For basic education to all

Print edition : January 30, 1999

A significant public hearing in New Delhi focusses on the fundamental right of all to elementary education.

JEAN DREZE

"I was in the fifth class in the village. Then when we came to Delhi and tried for admission, the teachers told me to come back the next year. In this way, I haven't got admission for four years. Now I polish shoes the whole day. A lot of children in my basti have the same problems. I have wanted to say this for a long time, but I have not had the opportunity."

THUS spoke 13-year-old Manwara at the Public Hearing on Elementary Education held on January 2 outside Pyare Lal Bhavan in New Delhi. His testimony highlighted a problem that came up again and again as the hearing unfolded: many slum children are simply unable to get admission in government schools. And this is only the first hurdle. Those who succeed in getting admitted face boredom, humiliation and beatings, leading many of them to drop out. Among those who soldier on, very few pass the Board examination at the end of Class 10.

The public hearing, which immediately followed the release of the Public Report on Basic Education (PROBE), was a joint initiative by several organisations concerned with elementary education, child labour and related issues. About a thousand people - parents, children, teachers and other concerned citizens - participated over the day. The main focus of the hearing was the fundamental right to elementary education.

In spite of having been organised at short notice, the hearing attracted participants from Rajasthan, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Meghalaya. Most participants, however, were from deprived areas in and around Delhi: slums, resettlement colonies, villages which are cut-off, and other marginalised neighbourhoods. The gathering included a sizable number of activists, scholars, bureaucracts and the like, but top-down speeches were not entertained: parents and children spoke for themselves. Even Amartya Sen, who took part in the event, had been invited to listen rather than to speak.

The public hearing exploded the common myth that "poor people are not interested in education." On the contrary, underprivileged parents and children are struggling to obtain education in spite of numerous obstacles: lack of schools, the high cost of education, the poor quality of government schools and social discrimination, among others. Taken together, the 30-odd testimonies heard over three hours gave forceful expression to four major areas of concern:

Lack of school facilities: This concern was voiced mainly by parents from rural areas - not only remote villages but also other villages and settlements where school facilities are inadequate. "I want to study, but there is no school," said Pinki, a young brick-kiln worker. So said her mother, who also works at the kiln: "There is no school. If there is one, it is far away and I can't afford to send her there. I haven't gone forward; how will my children? I am watching my child's life turn out as bad as mine." Vasudev, a 10-year salt-pan worker from Kutch, had a similar story: "My village has a school only up to Class 4. For higher classes we have to go 5 km away, and it takes an hour each way by foot. After walking 10 km, I get very tired so I can't study or play."

Admission problems: These were mentioned by many witnesses. Shocking as it may seem, children from disadvantaged urban families are often blatantly excluded from government schools.

At the public hearing on Elementary Education held in New Delhi on January 2, Amartya Sen suggested that a constitutional amendment on elementary education should raise the issue to a higher plane.-M. LAKSHMANAN

Various means are used by the school authorities to keep them at bay. Demanding the elusive birth certificate is a common device. Said Sheila Devi from Jahangirpuri in Delhi: "When we go for admissions to the schools, they say, 'bring the birth certificate'. Without the birth certificate, my children aren't admitted. If we bring a birth certificate, they take it from us and throw it away, and say 'you slum people eat our heads'." Many other participants shared analogous experiences:

Shanti, from Seemapuri, Delhi, said: "The teacher said the school would not admit my children. When I asked, 'Where do I admit my children?', she said: 'Give me Rs.2,000 for admission.' "

A boy from Sunder Nagri, Delhi, said: "My name is Raju and I am in the fourth class. I failed in 1995. In order to get admission after that, I was moved around like a football between schools for three years. Now, with the help of Action India, I have got admission into the Sunder Nagri school, but with great difficulty. Just think, if a person has such difficulties just getting admission into Class 4, how many other children go through this?"

Basanti, a mother from Seemapuri, Delhi, asked: "When my children go to school they are told that they are not on the registers. Where should they go?"

Low quality of schooling: This too was a recurrent complaint. Usharani, a mother from Gautampuri, Delhi, told the audience: "The school in Gautampuri is only up to Class 5. The children in Class 5 don't even know numbers up to 100. We just want a school where our children actually learn something. The teachers say, 'we are not responsible for your children.' We are poor, how can we pay for private schools? The children fail and then the teachers want bribes to let our children pass."

Similarly Shalu, from Bhawar Singh Camp, Delhi, said: "I study in a government school. My teacher gives us work and leaves. The monitor does work on the board, but I don't understand her handwriting. The notebooks are not checked." Many participants were critical about the state of the local school:

Johnny, a Dalit boy from Shankarpura, Delhi, said: "In the government school, the teachers give us work and then come back at 5 p.m. Then they give us leave and tell us to play. If we make mistakes, they beat us."

Even though the gathering included a sizable number of activists, scholars and bureaucrats, top-down speeches were not entertained. Parents and children spoke for themselves at the public hearing. Even Amartya Sen was invited to listen rather than speak.-M. LAKSHMANAN

A boy from Bilia village, Rajasthan, said: "The school hours are 9-30 to 3-30. The teachers come at 11-30. What work can they do? They teach less, and beat us more."

Social discrimination: Poor parents and Dalit families are the main victims of such problems. In addition, children from disadvantaged backgrounds often face various forms of discrimination at school, such as neglect, humiliation or beatings. "In the school they used to ask us why we wanted to study, and they would teach the children of the richer people rather than us," said a young construction worker from Bihar.

Ranjit Kumar, another child labourer, had a similar experience: "In school all the poor children would be put in the back of the class and we couldn't study. My father said, don't study then, go and work."

A girl from Sunder Nagri, Delhi, narrated her experiences: "I had to get an English textbook last year, which I couldn't get because my parents didn't have money. The teacher asked me twice, and the third time she twisted my ears and said, 'Why don't you have the textbook? Bring your mother.' When my mother came, the teacher told her that I was rude, that she shouldn't send me to school. When my mother went to the principal to complain, the principal replied that what the teacher said was fine - 'We don't have time for this, or for children without textbooks.' After this affront to my mother, I didn't have the heart to go to school again."

THE testimonies were heard by a panel consisting of Supreme Court advocate Kapila Hingorani, Sayeda Hameed of the National Commission for Women, Professor Yash Pal, educationist, and Bharat Dogra, journalist. Kapila Hingorani offered to take some of the cases to court. A summary of the proceedings was prepared after the public hearing and it was handed over to the President the same day.

Union Education Secretary P.R. Dasgupta agreed to take part in a question-answer session at the end of the hearing. The questions were often incisive, yet the atmosphere remained cordial. The first child to reach the mike, Mohan, asked point-blank: "If the Government has money to explode nuclear bombs, why doesn't it have money to build schools?" Dasgupta acknowledged that this was a good question, but added that it should be put to the Government as a whole, not to him as the Department of Education had not paid for the bomb. Another theme of his answers was that elementary education being on the Concurrent List, any serious reform depended on the active involvement of the State governments. Before leaving, the Secretary assured the audience that he would do his best to resolve the issues raised at the public hearing. He said: "All the things you have said today about the constraints in education, I agree with. The problem is that what the Central Government can do on its own is also limited. We can definitely work with State governments to tackle the problems that you bring before us."

The public hearing was not all gloom. Some participants spoke about positive attempts to improve the schooling system - parents' organisations in Jahangirpuri, Delhi, a "children's parliament" in Tilonia, Rajasthan, a movement for curriculum reform in Meghalaya. Posters and exhibitions highlighted the work of some organisations involved. Songs and skits added a colourful note. Plans are afoot to take this initiative forward through legal action and through other means.

Jean Dreze is a Professor at the Delhi School of Economics.

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