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Saving India through Its Schools

July 13, 2004

The recent growth in IT, biotech, manufacturing, and service sectors in India has reinforced the divide between the middle class and the poor. On one side, we have India of the shopping malls and consumer goods that embraces two-third of the population, where parents can hope that their children will live better than them; on the other, the underclass -- the remaining one-third -- whose life is full of the most abject misery and lack of hope.

Often this divide is presented as one between the cities and the villages. But that is not quite accurate. One of the effects of the higher productivity achieved by industrialisation are the city slums, which have become the refuge of the 'surplus' population of the countryside. There even exist 'slums within slums' as new squatters occupy the few open spaces of the resettlement colonies where the previous generation of the urban poor were relocated. Poor people in the cities do not have access to basic services, or the services are so shoddy as to be useless.

Here's the story of the bright-eyed, eleven-year-old daughter of the cleaning lady who works at my mother's place in Delhi. This girl was enrolled in the neighbourhood government school for four years, but the school was so bad that she failed to learn to read and write. Two years ago, in despair, the mother put the girl in a private school although the fee is Rs 150 a month and other school materials cost an additional Rs 100. The daughter is doing great at school, and she is now the star of her class. The poor woman is spending a large fraction of her income on the education of her daughter, because of the failure of the government school. In effect, she is subsidising the children of the wealthy who attend low-fee government professional colleges like the IIMs.

This story is not to suggest that private schools are intrinsically better than government schools. I don't believe that since my own education was entirely in government schools. I am only saying that many government schools in poor neighbourhoods are so bad that they may not be doing much educating.

It is true that much has been achieved in India in education. ccording to the 2001 Census, 65 percent of Indians are literate, up from the 18 percent figure of 50 years ago. The number of out-of-school children between the ages of 6 and 14 has declined from 39 million in 1999 to 25 million in 2003.

But this is not good enough. India still accounts for one-quarter of the world's 104 million out-of-school children. There is a big gap between male and female literacy which is at 76 percent and 54 percent respectively. There is also the great disparity between states, with 90 percent literacy for Kerala and Himachal and only 38 percent for Bihar. Although 95 percent of children have access to school within one kilometre of their home for basic primary classes, the figure drops to only 85 percent for access within three kilometres for upper primary classes.

Nearly fifty percent of the children drop out of school by Class Five with dismal literacy skills. For every 100 girls that enroll in school in rural India, only 18 reach Class Eight, nine reach Class Nine, and only one makes it to Class Twelve. States like Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and West Bengal have several districts where female literacy is less than 30 percent.

The drop-out rates are due to several factors, such as the distance that the child has to walk to the school, or the perception of the student of the family that the school is not teaching much. Most schools are poorly equipped: about half lack playgrounds and drinking water; nine out of ten do not have toilets. In nearly eight schools out of ten, there is no library.

The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan -- SSA -- of the government, meant to ensure that all children between the ages of 6 and 14 receive eight years of education, is bogged down in the bureaucratic jungle. According to a 2003 report of the human resource development ministry, many state governments have not used the moneys for this project wisely, with five states -- West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana and Andhra Pradesh -- not even using half of their SSA outlay for 2002-2003.

In the months leading up to the recent election, the newspapers devoted a lot of space to the IIM fee controversy, which touches just a few thousand students in the country. That the question of delivering school education to all children did not become an issue is symptomatic of India's elitist political discourse. Perhaps, the election was a wake-up call to the haves from the have-nots.

Many of the problems facing India are a consequence of the lack of educational opportunity to large sections of the population. India spends only about 50 paise per capita on education; this is too low. Only Himachal Pradesh has invested sufficiently in education, with its Rs 1.03 per capita, against Kerala's 68 paise and Punjab's 58 paise. Himachal has eliminated its single-teacher schools and given priority to the appointment of women teachers. It is now almost fully literate, and it has done so in spite of the remoteness of its tribal districts like Kinnaur, Lahaul and Spiti.

India must quickly double its per capita investment in education, and it must begin a massive project to eliminate illiteracy amongst its children. Since many state governments have failed in this field, the Centre should open 1,000 charter schools across the country, located in places serving those for whom good schooling has hitherto been unavailable. Such schools will not only be models for other private education initiatives, they will be agents of social change throughout the country.

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Subhash Kak

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