Getting children into school

Published : Jan 23, 2015 12:30 IST



JUNE 3, 1994

PROFESSOR Myron Weiner, Ford International Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge U.S., has had a 40-year research relationship with India. In his seminal book, The Child and the State in India (reviewed by Frontline in two special features on literacy in its April 27 and May 11, 1991 issues), Weiner had presented a deeply pessimistic analysis of mass illiteracy in India. India, he pointed out, was the world’s largest producer of illiterates, a consequence of its failure to introduce a comprehensive compulsory education programme. This in turn, Weiner had argued, was linked not so much to the country’s economic backwardness but in the belief systems of those in authority and, more generally, the middle class. Weiner reviewed developments since the publication of The Child and the State in India in this interview.

In 1991, you had given a deeply pessimistic view of the structures and future of primary education in India. Has, in your view, the situation changed in the last three years?

The good news is that India has done two important things during this period. One is that India has begun to liberalise, which is having a positive impact on its economy. The second is that it has begun to globalise its communications structures, which has made it far more a part of the world, rather than an isolated entity. The bad news, from the point of view of children, is the expansion in exports. Children are widely employed in those industries which have gained importance for exports—brassware, carpets, gems, and so on. This has led to a growth in the employment of children in these industries. In terms of change, however, I notice that people seem far more aware of the issue of child labour than they were when I wrote my 1991 book ( The Child and the State in India, Princeton University Press, U.S.A., 1991, page 213 ) . The media, I believe, has played a very positive role in this.

The liberalisation process has been characterised by the withdrawal of the state from an interventionist role in civil society. What implications would this have for children?

I hope no one would imagine that the withdrawal of the state from market intervention should lead to a diminished state role in all sectors. I think one of the issues in India is that the state has intervened where it ought not to have, and has not done so where it should have. Even the most conservative neoclassical economists will agree that the state has a very positive, very important, role to play in the promotion of mass education, which cannot and should not be left to the private sector alone. Indeed, every country I have looked at which has successfully internationalised itself, from Japan in the 19th century to Taiwan and mainland China now, had put an enormous amount of state resources and administrative effort into promoting mass compulsory education and in moving children out of the labour force. That is a very important role for the state to play. The market itself will not play that role: it will encourage child labour.

Could you elaborate on your proposition that modernisation and development are in a sense contingent on mass education and the removal of children from the workforce?

I’d first like to say that there is a view in India, which I do not share, that India is so unique that the experiences of other countries are not relevant: all countries are unique, but have common problems, and mass illiteracy is one of those common problems. If you look at countries which began modernisation when confronted with mass illiteracy and low per capita incomes, you will find that all of them had to take on the issue of mass education. The Japanese took it on just after the Meiji Reformation in the latter part of the 19th century. The Chinese, who had a very large number of illiterates, began a massive programme of getting all children into the school system after the Communists took power in the 1950s. Both Korea and Taiwan launched compulsory primary education in the 1940s, and systematically developed their programmes in the years that followed. Perhaps the most recent case is that of Indonesia, which had a very high illiteracy rate and was also very poor when it began its campaign to get all children into schools. In the 1960s, before the campaign began, it had a per capita income of $70, less than half that of India at the time. Today, the roles are more than reversed: a fact with obvious implications.

There is the view that the income generated by children is essential to the economic security of their families; in other words, there is no real alternative to having some child labour in a poor country. If Indonesia achieved major economic growth in the 1970s, for example, it was surely not just because of its education efforts, but also because of the oil boom of the same period. Can poor families afford to send their children to school?

The poor are usually the worst victims of child labour. Child labour means a displacement of adults from the labour force; it means that adults cannot get jobs. Now I have never heard it said to me in India there is full employment of adults, that all the poor have jobs, and therefore there would be no one to take the place of children in the workforce. For every child who is removed from the workforce in the carpet or gemstone industry, there will be an adult who will have to be employed to take its place. In fact, the poor will be far better off, since adults usually get higher wages than children to start with, and have the power to negotiate for higher wages from time to time.

How plausible do you find political claims that education for all is achievable by the year 2000, that the state is in fact serious about universal school education?

Let me say on the positive side, I think the decision of the Union government to put more resources into primary education, as opposed to higher education, in the Eighth Plan, is very heartening. If you look at previous Plans, what became apparent was that while the percentage of Budget expenditure on education as a whole was not significantly different from that of, say, China or Taiwan, what was unique was the disproportionate expenditure on higher education.

Secondly, the decision of the Tamil Nadu government to make education compulsory, if it is in fact carried out, is another step in the right direction. I am not, however, convinced that you will get universal education unless you make education compulsory, because the creation of facilities by themselves will not solve the central problem in India: its school drop-out rate. If the present policy continues—that children are free to drop out, and parents are free to take them out of school—then I do not see the present situation changing, which is that only half of all schoolchildren make it to the second grade, and just 20 per cent to the seventh or eighth grade.

You have worked in India for years. Where do you think the resistance to the idea of universal school education is principally coming from?

I think the resistance comes from where one might have expected a fair degree of enthusiasm for the idea: the Education Departments. I think many people concerned with the Education Policy have a view that the poor and their children do better working for their families rather than in schools. This is linked to a position that things are so bad in the primary education system that perhaps poor children ought not to be in the school system. I have to say that India’s primary education system needs development, and that it really is very poor—school conditions are unsatisfactory, no books, no playgrounds—but I don’t see that as a reason for not putting children into schools but to improve school facilities. Then, finally, there is the upper-caste perception that its children can be sent to private schools to develop cognitive skills, while the children of the poor are better off learning to work. One thing I’ve noticed is the absence of the third person plural: bureaucrats never talk about “our children”, but of “the children of the poor”.

Is the future bleak for our children, then?

Actually, I’m far more optimistic than I was when I wrote my book. I see three major forces at work. The first is the media, which has played a significant role in creating an awareness of education issues and of child labour. The second is that non-governmental organisations have become increasingly active in this field, and are in a position to play a major role in a universal education programme.

Finally, international organisations have become increasingly active on the issue of child labour in India, and there is growing talk of boycotts by West European and U.S. consumers of products produced by child labour. I know that people in India are very sensitive about this issue, but in Western countries, there has been a historic struggle against child labour, and people do not want to use their money to support the institution. Actions by consumers against industries employing children will become increasingly important in shaping policy in India on child labour and compulsory education.

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