Monday, March 17, 2008

righting education

It is a favourite debate of policy historians. Do a Google search for it and you will get a glimpse of the apathy towards the education scene in India. The right to elementary education was made a fundamental right in 2002, but not much has come of it.

The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan initiative to fill the elementary schools was initially successful but the condition of the education system has led most children to drop out and no one takes the program seriously. A good initiative reduced to dregs. The name given to schools under this scheme is "Education guarantee centers" - very drearily minimalist sounding. Most teachers were hired on a temporary basis. These signs are not reflective of provisions under a fundamental right.

Now, after many failed attempts, there are talks of a new bill about education being introduced this year (not surprisingly, considering early elections might be called this year). A similar bill a couple of years ago was supressed, with no one ready to take the burden (financial and otherwise) of ensuring quality education.

Even if this new bill is passed, I am skeptical about what the bill aims at. I'm not even considering how well the bill might be implemented, but my question is if this is the right way to expend resources.

The Census website tells me that there are about a 160 million children (as of 2001) in India aged 0-6 years. Given that our population has increased by about a 150 million since the last census 10 years ago and assuming that lower deaths counts much less than increased births in this growth, I think there might be 250-odd million children between 0-15 years old. I cannot see how, by just providing good schools, the government can hope to educate one-fourths of our billion-strong people.

The challenge is going to lie on the other side - getting children to come to school (and their parents to send them) and making sure they invest time and energy in the learning process. Something the government should try is pushing this as corporate social responsibility and engaging in some sort of public-private partnership. Small, independent initiatives have a tendency of coming up with new ideas. The ones that work can be replicated elsewhere.

Scaling a transformation like this across the many cultures that are embedded in our land can be tricky. Like I have said before, the government should lay the framework and then get out of the way and let the people do what they will.

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