Lahtora (Bihar): With the dew just rising from the fields, dozens of children streamed into the two-room school in this small, poor village, tucking used rice sacks under their arms to use as makeshift chairs. So many children streamed in that the newly appointed head teacher, Rashid Hassan, pored through attendance books for the first two hours of class and complained bitterly. He had no idea who belonged in which grade. There was no way he could teach.
Another teacher arrived 90 minutes late. A third did not show up. The most senior teacher, the only one with a teaching degree, was believed to be on official government duty preparing voter registration cards. No one could quite recall when he had last taught.
“When they get older, they’ll curse their teachers,” said Arnab Ghosh, 26, a social worker trying to help the government improve its schools, as he stared at clusters of children sitting on the grass outside. “They’ll say, Rs.We came every day and we learnt nothing.’ ”
Sixty years after independence, with 40% of its population under 18, the country is now confronting the perils of its failure to educate its citizens, notably the poor. More children are in school than ever before, but the quality of public schools such as this one has sunk to spectacularly low levels, as government schools have become reserves of children at the very bottom of the social ladder. The children in this school come from the poorest of families—those who could not afford to send away their young to private schools elsewhere, as do most families with any means.
Learning young: Girls of various ages study together at the Government Primary School in Chakkarpur, outside Delhi. With 40%of its population under 18, India is now confronting the perils of its failure to educate its citizens, notably the poor.
India has long had a legacy of weak schooling for its young, even as it has promoted high-quality government-financed universities. But if in the past the largely poor and agrarian nation could afford to leave millions of its people illiterate, that is no longer the case. Not only has the roaring economy run into a shortage of skilled labour, but also the nation’s many new roads, phones and television sets have fuelled new ambitions for economic advancement among its people—and new expectations for schools to help them achieve it.
That they remain ill equipped to do so is clearly illustrated by an annual survey, conducted by Pratham, the organization for which Ghosh works. The latest survey, conducted across 16,000 villages in 2007 and released Wednesday, found that while many more children were sitting in class, vast numbers of them could not read, write or perform basic arithmetic, to say nothing of those who were not in school at all. Among children in class V, four out of 10 could not read text at class 2 level, and seven out of 10 could not subtract. The results reflected a slight improvement in reading from 2006 and a slight decline in arithmetic; together they underscored one of the most worrying gaps in India’s prospects for continued growth.
Education experts debate the reasons for failure. Some point out that children of illiterate parents are less likely to get help at home; the Pratham survey shows that the child of a literate woman performs better at school. Others blame longstanding neglect, insufficient public financing and accountability, and a lack of motivation among some teachers to pay special attention to poor children from lower castes. “Education is a long-term investment,” said Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission and the government’s top policy czar. “We have neglected it, in my view quite criminally, for an enormously long period of time.”
Looking for a way up
Arguments aside, India is today engaged in an epic experiment to uplift its schools. Along the way lie many hurdles, and Ghosh, on his visits to villages such as this one, encounters them all. The aides who were hired to draw more village children into school complain that they have not received money to buy educational materials.Or worst of all, from Ghosh’s perspective, all these stick-thin, bright-eyed children trickle into school every morning and take back so little. “They’re coming with some hope of getting something,” Ghosh muttered. “It’s our fault we can’t give them anything.”
Even here, the kind of place from which millions of uneducated men and women have traditionally migrated to cities for work, an appetite for education has begun to set in. An educated person would not only be more likely to fetch a good job, parents here reasoned, but also less likely to be cheated in a bad one. “I want my children to do something, to advance themselves,” is how Muhammad Alam Ansari put it. “To do that they must study.”
Education in the new India has become a crucial marker of inequality. Among the poorest 20% of the population, half are illiterate, and barely 2% graduate from high school, according to government data. By contrast, among the richest 20% of the population, nearly half are high school graduates and only 2% are illiterate. Just as important, at a time when only one in 10 college-age Indians actually go to college, higher education has become the most effective way to scale the golden ladder of the new economy. A recent study by two economists based in Delhi found that between 1993-94 and 2004-05, college graduates enjoyed pay raises of 11% every year, and illiterates saw their pay rise by roughly 8.5%, though from a miserably low base; here in Bihar State, for instance, a day labourer makes barely more than a dollar a day.
“The link between getting your children prepared and being part of this big, changing India is certainly there in everyone’s minds,” said Rukmini Banerji, the research director of Pratham. “The question is: what’s the best way to get there, how much to do, what to do? As a country, I think we are trying to figure this out.”
She added, “If we wait another five or 10 years, you are going to lose millions of children.”
Money from the state
The country has lately begun investing in education. Public spending on schools has steadily increased over the last few years, and the government now proposes to triple its financing commitment over the next five years. At present, education spending is about 4% of the gross domestic product. Every village with more than 1,000 residents has a primary school. There is money for free lunch every day.
Even in a state like Bihar, which had an estimated population of 83 million in 2001 and where schools are in particularly bad shape, the scale of the effort is staggering. In the last year or so, 100,000 new teachers have been hired. Unemployed villagers are paid to recruit children who have never been to school. A village education committee has been created, in theory to keep the school and its principal accountable to the community. And buckets of money have been thrown at education, to buy swings and benches, to paint classrooms, even to put up fences around the campus to keep children from running away.
At the moment, the village was not lacking for money for its school. The state had committed $15,000 (Rs5.9 lakh) to construct a new school building, $900 (Rs35,370) for a new kitchen and another $400 (Rs15,720) for new school benches. But only some of the money had arrived, so no construction had started, and the school committee chairman said he was not sure how much local officials might demand in bribes. The chairman’s friend from a neighbouring village said $750 had been demanded of his village committee in exchange for building permits.
The chairman here also happens to be the head teacher’s uncle, making the idea of accountability additionally complicated. One parent told Ghosh that their complaints fell on deaf ears: The teachers were connected to powerful people in the community. It is a common refrain in a country where teaching jobs are a powerful instrument of political patronage.
The school’s drinking-water tap had stopped working long ago, like 30% of schools nationwide, according to the Pratham survey. Despite the extra money, the toilet was broken, as was the case in nearly half of all schools nationwide. Thankfully, there was a heap of rice in one corner of the classroom, provisions for the savoury rice porridge that acts as one of the main draws of government schools. Except that Hassan, the head teacher, said the rice was not officially reflected in his books, and therefore he had not served lunch for the last week.
Analysts of government anti-poverty programmes say rice can be a tempting side income for unscrupulous school officials; food meant for the poor in general, though not at this particular village school, is sometimes found diverted and sold on the private market, though one of the brighter findings of the Pratham survey was that free meals were served in over 90% of schools.
Ghosh went from befuddled to exasperated. “You have rice. You have money. You prefer that kids don’t eat?” he asked.
Hassan shook his head. He said he could only cook what rice was in his records, or cook this rice if a senior government officer instructed him to do so. Ghosh went on to point out that one of the aides had shown up more than an hour late. Two teachers were altogether absent. Even Hassan, Ghosh added, had pulled up a half-hour late.
Endless wait: Students wait for class to begin in a school in Lahtora, Bihar.
New plans, old attitudes
Ghosh could not dispute that. There were times when the school doors did not open. One father, an agricultural labourer, said he had tried a few times to enrol his children but gave up after the former principal demanded money. Many parents in this largely Muslim village chose Islamic schools because they were seen to offer better discipline.
Ghosh, too, went to government schools, in a small town in neighbouring West Bengal state, which is only slightly better off than here. But if he dared skip class, he recalled, he would be thrashed by his father, a public school principal. The children of this village, he knew, would not be so lucky.
“When I first started coming here,” Ghosh recalled, parents “would ask me, Rs.What are you going to give me? Your porridge isn’t enough. Because if I send my child to herd a buffalo, at least he’ll make three rupees.’”
One morning Ghosh reached the mud-and-thatch compound of Mohammed Zakir, a migrant labourer who goes to work in Delhi each year. Zakir’s son, Farooq, about 10 years old, was going to school for the first time this week. And as Zakir saw it, that was fine until Farooq turned 14, the legal age for employment, when he too would have to go work in Delhi. Keeping children in school through their teenage years, the father said flatly, was not a luxury the family could afford. “If I don’t get this child in school,” Ghosh said, “then his child in turn won’t go to school.”
©2008/The New York Times