programme has also attracted the attention of international animal rights group. For instance, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has criticised the programme as being “reckless and wrong".
MAYOR DOWNPLAYS CRITICISM
The authorities have defended the initiative.
“Chickenisation is part of a bigger programme formulated by the Bandung government ... There is also an educational aspect to it," said Mr Danial, the mayor.
"This is some kind of a science project for them. So it is not only to preoccupy them (and draw their attention) away from gadgets. There is a much bigger goal to achieve.”
It appears nostalgia may be why Mr Danial chose chicks for the programme.
“Why chicken? I grew up in a village. Growing up, my grandfather would make a contest involving myself, my brothers and my cousins to see who can raise chickens the best. We got presents based on whose chickens can produce the most offspring,” he recounted.
“And there are many benefits to raising chickens. The easiest and cheapest meat to produce is chicken meat. A chick is worth 7,000 rupiah (US$0.50) and in three months that chicken will be worth 20,000-25,000 rupiah. So there is an economic benefit as well.”
The mayor also downplayed the risk of infection or outbreak.
“Infection spreads more easily in a farm with thousands of chicken. This is for education not commercial (purposes)," said Mr Danial.
"Even I would object if there is a chicken farm in the middle of Bandung. I don’t think there will be many objections if you raise one or two chickens in your backyard.”
TEACHERS TO KEEP IN CLOSE TOUCH WITH AGRICULTURE OFFICIALS
The principal of Elementary School 29, Mdm Hasanah, said teachers at her school will keep in close touch with officials from the agriculture agency.
“Most of our teachers grew up in the villages, so they too know how to raise chickens and can easily transfer their knowledge to our students. We were also briefed by agency officials before the handout and they promised to help should we require further assistance,” said the principal, who goes by one name.
She added that students will not be judged on whether their chicks survive.
“The most important thing is for students to keep an eye on their animals and write down their observation on their observation sheets ... It’s a good way to teach them about responsibility, discipline, cooperation and love towards animals.”
Dr Vicce Kinanti of the Indonesian Veterinarian Association said to minimise the risk of infections multiple vaccinations are needed throughout the life cycle.
“We have to make sure that the chickens are continuously vaccinated. The government needs to check on the chickens’ well being regularly and the students need to be reminded that they must alert their teachers if their chicks look unwell,” she told CNA.
What do the students think about all this?
Ten-year-old Muhammad Rifky said he is excited. “I will keep it in my front porch. I will feed it regularly and raise it until it is big and strong,” the fourth-grader told CNA.
When asked if the chick would keep him away from playing online games, he replied: “No ... Games are way more fun”.