Saturday, November 21, 2015


The other day the great entrepreneur Mr. Narayana Murthy observed (see The Times of India, Bengaluru edition, 17.11.2015) that whereas RTE (Right To Education) is a progressive step, it is unlikely to yield the expected results. What is needed, he rightly said, is that the government schools, where the children of the poor study, must impart quality instruction. 

I have never been very optimistic about RTE. I have talked to quite a few who are directly or indirectly connected with school education and have noted that  hardly any of them seriously believes that this initiative will yield results. It seems the best that can be said about it is that it is well intentioned. For the successful implementation of RTE, the social environment has to be conducive, which is not the case as of now. The reasons are many but are rather too obvious to need a detailed telling. Schools may be opened but if parents are disinclined to send their children to school because they contribute to the family’s earnings, what can be effectively done by the State? No legislative solution, say, in the form of an Act that would force the parents to send their children to school, can work because it is immensely difficult to implement the relevant law when the poor are concerned. 

But where are the schools in the first place? In many parts of rural India children have to walk considerable distances to reach their school braving all odds including hostile weather, bad pathways, etc. The Odia  television channel, OTV, has, quite a few times, shown children walking on a rope bridge made of just a couple of ropes in order to cross a small river in spate to reach their school. And in all likelihood this situation may not be specific to Odisha. And in such areas more often than not schools have leaking roof. So goes the Odia proverb “nahi mamu tharu kana mamu bhala (better to have a blind uncle than have no uncle)”, that is, something is better than nothing. But when it comes to the roof, one is not sure whether, when it rains and when it comes to children,  the difference between no roof and a leaking roof is really all that great!

Coming to teachers, where are the teachers? Then where are the class rooms? Almost without exception in the rural areas in particular, the number of teachers in our primary, upper primary and even high schools is grossly inadequate. Sometimes there is just one teacher at a primary school. He teaches students of various classes in one room. If he is absent one day, the school becomes non-functional. School teaching is a low-salaried job, so it is not a career option for a young, qualified person; it is often a compulsion. Living conditions can be challenging in the interior rural areas; so no teacher wants to go there.  The children there enjoy the privileges of RTE only technically.

For some years now, in Odisha, as a matter of policy, no student, till the Board examination in class X,  is being detained because of poor performance in the annual examination. Promotion to the next higher class is automatic. And mid day meal system with an egg for every child has been introduced, which is some real affirmative action. There is, however, no clear evidence that the egg market as flourished to the extent expected as a consequence, at least in Odisha. Going by OTV again, the mid day meal scheme isn’t working even satisfactorily, let alone “well” - for the children, that is. The monitoring of this well intentioned scheme is by no means a small matter. However, the “no-detention policy” has been very successfully implemented. Fear of examination and anxiety about promotion to the next higher class has disappeared and so has teaching and learning. The teachers and the taught are both relaxed at school and the former have time to get engaged in other lucrative activities. Teaching is now done at the teacher’s home or the coaching centres in the form of private tuition. But this is a learning facility that the poor and the marginalized cannot afford. (It seems the government of Odisha is presently reviewing the no-detention policy, as is  the government of Maharastra.)

One can go on enumerating the problems, but there is no need. Not just that. It would amount to engaging in an act of self-pity, which can be destructively comforting. The school situation is known to everyone. And everyone has the same solution as Mr. Narayana Murthy’s: the government must act to improve the situation. Let us be absolutely clear about this: for the government to act, no fact finding committee needs to be set up, no survey is needed, statistical data are not necessary - there is no reason for comfort if one knows from the report of such a committee that, say, seventy percent, not eighty percent of our schools are in particularly bad shape. No research is needed to arrive at significant ideas; there is no need for insights from social or pedagogical theories. The issue here is not about availability of information or knowledge creation; it is about doing what is doable effectively.  As for money, it is certainly needed; plenty of it, but it is not that there is a serious dearth of funds today. It is just that it is not reaching where it is meant to reach – the familiar problem!

What is needed is will – social will, not just political will, as the cliché in modern discourse goes. Governmental intervention will always prove to be inadequate without people’s sincere involvement. Conscious effort must be made by all those who have benefited from education to contribute in some way to the task of increasing the awareness of the people living in remote areas with regard to the empowering potential of education. With awareness will come involvement. But this is only the necessary condition. 

Positive change in school education, it must be strongly emphasized, cannot be brought about by the government alone. For even some noticeable improvement to take place, active participation of all those who have been in positions of privilege in our society is needed. Instead of setting up their own private schools, the most privileged and the most visible must sincerely cooperate with the government for setting up government schools where needed and for the improvement of the quality of instruction in the existing government schools. One thing is certain: well meaning words are not enough, neither is purely individual effort. .

Saturday, November 14, 2015


Recently the Hon. Odisha High Court upheld a lower court decision to the effect that if one does not know how to read and write in Odia, one cannot be the chairperson of a gram panchayat in Odisha. The one who had to resign her chairpersonship because of this judgement is said to have made spelling mistakes in writing and to have failed to read a passage from a minor class school text book with the expected fluency. She was of course literate, but there is no incongruity here because the definition of literacy that we have for the purposes of Census is generous: if one who is seven and above can read and write with understanding in any language, one is literate. Although not specifically mentioned, one would assume that “write” here means “writing without spelling and grammatical errors” and “read”, “read with the expected fluency”. In terms of this literal definition of literacy, one is literate if one can read and write his name and the names of his family members and read some headlines of a newspaper haltingly. One hopes that those who declare themselves literate to the Census volunteers are capable of a good deal more! The chairperson under reference is literate and at the same time didn’t have the language competence in Odia of a minor school student in order to remain in her position.

One is tempted to guess why India chose to have such a generous definition of literacy. When India became independent, the literacy figures of the country were very low - not unexpectedly though, for literacy for the colonized was not among the objectives of the colonial administration. A country can hardly be taken seriously by other countries if a very large number of its people are illiterate. But people cannot become literate overnight, let alone literate in a meaningful sense, especially in the case of a newly independent and a big country like India. At that time making people literate in the literal sense of the term might have appeared to be a manageable objective. The literacy figures soon started improving.  

Today when India feels mature and confident and aspires to play a significant role on the world stage, the country needs to rethink the idea of literacy. It must not feel satisfied with even hundred percent literacy when this term is defined in its literal sense. The Literacy programme of the country does have a reasonable notion of literacy in terms of three R’s, but one does not know the literacy rate of its citizens with respect to this notion of literacy. This is what the country needs to know. We need to be informed in every ten years about the percentage of literacy in this sense as well. Literacy need not be conceptualized so as to be associated with a certain stage of education: primary, upper primary, middle school, etc. A definition of literacy that is close to the UNESCO definition should suffice: the "ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society". We must not fail to note in this definition the point that there cannot be an unchanging notion of “functional” or what we prefer to call “empowering” literacy. It is not literal, technical literacy that will really help the citizen; it is empowering literacy that will. 

The implementation of this extremely important initiative will require strong social and political will. Literacy volunteers can successfully implement a technical literacy programme, but not a working or empowering literacy programme. For the latter to happen, every child has to attend school – school in the right sense of the term, where there are class rooms with roof and blackboards and there are teachers to teach. And school education has to go beyond “no failure” model – the unsaid thing is that not just pass-fail examinations have been dispensed with; along with that teaching has also been largely dispensed with. "Lunch with an egg” is fine but school has to become again the place where learning takes place.