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. .

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