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The Uncomfortable Truth About The Indian Education System That Statistics Wouldn’t Show!

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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 façade 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.

You must be to comment.
  1. balayogi

    very well written

  2. gagandeep

    Main problem exist at home. at home parents only want from their children to score high and dont want to know that whether their child know anything or not. I still dont know why everyone is runing for marks and gettin higher grades . when i had talk with the high grade students they even dont know about basics. first step is basics that only can be get from the skilled teachers

    1. cham

      because that is what the market forces demand.

  3. Mousumi

    Very well written Astha! Thank you! “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.”

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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