Cheap alternatives

Print edition : September 29, 2001
VASANTHA SURYA

PROFESSOR ANIL SADGOPAL, who works tirelessly for the growth and qualitative improvement of the government school system, warns that the globalisation process is a formidable foe of education in India and that the National Council for Education Research and Training (NCERT), in its efforts to change the curriculum, is employing revivalist ideas to homogenise Indian culture for the global market.1 The 83rd Constitutional Amendment Bill, as it is proposed, tends to reflect the current pressure on many developing nations to rein in their expenditure on state-subsidised education.

(The Union Cabinet decided on September 18 to introduce in Parliament during its winter session a fresh Bill, the 93rd Constitution Amendment Bill, which would seek to make elementary education a fundamental right. It would also make it a fundamental duty of every parent/guardian to provide opportunities for education to all children in the six-to-14 age group.)

This trend became evident at the World Bank Conference on Education for All at Jomtien, Thailand, in 1990, when pressure was exerted on developing nations to go in for cheaper alternatives such as literacy drives and non-formal education. Along with this came a dilution of the idea of what was the acceptable minimum level of schooling: the word "elementary" was replaced by "primary". Now the stated goal of the state was providing five years of primary education, the rationale being that eight years of universal free elementary schooling was too much for a developing economy to promise its people.

The perceptible slowdown in providing UEE tallies uncannily with international trends against developing relevant, accessible, formal schooling for all in countries such as India. At the Jomtien Conference, India was told what the acceptable educational needs of a developing country were: adult literacy and non-formal education, "minimum levels of learning" (MLL) and multi-grade teaching with fewer teachers. And now there is the new "pragmatic" goal for a poor country - just five years of primary education.

Contrast this with eight years of elementary education envisaged in the Constitution, not as an utopian ideal but as a goal striven for and actually achieved in every self-respecting modern country. "Not for such as you," said the World Bank, as it generously offered to help fund the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP). The offer was gratefully accepted as an indication that the developed world was indeed interested in the social progress made in India. Accompanied by a great deal of hype, these cheap alternatives to universal elementary schooling for all were then put at an ineffectual simmer. Indians were left watching the pot and dreaming that their country would become fully literate and that all children would be in school by 2000.

The fire under these programmes has all but gone out, while the economy strives to comply with the prescriptions of international lending agencies. Yet, as the ardour of globalisation cools, the determination of poorer Indians to get their children educated has been steadily hardening. This is reflected in the growing enrolment figures, even allowing for "dropouts" (read pushouts), and in the burgeoning of private schools, which are unable to meet the demand. At last the right to education is being generally recognised as the key to creating equality of opportunity.

Looking for countries that rank below India in the Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), one finds Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt and so on. "If, like our powerful northern neighbour, we had concentrated on building a social base through education, our economy might have been something for the world to watch," says Sadagopal.

Certainly, in India, there has been a yawning gap between the constitutional promise and the actual achievement. Despite reports of a "groundswell", it has to be acknowledged that the desire for schooling has not yet reached the size, proportion and critical mass for thoroughgoing change. Neither the elite nor the ordinary people are as yet convinced that equality of basic educational opportunity can and should be fought for. So far, to most Indians, this vision has seemed too far removed from the starker and more tangible kinds of deprivation that they witness and experience every day.

As a result, the key to a meaningful democratic order (as against mere electoral ritual) and a modern economy and society has been intentionally left unused. Once this key is consciously used, the logical result would be the evolution of the Lokshaala, the Common School - a decentralised, locally administered, government-funded and facilitated neighbourhood school complex in every locality to which all children irrespective of social class would go.

That was the vision of the Kothari Commission on Education. Sadgopal and other far-sighted educationists have been thinking of the implications and working them out in several local initiatives in Delhi and in the north-eastern States. An open debate on this model of schooling for Indian children is clearly needed. If NAFRE with its strategy "synergies" succeeds in building up a critical mass of public opinion, governments and political parties may have to sit up and take notice.

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