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The aspiration for education

By Kumar Rana

There is unimaginable poverty and hunger in the picturesque Doars region of West Bengal. Still, the people here feel that education is more important for their children than nutrition. How is this aspiration for education being met in these remote villages?

The children were shivering. They had nothing but cheap woollen rags to protect themselves from the January cold. Still, they arrived early in the morning to attend the ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) centre in Ranagapani Nepaliline village of Madarihat block, Jalpaiguri district, West Bengal. Visibly malnourished, they came to eat the food served at the centre, whose quality -- boiled rice and pulses, or khichdi -- was more abominable than palatable. It consisted mainly of stale leftovers of rice and dal.

Life in the Doars region of this part of West Bengal is bleak. The lush green tea gardens and dense woods are picturesque, but only from a distance. Amidst the greenery are unimaginable poverty and a terrifying hunger that forces people to accept whatever they are offered: “Jo mileyo,” as a mother, Nimi Thapa, told us.

Yet the people here are uncomplaining; it would seem they have accepted the hardships of their life as their fate. There is, however, an undercurrent of dissatisfaction against the State’s basic service delivery system. To our surprise Nimi, barely able to manage two square meals a day, says the ICDS centre should give priority to education. “Feeding is important, but more important is education,” she says. “If the children can acquire a basic education then they will be able to understand society and the system and be able to change them.” Clearly, she understands the importance of education and wanted her child to start learning even before going to primary school (pre-schooling, besides child nutrition, is actually an important component of the ICDS programme that has been designed to focus on children under 6).

Nimi’s views are echoed by thousands of parents, especially mothers, of children attending ICDS centres and primary schools throughout West Bengal. This aspiration for education was fuelled by the launch of the midday meal scheme in primary schools, which has pushed up enrolments and attendance. While the rate of never-enrolled children has radically declined to near-zero, the rate of attendance for primary school children, according to several studies, has shot up between 5-40%.

As part of a research team constituted by the Pratichi Trust, an organisation set up by Professor Amartya Sen from his Nobel Prize money, I visited more than 300 villages to study the delivery of primary education, basic health, and child nutrition. Although our geographical focus has largely been West Bengal, we have expanded our studies to include parts of neighbouring Jharkhand.

This overwhelming aspiration among people to give their children an education is not restricted to West Bengal and Jharkhand. Wider studies, such as PROBE (Public Report On Basic Education) suggest that it is a pan-Indian phenomenon.

Still, the state of education in many parts of the country remains bleak, with the delivery of education uneven in different states and areas. West Bengal is marked by some unfortunate contradictions. The state has achieved remarkable progress in terms of radical pro-people agendas like land reform and decentralisation of power through local governments (panchayats). It has unquestionable political stability: the ruling coalition that assumed power in 1977 is still in office. West Bengal has a long history of leading political and social reform. It has made several advances in higher education. And yet, almost every third person in Bengal is denied the right to literacy.

The illiterate are mainly from the socio-economically backward communities -- scheduled castes (SCs), scheduled tribes (STs) and Muslims. While the average level of illiteracy in the state, according to Census 2001, is around 31%, the figures for SCs (41%), STs (57%) and Muslims (43%) are substantially higher than the state average. The level of illiteracy among women is extremely low in general; among the socio-economically weaker communities in particular it is appalling. 

Policy failures

West Bengal’s problems with education begin with its outright neglect of primary education. In spite of several declarations on universalising primary education, the funds allocated to primary education have been consistently low. (1)  There has been greater emphasis on the superstructure than on the base, and this has exacted its penalty: the primary education sector suffers severe deficiencies in infrastructure facilities and the availability of teachers, though, of late, these problems have begun to be addressed.

A single example would make the point. In 2002 there was an average of one teacher for 54 primary school children in West Bengal, placing it as the third worst state in an all-India pupil-to-teacher ratio ranking. The school inspection system, till date, is not properly functional; measures to free policy formulation and major implementation procedures from bureaucratic centralisation are inadequate; the formulation of syllabi, testing methods, modes of governance in schools, etc, remain centralised.

Organisational problems

If bad policies are harmful, weakness in implementation is sometimes worse. The shortage of teachers is well known; what is less known is the miserable organisational failure in allocating available teachers. Marginal areas are marred by unjust distribution of teachers. In a semi-urban area of South 24 Parganas district, that has comparatively better accessibility and connectivity, the local primary school had six teachers, including four females, to look after around 100 children. On the other hand, a primary school in a geographically remote village had only one teacher for 232 children. Single-teacher schools formed about 6% of the total in West Medinipur district (same as the state average). But Belpahari, a marginal block in the district, had 23% (21 out of 91) single-teacher schools when we visited the area in November 2005. In Gopiballavpur East and West Circles of the same district the single-teacher primary schools formed 21% and 16% respectively. When such discrepancies are the norm rather than the exception, there is reason to be concerned about the state of affairs of primary education in the state. West Bengal has a general deficit of female teachers (female teachers constitute only 25%; figures for Kerala and Tamil Nadu are 70% and 66% respectively).

Often geographical patterns have a strong correlation with demographic patterns: geographically backward areas are generally inhabited by socio-economically backward populations -- adivasis, scheduled castes and Muslims. A list of backward villages prepared by the Panchayat and Rural Development Department of the West Bengal government amply proves this connection: areas with high concentrations of SC, ST and Muslim populations share the majority of backward villages. How does this connection affect primary education? With the general paucities -- shortage of teachers, lack of infrastructure, etc -- schools face various irregularities, including teacher absenteeism, poor learning achievement, etc. Parents from underprivileged backgrounds can neither raise their voice against the poor functioning of the school nor can they provide extra inputs for their children’s education.

One of Pratichi Trust’s most disturbing findings is the embedding of private tuition with primary education: most children have to take paid assistance outside the school (private tuition at the primary school level is unheard of everywhere except in the Indian sub-continent). It is, according to Amartya Sen “an evil” and a “regrettable necessity” that causes multiple damage: poor children who cannot afford private tuition learn very little, and the relatively richer parents find it safer to resort to private tuition rather than raise their voices against the frailties of school functioning. (2)

While government channels for inspection of primary schools are limited, the scope for initiating a process of social auditing through the parents’ participation is also limited. In spite of their keenness to take part in the governance of schools, the government system does not allow much space for this extremely important input into primary education. An innovative programme by the West Bengal government called Sishu Siksha Karmasuchi shows how effectively schools can be run when local communities are involved in school governance. These schools, which are under community management (called Sishu Siksha Kendra) have shown greater operational regularity. It is another matter, however, that this programme too suffers from gross neglect, particularly in terms of teacher salaries and infrastructure.
 
But in the case of government primary schools, the opportunity for community participation has seemingly been unutilised. There are of course committees to involve local people, but these so-called ‘participatory committees’ are not school-specific; rather a village education committee is based at the gram sansad level (the lowest level of the panchayat system), despite the fact that a gram sansad may have more than one school or no school at all. And the deep-rooted divisiveness prevalent in society keeps all but the most influential parents out of such committees.

Voice, participation and action

Yet, it’s not an entirely one-sided story. True we do not often hear the voices of the poor, but, at certain times, the collective grumblings of the underprivileged and their democratic allies do make a real difference.

West Bengal has seen one such struggle between the rich and the poor. This was best manifested during the launch of the midday meal programme which the West Bengal government was initially reluctant to implement. The media, bureaucracy, rural and urban, affluent and poor -- everyone opposed the programme. In spite of this opposition, however, the government had to launch the programme following a Supreme Court order. The midday meal programme gained strong support from the underprivileged. (3) And now we can see the results: the bottom 30%, who could never attend school, now have the opportunity to step into the school arena.

At the same time there has been rapid expansion in building and repairing school infrastructure (classrooms, toilet facilities, water, etc) and the recruitment of teachers. This would not have been possible without the raising of voices.
           
Without the voice of the people being heard there cannot be any constructive participation. The experiences of Pratichi Trust, which has not only been carrying out research but is also engaged in building  public debate and advocacy, show that public participation can remedy many operational problems. The Trust’s collaborative work with the Birbhum District Primary School Council, for instance, has resulted in a number of positive changes. This joint intervention that incorporates parents, villagers, teachers and local and state government offices has, to a large extent, improved the quality of schooling (regular attendance by children and teachers, punctuality, improvements in teaching and learning). Again, teachers’ unions have started showing better motivation in streamlining the education system. The All-Bengal Primary Teachers’ Association (ABPTA), in association with Unicef and Pratichi Trust, has taken up 150 primary schools in Kolkata city where the basic agenda is to ensure enrolment, attendance, teaching and learning and greater public participation. The organisation plans to extend the scheme to other areas.

These positive interventions, nevertheless, have their limitations. While they have the potential to remedy some of the organisational problems, it would be naïve to expect local initiatives to change things by themselves, particularly when a lot of constraints originate at the policy level. The required policy changes include both budgetary allocation for primary education, greater attention to teachers’ recruitment, and overhauling the system through a democratic process (initiating school-specific parent-teacher committees with legal power to govern schools, involving teachers in the process of making the curriculum, formulating teaching and evaluation methods, making the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, midday meal and other programmes more transparent, etc).

As Nimi says: “Sarkarko bhanne ke hamiheruko naniko parhaiko lagi ali bandovast garne.” (“Please tell the government to do something in order to provide education to our children.”) Although clearly dissatisfied, she has not given up hope in the government’s capacity to provide that education.

End notes

  1. Mehrotra Santosh, P R Panchamukhi, Ranjana Srivastava and Ravi Srivastava, Universalising Elementary Education in India: Uncaging the ‘Tiger’ Economy,  Oxford University Press, New Delhi,  2005
  2. Rana K, et al, ‘The Pratichi Education Report I’, TLM Books, in association with the Pratichi Trust, Delhi, 2002; and ‘The Pratichi Education Report II’, Pratichi Trust, Delhi and Shantiniketan, 2003
  3. I have discussed the relevance and urgency of the programme in my paper ‘The Possibilities of Mid-day Meal Programme in West Bengal’, presented at the workshop ‘West Bengal: Challenges and Choices’, organised by the Centre for Social Sciences, Kolkata, on July 27-28, 2004; also available on www.righttofoodindia.com.Also seeRana Kumar, et alThe Mid-day Meal Programme in West Bengal: A Study in Birbhum District, Pratichi Trust, Shantiniketan, 2005; www.righttofoodindia.org

(Kumar Rana is a Senior Research Associate with the Pratichi Trust, Kolkata and Shantiniketan)

InfoChange News & Features, June 2007