October 13, 1997  
India Today India Today
Village kids on way to school Pic: Sondeep ShankarCLass Struggle

Fifty years into Independence, India's children have little to celebrate: 6.3 crore of them are still out of school. This despite the constitutional directive urging all states to provide "free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of 14 years". The Constitution envisaged fulfilling this promise by 1960. Yet, if present trends continue, India is still 50 years away from reaching the goal.

Meanwhile, the absolute number of illiterate people in the population is steadily rising year after year. At about 50 crore, the number of illiterates in today's India is larger than the total population of the country 30 years ago.

Even in the younger age groups, illiteracy remains endemic. About half of all adolescent girls, for instance, are unable to read and write.
The low priority given to education by this nation is apparent from the mean years of schooling, the average period spent in school by a citizen. Indians spend a little over two years in the classroom. The Chinese spend five, the Sri Lankans over seven and the South Koreans nine.

That so many children are out of school is a profound tragedy. Education is a basic tool for self-defence in modern society. The feeling of powerlessness that goes with being illiterate comes through loud and clear in any conversation with ordinary people. As Shankar Lal of Gadaula village in Banda, Uttar Pradesh, put it, "Anpadh aadmee jeevanbhar kasht mein rahta hai (An illiterate person is handicapped all his life)."

Lal was one among 1,221 Indian parents who were interviewed in a recent survey planned by a group of researchers based at the Delhi School of Economics and the Indian Social Institute. The survey covered all the schooling facilities in a randomly selected sample of 188 villages in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. The survey's findings will be released soon as part of the Public Report on Basic Education (PROBE).

The probe findings provide a startling picture of the schooling situation in India's villages. To begin with, they shatter two myths that are often invoked to "explain" the slow progress of elementary education: one, a supposed lack of parental motivation; two, that work keeps children from going to school. The survey gives an eye-opening account of the appalling condition of elementary education in rural India -- and of the government's apathy. It makes it clear that the battle against ignorance is a grim one.

INDIA TODAY presents an exclusive preview of the PROBE findings.

PROBE survey team: Kiran Bhatty, Anuradha De, Jean Drze, A.K. Shiva Kumar, Aprajit Mahajan, Claire Noronha, Pushpendra, Anita Rampal, Meera Samson.

Even illiterate parents value education

It is often said that poor parents, perhaps illiterate themselves, are not interested in education. The same excuse was invoked by colonial authorities. The Lucknow District Gazetteer of 1940, for instance, claimed, "The mass of the lower classes is ignorant, superstitious and unambitious, and cares nothing for education." This perception is still popular. In an analysis of India's failure to achieve universal elementary education, The Times of India (August 15, 1997) argues, "Illiterate and semi-literate parents see no reason to send children to school."

Contrary to this claim, most probe respondents were very keen to enable their children to acquire education. A resounding 80.2 per cent of parents felt primary education should be made compulsory for all children. While 98 per cent stressed it was important for sons to go to school, as many as 89 per cent felt similarly in case of daughters.

A small minority, admittedly, did not consider it important for a girl to be educated. These parents often said: "Ladkiyan padhai karengi to ghar ka kaam kaun karega? Ladki ko kaunsa padh-likhkar naukri karni hai? (A girl's proper place is at home, doing domestic work. Anyway, she isn't going to take up a job)." Parental motivation for female education is thus lacking in some cases. But the general pattern is one of loud clamour for better educational facilities.

Work does not keep children from school

Another myth is that children are unable to go to school because they have to work. Organisations such as the Coalition Against Child Labour claim there are seven to eight crore child labourers in India, working, on an average, 12 hours a day. This sweeping statement is not supported by the probe survey. It is true that some children -- for example, eldest daughters in poor families -- work long hours, making it difficult for them to go to school. But the general pattern is surprisingly different: a majority of out-of-school children in rural India have plenty of time on their hands.

Among out-of-school children, about half worked less than three hours on the day preceding the probe survey. Only 18 per cent worked more than eight hours. One-third had not done any work at all during school hours on that day. Girls tend to work more than boys (mainly at home), but even they usually have enough spare time to attend school. Indeed, school hours in rural India are effectively quite short -- say four to five hours a day for 120 days in the year. Only a small minority of children are so busy that they cannot make themselves available for such a limited period of time.

Moreover, when children work rather than go to school, it does not necessarily mean that work requirements are to blame for their failure to attend school. In many cases, it is the other way round: children work because they are unable to go to school. Eight-year-old Manoj in Karanjia village (West Singhbum, Bihar), for instance, dropped out of class after being teased and beaten by other children; now he spends the whole day grazing cattle.

Despite claims, primary education is not free

Rs per year
FEES                                                         20
BOOKS AND STATIONERY             112
UNIFORM/CLOTHING                       175
PRIVATE TUITIONS                             33
OTHER EXPENSES                                26
TOTAL                                                  366

If parents are interested in education, and if child labour is not a major obstacle, then why are so many children out of school? To understand this, the first point to remember is that regular school attendance requires a great deal of effort on the part of parents as well as children. To begin with, education is expensive. While free education is a constitutional right, the probe survey suggests that north Indian parents spend about Rs 366 per year (see graphic) to send a child to a government primary school. This may seem a small amount but can prove a major financial burden for millions of poor families with several children of school-going age. For an average agricultural labourer in the probe survey area, sending two such children to primary school would mean 30 to 40 days' wages.

The financial burden has a particularly harmful effect on the schooling of girls. While most parents recognise that it is important for a girl to be educated, many feel that the benefits of a girl's education will be enjoyed by others, since a daughter, typically, leaves her family after marriage. As one respondent from Kaudaha (Bahraich, Uttar Pradesh) bluntly put it, "Ladki ko padhaane ke baad bhi woh apne ghar chali jaati hai. Padhaane se koi faida naheen (There is no point teaching a girl; she marries and goes away)." This outlook leads to a reluctance to spend on a daughter's education. If resources are scarce, the tendency is to give priority to boys.

In addition to the financial burden, much day-to-day parental effort is required to motivate a child to go to school, to ensure that he or she makes good progress, and to free him or her of domestic chores. Effort is also needed from the child, especially when the schooling environment is hostile or boring. The willingness of parents and children to make the required effort depends on what they can expect to get in return, in terms of schooling quality. The quality of schooling, more often than not, is abysmal.

Creaky system, crumbling schools

Percentage of government primary schools with specified facilities
FUNCTIONING TOILETS                                  11
BLACKBOARD IN EVERY CLASS                     73
NON-LEAKING ROOF                                 37
PLAYGROUND                                                  48
DRINKING WATER                                           42  

The poor quality of schooling in India has many aspects. For a start, the physical infrastructure is woefully inadequate. If all children were in school, as they are meant to be, school buildings would burst at the seams.

In some villages there is no infrastructure worth the name. In Vidiya, a village in Mandla district of Madhya Pradesh, for example, there is no school building. Children are huddled in a dark, tiny storeroom and an adjacent open space where the owner keeps domestic animals. Teachers said the state of the premises was the main reason why children didn't come to school.

In some villages, the building is used by the teachers for residential purposes. Elsewhere, the school premises are used as a store (Sarwana in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh), police camp (Baruhi, Bhojpur, Bihar), to dry cowdung cakes (Mujahidpur, Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh), as a cattle shed (Belri Salehpur, Hardwar, Uttar Pradesh) and a public latrine (Vangaon, Saharsa, Bihar).

These are extreme cases but even the "typical" school boasts little more than two classrooms, a leaking roof, a couple of blackboards and a table and chair for the headmaster. The probe survey found 82 per cent of the schools needed repair. Two-thirds had leaking roofs, making it difficult to hold classes during the rains.

Girl with slate Pic: Sondeep ShankarMany students -- but very few teachers

How much attention can a school child hope to receive from his or her teacher over the primary cycle? Very little, if the probe survey is any indication. In primary schools, there were about 50 children enrolled for each teacher. This implies that even if all teachers are always present and actively teaching during school hours, the total amount of teacher time per child is, on an average, just around one hour a month. The true figure is well below that, since teachers are often absent and spend little time in active teaching even when they are present.

Further, the distribution of teachers among schools is highly uneven. This often leads to the actual pupil-teacher ratio being much higher than 50 in many schools, even shooting up to three-digit figures in some cases. Another manifestation of this problem is that of the single-teacher school.

Officially, single-teacher schools have been abolished in the country since Operation Blackboard (1986). Not so according to the probe survey. In the sample villages, 12 per cent of all primary schools had a single teacher appointed. Another 21 per cent had a single teacher present, because the other teachers were absent. Thus, one-third of all schools effectively had a single teacher. A single-teacher school is a little more than a glorified child-detention centre, since active teaching of all children present is by and large ruled out.

Poor teaching means little learning

Mohanbai is one of the few girls in Diwara village (Sawai Madhopur, Rajasthan) who have managed to study up to Class V. Yet, she is still unable to read and write. Her case is not exceptional. The probe survey found many children who were unable to read or write even after several years of schooling. Why? The short answer is that very little teaching goes on in government schools.

Often, teachers are just not there. Even among "conscientious" teachers, coming late and leaving early is an accepted practice. Others are worse, as Teju Lal of Tigariya Sancha (Dewas, Madhya Pradesh) pointed out. "Padhate hain nahin, school mein turant chhutti kar dete hain (They don't teach, they send us off at the earliest)," he says. In some villages, schools had been closed for a week at a time as the teachers were on "gota (French leave)".

Even when the teachers are there, teaching activity is minimal. Controlling the children is priority. The favoured teaching method is copying -- from the board or from textbooks. Even that is hardly monitored. In Golwa village (Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh), the probe team found notebook after notebook filled with meaningless scribble.

Teaching aids are seldom available, let alone used. Many schools have received new teachings aids (such as globes) through Operation Blackboard, but these are usually locked up and kept away from the children. In the classroom, the stick remains the most common teaching aid. "Padhaate kam, maarte zyada (More than teaching, they beat us)," said one boy as he explained why he had dropped out. Many others like him have been frightened away from school by violent teachers.

Teachers, for their part, feel that their work conditions are not conducive to better teaching methods. They know that "joyful learning" is politically correct, but few believe in it. Three quarters of the teachers interviewed by the probe team are compelled to do multi-grade teaching (teaching more than one grade at a time). Some teachers deal with this by concentrating their efforts on the higher grades, leaving the younger children to their own devices. No wonder that the younger children make slow progress.

With this background, it is easier to understand why so many children drop out of school, despite the high level of parental interest in their education. There are massive hurdles on the way. Many promising children have been bored, beaten and humiliated out of the schooling system.

How Himachal Pradesh beat the trend

It was drill time for the Class I children of Ooperi Baheli village of Himachal Pradesh's Mandi district, and they ran around the maidan happily. The children in the other classes -- and their teachers -- were all busy working. Singing and needlework were also taught in the school.

There were story books and the children were happy to read. Two of them even came up to borrow books to read in their spare time. It was heart-warming. The children were both competent and confident. In fact, they seemed ready to interview us. What would you like to be, we asked 10-year-old Suman when we visited her home. "A doctor,'' she shot back confidently. In Rajasthan or Bihar, the schoolgirls the probe team encountered were rarely so fluent, parting with an answer only after much coaxing and persuasion.

Not so long ago, Himachal Pradesh was considered a backward region of north India. In 1951, child literacy rates were as low as in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar (see graphic). Today the figure stands at about 95 per cent (probe estimates), closing in on that of Kerala, India's only fully literate state. A survey of 48 randomly selected villages in Himachal Pradesh, carried out by the probe team in late 1996, found that 97 per cent of the children aged between six and 12 were going to school. Universal primary education in the whole state is only a few years away.

How did Himachal Pradesh succeed where its immediate neighbours have failed so abysmally? Part of the credit goes to the state government. Per capita expenditure on education in Himachal Pradesh is twice as high as the all-India average.

The number of teachers per pupil is also twice as high. For every one teacher there are 25 pupils in Himachal Pradesh. This compares well to the figure of 47 for Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

Parents too have played a key role. Parental motivation for education in the state is very high in all communities. Many parents said they were prepared to make great sacrifices -- even sell land or separate from joint families -- for the sake of their children's education. Primary schooling is considered as important for girls as for boys. "Boys and girls are equally capable," said an illiterate labourer who hopes his daughter will stand for panchayat elections when she grows up.

Finally, Himachal Pradesh appears to have a cooperative social environment. In many survey villages, parents offered shramdaan (voluntary labour) to improve the school building. Most villages have active panchayats and mahila mandals, which are sometimes involved in educational matters.

The rapport between parents and teachers too seems to be better in Himachal Pradesh than in the other states covered by probe. If children are absent, teachers often go to their houses to seek them. Parents are keen to discuss the progress of children with teachers. Their interest and vigilance seem to have been far more effective than the official inspection system in keeping the schools alive.

Rhetoric and reality: the official non-action

The need for a major improvement of India's schooling system is obvious enough. How far has this need been taken on board in government policy? If rhetoric is the yardstick, there has been a great leap forward. However, much remains to be done in terms of action. The government's resolve to increase education expenditure to 6 per cent of gdp, for instance, has gone hand in hand with a decline in public expenditure on education as a proportion of gdp, from 4 per cent in 1991-92 to 3.1 per cent in 1995-96.

Similarly, the teacher-pupil ratio has been steadily falling in recent years. In 1981, there were 26 primary school teachers for every 1,000 pupils. In 1996, there were only 21.

Instead of confronting these alarming trends, the government has tended to take refuge in ad hoc supplementary programmes such as non-formal education (NFE), Operation Blackboard and the national mid-day meal scheme. Some of these programmes have met localised success. On the whole, they have fallen far short of expectations for want of political backing.

A prime example is the mid-day meal scheme, introduced with much fanfare in 1995. In most districts, cooked meals are still to be introduced. Even the monthly foodgrain rations which are meant to be distributed as a substitute for cooked meals routinely fail to materialise. To quote one district collector, this scheme is a "good example of how a well-intentioned intervention degenerates into a farce due to bureaucratic apathy and corruption".

The NFE centres, meant for children who for some reason or the other cannot attend regular school, are in dismal condition. The probe survey found less than 10 functional nfe centres in the 188 villages covered.

Moving beyond token programmes requires much political will and public pressure. Unfortunately, elementary education continues to receive low priority from those in power. While Parliament discusses trivial issues, a constitutional amendment bill aimed at making education a fundamental right gathers dust. It is waiting to be discussed; but ignorance is not as patient. The wave of illiteracy continues to rise.