By Astha Agrawal:
In the winters of 2012, I went to teach English to adolescent girls of class 7 and 8 in a poor locality of West Delhi. What shocked me most was their inability to read or write – even words, let alone sentences — in any language. In a dictation on parts of a tree, they couldn’t even get the spelling of tree right! If they were neglected in the heart of India, the industrialized/urbanised Delhi, what would be the condition elsewhere, in small towns and villages? It was then that the faÃ§ade of literacy hit my head and heart.
There are myriad things wrong with the current state of education in India, both in terms of values (of competition) and skills (ability to clear exams) that are unfortunately celebrated and imparted. The content of education is deeply questionable. It agreeably begs a systemic overhaul, but the most problematic part of this story is a conspicuous absence of those who could hold a pen to write and a paper to read. We haven’t got the first brick right. At most sites, either proper school buildings do not exist, or exist to collapse, teachers are absent or de-motivated, untrained and unqualified (many a times, unpaid or underpaid); a wonderful but not-so-difficult-to-manage mid-day meal scheme is rendered dysfunctional (to the extent of being fatal!). All of this gets worse for children with disability and those belonging to so-called ‘lower‘ castes, and girls. The harrowing (and this is also why there is hope and scope that it can improve) fact is that none of this is unpreventable. The least that is required is non-dereliction and observance of duties at all levels from foot soldiers to decision makers! Abolition of child labour, universal education, child nourishment, and poverty are intrinsically linked to an extent that it demands a strong-willed integrated programme.
Nevertheless, complexity of the problem, and hence the intervention, shouldn’t deter anyone from taking the first step. The hardware has to be put in place! Ensure that teachers come to class, and teach. That they undergo regular training, and are paid properly. That the mid-day meal (with its nutrition intact and not poisoned) is served in true spirit. That a basic structure which one calls ‘school’ is present.
Public Report on Basic Education in India (1998) revealed that 260 million ‘literates’ cannot read and write. As of now the literacy rate is 74%, implying that there are miles to walk before we reach the millennium development goal of ‘education for all’ by 2015. The number is more math than merit. It is not good news for those enticed by the demographic dividend of India. The much celebrated boom shall turn into bust in no time if the young and hopeful are doomed to the darkness of illiteracy. It is not a case for growth or economic development. Neither is it for productivity nor for the enhancement of human ‘resource’ (it is bad news for all of them, though). It is a case for fundamental freedom. To be not able to read and write my name, in the 21st century, challenges the core of my existence. Each one of us deserves to functionally be a literate, not because I could be put to use to hike HDIs and GDPs, but because wielding a pen yields me freedom.
Considering that a majority of people in this country are poor, a retreat of the state from education transforming the public good into a commodity is catastrophic. There is no reason to believe that government schools cannot perform better. Many governments all over the world run successful school-system. State-run universities (DU and JNU for example) and institutes (IITs, IIMs, AIIMS, NIFTs and so on) in India are definitely preferred over private ones. Ever wondered how Kendriya Vidyalaya’s (which are also state run) manage to deliver? The point is that social justice and distribution cannot be expected from the market. Education as a right holds no meaning if it has to be bought in the market. Once again, the obsession with numbers has put us on a wrong track which doesn’t lead to enhancement of human lives. Numbers can only be anchors, not goals in themselves. The shameful irony, however, is that even in numbers India is dismal. For instance, in the PISA Plus survey of 74 economies conducted in 2009, India was one of the worst performers despite the fact that the two states evaluated — Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh — are amongst the better few we have.
Now, before we blame it all on an ignominiously inefficient government (not denying that the sheer abdication of responsibility is highly condemnable and contemptuous), lets introspect. How vocal have we been in taking on the challenge of illiteracy? It is no secret that child labour is rampant and kicking! How many times have we turned our crying (or ossified) conscience away from children employed at worksites and homes? How many times have we ensured that they went to schools? (We can do a lot more than we think we can) Education, constitutionally, is a fundamental right. However, upholding it is also a social responsibility. Make it a personal question. Let’s make it real.