Monday, 9 April 2012

An elitist wish, or a pro-poor pragmatism?

Given the pathetic state of affairs of government schools in remote areas, Sri Sri’s recent advocacy of handing over them to private parties is not an elitist wish, but a pro-poor pragmatism

M Rajaque Rahman

A passing comment by His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar about Naxalites having a government school pedigree created a furore! Ministers, activists, educationalists, intellectuals… all got into the action seeking to unearth what prompted a spiritual guru who is known for making a virtue out of inner silence to make such a ‘provocative’ statement. Every TV channel and newspaper got busy collecting ‘informed comments’ from ‘experts’ to authenticate what they wanted to say. Yet again, we miss the woods for the trees.

A serious debate about the abysmal state of government schools in remote areas , however, never happened. Even India’s human resource development minister Kapil Sibal chose to play the self-denial game and hide the real stories about government schools behind his eloquence. Instead of admitting that the government’s performance in providing value-education is far from satisfactory and searching for ways to improve it, he preferred to proclaim to the world that he isn’t a Naxalite despite his government school lineage! Nobody says all alumni of government schools are Naxalites.

The fact is that the state of government schools in remote areas, and more so in areas affected by Maoist uprising, is appalling to say the least. I agree that these schools don’t teach Naxalism. But I have to also agree that they teach nothing. The quality of education is so appalling that children who are forced to join these schools get no education worth the name. So they get frustrated and become vulnerable to Naxalism. Those who understand the DNA of a Naxal will surely buy this theory. And that’s what Sri Sri was alluding to.

I trust Sibal has the enough education to realise that something is seriously wrong with the system of education delivery mechanism of the government, at least in the remote areas. From abysmal infrastructure to absentee teachers, there is nothing going right in these schools. Take the examples of what I saw last year in remote Tripura when I travelled to do a story on the free schools run by the Art of Living. Unfortunately, these examples do not confine themselves to Tripura. They are a reflection on the pathetic state of affairs of government schools across the country.

I was surprised to see parents and local leaders going gaga about the Art of Living’s schools though these schools may not even qualify as one when schools are benchmarked by the number of swimming pools and air-conditioned rooms they have. My journalistic instincts to crack the puzzle exposed me to the pathetic state of affairs in the government schools. Many of them were closed for lack of teachers and students. In many secondary schools, there were only four-five teachers to man ten classes. And in many others, one person ‘teaches’ all subjects! Even where there were enough teachers and students, it was a common sight for teachers to huddle around a fire to beat off the winter rather than take classes. One concerned villager summed it up all in one sentence. “The children of the village go to the government schools only to eat the khichdi served for the mid-day meal!” Amar Singh Jamatia, a local leader of West Kuphilong in South Tripura elaborated. “The villagers see no points in sending their children to the government schools which has no teachers. They found it more productive to take them to fields for work. In fact, they had no choice till the Art of Living school opened here,” he explained.

I wish the reality was such that our HRD minister had the facts and figures to deny this. He doesn’t. The sad reality is that for crores of children, these defunct schools are the only ones they can attend. When even the basics are not delivered, how can we expect the students of government schools to get value education? Sri Sri is absolutely right. Students of private schools grow up with a sense of ideals. In fact, that’s the real objective of education. And the government is denying that to crores of students through its schools.

Samir Mazumdar of Kalshi in South Tripura drew a very simple parallel that will help us fathom what Sri Sri meant when he said private school students are nurtured with values, principles and dedication required for an ideal citizen. “Here even Class I children can sing the National Anthem whereas the Class VI students of government schools can’t,” said the local leader, referring to the kind of education the free schools of the Art of Living are providing. Amar Singh Jamatia agreed. “This school has brought about a drastic change in the children of this area. Not only their talents have blossomed, but also growing up very well mannered. We can’t compare this school with the government-run schools in any way,” he added.

The biggest tragedy of the education system in India has been that students are deprived of learning about their own roots in the name of secular education. Even a mere talk of teaching Bharatiya Sanskriti will be construed as propagating Hindutva ideology. It’s nothing short of a monumental blunder that our children of today don’t get to learn about prayers like ‘Loka Samastha Sukhinou Bahvantu’ which means ‘may everyone be happy’ or ideals like ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ (the whole world is my family) and ‘Atithi Devo Bhavah’ (the guest is God). It will be no exaggeration to say that there is hardly any scope for moral education in most of the ‘sick’ government-run schools. This is a recipe for disaster for the country.

Another virus that cripples the ‘sick’ government schools is teachers manipulating enrolment to save their positions and ward off prospects of transfers. With elementary education becoming free, teachers can indulge in proxy enrolments with no price to pay. Add to it the allurement of other government dolls such as free textbooks, uniform and mid-day meal that end up being sold.

All these build a strong case for privatising government schools even if they don’t breed Naxals. The only argument against the case for privatisation would be that it would lead to higher cost and deprive many of education. But privatisation doesn’t have to mean commercialisation. Let’s accept that there is a lot of goodness left in this country. There are many individuals and organisations who are providing and willing to provide free and quality education outside the realm of the government. And these organisations do it just for the sake of providing quality education to deprived children. So contrary to the accusations, Sri Sri’s advocacy of handing over government schools to such sansthas (organisations) is not an elitist wish, but a pro-poor pragmatism.

To the urban elite who has the luxury of choosing the schools their offspring would go like ordering a lavish dinner from à la carte menu, this could be an idea that can wait. But not to somebody who cares for rural India. To the father who wants value education for his kids but doesn’t see it in the only government school he could find after a bicycle ride of 5 km, it’s an itch that has to be scratched now. A drastic and immediate reform in the way education is delivered though the government setup alone can ensure that education remains this civilization’s greatest leveller. India’s patient is running thin. A story narrated by a social activist from a far-flung district in remote Arunachal Pradesh shows how desperate parents have become in their search for value-education. Pai Dawe recalls how even affluent parents lined up for admission when the Art of Living opened a free school for underprivileged children in Seppa. Surely that SOS must be ringing in Sri Sri’s ears when he belled the cat in Jaipur!

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