A dream resting on rotten stilts

To describe the state of affairs in India, no expression can be more appropriate than the term 'psephocracy', coined by sociologist Ashis Nandy. It is a nation that counts its citizens by their ‘vote value’. The leader who mobilises a million votes carries the value of a million, but the powerless voter who gets mobilised has no value whatsoever. In Shakespeare’s words they are as flies to wanton boys.

By the same logic, the most valueless citizens are the children. They have no votes. Those in the six-to-fourteen-year age bracket are no doubt getting a lot of attention from the state, with free and compulsory education guaranteed for them by a law which has been upheld by the Supreme Court. But that’s largely because today’s parents are desperate to send their wards to schools. If the real concern of the state for the juveniles is to be measured, the yardstick should be the amount spent by the exchequer in feeding them through the Mid Day Meal (MDM) scheme, which has the pride of place of being the world’s largest school-feeding programme.

The amount spent per child every school day is a princely Rs 2.50. It is somewhat more, Rs 3.75, for older adolescents between sixth and eighth grades.  

While it may be sufficient to buy a bird meal, at best, with that much money, what has made the MDM scheme capture the headlines is something else. It is the surprising frequency of exposè of pilferages, adulterations or inflated off-takes from its meager and low-priced stocks. In Orissa, the unearthing of a racket supplying rotten daal to school children became a public scandal of such magnitude that the state government had to transfer the responsibility of MDM from the Department of Woman and Child Welfare to the School and Mass Education Department, increase allocation per meal from the state budget, and appoint committees of teachers and respectable local citizens to oversee the project in each school. In Delhi, there have been reports of trucks bringing in grains for MDM scheme from warehouses in neighboring Uttar Pradesh being diverted mid-way. In Kolkata, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has identified tens of thousands of false MDM entries in schools run by the municipal corporation.

It is obviously cruelty of almost a psychopathological kind to rob from such nominal lunches of children. Resistance to it is not widespread yet because the average parents, particularly in the villagers, who ought to stand up against it, are generally thankful to the schools for not only giving their children some kind of a meal but doing the baby-sitter’s job of keeping them engaged during the day. Maybe that is changing, as the ruckus in Orissa over rotten school meal shows. But such change requires time.

However, the more dangerous deficit of India’s schools is not in the meal they provide to young students, but in the horrible education they offer. Most urban Indians, successful in their own ways, take India’s economic super-powerdom in the next decade, or the one after that, as a given. It is a dream resting on rotten stilts. In 2020, when India’s working age population (15-59 years) will start peaking at 64 per cent, it is today’s fifth grader who’ll queue up for work. Which work is available to him is a different matter. The right question is, what will he be good at?

The issue has been ably addressed by economist Ajay Shah in his blog, where he has analysed survey results of Programme for International Students Assessment (PISA). It is an OECD project to apply international standards for measuring reading skills and scientific and mathematical literacy of school-going 15-year-olds. India grudgingly allowed only two of its states, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradish, to participate in the PISA survey last year.

The results are disastrous. In reading skills, of the 74 nations and regions participating, TN and HP, the two Indian states, finished second and third from the bottom, ending up only above Kyrgyzstan. In mathematics, TN and HP were against second and third from the bottom, just above Kyrgyzstan. In science, HP indeed made it to the very bottom, below Kyrgyzstan, with TN occupying the 72nd position. Shah has pointed out, from the comparative tables appended to the survey, that:
  • The average Indian (TN/HP) eighth grader has the same mathematical skill as an average South Korean third grader;
  • The best performer in TN/HP is three classes behind the average Singaporean and two classes behind the average Korean;
  • The average TN/HP is six classes behind the super-best of the 74 countries and regions.
So, this is the ‘Right to Rotten Education’ that the government is beating its drum for offering! I began this article with a mention of how children are being cheated in the belly. But they are being cheated in a much bigger way in their mind, with uninspiring schools, disinterested and under-qualified teachers and curricula that have little relevance to the world in the 21st century. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, during passage of the Right to Education Bill, that it would give the Indian children 'an education that enables them to acquire the skills, knowledge, values and attitudes necessary to being responsible and active citizens of India'. In the 12th Plan (2012-17), an amount of Rs 231,000 crore will be spent on RTE.

But there is no assurance that money alone can prevent the Indian children’s mind from being dwarfed. It is good reason for the Prime Minister, an educationist himself, to ask the question: why are the east Asian children, including the Chinese of Singapore, Macao and Taiwan, are the brainiest on the PISA list, and why the kids from the land of Srinivasa Ramanujan are so poor in solving even the simplest of number puzzles. They couldn’t be 'like that only'. Who has been turning them into stone-age dolts? Who is driving them into a bleak future right ahead when they will be unfit for any job even though there will be opportunities aplenty, with the rest of the world graying?

Rather than flaunting RTE only to grab votes, politicians should ponder over the two factors at the core of basic education: the teacher and the pupil. Besides there being a crippling teacher shortage in the elementary schools (508,000, according to HRD Ministry), three out of five of them are untrained. And the poor pupil is the least motivated. His is not a country that has entered the machine age yet. So education hasn’t become as integral to life as the air one breathes.

In east Asia, industrialised long since, education is like air and water. And that’s the difference.
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