India’s school education system is moth-eaten, it’s time to stem the rot

It was June 2008, when news broke early in the morning that 38 Greyhound commandos had been killed in a deadly Maoist attack in Odisha. It caught my attention instantly, because the place of the attack — Chitrakonda — was where I had spent much of my childhood in the 1970s. My father, an engineer, was posted there for the construction of what Jawaharlal Nehru had so captivatingly called “the temples of modern India” — a dam and a hydroelectric power plant.

Chitrakonda was etched in my memory for its rich forests, beautiful mountains and the always fascinating tribal communities . How could such a place of peace and tranquillity turn into a Maoist den? In search of an answer, I travelled there a few months later to find that the place of my childhood had indeed turned into a story of despair.

The electricity and irrigation generated from the project, I learnt, had mostly benefitted farmers and industries in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh. The local people and mostly tribal communities suffered double displacement: first to make way for the dam and then for the irrigation canals. Their livelihoods and economic opportunities had shrunk following the “success of development” and left them with widespread unemployment and edging them towards the Maoists. In several villages, families had turned to illegal cultivation and trading of opium, for which many received protection from the Maoists and the local police. I wondered if Chitrakonda’s fate would have been different if its many children had a different education story to tell.

The same school that launched and prepared me and my many friends for the bigger world of Delhi and other opportunities is now a run-down ghost of itself. In the years after the completion of the project, when the engineers and the staff brought in from outside were packed up, the state authorities stopped caring for the school. At the time of my visit in early 2009, it had just four full-time teachers compared to the dozen-plus that we had. The classrooms no longer had chairs and tables; black boards were blank; teacher attendance was sporadic; and the most important entry on the school’s daily itinerary appeared to be the distribution of the mid-day meals. Clearly, Chitrakonda’s children had been going to school, but not getting educated.

The situation of Chitrakonda, its people and the ruinous decline of my former school is a good way to understand the risks aspirational India faces today. In allowing a steady and systemic deterioration of its school education system, a veritable ocean of social crisis and potential violence can drown or snuff out other gains.

Across the country, there are hundreds of thousands of schools like mine that have become mere statistics, which babus and politicians can use to ramp up claims on enrollment ratio, literacy rates and progress vis-a-vis the Millennium Development Goals set by the United Nations.

As we speak, Parliament is debating changes to the Right to Education Act (RTE) and a high-powered government panel is finalising a “New Education Policy” (NEP) for the country. There already exists a rich body of literature on what an ailing education system can mean for innovation, economic growth and social order. As educationist Prof Krishna Kumar pointed out at a national-level consultation on the NEP last week, it is imperative to ask where and how we went wrong in the past and what are the lessons we learn from those mistakes.

India’s biggest failing has been that the government doesn’t spend enough on education. Four decades have passed since a target was set to increase public spending to 6% of the national income. That target remains elusive. Worse, after peaking at nearly 3% in the immediate years following the enactment of RTE in 2009, the share of public spending in GDP has been slipping since 2013.

A significant and sustained spike in public spending is critical to overcoming everything else – from lack of qualified and trained teachers to well-equipped classrooms and monitoring learning outcomes.

What is worrying, and intriguing, however, is that certain influential sections in the government are trying to cook academic evidence to negate the primacy of availability of teachers and classroom infrastructure as being critical to achieving quality education. One out of every two teachers in a government school is a contract employee, half of the teachers are neither qualified nor trained and in one calculation up to 30% of their time is spent on non-education work such as manning election booths and “volunteering” for polio vaccination campaigns.

Even more worrying is the institutional damage that has been inflicted on the system over the years. Institutions such as the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) and its counterparts in states (SCPCR) have been rendered dysfunctional. It has ceased to be a priority for most states to fill up vacancies for cluster resource coordinators and block resource coordinator – the most critical last-mile link in monitoring and managing school education. The office of the education minister is no longer a sought after job in most states. These issues must be addressed for a a meaningful reform of the education system.

Our legislators and policy makers would also do well to bear in mind that three most desirable outcomes are needed from a good schooling system: citizenship training, enhancing economic productivity and social mobility.

An educated populace, in essence, reduces a range of transaction costs by being able to raise the quality of a nation’s cultural and social life. This is, however, not to suggest that the poorly educated and the illiterate are undesirable as humans. Rather, it is important to acknowledge that those lacking meaningful education are most likely to be left powerless and become victims in any society that is based on choice and informed decision-making.