LESSONS TO LEARN

Print edition : August 05, 2000

Ten years after 155 countries including India committed themselves to providing education for all by the year 2000, what is the reality on the ground? An illustrative picture from a tribal village in Bihar.

NITYA RAO

THE progress of education in different countries during the last decade came up for review at the World Education Forum meeting, held at Dakar, Senegal, from April 26 to 28 (Frontline, May 26, 2000). Apart from reviewing the extent to which the na tional commitments made at Jomtien, Thailand, 10 years ago in respect of the provision of Education for All by the year 2000 have been fulfilled, strategies for the future also were discussed at Dakar.

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The school building in Chunjo.

As I heard a primary school teacher from Brazil describing the arduous, 24-hour journey she undertook from her village school to catch a flight to Dakar in order to attend the World Education Forum, it was impossible not to think of Munni Tudu from Chunj o, a remote village in Bihar's Dumka district. For, Munni is one of the 125 million children, or one of the 82 million girls worldwide, who never went to school. In March 2000, unable to repay 12 pais (1 pai is equivalent to 500 gm) of chick peas, worth about Rs.200, Munni's mother "leased out" her daughter as an annual farm servant to a farmer in a neighbouring village. The crop had failed, and Munni's family could not repay the seed loan. Munni gets lots of rice to eat and salt for the asking. On luck y days a bit of pulses and maybe some pork, but no money.

In spite of the poverty, Munni and all the children of the village would gladly go to school. Her village has one, but there is no teacher.

Munni was born in 1990, the year of Jomtien. At Jomtien, educationists and governments from 155 countries of the world had articulated the vision of Education for All by the year 2000. The Jomtien Framework for Action called for an expanded vision of bas ic education. Early childhood care and development opportunities; relevant, quality primary schooling or equivalent educational opportunities for out-of-school children; and literacy, basic knowledge and life skills training for youth and adults were its essential ingredients.

Much of this has remained on paper. While primary education has been the main focus of action in the last decade, the EFA (Education for All) Assessment 2000 initiated two years ago has found more than 125 million children the world over with no access t o primary education. Moreover, 880 million adults continue to be illiterate. Gender inequities as well as poor quality of education and learning persist in educational systems.

A classroom with a view.-

Officially, the literacy rate in India has risen from 52 per cent in 1991 to about 62 per cent in 1997 (National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) data). But India still accounts for more than a fourth of the world's non-literate population. There are no data on early childhood care and development. This falls under the Department of Women and Child Development, and therefore does not seem to be a concern of the Department of Education. Fifty per cent of Indian women remain illiterate. The literacy camp aigns in several districts of the country provided short-duration learning opportunities, but most of these have not been sustained. While Gross Enrolment Ratios at the primary level increased substantially to 90 per cent in 1997, the drop-out level cont inues to be high, making the Net Enrolment Ratio a little over 60 per cent. According to India's EFA 2000 Country Assessment Report, the goal of universal enrolment remains a distant dream.

The last decade saw even the most backward regions of the country clamouring for facilities for education, spurred as they were by the burgeoning literacy campaigns. The Public Report on Basic Education in India (PROBE) states that even the poorest paren ts want to educate their children, both girls and boys, making child labour an invalid excuse for the non-schooling of most of the country's children today. In fact, the absence of quality education itself is leading to the creation of child labour as in the case of Munni.

With the attention on numbers, on enrolments in schools and on literacy centres, supply side factors, which critically influence schooling, have been given the go-by. While 86 per cent of India's villages officially have a primary school within a distanc e of one kilometre, they are far from being institutions of learning. Apart from a lack of adequate materials and an environment that is conducive to learning, teacher absenteeism is widespread, at least in the poorer and remoter parts of the country. It is not a question of just walking in the rain to the next village school; the teacher has to be there too. Desperate to educate their children, even the poorest of parents are willing to pay for education, in some private school. Private schools, apart from being expensive and not necessarily of good quality, are not always available either. There is also the tragedy that children who manage to complete a minimum level in this educational system are unable to apply what they have learnt to their own co ntext. Thus they become misfits in their own society and join the ranks of the urban unemployed, forever in search of white-collar employment.

NUMBERS and alphabets make no sense to Munni, or any other child of school-going age in Chunjo. She does not have the three Rs, nor for that matter does her mother or her grandmother. At the age of 10, Munni is a maize plucker and paddy transplanter p ar excellence, a skill she shares with most other girls of her village. There are excellent cattle grazers among the six- to eight-year olds.

The new school building at Chunjo, incomplete and overwhelmed by the overgrowth, and three potential pupils.-

Chunjo is a remote forest village comprising 70 Santhal adivasi households, almost 60 km from the district headquarters, Dumka. The village is 20 km from the nearest bushead, and the only way to get there is to walk. I have been working there for a year now. Chunjo lacks health services, electricity and potable water, but boasts of an anganwadi (pre-school) centre - the building lying partially built for several years. The village also has a primary school, which according to the records has a teacher. But the school does not function as the teacher does not come. The children gambol in the mud, climb trees, help their mothers, graze cattle and work in the fields.

Older children like Munni are "leased out" as farm servants. Slightly younger children like Saheb, Munni's brother, work as cowherds, often outside the village. Their mother says: "The children have to do something the whole day. Might as well earn some money. Where is the school that I can send them to?" Said one village leader: "It is no use complaining to the authorities. We have tried several times, but no one wants to come here."

AFTER nearly six months in the village, I finally met the teacher. Appointed in December 1998, he had not taught for more than a few days in the following year. He had a litany of problems including that of a dilapidated building which could collapse any time. Classes cannot be held outdoors during the rains and in the summer heat. The contract for a new building was given about three years ago. The contractor built the four walls and left. There was no one to follow up the matter. Further, teachers are deputed for all kinds of jobs, ranging from election duty to census enumeration. The question of coming to Chunjo from Dumka, where he stays, during the prolonged strike in 1999, when salaries were not paid for six months, did not arise. Rain prevents r egular travel to the village, and for him staying in the village was out of the question, what with the poor living conditions and the endemic cerebral malaria.

The teacher has built his own house and runs a business in Dumka. He has a motorcycle. As such, he is a typical representative of the teacher 'class' in any adivasi area in the country. He does not know the local language, Santhali, which is the only lan guage that Chunjo's children and most of their parents understand. He realises that these poor parents are voiceless in the current context and hence his employment as a teacher is secure.

He taught precisely for a week in January this year and organised a parade on Republic Day. The children's enthusiasm was tremendous. Classes were held in the field outside the school building. Five-year-olds like Suresh and David had learnt to write fro m one to ten and count in Hindi, also the vowels.

ON January 26, the teacher was restless by 8-30 a.m. All the children had not arrived. He complained, "There is no sense of time here. The children come whenever they please. For all you know, they would have taken the cattle out to graze and will come a t 11 a.m. How will we parade then?" Some children had been running behind him since morning. Sanju had a fever the previous day, her foot was sore, and she could barely walk, but the excitement of the parade was too much to keep her in bed. Yet the teach er found it difficult to concede even an iota of flexibility in terms of timing.

At 9 a.m., eight children started the parade, led by little Sailo holding the flag. They marched through the fields, shouting slogans, which started with Bharat mata ki jai, but later the jais (long live) got complicated with the entry of Subhash Chandra Bose and Dr. Rajendra Prasad. Of course, there were no adivasi luminaries to be cheered. The flag-bearer could not cope with so many alien Hindi names and was replaced by Sanju. She did manage somehow.

A few practice rounds later, the children marched through all the three hamlets of Chunjo. Their ranks swelled. The flag was planted firmly in front of the derelict school. Before dispersing, I told the children: "All of you must come to school from tomo rrow. Bring your other friends as well. There are 36 children registered in the primary school here, they should all learn."

I was shocked to find that the teacher was in a hurry because he was leaving the village immediately. The plea was that there was an election duty meeting in Dumka. He said that he would not be back for a couple of weeks. The children knew from experienc e that he would come probably the next year, to organise the Republic Day parade. That is why they had not come to school during the previous week.

I WALKED across the field in front of the school to Sumi's hut. They have plenty of land, but are still very poor. Two young children and poor health have made life a struggle. Moti is about six and ought to be going to school. He watches the other child ren at school from his house. Sumi said, "Moti does not go to school because he feels bad going without a slate. What will he do there? There is nothing to eat in the house, so we cannot buy him a slate. Anyway, the school will soon be over."

Struggling to learn the three Rs. Numbers and alphabets often hardly make any sense to children of school-going age in Chunjo.-

The teacher had told me that the department does not give any slates, books or uniforms to the children anymore. It used to once. Maybe little things, but they mean a lot to the children.

The parents cannot be blamed for not being more active. Registering a complaint with the District Superintendent of Education means the loss of two days of work and at least Rs.100 as expenses, which has to come from one's own pcoket. That is a lot of mo ney here. Complaints in the past have been futile. Even the relatively better off are affected by the lack of transport and resources. In fact, the village moneylender told me that even the more prosperous leaders in the village had taken food loans duri ng the heavy rain and flooding last year.

THERE are 1,538 primary schools, 285 middle schools and 71 high schools in Dumka. Over 4,000 elementary teachers and 410 high school teachers are on the rolls. The elementary schools are co-educational. Of the 49 government-registered high schools, only seven are for girls. The Bihar government norms specify four high schools - three for boys and one for girls - in each block. None of these schools function in Gopikandar block, which includes Chunjo. But if they did, the system would discriminate agains t girls, something adivasi parents in the region do not.

The literacy rates in Dumka are dismal. Census figures showed a literacy rate of 11.68 per cent for men and 4.76 per cent for women in 1951, which rose to 37.26 and 14 respectively in 1991. The figures are likely to be even lower for the adivasis, who li ve in the more inaccessible parts of the district. In Chunjo, the highest level of education for women is Class 5 and for men Class 7.

The Department of Education is primarily responsible for the payment of salaries to the teachers. Infrastructure development in terms of school buildings is a function of the District Collector and the Block Development Officers. The Department of Educat ion has no scheme for the distribution of textbooks and other materials, unlike the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP) and the State Programme for Elementary Education Development (SPEED).

Officials of the department admit that the quality of education has been declining. Apart from the lack of infrastructure and resource materials, a major reason is the change effected in the procedure for the selection of teachers after 1988. The Bihar P ublic Service Commission now conducts a centralised examination for the selection of primary school teachers, which few adivasi candidates pass. The non-adivasi teachers appointed are unable to communicate with adivasi children, leading to a high dropout rate among children at the primary level. Unsuccessful adivasi aspirants to the teaching profession say that high levels of corruption and their inability to pay the necessary entry-level bribes spoil their chances. Of course, such charges are denied by the department.

The abrupt transfer of teachers compounds the problem. The rules stipulate that transfers be made every five years, to improve the school's working environment. The case of a female adivasi teacher, who taught in a school 4 km from her residence from 196 3 to 1999, is revealing. Under the new transfer policy, she was shifted to a distant village in early 1999. Committed to teaching, she refused to accept the posting as the new school was too far away to walk to: given the lack of transport facilities, sh e would be unable to get to the assigned school. For the last six months she has been running from pillar to post to get the transfer revoked.

The District Collector says that salaries to teachers are paid on time, but many teachers complain of a backlog of several months. This too has led to their not reporting to work. The Collector stated that this may be the case where teachers had disputed the department's calculation of leave after the strike last year. He is probably right, but then this seems to be the situation with the majority of teachers in the district.

"EDUCATION for all has to be about quality, not just filling in the classrooms," was a statement that resonated at the World Education Forum. The commitment to free and compulsory primary education of good quality emerged as a major thrust area in Dakar.

More children at play, under a message on the wall as part of the District Primary Education Programme.-

While the issues of language, infrastructure and teacher attendance have to be sorted out for the effective imparting of education, the content of education too has to be made relevant and meaningful. More so because for a long time to come, most childre n in India - the rural, the poor, the marginalised and girls - will not get education for more than five years. Five years to equip them for the rest of their lives.

In my little village, the children are vastly knowledgeable about the environment - the many varieties of trees and their uses, for instance. A little exercise to collect different varieties of leaves and list out the uses of all the trees these were tak en from aroused a tremendous amount of interest. Environment, agriculture, water and forests could form here the basis for relevant and meaningful education, building upon local knowledge and taking it forward.

WITH the teacher gone from the village, I asked the children to come and study with me in the afternoons. They are there all the time.

These are the children of tomorrow, they want education. But they will have to struggle if they want even to be literate, leave aside access a meaningful and quality education. For them, this still is not a right.

Nitya Rao, who has been working in the field of development, focussing particularly on women's organisations, education and livelihood issues, is based in Mumbai. She attended the Dakar conference.

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