Last fortnight, news of a significant development was tucked away in the inside pages of newspapers. The government finally tabled a bill in Parliament seeking to make primary education a fundamental right. A fortnight earlier, a Delhi-based newspaper had carried a report about a three-month interruption in the Delhi Government’s ‘Education for All’ programme. The report made for distressing reading. It said that literacy centres across the city were closed down, volunteers beaten up and enrolment registers burnt. All because the state government had, earlier this year, made participation in the programme mandatory for teachers in government schools. The routine denials were issued and there probably was a wee bit of exaggeration in the report. But it still is a pointer to the enormity of the task at hand.
That economic development will be inherently unstable unless it is built on a solid base of education, specially primary education, has been said so often that it is in danger of becoming a platitude. Nor does India’s abysmal record in the field need much reiteration. Nearly $30$ million children in the six to ten age group do not go to school – reason enough to make primary education not only compulsory but a fundamental right. But is that the solution? More importantly, will it work? Or will it remain a mere token, like the laws providing for compulsory primary education? It is now widely known that $14$ states and four Union Territories have this law on their statute books. Believe it or not, the list actually includes Bihar, Madhya Pradesh (MP) and Rajasthan, where literacy and education levels are miles below the national average. A number of states have not even notified the compulsory education law.
This is not to belittle the decision to make education a fundamental right. As a statement of political will, a commitment by the decision-makers, its importance cannot be undervalued. Once this commitment is clear, a lot of other things like resource allocation will naturally fall into place. But the task of universalizing elementary education (UEE) is complicated by various socio-economic and cultural factors which vary from region to region and within regions.
If India’s record continues to appall, it is because these intricacies have not been adequately understood by the planners and administrators. The trouble has been that education policy has been designed by grizzled mandarins ensconced in Delhi and is totally out of touch with the ground reality. The key then is to decentralise education planning and implementation. What's also needed is greater community involvement in the whole process. Only then can school timings be adjusted for convenience, school children given a curriculum they can relate to and teachers made accountable.
For proof, one has only to look at the success of the district primary education programme, which was launched in $1994$. It has met with a fair degree of success in the $122$ districts it covers. Here the village community is involved in all aspects of education – allocating finance to supervising teachers to fixing school timings and developing curriculum and textbooks – through district planning teams. Teachers are also involved in the planning and implementation process and are given small grants to develop teaching and learning material, vastly improving motivational levels. The consequent improvement in the quality of education generates increased demand for education.
But for this demand to be generated, quality will first have to be improved. In MP, the village panchayats are responsible for not only constructing and maintaining primary schools but also managing scholarship, besides organising non-formal education. How well this work in practice remains to be seen (though the department claims the schemes are working very well) but the decision to empower panchayats with such powers itself a significant development. Unfortunately, the Panchayat Raj Act has not been notified in many states. After all, delegating powers to the panchayats is not looked upon too kindly by vested interests.
More specifically, by politicians, since decentralisation of education administration takes away from them the power of transfer, which they use to grant favours and build up a support base. But if the political leadership can push through the bill to make education a fundamental right, it should also be able to persuade the states to implement the laws on Panchayat Raj. For, UEE cannot be achieved without decentralisation. Of course, this will have to be accompanied by proper supervision and adequate training of those involved in the administration of education. But the devolution of powers to the local bodies has to come first.
The only way in which the education system can be improved is by
- decentralising education planning and implementation.
- introducing fresh blood in the planning body.
- injecting funds into the exchequer solely for the purpose.
- educating the people on the need for primary education.