By Nijam Gara:
Whether we like it or not, globalisation is here to stay and English is the lingua franca. The Colonial reach of the imperial British Empire of the 19th and 20th centuries that extended across all continents made sure that English rules the lives of people all over the world today. Thus, it is obvious that an English educated population will be the biggest strength of a ‘developing’ country such as India.
So what is the state of affairs concerning English education in India?
A Right to Education bill was passed by the Indian government in 2009. According to the 2014 Annual State of Education Report (ASER-rural), among 200.8 million children in the 6-13 age-group in India, 190.9 million are enrolled in schools (~96% enrollment). Among these, about 31% go to private schools and with the addition of government school kids going to private tuitions, this number shoots up to 50% in several states. The report also highlights that between 2007 and 2013, enrollment in government schools (Class I-VIII) fell from 133.7 million to 121 million while private school enrollment shot up from 51 to 78 million. That is a 77% increase in private school enrollment over 6 years. These figures expose the elephant in the room – it is the penchant for English education even among the poor and rural Indians that is driving the divide between the government and private schools. We all know that there are hardly any private regional language (including Hindi) schools. So why are the government schools in India still predominantly teaching in a medium that the population seems to disown?
Successive governments, even in the post-globalisation era have consciously chosen to ignore the need to catch up with the public’s aspirations when it comes to English education. Though none of the elected representatives and officials would send their kids to non-English schools, they made sure that government schools do not provide kids the ‘right’ to education in English. Then what good is such a ‘right’ in this fast-paced world today? Hapless working-class parents break their backs to send their kids to English schools in the private sector that loot them and yet provide sub-standard education. This is glaringly evident by the fact that only 47% of Class VIII students in the country can read an easy sentence in English. Thus, the poor are cheated twice!
While our leaders are busy thumping their 56-inch chests over issues such as ‘Make in India’ and ‘Startup India’ with a narrow focus on financial capital, whose responsibility is it to build the much needed human capital of the country? Can governments wash their hands clean of basic issues such as education and health and leave vast sections of the country to the mercy of the private sector? The irony is that the quintessential capitalist nation of the world, the USA, has a robust public education system at the school level while our embrace of capitalism is only driving our leaders away from investing in our kids’ education. Perhaps our leaders don’t want an English educated citizenry that might then tap into the wealth of knowledge, through sources like the internet, and become unresponsive to the currency notes that they dangle in front of them come election time. Just imagine what an impact Rohith Vemula’s death would have had if only the masses he so passionately loved could understand his painstakingly written indictment of caste in English. The entire country would have erupted, and not just social media and university campuses.
If only our workers and daily-wage labourers were English-educated since their primary schooling, they would not have become victims of human trafficking in the Gulf countries. Better yet they might have had a fair shot at a better life than to a hand-to-mouth existence. Heck, they may have known better than to keep a political dynasty alive for almost 100 years or vote a regime with fascist tendencies into power with an overwhelming majority. While the governments have to take the blame, what about our ‘civil’ society? Thousands march on the streets against corruption but nobody fights for equality of educational opportunity. They all want the abolition of reservations while ignoring the systemic imbalance that forces millions of Dalit, Muslim, tribal and OBC kids to languish in regional language government schools across the country. The ‘civil’ society wants a vast non-English educated ‘underbelly’ so that they have a steady stream of gullible maids, farm hands, vegetable vendors, etc., while their ilk seek greener pastures overseas with the help of their English education!
It is high-time the west-leaning, capitalist-embracing 21st-century government of India adopt universal English education in all state-owned schools. That will then be the single best tool that our country can provide its citizens to fare better in a global ‘village’ – perhaps more powerful than millions doled out in meaningless welfare measures that never reach them. And for all the naysayers out there, this does not necessarily translate into dumping our culture, tradition, etc. Our regional languages can still be taught and promoted through various platforms, just not as primary languages in schools. While the logistics of universalizing English education in government schools will certainly be staggering, that by no means should be a deterrent. As they say, a journey of thousand miles begins with a single step.