Getting children into school: missed story

Print edition : January 15, 2010

It is in the case of children that misapplied notions of liberty are a real obstacle to the fulfilment by the state of its duties. One would almost think that a mans children were supposed to be literally, and not metaphorically, a part of himself, so jealous is opinion of the small interference of law with his absolute and exclusive control over them.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1959)

WRITTEN at a time when compulsory schooling, already a reality across much of western Europe, was encountering dogged, last-ditch resistance in England, J. S. Mills inquiry into the relationship between the state and its children appeared to step outside the premises of laissez-faire liberalism. The state, concluded Mill, had a duty to intervene in that most private of domains, the family, where parents neglected to provide children with instruction and training for the mind along with food for the body. It was incumbent on the state, he argued, to compel the education of every human being who is born its citizen, overriding parental objections, the hostility of employers, and long-established traditions of sending children out to work.

I. Childrens rights, the states duty and Indias delinquency

The shift from education perceived as a right (in practice not available to all) to education enforced as a duty is, as Myron Weiner notes in an important new study [The Child And The State In India by Myron Weiner; Princeton University Press, USA, 1991], a profound one in the history of the relationship between children and the state. The governments of all developed countries, and a good many developing ones, have made this shift, removing children from the workforce by legally requiring their attendance at school:

Modern states regard education as a legal duty, not merely a right: parents are required to send their children to school, children are required to attend school, and the state is obligated to enforce compulsory education. Compulsory primary education is the policy instrument by which the state effectively removes children from the labour force. The state thus stands as the ultimate guardian of children, protecting them against both parents and would-be employers (page 3).

How, then, to account for the extraordinary case of India, perhaps the most significant exception to this worldwide trend? Despite its ancient traditions of learning and its considerable intellectual achievement down the ages in such fields as philosophy, astronomy and mathematics, India today scores very poorly indeed on a range of key educational indices.

On the threshold of the twenty-first century, India is the worlds largest producer of illiterates and of child labourers. Of the estimated 82 million Indian children in the 6-14 age group, fewer than half attend school. Of every ten children who enter the first grade, only four will complete four years of schooling well below the minimum required for achieving and retaining literacy.

In 2009, children continue to forego their education as they work to supplement family incomes.-T. SINGARAVELOU

Weiner, an American political scientist whose understanding of Indian society has been shaped and refined by a 40-year-old research relationship, seeks to explain why Indias policies towards children in education and employment are different from those of so many other countries. He finds the key to the puzzle to lie not in the countrys economic backwardness and mass poverty but in the belief systems of those in positions of authority and influence: officials, educators, trade unionists, social activists, academic researchers and, more generally, middle-class India. Irrespective of their avowed political allegiances, religious commitment or social sensibilities, many individuals within these sections, Weiner finds, continue to view the world through the distorting lens of caste.

Despite forty years of democratic self-government in which the institution of caste has been buffeted by official rhetoric, bemoaned by political parties and targeted by many a solemn pledge, the old hierarchical order lives on, shaping at a basic level the way many Indians see the world about them. And perhaps nowhere is the influence of the ancien regime more evident and more baneful than in the educational arena, where old notions about the purpose of education, and who should gain access to it, continue to set the terms of discourse.

Specifically, the view still prevails that education should buttress differences between social classes rather than promote integration: that one type of education should cater to the needs of children who are hands and quite another to the cognitive requirements of children destined to work with their minds. This bifurcation, Weiner believes, lies behind Indias failure to compel compulsory education, make significant headway with adult literacy and end the scandal of child labour. Large sections of middle-class, advantaged India see genuine mass education strategies, and the very idea of mandatory schooling, as socially disruptive and better avoided.

Weiners inquiry is conducted along several tracks: a review of Indias formal legislative record in relation to the education and employment of children; visits to primary school, vocational and technical training schools and non-formal education programmes in various parts of the country; interviews with over a hundred government officials, educators, researchers and social activists; and reference to the rich seam of research by Indian academics on the situation of children in various industries and on school dropouts. A comparative historical perspective is introduced via a fascinating capsule history of how the battle for compulsory education was waged in different epochs and societies. Weiner also looks at the experience of certain Third World states that have successfully intervened to compel primary education.

A distinctive feature of Weiners study, however, is that it steps beyond the perceptions, analysis and priorities of adult India to seek the views of the child victims of state inertia and the politics of doing nothing. In search of the forgotten, disregarded voices of Indias working children, Weiner entered a variety of workplaces and arenas of survival: the streets of Secunderabad; the stalls and alleys of Bangalore Market; the fields of Andhra Pradesh; the glass furnaces of Firozabad; the potteries of Khurja; and the sweatshops of Sivakasi whose reported 45,000 child workers (closer to 150,000 by other reckonings) make the little town in southern Tamil Nadu perhaps the largest single concentration of child labour in the world.

II. Compulsory education and ending child labour

On the basis of his multitrack investigation, Weiner comes to certain conclusions about compulsory education policies in general and about the out-of-historical-step experience of India.

The first finding has to do with the relationship between legally enforced education and the banning of child labour: if one looks into history, almost nowhere has the latter been achieved in the absence of the former. Compulsory education laws, says Weiner, usually precede child labour laws, and their enforcement substantially reduces or eliminates child labour. One reason for this is that it has proved easier to enforce schooling than to loosen the grip of employers on child workers. Factory inspectors must supervise thousands of tiny workshops as well as employers only too ready to bribe their way out of inconvenience; truant officers may have closer links with the community they supervise and, in any case, poor parents lack the resources to bribe them on a sustained basis even where there is an inclination.

In Patna, on the eve of Childrens Day in 2009.-RANJEET KUMAR

In India, however, the perception that compulsory schooling is the most effective way of plucking children out of the workforce does not prevail. Indeed, there has never been any serious effort to make elementary education compulsory. The specific protections for children written into independent Indias Constitution promising children opportunities and facilities to develop in a healthy manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity (Article 39) and pledging the state to endeavour to provide by 1960 free and compulsory education for all children until they reach fourteen years of age (Article 45) remain pietisms observed in the breach, unsupported by no-nonsense legislative action.

While many State governments claim to have enacted compulsory education laws, Weiner discovers these to be mere enabling legislation, permitting but not requiring local authorities to compel school attendance. Of late, even lip-service endorsement of the goal of compulsory education has receded. We dont speak of compulsory education any more, a senior NCERT official told Weiner. We have eliminated that word. We speak of education for all, or universal education, not compulsion. We cannot compel education. Talk in enlightened educational circles in India these days focusses on incentives (the dangling of free school meals, free uniforms, free books and other bait before parents); on the provision of relevant, skills-oriented teaching (contrasted with the supposedly irrelevant, non-practical content of school-based learning); and on non-formal learning imparted to still-working children at some point during, or after, their long day of toil.

Retreat from the formal commitment to mandatory full-time schooling has been accompanied by what Weiner sees as unmistakably retrogressive legislation on child labour. Such attempts as there have been to outlaw this practice in India appear to have been seriously compromised by certain developments of the mid-1980s. In effect applying a full-stop to the tradition of official hostility to the employment of children, the Central Ministry of Labour in its annual report of 1983-84 described child labour as a harsh reality which it was neither feasible nor opportune to stamp out. Recognising this harsh reality implied that existing laws were unworkable and that a fresh legislative framework enshrining a shift from prohibition to regulation was required.

III. Compulsory education and economic development

In his travels around India, Weiner was struck by the diversity and number of arguments he heard against this simple proposition. Among the most frequently cited was the view that, in a situation of endemic mass poverty and extreme hardship, the Indian state had a duty not to compel schooling, since poor parents needed the income of their children. Denying children access to education thus became entangled with expressions of sympathy for those battling for survival on the margins of society. An extension of the argument was that compulsory education could be introduced only when a basic livelihood could be guaranteed for all and mass poverty had ceased to dominate Indian reality.

But was it the case, Weiner queried, that compulsory education was a consequence of economic development, introduced in the wake of urbanisation, industrialisation and the eradication of poverty? In fact, comparative historical analysis suggested a far more complex picture. Across much of western Europe, for example, compulsory schooling had actually preceded the industrial revolution. Among the first countries to achieve near-universalisation of education were Scotland and Sweden back in the eighteenth century, well before either had begun to industrialise. In contrast, England, the cradle of the industrial revolution, proved an educational laggard, enforcing primary school attendance only towards the end of the nineteenth century. In Asia, Japan was well on the way toward universal literacy by the end of the Tokugawa era, prior to Japans opening to the West, prior to the Meiji restoration, and prior to Japans industrialisation.

More recently, a range of developing countries with per capita incomes comparable to that of India have, through effective mass education strategies, significantly improved their literacy rate and their school attendance figures. On page 161 of his book, Weiner puts together data on 31 low-income countries: their per capita income, literacy rates, public expenditure on education as a percentage of GNP, and school attendance figures. A few minutes scrutiny of this table will raise questions in the mind of any reasonably sensitive or enquiring reader.

A school dropout at work in Chennai.-B. VELANKANNI RAJ

How is it that the Peoples Republic of China, an extremely backward society at the time of Liberation and still very much a low-income country, has been able to achieve 72.6 per cent literacy and 100 per cent attendance in its primary schools within a 40-year span? How is it that in non-socialist Kenya, with chronic poverty and a per capita income only marginally higher than Indias, six out of 10 adults can read and write and practically all children of primary-school age are at their lessons? How could Vietnam, a low-income socialist country struggling hard to put itself together after 30 years of imperialist war and 15 more years of a U.S.-sponsored international economic embargo, possibly afford to make primary education compulsory or achieve a literacy figure of 94 per cent? Nearer home, how is it that Sri Lanka, alone of the major nations of the South Asian region, has been able to get its act together in educational policy, achieving cent per cent primary school attendance and a creditable 86.1 per cent literacy rate?

And, as Weiner reminds us, there is the puzzling experience in a corner of India itself an experience which seems to stand on its head the argument that mass education cannot possibly come to India until mass poverty is a thing of the past. That corner is Kerala, an industrially undeveloped State which nevertheless manages to get nearly all children aged 6-11 and 88 per cent of those aged 11-14 to school and, more important, succeeds in keeping them there. As Weiner notes, citing NCERT data, in 1975 82 per cent of all children who entered primary school in Kerala completed the fifth grade, as compared with 26 per cent for India. It is this high retention rate which, Weiner believes, explains Keralas high literacy rate, nearly twice the national average and far ahead of any other Indian States performance. (According to the provisional results of the 1991 Census, the literacy rate, calculated as the proportion of literates in the population aged seven years and above, was 90.59 per cent in Kerala compared with an all-India average of 52.11 per cent. Mizoram, with 81.23 per cent, came a creditable second.)

By all the available evidence, the incidence of child labour in Kerala is extremely low; Weiner cites data which suggest a 1.9 per cent work participation rate by children against an all-India figure of 7.1 per cent. Also noteworthy is the priority accorded to educational spending by Kerala governments irrespective of the party or coalition in power. Mass education, although not yet made compulsory, appears an irreversible fact of life in Kerala, despite the large-scale economic deprivation that unites it with the rest of India.

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