Eyewitness : Neglect of rural schools
The ground realities of the nation's much neglected government-managed school system are beginning to impact the national consciousness, reports Summiya Yasmeen.

October 2003 - A year after the launch following a constitutional amendment and much fanfare of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (Education for All) programme which promises to ensure that every child between six-14 years is in school and learning, the ground realities of post-independence India's much neglected government-managed school system (90 percent of schools across the country are run by central/ state/ local governments) are beginning to impact the national consciousness.

In a travesty of central planning whose raison d'etre is to ensure balanced growth within all sectors of the economy, this nation has split into urban India characterised by glitzy shopping malls, five-star hotels, pubs, multiplexes which co-exist cheek-by-jowl with fetid slum habitations, and rural Bharat where people live bereft of sanitation, safe drinking water, communication or road linkages. And in no other sector of the economy is the chasm as glaringly evident as in elementary education where the quality gap between India's best (private sector) schools and Bharat's government schools is as wide as the blue Pacific.

"New Delhi has not met its financial obligation to achieve the UEE (universal elementary education) goal. Parliament decided that education would be given Rs.9,800 crore extra per annum. Even of this inadequate provision, only Rs.1,500 crore has been allocated."
According to the Public Report on Basic Education, 1998, in four of the most populous and under-developed states of the country (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh) 31 percent of primary schools don't have a pucca building, 20 percent are single-teacher schools, 56 percent don't offer potable water and 70 percent are without toilet facilities. In the other states of the Indian Union, government schools are better but only marginally. Little wonder that of the 146 million children who enroll in primary schools nation-wide annually, 59 million drop out before they reach class VIII.

"Though the condition of most rural schools in the country is dismal with many of them being single teacher institutions without basic infrastructure, in some states like Karnataka there are positive developments. For instance last year the state government through its Chinnara Angala programme enrolled 350,000 never-enrolled and dropout children into school. And this July the government also launched its Akshara Dasoha free mid-day meal scheme in all government primary schools in the state to improve retention and check dropouts. Apart from state governments taking a keen interest, another positive development is that local communities are beginning to play an active role in monitoring and upgrading government schools in rural India," says Dileep Ranjekar, the Bangalore-based chief executive of the Azim Premji Foundation (APF), an education trust constituted by IT czar and chairman of the Wipro Corporation (market capitalisation: Rs.33,275 crore), Azim Premji.

APF works with 220 government schools in rural Karnataka and has blazed a new trail to upgrade government school education which should serve as an example to corporate India (the major beneficiary by way of higher productivity). Two years down the road, it has engineered a unique tripartite partnership between the state government, local communities and itself to upgrade the quality of education dispensed by schools covered by its Learning Guarantee Programme.

Under the programme 220 computer-assisted learning centres have been set up in rural Karnataka. "It's a three-way partnership. The state government provides the infrastructure support i.e computers, a printer and electricity; the local community sustains the learning centre by paying for the maintenance of equipment; APF trains teachers and provides administrative support. This partnership has worked very well in Karnataka and we soon plan to set up similar computer assisted learning centres in government schools in rural Andhra Pradesh," says Ranjekar.

Though a new beginning incorporating new technology has been made in some corners of the country, the SSA or Education for All initiative following the 86th Amendment of the Constitution Act 2003 guaranteeing "free and compulsory education to all children between ages six and 14", is already behind schedule.

"The first deadline all children in school by 2003 has already passed unfulfilled. In fact, if you work backward from the objective that all children have to complete eight years of elementary schooling by 2010, every child in the specified age group should have been in school on January 1, 2003, not by December 31, 2003. The Union ministry of human resources development is too casual about deadlines. Moreover it has not met its financial obligation to achieve the UEE (universal elementary education) goal. Parliament decided that education would be given Rs.9,800 crore extra per annum. Even of this inadequate provision, only Rs.1,500 crore has been allocated. Obviously the government is not serious about fulfilling its EFA goals," says Sanjeev Kaura, the Delhi-based chief convener of the National Alliance for the Fundamental Right to Education (NAFRE) an umbrella organisation of 2,400 NGOs across the country.

Given this casual attitude of central and state governments towards SSA, it's hardly surprising that the UNESCO report on Education for All (released in November 2002) says that India's plans to universalise elementary education "lack credible evidence". With the national fiscal deficit (centre plus states) aggregating to an unprecedented 11 percent of GDP and governments unwilling to cut back their wages, unmerited subsidies or defence bills, even the modest SSA outlay is unlikely to be fulfilled. Already several state governments have begun recruiting under-qualified 'para teachers' to meet SSA targets. This will further dumb down the already sub-standard education provided by government schools, particularly in rural India where 347 million people scratch out a living on less than $1 per day.

The bottom line is that everybody is aware that government schools suffer terribly in comparison with independent schools. But there is widespread ignorance of the extent to which foundational education has stagnated particularly in rural India. To run a health check on the school system in rural India, Education World correspondents travelled beyond the metros to file the reports on the pages following. Draw your own conclusions.

Ashram Shala Kaman School, Dahisar
Only a 150-minute drive from Mumbai, children in this tribal school make do with abysmal facilities. There are very few dropouts

ASKS: sanitation lament

Ashram Shala Kaman is a boarding school for tribal children situated in Dahisar, a suburb of Mumbai, two and a half hours (if you drive) from south Mumbai. Although Dahisar has the infrastructure and facilities of a town, the school itself is set in a village off the highway, surrounded by thick green woods. Indeed the only positive feature about the school is the scenic view from classroom windows.

Run by the tribal welfare department of the Maharashtra government, the school was started in 1971 and admits only adivasi children as boarders, though it enrolls non-adivasi children as day scholars. While chatting informally, the school teachers informed me candidly that "not a naya paisa" has been given by the government for any kind of construction at the school. When it was promoted it was just a "makeshift" structure, which was converted into a brick and concrete building as recently as 1992, thanks to donations from good samaritans and a former student, now an IAS officer.

The school building comprises rows of rooms on three sides of a courtyard, nine of which are dormitories and six are classrooms. Each room has a fan and one naked bulb. The classrooms have three-four blackboards while the dormitories display the children's metal trunks lined up against the walls. Besides this accommodation, there is a room for the principal and two supervisors who reside on the premises. There is a semi-open kitchen at the rear of the building where meals are prepared for boarders.

When the school was established there were no bathrooms at all. Now there is one toilet/ bathroom (in a very unsanitary condition) specially constructed for the girl boarders. Over 350 girls share this facility while boys use the great outdoors. The one topic which constantly cropped up in conversations with teachers and students was the need for "at least two/ three bathrooms". Apart from this, teachers and students seemed quite happy with everything in the school. Never mind that there is no provision for safe drinking water, a science lab, a playground or enough classrooms.

The school has 700 children, most of whom are boarders, on it rolls and there is obviously no choice but to cram two or three classes into each room. In most classrooms, children sit on the floor in rows, but a few have desks and chairs, which were donated by The Rustomjee International School (RIS), a well reputed five-year-old institution in Dahisar. RIS has adopted this village school as well as a bal wadi (primary school) in the same area.

The tribal welfare department pays the salaries of teachers as well as tuition and accommodation expenses of the children. The amount allotted per child is Rs.335 per month for ten months of the year to take care of food, clothes, books and toiletries. A student told me that each cake of soap has to be shared by two children and must last a month.

The teachers are qualified B.Eds and don't live on the premises. The principal (whom I could not meet), two supervisors and two cooks reside on the campus. The pass percentage (SSC class X examination) is between 65-70 percent. What's heartening is that despite the abysmal facilities, there are very few dropouts.

Comments Smita Patil, a member of the gram panchayat and an enthusiastic social worker who lives in Dahisar. "I don't have any hope of the state government helping us. If we want better facilities in our schools, we have to raise funds from the local community or well-wishers. Each child here has potential and determination but their ambitions are cut short by poor quality school education."
Gaver Chatterjee (Mumbai)

Tambaram Middle School, Kannadapalyam
The outer compound walls of this 22-year-old Tamil medium government school have become the dumping ground of municipal garbage.

Outdoor class in Tambaram Middle School

The newly painted exterior of the Tambaram Middle School, situated in a spacious compound amid green trees belies the dirt, dreariness and inadequacies of the school within. Sited in Kannadapalayam village, a mere two km from Tambaram (a suburb of Chennai) the outer compound walls of this Tamil medium government school have been the dumping ground for municipal garbage and worse for many years. Consequently, flies swarm the surroundings and an ugly stench pervades the school.

There is just one pucca building with a single classroom supplemented by four other dingy, poorly lit classrooms with asbestos roofs, for the school's 400 students of classes 1-VIII. The children learn squatting on dirty floors with their bags and books strewn around them. The few tables available are stacked against the wall for indeterminate use. There are no rooms for three classes and these children are taught under the shade of trees in the open compound, where blackboards are painted on the compound walls. Toilet and water facilities are non-existent for the children and the school's nine women teachers. Children take turns to fetch water in heavy pots for their requirements, three times a day, from a nearby borewell. At lunchtime these hapless students have to bear with swarming flies, mosquitoes and the pervasive stench.

Started in 1981, the Tambaram Middle School provides free education to the children of mainly quarry and construction workers. Textbooks and mid-day meals are provided free and the dropout rate in the last three years has been very low, mainly due to the efforts of teachers who nag parents to send their children to school. The teachers claim they have the basic facilities to teach science and other subjects, though nothing was available for verification. The headmaster, Rathinaramalingam who has been with this school for ten years was not available for comment as he was on leave the day I visited.

Comments Usha Arulselvam, a class III teacher who lives nearby and has taught in the school for eight years: "I don't think any teacher would want to continue working here for very long. We find it very difficult to teach we don't have even basic facilities like toilets and drinking water. The stench from the garbage and the menace of flies is constant and children fall ill very often. Our headmaster has approached the municipal chairman several times to stop the dumping of garbage but there's been no response. Actually it's better now. The situation was worse earlier when there was no proper building or compound wall. Only after the government announced the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan last year, has the school been provided with a compound wall, ceiling fans and a coat of paint. But these things are far too little."

Adds W.Hemalatha, a class VIII teacher: "In summer the garbage is burnt outside the school compound and teachers and children suffer from respiratory illness caused by the smoke and pollution. These problems drive away most teachers and for many months vacancies are not filled."

But for students the stench and dirt caused by the garbage is a manageable problem if only they had proper classrooms in which to study. "Since there are not enough rooms, every class has to sit outside on the muddy ground in turns and study in groups. It would be nice if we had proper classrooms with tables and chairs. I'm just waiting to finish middle school, so that I can join the Seva Sadan School in Tambaram, which has better facilities," says S. Anbarasan, a class VIII student.
Hemalatha Raghupathi (Chennai)

Rashtriya Udyog Ashram Inter College, Matiyari
Enrollments in this class VI-XII have steadily declined because of mushrooming private schools

RUAIC exterior: enrollment decline

Rashtriya Udyog Ashram Inter College is a class six-XII school, some 15 km from the heart of Lucknow city. The school is government aided and boasts 350 students (only 30 girl students) and 25 teachers. Though the school has a pucca building, it's plaster is peeling and the walls are shabbily painted. It has 15 classrooms with blackboards, a principal's office, outer office, one staff room and three toilets with intermittent water supply. Electricity too, is erratic. It is difficult to spot one complete piece of furniture. There is a playground, but it is run over by wild grass.

The school's principal R.N. Tripathi who has been in office for the past seven years, is excited at the idea that someone is taking such keen interest in his school. His persistent query is "In what way will you help us?" Ask him what kind of assistance he is looking for and he says, "Money for maintenance; some new furniture would also be welcome." His enthusiasm cools off as one explains the purpose of the visit. And he is also a bit suspicious. He claims to have read of government schemes like the mid-day meal but since his is not a primary school, no special schemes have been implemented here. "What do you expect a rural school to be like? The children here reflect the environment they come from. Some come walking over long distances and so it is understandable that attendance is low. Most of the neighbouring families sell vegetables or milk for a living. School is often regarded an impediment, for a child at home means an extra pair of hands to work. The government gives us our salaries on time, but besides that there is no help forthcoming. We receive Rs.10 from high school and Rs.15 from inter students by way of tuition fees. Yearly development charges are two rupees. What are we expected to do? The local community couldn't care less. The general attitude is that even if children study they are anyway not going to find jobs, so why bother," says Tripathi.

Enrollment in Rashtriya Udyog Ashram Inter College in the past couple of years has steadily declined. This is mainly because of the mushrooming private schools in the area. Parents who can afford to, send their children to these relatively fancy new, private schools. According to Tripathi, government schools in urban areas are far better off as the government develops them to showcase its dedication to the cause of education. "Here even the district inspector of schools does not bother to visit us. On the rare occasion that he does, we tell him our problems. Of course we don't expect anything to happen. Yet my teachers are dedicated and teach with interest."

I also spoke to a class XII student, Gyanandra Singh. This is what he had to say: "The teachers at the school are cooperative and always willing to help. Earlier I was in another government school but the standard of teaching there was poor. Besides the teachers there is nothing positive about my school. The building is unattractive. There is supposed to be a lab for high school students but it is always locked. And although the principal does mention a library, I have yet to find it. There is not even a school uniform by which we could distinguish ourselves from students of other government schools. But I am thankful that there is at least a school that I can attend and where my parents can afford to send me."
Puja Rawat (Lucknow)

The Indian Primary Girls' School, Kanchrapara
Though established in 1914 on Indian Railways property, this school with 145 students is without electricity and water

Kanchrapara is a typical mofussil town, crowded, dusty, and messy. It's over an hour's journey by train from Kolkata. There are large areas of unused land and empty rural tracts on the outskirts of the town. Two of the oldest schools here and beyond are located in these rural fringes.

One of them, the Indian Primary Girls' School, started in the year 1914, is housed in an unused outhouse building of Indian Railways. It's never been acknowledged by railway authorities, therefore it has never received any financial assistance from them. It's a West Bengal government primary school, derelict and dreary, with old broken brick structures, surrounded by trees and without electricity and water. Its headmaster, Pradip Kumar Bhattacharya, who took charge in 1979 when there were 90 students, now teaches 145 children with the assistance of three other teachers. The students, mostly girls and a sprinkling of boys, are from the neighbouring villages and families of daily wage labourers and manually drawn rickshaws.

"Hunger is a big deterrent to education," says Bhattacharya. "It is synonymous with a total lack of interest in education." Yet, he insists, there have been few dropouts in the past few years, and student numbers have increased steadily. However he admits that "two-three students" drop out of school every year, to disappear into the child labour force.

The classrooms are bare and minimal. There is a long corridor which is also used as a classroom for children of classes I and II. It is divided with class II occupying the tail end of the corridor. There was one teacher attending to class I children huddled in the front. The youngest are crammed into class I; there are no separate arrangements for them. There were no teachers in attendance in the other two rooms of classes II and IV. Mid-day meals are not provided they stopped around two years ago. Bhattacharya laments the paucity of funds for plastering the ceilings. Two years ago, he received a grant of Rs.50,000 from the state government which was utilised to construct ceilings over two rooms. But grants of this nature are hard to come by and are few and far between.
Urmimala Chatterjee (Kolkata)

Barjala Secondary High School, Tripura
For over half century, this school was housed in bamboo stuctures. It still lacks electricity, drinking water and sports facilities

Barjala Secondary School students: infrastructure lacuna

After fifty arduous years, the Barjala Secondary High School recently witnessed the construction of two classrooms. But it still lacks basic infrastructure. There's no electricity, drinking water, sports facilities or sanitation. Located on the Airport Road, Barjala Secondary School got a new look in June this year after two concrete buildings were constructed. The school was established in 1952, but for over 50 years it existed in three separate bamboo structures.

This Tripura government school has a student enrollment of 1,100 (559 in the primary section) and operates in two sessions. The morning session is for classes I-V and the afternoon is for classes VI-X.

When I visited the school around noon, the primary school students with plates or bowls in hand were crowding outside the kitchen for the mid-day meal. Of the 559 primary students, only 278 (a little over half of the total strength) were present. But even of those present, many were playing in the nearby field, reluctant to eat the mid-day meal.

Says primary section headmaster Madhusudan Das: "Almost everyday the food is wasted and leftovers have to be thrown away." According to Das the school has many infrastructure problems, inadequacy of drinking water being the main irritant. "We have five water filters but they are not enough for over five hundred students," he says.

It has other problems, some of them acute. There is no electricity or any teaching aids and materials. Under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the Barjala School received a one-time grant of Rs.2,000 from the central government to purchase chalk and some other teaching materials. However, as Das says, this "was a very small amount and a one-time grant and wasn't really a great help to the school."

He adds that the drop-out rate averages 13 percent in Barjala. "Poverty is one of the main reasons. Children work in the fields to supplement their family incomes. And there's very little we can do to persuade the parents to send them instead to a school which has no facilities."
Syed Sajjad Ali (Agartala)

Government Co Ed Secondary School, Mandi
The children of this rural school are aware of the perceptions of visitors about rural schools and that they are an exception to the rule.

Mandi, a village on the outskirts of Delhi is 35 km from the city's central hub, Connaught Place. Less than a kilometre from Mandi's snake infested, thorn bush vegetation lies the porous border with Haryana. The Government Co Ed Secondary School occupies a central position in this crowded village. With a student population of 500 and a teaching staff of 15, the manageable teacher-pupil ratio suggests a well-run school.

When I arrived, the students were filing off the large playing field central to a series of brick buildings, wearing their green and beige salwar kameez, or shirt and shorts in the case of boys, in an orderly manner, supervised by four adults. Far from the ramshackle buildings and bored, weary children I had expected to see, I found charts on rainwater harvesting tacked to the school's corridors a trend I've noticed in all the urban private schools I've visited. The school is in the process of setting up a rainwater harvesting system and was thus raising awareness among the children through charts and discussions.

The principal Meena Kaul, who has been working in rural schools for the past 20 years, has headed this school for the last two years and is fluent in English and Hindi. Despite this government school being classified as a rural school, I was surprised to see its pucca buildings, and classrooms furnished with blackboards, desks and chairs. Notwithstanding the usual rigmarole of procedures de rigueur in all government departments, Kaul does eventually gets the equipment her school asks for. Interestingly she did not appear to be demoralised by the process, seeming to take it in her stride.

"The children of Mandi village are sent to school, mainly to keep them busy. They come from agricultural backgrounds and their parents don't really see the need to send them to school. Many of them are first generation learners and have to manage their homework without the help of family members. Because of inadequate parental support only 40 percent of the children succeed in their class X school leaving exam," says Kaul.

The problems these children face are rooted in economics. Most cannot afford books, in which case there are facilities such as book banks, whereby Kaul and her colleagues ensure that each child has course books and a uniform.

The children are aware of the perceptions of visitors about rural schools and that they are an exception to the rule. Their pride in their school, their neat appearance, regular hours and the sheer importance of going to school ensures that their heads are held high and they are proud to be prefects, to produce patriotic drawings and to raise the national flag to mark the country's independence day. Their parents importantly take time off from their jobs and their work to attend school functions and parent teacher meetings are held on a regular basis.

With a twinge of sadness in her eyes Kaul remarks: "Although their futures lie in the village, where they will do what their parents are doing now, their schooling is not wasted. Though they are bright, the life they will eventually have to lead will not make full use of their potential, which is such a pity."
Kalpana Parikh (Delhi)

Government Lower Primary School, Girigowdradoddi
This poorly equipped school is characterised by the small expectations of its faculty

The only compensation of the 130-minute drive to the Government Lower Primary School (GLPS), off Bangalore's Kanakapura Road, are the lush green fields, clean air and the scenic view of the hills beyond. Once off the main road, for almost 40 minutes it's a backbreaking and neck-twisting ride as the car negotiates its way through potholes and huge stones strewn along the narrow kuccha road. Girigowdradoddi is a dusty village (pop.400), a habitation without paved roads or covered drains and dominated by rickety thatched huts and semi-clad villagers.

We were cordially greeted by the school headmaster and some local SDMC (School Development and Monitoring Committee) members who inform us that they had gathered there for the inauguration of a library. The library which is to be shared by the school as well as the villagers is to be housed within the school premises which has only two rooms. This didn't quite square with the claim of a SDMC member that the library has 4,500 books. Though I asked several times to see the library, my enthusiastic hosts didn't oblige.

This class I-V government lower primary school has a pucca building comprising two classrooms and boasts 31 students and two teachers. Till as recently as 2001 it didn't have a toilet or safe drinking water facilities. Now it does, thanks to the one-time grant of Rs.40,000 sanctioned to them under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. Textbooks and uniforms are supplied free of cost by the government and surpri-singly the students were neatly dressed in a brown uniform with ties and black shoes. The medium of instruction like in all government primary schools in the state is Kannada and English is taught as a subject only from class V.

As is the situation in 85 percent of government schools country-wide, GLPS is also a multi-grade teaching institution. Class I-II students are clubbed together in one classroom whereas class III-V occupies the other. Until last year GLPS was one of the 5,231 single-teacher government schools in Karnataka. The two teachers teach all subjects (including math, science, social studies, etc). The concept of specialist subject teachers and extra-curricular activities is alien to the students and faculty.

When I asked the headmistress, Tulasi K, what facilities and help she would want from the government to improve the academic performance of her school she surpri-singly said: "I think we have everything." Her remark shocked me, because leave alone a drive to better her school she had no aspirations or expectations.

This school, like the 47,000 primary schools in the state offers free mid-day meals to students. (The Karnataka government introduced its Akshara Dasoha mid-day meal scheme on July 1 in all government-run primary schools). The government provides for the cooking gas, rice, dal, oil and salt and also pays the salary of the cook. Vegetables and other ingredients have to be bought with contributions from the community and SDMC members.

A headmistress from a village nearby (Mukkodlu) who had come to attend the library inauguration ceremony insisted that we visit her school and write about its problems as "press reports help in getting government attention". Her school the Government Higher Primary School was even more dismal. Located in the village square it comprised two classrooms situated on opposite sides of the road and a toilet. While two cows were tethered before one classroom, a bus stop fronted the other. It had no playground, no electricity and no drinking water facilities. Eighty-five students (classes I-VII) and four teachers share the two small classrooms. T. Vijaya, the headmistress, says she has been asking the education department and gram panchayat members to build another classroom, but there's been no response.

Despite these deplorable conditions I was surprised to hear from the children that they loved coming to school. Veera Muthu, a class VII student, says he wants to become a "computer engi-neer", though he has never seen a computer in his school or the village. Veera can scarcely understand English as he has learned it as a language only from class V. The teachers (though they claim they can teach English) barely understand the language. All my questions had to be translated into Kannada by our photographer.

As we drove back, the bright and smiling faces of these talented but deprived children lingered in my mind. Their enthusiasm for quality education is limitless. But quite clearly their parents and the government have failed them.

Summiya Yasmeen
October 2003

Summiya Yasmeen is Assistant Editor at Education World, Bangalore. This article comes to India Together from Education World, Bangalore through Space Share, our content-sharing program for publishers of other public-interest content.