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The Illusion Of Education: Literacy In Rural india

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What if I tell you that India has the world’s largest youth population? What if I also tell you that less than half of our students in class 8 can solve a division problem, and that barely 47% of children in class 5 can read a class 2-level text?

Our students have been caught in the clutches of the government’s ignorance. Someone once rightly said that most ignorance is ‘vincible ignorance’. We don’t know because we don’t want to know – and people don’t want to hear the truth, because they don’t want their illusions destroyed. However, to secure India’s future, providing a better education to its youth is imperative.

I believe that only education can fundamentally change the present situation. It can help make people independent because all the wealth in the world cannot help our people unless they are not taught to help themselves. All they need is some moral and intellectual support to stand on their own feet. However, all efforts till now seem to have been futile. India’s adult literacy rate has only gone up from 61% to 69.3% in 10 years from 2001 to 2011. 

The Gross Enrollment Ratio is a yardstick used in the education sector to determine the number of students enrolled in schools at different levels. It is the ratio of the number of students who live in that country to those who qualify for a particular grade.

Gross Enrollment Ratio (2014-2015)

Source: MHRD

(The GER can be over 100% as it includes students who may be older or younger than the official age group. For instance, the GER includes students who are repeating a grade.)

The GER up to the elementary level is appreciable, but why is it that 27% of children in class 8 cannot read a class 2-level text and 57% students cannot do simple division problem? In such a case, how is a child (who’s unable to read and do simple math problems) supposed to traverse the curriculum of class 8 that includes algebra, science, and geography?

Be it at the school or the college level, we have many institutions. But often, institutions don’t deliver what they are supposed to. It can also be observed that GER is consistently decreasing with the increase in grades, dropping to a low 24.3% .This means that only 24.3% of the total number of students eligible to study in colleges are actually attending college.

The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009, guarantees free elementary schooling to all children in the age group of 6-14 years. Simultaneously, the government also launched the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA) in 2009 to enhance access to secondary education. All of this is well and good, but the reality is that many young people do not progress to the stage of higher level education, possibly because they come out of the shade of the RTE Act. The transition from elementary to higher secondary schooling happens during these years – and if a youth drops out at the end of class 8 or 10, it is more than likely that they will not return to complete their studies.

A large proportion of the youth who are not studying have joined the labour force. According to an ASER report, “Most of them – 71.8% – work in the farm sector […] 50% of boys who had left school said the reason for doing so was either lack of interest (34%) or because they had failed in school (16%). For girls these numbers are 19% and 17%, respectively. Among girls, the predominant reason for leaving school was family constraints (32.5%).” This is quite surprising because it shows that apart from socio-economic factors, a large proportion of the youth also cited ‘lack of interest’ as a reason for leaving school.

Why is school not interesting for the youth?

The first possible reason could be the quality of education. As the government will perhaps never directly comment on the quality of education in their own schools, the only method to justify this is through the performance of students.

This is the overall mean achievement score in the subject of science among class 10 students in 2015.

Source: MHRD

Through this infograph, we can deduce that students in rural areas have been consistently outperformed by their urban counterparts. Considering that the majority of students in rural areas study in government and government-aided schools, this indeed raises questions.

Is the curriculum followed in these schools not feasible, or is it not followed effectively, even if it may be feasible? Does the government have any checks in place to monitor its teachers? From my perspective, all these concerns together form the larger problem.

Another issue is the absence of an effective method to check teacher absenteeism in government schools. A recent news report illustrates how ridiculous the problem has become: a teacher from Madhya Pradesh has been absent for 23 years of the last 24 years in her ‘long career’. The fiscal loss due to such teacher absenteeism is more than $1.5 billion (₹100 crore) every year.

A regular check of what students are taught in schools does not happen in many cases. Instances where the teachers are not qualified enough to teach students aren’t unheard of, either. However, in my opinion, the curriculum is also poorly designed and doesn’t focus on what needs to be taught to students in a rural setting. Another important issue is that there is no mechanism within our school system to effectively address the needs of children who have fallen behind. The help these children need has to come from home. Therefore, the learning deficits of children who don’t have these advantages (for example, affluent and/or educated parents) are not addressed either in school or at home. In our current system, children can progress up to class 8 without anyone figuring out that they need help.

Why does India pale in comparison to other countries with a considerably larger literate population? One cause for this problem can be attributed to the low budget allocated for education in India.



Clearly, the government hasn’t entrusted an enormous percentage of its GDP on education – and its repercussions are evident. Its effect can be confirmed by India’s low literacy rate and high pupil- teacher ratio.

On a slightly different note, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has ensured that most schools now have separate washrooms for boys and girls.

However, according to government statistics a great deal of development cannot be observed in the percentage of schools with electricity.

Technology is now considered to be an important aspect of keeping up with modern times. Despite our governments’ claims of building a modern India, the increase in the percentage of schools with computers has not been very drastic.

In my opinion, a well-planned teacher-training programme should be devised. During the recruitment process, the government should ensure that teachers are well aware of the unavoidable challenges and the lack of support they may face later on. The problem of teacher absenteeism has plagued the Indian education system; still certain potent methods can be utilised to tackle this issue. Research suggests that improving school infrastructure, increasing the frequency of inspections, providing daily incentives to work (cash, for instance)  and conducting frequent parent-teacher association meetings are the best ways to get teachers to attend schools regularly.

This problem can also be solved by a direct approach conceived by the Madhya Pradesh government, wherein they introduced a GPS-based Android mobile phone application to check the attendance of teachers in schools across the state by taking e-attendance. I also believe that designing a specific curriculum can help teachers and schools achieve certain goals more satisfactorily. Simultaneously, students can also enjoy the learning process. This specific curriculum should not be entirely ‘new’, but should contain courses that can supplement the holistic development of students. Considering our rural setup, courses on agricultural and veterinary sciences can provide students an innovative way to support their parents by spreading awareness of the new techniques they learn at school.

The most important thing is to revolutionise our rural education system through the proper introduction, implementation and execution of incentives. The mid-day meal scheme is a great incentive for students from impoverished backgrounds to go to school. The government has introduced some very thoughtful schemes targeting various sections of students, but most of them do not achieve their purpose – either due to improper management or due to unceasing corruption.  In fact, the execution of the most prominent scheme – the mid-day meal scheme itself has turned out to be faulty, where only 10 million out of 13.1 million students eligible for the scheme have been covered. Not just this, cases of mid-day meal ‘tragedies’ are not unheard of.

On the other hand, the government of Rajasthan has decided to provide cash benefits to meritorious girls at the class 8, 10 and 12 levels. This can indeed be a gamechanger when it comes to the education of girls in the state.

Another scheme known as the Inclusive Education of the Disabled at Secondary Stage (IEDSS) aims to enable all students with disabilities to pursue four years of secondary education in an inclusive and enabling environment, after completing eight years of elementary schooling. Even such a well-thought scheme has been afflicted by scam in which ₹5.16 crore was allegedly siphoned during 2008-13 by some government officials. Some other prudent schemes such as SWAYAM (which is an online learning project) and the Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana (PMKVY)  (aimed at producing skilled labour) can only achieve considerable progress when they are enforced appropriately.

I believe it’s high time we consider conquering our ignorance and embracing change, because we cannot become what we want to by remaining just as we are, right now. It is vital we realise that education is a human right with the immense power to transform. On its foundation rest the cornerstones of freedom and democracy.

“Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society. It is a bulwark against poverty, and a building block of development, an essential complement to investments in roads, dams, clinics and factories. Literacy is a platform for democratization, and a vehicle for the promotion of cultural and national identity. Especially for girls and women, it is an agent of family health and nutrition. For everyone, everywhere, literacy is, along with education in general, a basic human right […] Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential.”Kofi Annan

A version of this post was first published here.


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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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