India's primary duty

Ten million children are born annually in India. Primary education should be a vital lifeline, for those who survive.
Rakesh Mani
6 November 2009

There has to be something wrong with Indian society for it to allow its children to be among the most deprived and malnourished in the world. Across castes and social classes, there is so little attention given to the inalienable right of a child to enjoy a childhood of good health, education and a nutritious diet. How can we get adults across society to be accountable for the treatment of its youngest citizens?  Several reports from international organizations like UNICEF and the World Bank have been sharply critical of the abject failure of governance in health and education that has left Indian children way behind their counterparts in Sri Lanka, Nepal and even Bangladesh. According to some recent statistics, two million children below the age of five die every year in India. That's one every fifteen seconds which, shamefully, is the highest figure in the world.

Rakesh Mani is a 2009 Teach For India fellow,working with low-income schools in Bombay. He is also a writer and commentatorfor a variety of publicationsBut let's just focus on primary education for the moment. Through my own experiences of teaching in an under-resourced Bombay school for the last six months, some sights and sounds have become permanently etched in my mind - the family of five who cannot afford to send all their children to school, and therefore picked two, a girl and a boy; the beatings that a 3rd grade student can receive at home for scoring poorly on an exam that tests little more than memory by rote; young kids reciting poems in fluent English without understanding a word of what they're saying.

Primary education here largely involves the teacher playing narrator in the classroom. Students are receptacles who must memorize and then mechanically parrot away the fixed content. The more meekly they reproduce what has been written on the blackboard with pen and paper, the better students they are. For education here is little more than an elaborate ritual of filling student notebooks and issuing communiqués which students patiently receive, remember and repeat.

But it's quite apparent now that this factory-schooling model is not only dysfunctional but also destructive towards the myriad processes of human learning and growth. Pupils have to be encouraged to independently develop their own creative thinking processes. Curriculums have to be re-worked to foster a sense of competence, purpose and responsibility into students, and also to equip them with a vital understanding of ethics and social responsibility. Young kids forced to submit to rote learning, lose the critical consciousness they will need to intervene and transform their country in the years to come. As they embrace educational passivity, they will also more readily accept the imperfections and injustices their societies impose on them.

Ever since Jawaharlal Nehru decided in the early 50s to develop India's higher education platform to compete technologically in the Cold War era, the importance of primary education in the country has been largely ignored. Instead the nation focused on building institutions that could produce more engineers, doctors and scientists. But how can we sustain these specialized programmes without building sturdy foundations at school? Or rather, what quality of engineers and scientists must we be producing at these institutes of excellence? Excluding the Indian Institutes ofTechnology, what percentage of Indian graduates are able to compete effectively in the global economy?

As the Indian educational debate remains sharply focused on colleges and universities, it is worth remembering that elementary education is the foundation on which the promise of equal opportunity resides. Much work needs to be done towards making the primary education system accountable to the child for what s/he learns, and how s/he learns it.

And we're possibly in the worst of situations at the moment - more than 1 in 3 children who begin primary school will drop out before 5th grade. World Bank statistics show that less than 40% of Indian adolescents are attending secondary school. In this context, the new Right to Education Bill is being hailed as India's great solution but alas, it is only a sketchy blueprint that has yet to be implemented effectively.

And then again, the bill only caters for children above the age of six. Meeting the nutritional and developmental needs of children under the age of six is critical for the educational journey they will undertake. But there is not enough public attention to this omission in the new bill.

For India's children, things will clearly not change by themselves. If it takes a village to raise a child, it might take the whole nation to raise the ten million children born annually in India. There is a serious need for much more material that can be used for playful learning, and for simpler storybooks which affluent children have easy access to. Urban slum children have no such resource, either at school or at home.

For a country like India, where almost 40% of the population is under the age of fifteen, this promises a highly disturbing long-term trend. And talking globally, 25% of the entire global workforce will be Indian in about twenty years - so to be sure, the quality of education these kids receive is going to impact on us all.

But perhaps this is not about numbers, or about economics. Maybe the harshness of the statistics tells us that there is something more sinister at play - that the dialogue shouldn't be about resources or economics at all, but instead a debate on our values.

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