A vision for India's schools

Published : Aug 05, 2000 00:00 IST

To place the school at the very centre of society through community initiatives and involvement is the mission of Anil Sadgopal.


HOW did the Ministry of Education get renamed the Ministry of Human Resource Development? When did "primary" education (for children in the 6-11 age group) begin to be stressed, rather than "elementary" education (for those in the 6-14 age group) as in A rticle 45 of the Constitution? How is it that nowadays nobody in government talks about the right to meaningful school education for all Indian children, but only about "raising literacy levels" through short-term literacy campaigns and non-formal educat ion? When the National Literacy Mission threw open its adult literacy programmes to nine year-old-children, what message did it send to their employers? And what is the connection between globalisation and the 100 million child workers of India?

Investment of human energy and material resources in elementary education, though it takes years to bear fruit, is recognised as a crucial factor in any nation's life and development. Providing free elementary schooling for all children, regardless of th eir class, caste, language, region, community, gender and physical or mental handicap is seen by any modern nation across the globe, and across ideological barriers, as an indispensable duty of government. Can this be made possible in India?

Dr. Anil Sadgopal's latest book Shiksha mein Badlaav ka Savaal * bristles with challenging questions about why the government school has failed to grow into a common school system for all children, as in many other countries. Sadgopal, Head and De an of the Department of Education at the Maulana Azad Centre for Elementary and Social Education, University of Delhi, brings to the subject of educational policy a unique combination of methodological rigour, democratic commitment and visionary zeal. In these essays written in hard-hitting and unambiguous Hindi he gives an avalanche of hard-won facts and perspectives.

In his view, the politics of policy formation is just as deserving of scientific scrutiny as any "hard" scientific phenomenon, say, the hole in the earth's ozone layer. Not only does he demolish the difference between the physical sciences and the social sciences in respect of the possibility of acquiring reliable knowledge, he says that the study of social phenomena would be incomplete without the observation of emotions. This implies that the emotion generated by any social action has its own value as a source of data. A social scientist need not fight shy of emotion, provided it is the outcome of a genuine experience and his or her observations are made without prejudice.

The burden of Sadgopal's life and work has been to try and "awaken the Indian state" from what he calls its "Kumbhakarna-like sleep" on the question of change in the educational system. His particular passion has been to reshape the educational milieu so that elementary education will be recognised as a fundamental right. At present it is part of the Directive Principles of the Constitution (Article 45), and is not 'justiciable'. No Indian can go to court and claim government-funded schooling for her or his child.

Trained as a molecular biologist at Caltech in the United States, he worked at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai for some years. Sadgopal moved to Madhya Pradesh in the early 1970s to address the nitty-gritty of development. He established the Kishore Bharati Centre for Rural Development and Education along with a group of like-minded scientist friends and focussed on encouraging people to reach out for their rights, and to avail themselves of the benefits of already existing p overty alleviation and development schemes. Efforts were made to check the seasonal distress migration of agricultural labour and to improve agriculture and cattle breeding. Ringwell fabrication emerged as a small-scale industry. Environmental degradatio n was halted with the restoration of forest cover. Innovations were made in education, particularly in the teaching of science in government middle schools to bring it closer to the needs and the potential of the rural environment in its totality.

A JAMNALAL BAJAJ Award winner, Sadgopal's sense of what is possible and what is problematic in the Indian context stems from his experiments with the lowcost, high-intensity Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme (HSTP). Along with Sudarshan Kapoor and o thers at the Friends Rural Centre, the Kishore Bharati Group, which included Sadhna Saksena, Kamal Mahendroo and many others, he persuaded scientists at the TIFR and professors at the Indian Institute of Technology to come to Madhya Pradesh villages and towns. Summer after summer during the 1970s and early 1980s, they sat with personnel from the Regional Colleges of Education, the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) and government middle school teachers of Madhya Pradesh to fi nd new ways of teaching experimental science.

Taking inspiration from Gandhiji's idea of unifying the world of work and the world of knowledge, they pushed towards decentralisation of the curriculum, drawing directly upon the local environment, and persuading teachers to tap into the experience of t he community. From the teaching of science, HSTP expanded into social science teaching and, in the process, language teaching began to be looked at in a more creative way. The Hindi language, for instance, grew by leaps and bounds as HSTP recorded and am plified the work experience of whole villages, linking it with formal scientific theories, and coming up with new terms on a variety of subjects. Stimulating teachers and children to ask questions, to experiment and to participate, and to come up with te aching ideas and teaching aids, and more constructive approaches to problems of discipline, monitoring and evaluation - until then only a handful of expensive progressive schools in the country had ever considered taking such things seriously.

"Prayog" (experiment) and "Avalokan" (observation) became catchwords at the annual HSTP teachers' workshops in Hoshangabad, where they actually performed the same experiments they would teach to the children. The whole debate on pedagogy rose to new leve ls. Out of that experience have emerged some Statewide programmes in Madhya Pradesh on the HSTP model, as well as Ekalavya, a noteworthy centre for educational research and training.

By the mid 1980s Sadgopal began to feel that the Kishore Bharati Centre was itself becoming a part of the rural vested interests it had started out to challenge. In a candid and insightful essay he recounts its controversial winding up in the mid-1980s. In the wake of the Bhopal gas disaster in 1984, as Sadgopal worked with the Zahreeli Gas Kand Sangharsh Morcha to organise the victims and bring out the chilling scientific facts regarding the disaster, he became interested in people's movements and rela ted struggles that took place outside the arena of formal party politics. Through his chronicling of trade union leader Shankar Guha Niyogi's role in the workers' struggle in Chhattisgarh, and his protest action in the early 1990s against the replacement of education with literacy as a national priority, what has stood out is his commitment to social justice. For him awareness of the need for social justice begins with a child's experience of school.

SADGOPAL calls attention to something that is taken for granted in India: an inequitous system of parallel schools and coaching sub-systems, at the very bottom of which are funds-starved, bureaucracy-choked government schools. The government schools form an "educational ghetto", far from welcoming even to the poorest children. Their chief use seems to be as squalid creches where parents can leave their children when they go to work; that too, only for a few years, until the children themselves go to wor k. It is not just that poverty continues to pull children out into the employment market, and into the marriage market in the case of girls. Going to a government school is perceived as an utter waste of a child's time, and with reason. Anyone even sligh tly better off prefers to pay fees at a private or "convent" school. The result is that by the most reliable estimates more than half of India's children are still out of school, and two-thirds of those so-called "drop-outs" are girls. Expenditure on the m is increasingly coming to be considered uneconomical, a social subsidy that does not fit in with the current agenda of economic reform. It is no wonder that government schools in some places are in danger of closing down. This has already happened in I ndore in Madhya Pradesh, and even in Kerala, which is credited with being the most enlightened State with regard to education.

Each thrust for change towards equality of basic educational opportunity has, in Sadgopal's view, been quickly neutralised before it could take any concrete shape. Based on his own experiences as a member of several high-level educational committees and think-tanks, Sadgopal closely examines the back-and-forth movement in policy-formation from the 1937 Wardha Conference and the Kothari Commission of the 1950s down to the New Education Policy of the late 1980s, the Acharya Ramamurthi Commission and the Y ash Pal Committees of the early 1990s, followed by the Janardhan Reddy and Arun Ghosh Committees.

According to Sadgopal, the precise point at which the Indian state jettisoned its constitutional obligation was at the 1990 International Conference on Education at Jomtien: Sadgopal resigned from the Acharya Ramamurthi Commission in protest against the government's backtracking on the goal of universalisation of elementary education. "Before the Jomtien Conference, the Government of India felt answerable to the Constitution on the subject of education: after Jomtien, it has felt answerable to the force s of globalisation."

The undertow of status-quoism in the making of educational policy is not explained by "inefficiency" or "corruption" or even just a failure of implementation of policies which the ruling class likes to think were well-intentioned. Sadgopal relentl essly questions the very intentions behind policies, and arrives at a disturbing answer: what prevents India from evolving into a modern civil state is the attitude of its ruling and educated classes towards the whole question of educating the rest of so ciety.

Not everyone wants everybody to benefit from development. In India, the educated classes are distinctly less than enthusiastic about the uneducated, to use a common Indian English expression, "coming up in life", about poor children competing with their children. National feeling and the pride in being a "democratic" country stops short of enthusiasm for this kind of basic social engineering. This may be true of elites elsewhere also. However, in the Indian social context, privilege legitimises itself r elatively easily. Scraps are thrown down - and grabbed by the strongest among the weaker sections - in the form of reservations, quotas, etc. In this process, a few among the deprived are added to the ranks of the privileged while significant numbers rem ain outside the power structures. The middle class needs the goods and services provided by cheap and plentiful labour (Sadgopal is sensitive about the commodification of human labour as human "resources"). The average well-to-do Indian is not concerned with the quality of government schools or hospitals, which are for those who cannot afford anything better. He or she may pay taxes towards these services which he or she makes no use of, but with a feeling of being exploited. And Sadgopal shows many ins tances of how this mindset manifests itself in the words and actions of bureaucrats, politicians, businessmen and intellectuals.

Added to this is the formidable power wielded by international funding agencies. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund frowns on all kinds of social spending - even for elementary schooling - in a "poor" developing country like India. The D istrict Primary Education Programme which the World Bank partially funds in Andhra Pradesh and other States, and literacy and non-formal education programmes, which are seen as miracle solutions, are quite different from the goal of universal elementary education - within ten years from the commencement of the Constitution as envisaged by the Constitution-makers. UEE is a bare minimum which not a single developed democracy - certainly not the U.S. which considers itself the Mecca of the free market - wo uld dare to remove from the public sector. But in this country, the quintessentially modern idea that a civil society must offer its citizens equality of elementary educational opportunity is being looked askance at, as Marxist at worst and utopian at be st. The tut-tutting about "populism" and "subsidies" by the godfathers of globalisation is now echoed by sections of Indian society for their own reasons.

"I will simply not accept that a country as big as India does not have enough money to educate its own children and must go to the international level to beg for this purpose. A nation which cannot change its own economic priorities to put together the n ecessary funds for such important work will in spite of begging and borrowing from abroad fail to give that work its due priority."

THE concept of the welfare state having taken deep roots via nationalist movements the world over, today a modern government's basic social obligations, such as providing elementary education, have come to be seen as non-negotiable. It will, of course, c all for a thoroughgoing demand for change in the political and administrative setup - and non-governmental organisations and voluntary organisations may help, but they cannot be totally entrusted with initiating change.

Sadgopal is a visionary, as most serious thinkers about education have been. The community initiatives and involvement he now advocates would place the school at the very centre of society. He envisages a common school system - the Lokshala or People's S chool - funded by the State, with each local community at the administrative block level running its own complex of elementary and high schools within a guaranteed framework of equal rights for all children. Lokshala is an outcome of "Manthan", a process which began in 1994 to bring about what he called a "churning". Using the "churning stick" of people's science to expose communalism and other threats to the country's ethos, Sadgopal evolved a forum - the Bharat Jan Vigyan Jatha (BGVJ). Then he began t he laborious task of working with local communities to articulate the demand for 'Lokshala' - the People's School. With research personnel funded partly by the University Grants Commission, the BJVJ has already set up Advance Field Laboratories to prepar e the ground in 10 States, including four in the north-eastern region.

* Shiksha mein Badlaav ka Savaal - Samaajik Anubhavon se Neeti Tak (The Question of Change in Education: From Social Experience to Policy ) by Dr. Anil Sadgopal; Granth Shilpi, India, 2000; Rs.425.

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