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No sir, Santa Claus is not real!!- A critique to Anurag Behar’ article ‘Education in India: There’s still hope’

Budget Private Schools, Government run schools

Arvind Ilamaran

Associate, Research

School Choice Campaign

There is one thing I must credit Anurag Behar of Azim Premji Foundation for, it is for his ability to construct lofty narratives from selective facts and biased perspective. His regular Mint column seems to be a crusade against private education instead of presenting neutral perspective based on actual facts. To be fair to him, it is his column. It’s up to him to express what he wants. But what I am writing here is a warning to all the readers who would take the credibility of his position as the CEO of Azim Premji Foundation as a reason to take his views as authentic.

Mr. Behar’s conclusion is that schools driven by profit don’t bother much about education, or about their children. But there is a ray of hope. His ray of hope is that there are few schools among the 10,78,407 (DISE 2011-2012) public schools that have good principals, and that such school leadership would become the norm rather than the exception in the future. Ironically, he draws the stark opposite conclusion for low-cost private schools based on few schools, in his words, “The first anecdote is constructed from experiences in a few schools, and is not about a specific school”.

A ray of hope is an expression used for those who perform well in the face of adversity. And Mr. Behar wants us to believe that it is the government schools that are facing the challenges and not the private. Suffocating regulations, norms and licenses, prevention of for-profit investments in education etc. are just tip of the iceberg in terms of how government has made survival of low-cost private school difficult. Most of these schools arose from effort of individuals pained by the state of education in the country. These individuals were seldom those who could afford to forego pursuit of a well-paying career. If Mr. Behar had visited more low-cost private schools perhaps he would have realized the difficulty with which these schools are being run. Apart from monetary difficulty, even getting good teachers is a Himalayan task given the high minimum wage paid to teachers in public education system. If Mr. Behar thinks that this is not adversity, but it is that where one has to have absolutely no worries about monetary, performance and accountability issues, then I am at a loss of words to describe his intended or unintended malevolence.

According to DISE Flash Statistics 2011-2012: between 2010-2011 and 2011-2012, the share of government schools to total number has decreased by 1.79% while in the same period it has risen by 1.78% for private schools. There is much truth to the criticism that despite the migration towards private schools as shown by the above data, the absolute learning outcomes are low across the board. This view is concretized by the ASER study also. But the subsequently unasked question is: At what cost? According to a 5 year study conducted by Prof. Karthik Muralidharan in the state of Andhra Pradesh, private schools perform almost the same as public schools in the standardized tests but at nearly 1/3rd the per-child spending by government.

There is no denial that there is a strong public inclination towards private education. While the reasons might be debated, this is not a phenomenon which is neither undesirable nor can be wished away with. And Mr. Behar seems to be concerned more about the ethical standpoint of the school management than the benefits reaped by the society at large. He feels that those that provide education shouldn’t be concerned about profits. His view is typical of those who believe that education is a right and not a service like any other. While we may try to delude ourselves into believing otherwise, education is a service provided either by public or private sector. There is always a cost incurred in such provision. And the best incentive to make best use of resources arises from profit maximization. This is something one would have hoped Mr. Behar would know, given that the foundation he leads receives endowment from is a profit-making company. If one doesn’t aim for profit, one doesn’t have excess money to spend on anything other than mere survival. Without that excess money, charity will not happen and the foundation he leads will not exist. But if despite all this Mr. Behar continues to downplay the potential of private education and the role of profits in delivering the best, all that I can say to him is that – no sir, Santa Claus is not real.

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133 primary schools face closure threat in Odisha

Government run schools, Primary Education

The Indian Express


Plagued by abysmally low student strength and steady rate of dropout, 133 government-run primary schools are facing the threat of closure in Kendrapara district of Odisha. These schools thrive on paper only with exceedingly poor enrollment which has necessitated shutting down these institutions.

The Education department has decied to close down 49 primary schools after the issue of poor enrollment was reviewed at a high level meeting recently. As per the prescribed yardstick, 133 schools were found to have a student strength of less than 25. However, it was decided to run 84 schools as these were disadvantageously located, District Project Coordinator of Sarva Sikhya Abhiyana, Nirmal Kumar Das, said.

Teachers get ‘undeclared’ holiday as students do not turn up. The schools to be closed would be merged with nearby government-run schools in terms of students. The teaching staff would also be accordingly shifted, said an official. Every year there has been consistent decline in roll strength in almost all the schools. As the department claims, 1.62 lakh students are enrolled in 1900 government schools.

The overall enrollment (1.62 lakh) figure is being believed to be on a higher side. Bogus enrollment has become the order of the day. It has double advantage. With increased roll strength, teachers manage to cling on to their choice posting without being disturbed. Besides the MDM quota and other students friendly schemes are a bonus with bogus student’s quota grabbed by concerned teachers.

As children are better taught in nearby schools, parents have stopped sending their wards to these schools, they added. For all practical purpose, the primary education here has lost its sheen. Disillusioned parents repose little faith in the much touted free education, quipped Dr Basudev Das, noted educationist. For obvious reason, the focus is steadily shifting towards private public schools for qualitative education, Das said.


Seamy side of schooling

Government run schools, Infrastructure, Quality, Right to Education

RANCHI: If you are a needy child — boy or girl doesn’t matter — from the margins and are lucky to have bagged a berth at a government-run residential school, welcome to textbooks but please don’t expect toilets.

This shocking truth is revealed by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) in its scathing report following visits to Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya, Gumla, and Residential School for Tribal Boys, Baridih, under Ranchi district. These schools, tucked in the grimy, poverty-ridden folds of the hinterland, makes a mockery of the Right to Education Act due to the sheer hardship shorn of dignity that comes hand in hand with basic schooling.

Windows lack curtains, staircases railings, toilets running water. Soaps, bulbs and brooms are unheard-of luxuries. This is life at the girls-only Kasturba Gandhi residential school in Gumla, which the national child rights panel does not know what to make of, even after examining its Palamau counterpart that ran out of a boys’ observation home.

The panel’s visit was a link in a greater chain of events. A minor Gumla girl was abused for days at a New Delhi home where she worked as a maid, raising nationwide outrage. A national commission team comprising members Dinesh Laroia and Vinod Kumar Tikoo, registrar B.K. Sahu and senior consultant Ramanath Nayak came to Gumla to understand how mechanics of poverty, migration and trafficking force minor girls out of homes. The team visited the Kasturba Gandhi school on April 28 as part of this visit.

In its report to the state government, the members said Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya at Bharno, Gumla, some 50km from the capital, had a pucca building with a boundary wall, but that’s where the good news ended.
One hundred and sixty-eight girls — against the sanctioned strength of 240 — stay in rooms with uneven floors, uncovered windows and no doors. The school does not have proper electricity connection. A generator set operates for three hours a day, from 6pm to 9pm. Most young girls stayed on the first floor where the stairway does not have railings. Girls told the commission members that staying on the first floor was risky during bad weather and they were “scared” at night. The commission found the toilet complex “unusable”.

In its report, the commission has asked the administration to ensure power, proper doors and windows, railing for stairs, toilet facility, gas or kerosene lamps and solar torches, as well as repair the ground floor toilet complex.
The Gumla administration responded with a mixed bag of half-hearted work, excuses and explanations.
Gumla deputy commissioner Rahul Sharma assured “prompt action”. But district superintendent of education Arjun Prasad said the building was under construction and had not been handed over to the government by the Gram Siksha Samiti, which was facing a financial bungling probe.
Prasad added that the administration had constructed a toilet complex and completed electric wiring. “But fitting doors will take time,” he said.

At Residential School for Tribal Boys at Baridih, Ranchi district, which the commission visited on the same day, 248 boys were found to be staying in utter filth, said the commission.
The school lacked basic facilities like water, toilets, floors, bulbs, brooms and soaps.
The building was dilapidated. A section has been declared by the government as “unfit for use”, but the open kitchen lies within the danger zone.
The school lacks a functional toilet complex. Irrespective of season or time of day, boys go to the river, 1.5km from the building, to bathe and relieve themselves.
The commission asked the state government to immediately get the toilets functional, ensure running water, replace fused electric bulbs and arrange safe electric wiring in the hostel rooms.
The then tribal welfare commissioner Pravin Toppo had assured “immediate action”.
Ranchi welfare officer Dasrath Raut, however, sounded practical. “We have written many times to the state government for funds. Where is the money?” he asked.

The Telegraph, 19 June 2012


Students of State schools can breathe easy

Government run schools, Learning Achievements

VIJAYWADA: Students of government schools have good news. From this academic year, they will not have to write any class test or unit test. The government has decided to do away with all unit tests and leave the students alone with major exams like the quarterly, half-yearly and the annual exam.
The move is being implemented as part of Continuous Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) programme proposed to be implemented in the new academic year. As per the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act or Right to Education Act (RTE), all written tests must be done away with to pave the way for a pressure-free education of a child in school.
“Phasing out of unit tests is the first step in that direction,” Krishna district coordinator for Rajiv Vidya Mission, Murali Krishna, told The Hindu.
For effective implementation of CCE, over 10,000 teachers working for State-run schools in all mandal headquarters are undergoing a training programme. “The idea is to evolve a continuous and comprehensive mechanism to evaluate a child’s programme. The written tests can probably be replaced with regular oral tests which can be made participatory,” said Mr. Murali Krishna.
Formulated by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, the CCE is the new teaching method already in practice in schools following CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) syllabus. The idea is to decrease the accumulated stress of board exams on the students and to introduce a more uniform and comprehensive pattern in education for the children all over the nation. The CCE helps in improving a student’s performance by identifying his/her learning difficulties and abilities at regular intervals right from the beginning of the academic session and employing suitable remedial measures for enhancing their learning performance. The new system, over a period of time, will put in place a refreshing mode of education wherein a student’s marks will be replaced by grades which will be evaluated through a series of curricular and extra-curricular activities, along with academics. The aim is to reduce the workload on students and to improve their overall skill and ability by means of evaluating other activities. Very soon, grades will be awarded to students based on their work experience skills, dexterity, innovation, steadiness, teamwork, public speaking and behaviour.

The Hindu, 07 June 2012


Month on, no books, uniforms for many govt school students

Government run schools, Right to Education

Chandigarh Even a month after the beginning of the new academic session, a number of students in city government schools are yet to receive textbooks. Reason: The UT Education Department has failed to provide books at one of the two centres set up for distribution of books. As per the provisions of the Right to Education (RTE) Act, 2009, all the government school students are entitled to receive free books and uniforms upto Class VIII. The department had this year set up two centres for distribution of books, one each at Government Model Senior Secondary School (GMSSS), Sector 35, and Government Girls Senior Secondary School (GGSSS), Sector 18.

While the books at GMSSS, Sector 35, available only for boys belonging to general category were directly funded by the department, those at the other centre were to be provided to all girls and boys of Scheduled Castes/Tribes being funded by Sarv Shiksha Abhiyan Society.

As of date, the department has failed to coordinate with the SSA Society to provide books at the GGSSS, Sector 18, centre. Consequently, none of the girls studying in classes I to VIII across 104 government schools in the city have received the textbooks.

When contacted, Deputy Director School Education (DDSE), also the project coordinator for SSA, Chanchal Singh said, “I am not aware of the purchase of any of the items related to the students. I am not supposed to comment on the issue.”

Sources say the delay in release of fund by the SSA Society for the purchase of books has led to further delay in supply of books.

Also, none of the students has received the uniforms as of date. “The process of decentralisation of purchase of the uniforms has led to the delay in the supply of uniforms. While tenders have been called, the samples will first go to committee for approval and then the uniforms will be sent across to schools,” said a department official.

Indian Express, 05 May 2012


‘RTE extended reach of primary education; absenteeism still high’

Government run schools, Right to Education

Post- independence the need for quality education in the country struck my father. Education, which was global in its dimension, inculcated scientific temper and, yet, was founded on Indian culture and human values. This is what we sought to create. Wherein, there opportunities for every child’s personality to be actualised. In those days, particularly in northern India, there was a lack of schools. That is how the first Apeejay School came up in Jalandhar and we then took it forward with like-minded people. The idea was to keep preserving and cementing the Indian culture and the finer arts like design, painting, dance, etc., and at the same time give an opportunity to children to pursue these avenues as a profession.

How was the Apeejay University set up?

Our idea was to set up India’s first liberal arts university, in terms of teaching and learning. We wanted to adopt a holistic approach. We allow students to change their stream if after some time of starting a course they realise that their interests were somewhere else. As each degree has its own requirement, it may mean that the student needs to take some additional courses, in some cases. We have an international semester and grade system. The degree may take longer but we allow students to take a decision about their career whenever they want. This is important because knowledge is seamless. We want to make our students industry-ready.

Over the last one year— especially in Delhi— a huge debate has started with regard to the autonomy of schools and the external or governmental controls pertaining to major policy decisions of schools. What’s your take on that?

First of all, we have our own quality control systems in place. As far as Apeejay is concerned, we do not need an external control agency to do a quality control exercise. We are in the education sector not as a business model but as a way of giving back to society. We have certain processes that we have put into place — both in writing and otherwise — which are more or less common to all schools and they are not at variants with what any educational directorate or anybody else would have done. The only unfortunate part is that the government has a lot of work left to do. If you look at the aspirations of the RTE, some of which are, if I may use the word, outsourced to the private sector. This is a testimony to the fact that the government puts trust in private institutions. Figures of school dropouts are alarming even though there’s good enrolment at the entry level. It’s a great aspiration but it needs to be properly executed, and at the current rate, it may take the government many years to implement it.

Would you agree with other private educational institutions that the onus of implementing the RTE should be with the government?

The problem is don’t club people who have altruistic goals with everyone in the field with these policies by which you try to control education. We try to have a diverse classroom and we try to accommodate children from all backgrounds on our own. Things need not be imposed by force in a place where you are self- supported. There are plenty of people who can afford to pay. Fine, let’s fund the education of the economically weaker sections but we should be able to charge for it from those who are willing to pay a little more.

What sort of government support have you seen since the RTE was implemented?

A sum of Rs 544 was received for books and other stationary for every child. Recently, a letter was sent asking schools to specify their per-child expenditure. There are many questions. How are you going to meet these expenditures? By cutting teacher’s salaries? Or by lowering standards or compromising with the learning environment?

Do you think it’s fair to compare government-school expenditure to private-school expenditure per child?

It’s a strange way of doing things. The government is saying that they are including operational expense per student, but land, building and renewal costs are not included in this. Secondly, what are you basing your per-child expenditure on? They should be calculating real per-student expenditure. The issue is not the students. There will be some students who may not be able to cope with the curriculum, irrespective of the social strata. The issue is processes being forced upon us and our autonomy.

How would you assess the performance of Right to Education Act in the last two years?

Since the implementation of Right to Education Act, 2009, on the one hand, there has been improvement in the extension of primary education, both in regard to enrolment and in reduction of dropout rates, but on the other hand, there is a significant gap between the Gross Enrolment Ratio and actual attendance of children in schools.

The absolute numbers of children who are out of school remains large. Union human resource development (HRD) minister, admits that still 8.1 million children in the age group 6 to 14 are out of school.

Despite some improvements in access and retention, there is a greater challenge of improving the quality of school education. The learning outcome for a majority of children continues to be an area of serious concern. Several studies suggest that nearly half the children in Grade 5 are unable to read a Grade 2 text and 64 per cent of them can’t manage simple division sums.

There’s a shortage of 508,000 teachers country-wide, other figure say it is 1.4 million.

the Indian Express, 30 April 2012


RTE Act can be a model for the world: Kapil Sibal

Government run schools, Quality, Right to Education

The RTE Act is an opportunity to break gender, caste, class and community barriers that threaten to damage the social fabric of our democracy and create fissures that could be ruinous to the country, writes Union HRD minister Kapil Sibal.

The Supreme Court judgment upholding the constitutional validity of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act has once again focused public attention on education. While there has been enthusiastic praise of the judgment from most, there continues to be veiled criticism of the provisions of the act from some.

Not withstanding the obligations cast on private educational institutions by the RTE Act, the major responsibility for universalizing elementary education, without doubt, lies with the state. Universalizing access and retention, bridging gender and social category gaps in enrolment, and improving quality of elementary education are the primary focus of government’s interventions through the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan.

The provisions relating to private schools in the act do not mean that the Central and state governments are absolved of their primary responsibility of providing infrastructure and facilities, and an enabling environment to meet the objectives in the RTE Act. More than 90% of households in the country will have to continue to enrol their children in government schools – even after children belonging to disadvantaged groups and weaker sections obtain 25% of the seats in preschool/Class I in private schools every year.

The provision for admitting 25% children from disadvantaged groups and weaker sections in private unaided (nonminority) schools is an attempt at affirmative action and social integration. This provision in the RTE Act will enable schools to ensure that their student bodies contain different types of children, so that each student brings something new and different to the school community, thereby enriching and adding value to it, and consequently creating a more democratic learning environment. The RTE Act is a modest effort to bring about social integration.

It’s undeniable that this means a major transformation for private schools. It is true that transformation does not take place on demand. Recognizing the difficulties involved in making the change, the act has adopted a “gradualist” approach, and provides for admission of children from weaker sections at entry stage only.

With children admitted in preschool/ Class I moving up, and a new cohort entering the school each successive year, the school will gradually have a more diverse population spread across all classes.

At this pace children will have the opportunity to grow up together and create bonds; bonds that will survive social walls. Progression at this pace will also allow schools to develop professional capacity to respond to the intellectual and emotional needs of children from diverse backgrounds. Children from adverse living conditions can bring rich experiences of coping with life, and sharing these experiences with well-off children can be invaluable. It is this mixing of children from diverse backgrounds that may change the character of the school in many positive ways.

It is possible that in the initial years, some children from disadvantaged households may face difficulty in coping with the curriculum, especially if they are first-generation schoolgoers. But many children from disadvantaged groups have shown that, given a facilitative environment, they can cope with the curriculum as well as, and often, even better than other children.

Indeed, statistics show that increasingly it is children from relatively poorer households who gain admission into IITs. In the sports arena too, it is largely children from poorer households who have excelled. Many schools managed by charitable and religious trusts already have a policy to admit a large number of children belonging to disadvantaged groups – without any compromise on quality.

The long gestation period provided in the act would enable the schools to put in place institutional structures to ensure that the quality of education is not compromised. It is not going to be easy but can be done.

The concern on the issue of financial implication on managements may be genuine in several cases. However, the per-child expenditure by many private schools, especially in rural areas and small towns, is lower than that in government schools. Reimbursement provided by government, therefore, will be adequate to meet the costs of educating children from weaker sections in such schools. But states must put in place open and transparent systems, preferably online, for reimbursement in a timebound and efficient manner.

It is, however, true that some schools in metros have per-child budgets much in excess of those in state schools. These schools would have to find innovative ways to meet the gap. Philanthropic individuals, charitable trusts and corporate funding may be some ways out.

The Times of India, 20 April 2012


RTE in place, but no water or toilets

Government run schools, Right to Education

NEW DELHI: Little seems to have changed in the city since the Right to Education was implemented exactly two years ago. A large number of schools still lack basic facilities promised under the new constitutional right. A study by Delhi RTE Forum-an umbrella body of 20 non-profit organizations-says denial of admission and absence of basic facilities in schools pose a hurdle in proper implementation of the RTE. The forum had surveyed 207 schools in south Delhi’s Madanpur Khadar and different areas of east Delhi, including Trilokpuri and Kalyanpuri, in November last year. It found that only 5% of the schools had provision for clean drinking water and as many as 30% of the schools did not have proper toilets and playgrounds.

“Most of those schools lacked basic facilities promised under RTE. We spoke to nearly 1,200 students from 32 schools as part of a focused group discussion. Many of them said they did not go to school as it didn’t help them in any way,” said Saurabh Sharma, a member of the forum. The survey also found that 22% of the schools did not have proper fencing or boundary walls, and 30% of them did not have separate toilets for boys and girls. Sharma said most schools did not have a School Management Committee (SMC) as the government notified the rules only in November 2011.

All of the schools surveyed are run either by MCD or Delhi government. The forum also surveyed 5,006 households selected randomly in various parts of east Delhi in June last year while the admissions for 2011-12 session in the Delhi government schools were still on. The forum found that 3.3% of the children surveyed did not go to school. Nearly 7% of the children out of school had special needs. “Though RTE ensures equal opportunities for children with special needs, the school authorities are completely unaware of their needs. As a result, many drop out or not get enrolled at all,” the survey report says.

The Times of India, 02 April 2012


Silver bullets in education

Government run schools, Learning Achievements, Quality

Last year, Dileep and I were in a cab headed to Columbia University. After the cab driver learnt that we work in school education in India, we were lectured loudly by him. It started with some curt advice to Dileep about his lovely dark blue kurta: unless he dressed properly (in trousers and shirt) no one would take him seriously.

He wanted us to be taken seriously —with a purpose. The Chinese were taking over the world. He didn’t like it. In his assessment the only people who could stop the Chinese were us, the Indians. And we were messing up by not fixing our school system. Our school system could be fixed easily, by being tough with the teachers: we should fire the 20% who don’t show up for work and also those who don’t improve performance in a year.

His face glowed with satisfaction from having given sound advice, as he helped us with our bags. He reminded Dileep about the kurta, and waved a cheerful goodbye.
I go through this kind of a cab driver moment very often. People hold strong views about how to improve schools in India. They expect action to be taken, and quickly. And they get exasperated even by the faintest suggestion that their solutions may be inadequate or that the problems that they are prioritizing may not be so important.

This happens not just with cab drivers in New York, but also in India: with business people, government officials, politicians, harried parents of school-going children, i.e., just about anybody. Many such people are passionate believers in their silver bullets, which are often trivial pursuits. In the 80:20 principle, these will not figure in the vital few.

Such belief in silver bullets is often harmless, but sometimes not. That is because powerful politicians, key bureaucrats, public figures and business people often influence what happens in the education system.

In this piece I am listing the most common five silver bullets, as I have seen. I call them trivial pursuits because of many reasons: simplistic diagnosis, over-estimation of importance, underestimation of complexity of solutions, ignoring the integrated nature of educational and social issues, inadequate from a learning and pedagogical stand-point and just plain wrong.

First: “Let’s fix the policies”. This is the catch-all one. A belief that somehow the ills of our schooling can be fixed by changing policy is widespread. Some policies can certainly be improved, but for the most part, the issue is in the implementation of the education policies. And like all implementation, the devil is in the details, which by its very nature is so diffuse that no silver bullet can fix it.

Second, the enthusiasm of the New York cab driver about fixing education by fixing the teachers who are habitually not in school is shared by many. Whatever the absenteeism number might be, two facts are often overlooked. That a vastly larger number show up to work and teach. And people not showing up to work (or not working) is not just in schools, but in many of our other public systems. It’s a wider issue of governance, with socio-political roots.

Third: “Let’s improve teacher salaries to get better people”. While salaries of teachers in a large percentage of private schools are very poor, government schoolteachers across the country are reasonably well paid; often in the top quartile of their socio-economic milieu. A key issue in “getting teachers” is the kind of places teachers have to live in. We now have schools in 0.8km of 98% of our habitations. It’s the perceived (and real) hardship of living in a particular village, a specific block, a region that is often the big obstacle for getting teachers.

Fourth: “Let’s use technology to improve teaching, address the problem of teacher attendance, to deliver interesting learning material, etc.” The reality is that the vast majority of our schools are amid basic infrastructure which limits the use of technology. This is about availability of electricity and basic service delivery. However, even in the best of circumstances, technology has a limited role to play in the teaching-learning process with children. This is not a limitation of technology, but simply the nature of learning, which is best nurtured for a child by a personal human interaction and relationship.

Fifth: “Let’s privatize the schooling system”. The words chosen may differ, but that is what it means. What it ignores is that our schooling system is already rapidly privatizing, which is not helping matters. Just for now, let’s ignore all other problems of privatizing schooling, the fact is that on learning outcomes our private schools and government schools are alike.

It’s obvious that I have taken the risk of being shot by those whose silver bullets I am calling trivial pursuits. Most of these people are good-intentioned. But these good intentions miss the fundamental issues, e.g., teacher and school leader capacity, school and education system culture, curricular issues, assessment (testing) systems.

It’s the fundamental issues that we need to work on—on a sustained basis for a few decades, and not get distracted by silver bullets.

Livemint, 04 April 2012


The Story of One School Why 650 children came and only 200 remained

Access to education, Community Schools, Government run schools, Right to Education, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan

WITH THE Right to Education Act (RTE) completing two years, HRD Minister Kapil Sibal may feel smug about the decline in dropout rates. But close to 40,000 children in the Naxal-hit districts of Chhattisgarh are yet to even enrol in schools. To them, the impressive figures of the Human Resource and Development Ministry regarding addition of classrooms matter little.

Most of these children missing from schools in these areas are actually victims of conflict. During the time of the now disbanded Salwa Judum, the state-sponsored anti-Naxal militia, and later Operation Green Hunt from 2005 to 2010, the biggest casualties apart from human lives were schools and education. Salwa Judum destroyed schools as they went on a rampage vacating villages suspected of supporting Naxals; while Naxals did the same, fearing that schools would be used as camps by the security forces.

Many schools were shut permanently, while some were shifted next to the roads along the Salwa Judum camps. The residential school in Chintalnar, around 80 km from district headquarters Sukma, was among those shut in 2005, forcing all the children to go back to their homes. “More than 650 children turned up for admission when the school reopened in 2010, but we were able to take just 370 of them. There were just too many to be accommodated with the limited infrastructure available,” recalls Jairam Sinha, an instructor in the school, pointing to the school building. The building is a small house with four rooms measuring 10 ft by 10 ft.

Since then, the number of students has come down to 200, as many have run away. Still, nearly 150 boys are crammed, often 2-3 to a bed, in an abandoned, dilapidated house nearby that serves as a temporary hostel. The girls sleep in the school itself. The irony, however, is that even the new school building, which has been under construction for the past two years, won’t be able to accommodate the sanctioned strength of more than 500 children. And Jairam Sinha says there are more than 2,000 children in a 10-km radius from Chintalnar who don’t go to school.

One big hurdle in reaching Chintalnar and constructing the new building is the 45-km long virtually non-existent road, which connects it to the nearest supply town of Dornapal. The road has seen some major blasts by Naxals in the past few years, claiming the lives of several security personnel. “Transportation is a challenge on that road as whatever little is sent has to be sent under heavy security,” says Alex VF Paul Menon, Collector of Sukma.

This, however, is by no means the most dismal scenario. Hundreds of villages scattered in the forests of south Chhattisgarh exist with no sign of administration. Due to Naxal threats and difficult terrain, neither the government nor any NGO is aware about the children left out of the formal education system. KR Pisda, school education secretary of Chhattisgarh, says, “According to our estimates, there are around 15,000 children who are yet to be enrolled in four districts of Dantewada, Bijapur, Sukma and Narayanpur.” However, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) in 2009 estimated that there are 40,000 such children in seven districts, and the situation hasn’t improved since then.

Regular schools in these areas have rarely been successful. Residential Ashram schools and Porta Cabins (structures made of bamboo), being run by the Tribal Welfare Department and the Department of School Education under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, are a common sight all across these districts.

What is, however, odd is the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) camps right next to most of them. During Salwa Judum days, many schools were used as camps by the CRPF and police and were vacated only in 2011 after repeated warnings by the Supreme Court. But the new camps that came up later have been constructed quite close to the schools. Many see this as a way to check ration supplies to Naxals, often siphoned off from those meant for schools. This, in turn, make the schools vulnerable as they too can come in the line of fire in case a CRPF camp is attacked by the Naxals.

It is common knowledge in these areas that the initiation process to become a Naxal starts early and sometimes children are recruited for Bal Sanghams (Naxal schools) at an early age of six. At the age of 12, these Bal Sanghams get promoted to other ranks, which also includes armed cadres.

Gopal Buddu, 20, was taken away by Naxals at the age of 13 from his village Kamkanar in Bijapur district. “I was forced to go with them as resistance would have meant trouble,” says Buddu. After six years of hardship in the jungles and working as a bodyguard of the Division Commander, one fine day in 2011 he surrendered before the Bijapur police. Buddu has now been rehabilitated in the Chhattisgarh Auxiliary Armed Police Force.

Most parents now, however, see schools as a safe haven for their kids as they also provide protection from being taken away forcibly by the Naxals. Therefore, the longer the children remain out of schools, more their chances of getting picked up by the Naxals. Shanta Sinha, Chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) says, “It’s important to give access to education to the children and then let them decide their path after they are empowered to think.”

EVEN IF a child gets enrolled in a school, retaining and keeping track of them is a huge challenge. Recently, the NCPCR found out that around 35 tribal children had been taken to Kerala by contractors to work in brick-kilns. “We wrote to the Kerala government asking them to send these children back to their schools in Chhattisgarh,” says Sinha. The state government there was able to track 25 of them while 10 could not be traced.

Himanshu Kumar, who used to run an NGO, Vanvasi Chetna Ashram, in Dantewada district, says, “We used to work with tribal activists, who knew every student by name and village. They were quite quick in tracing them as soon as they disappeared from schools.” He has, however, now shifted to Delhi after his house was bulldozed by the police in 2009.

In places like Dantewada and Sukma, where the drop-out rate is 26 per cent at the primary level, way higher than the national average of around 7 percent, radical steps are required to retain students. “In partnership with the government, we are working on a doable Management Information System on Child Tracking, psycho-social support for children affected by violence, and a set of standards and protocols for residential institutions on child protection, which would enable tracking of children both at the community and institution level,” says Shaheen Nilofer, who heads UNICEF Chhattisgarh, which is probably the only agency with access to remote areas in Sukma, Bijapur, Narainpur and other south Bastar districts.

It’s not that the administration is not working at all, but the focus currently is on creating school infrastructure at places accessible by roads. Close to Dantewada town, a huge Education City, comprising residential schools for boys and girls, is being built at a cost of Rs 100 crore. The project, when completed, would be able to accommodate more than 2,000 children. But relocating so many children from villages would itself be a huge challenge.

OP Chaudhury, collector of Dantewada, says the aim is to send a message to people in interior areas that such kind of development is possible in their village too. “We want the community to come forward and take ownership of these projects,” he says.

The Right to Education Act (RTE) says that “the appropriate government or local authority shall undertake school mapping, and identify all children, including children in remote areas… within a period of one year from the appointed date…”

The idea seems difficult to implement in these areas, but certainly it is not impossible to accommodate children who wish to learn, by improving the infrastructure of the existing schools and restoring the ones destroyed during the conflict. Then only, in a real sense, would the strategy of winning hearts and minds work.

Prakhar Jain is a Correspondent with Tehelka.

Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 15, 14 April 2012

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