Last month, Rajbala was the first girl ever to appear for Class 10 exams in modern-day Rajasthan's block of Kishangarh Bas, where the female literacy rate ranges from 6% to 25% (nationally, it is 65%). Rajbala is a Dalit. She, her parents, both agricultural workers, and five siblings live in a two-room house.
"My parents never wanted me to go to school," said Rajbala. "They needed me for house and farm work. But I persisted. I convinced them."
Rajbala's achievements showcase the determination that drives the world's youngest nation, which has raised its literacy rate by 9 points to 74% in the last decade.
India now has the world's largest demographic dividend, or share of working-age people — about 781 million between 15 to 64 years old.
Rajbala's story also represents why India is in danger of forfeiting that dividend.
Too poor for tuitions, Rajbala learned science in Class 9 and 10. Her government school has no qualified teachers. It is extraordinary she got this far. Many students get a substandard education and eventually drop out. Many "literate" Indians can do no more than sign their names.
Rajbala wants to be a teacher. That seems difficult. If she cannot continue her studies in Jaipur, 150 km south of Alwar, she may end up working the fields. As we spoke to her, one of her brothers, Daya Ram, a class V dropout, smirked and said: "We can allow her to go to Jaipur, if need be. But who will pay for her education. Will you?"
Race against time
The demographic dividend of the world's youngest country is in danger of becoming a democratic liability because its public-education system is failing. Three states show India how to turn the tide, reports Kumkum Dasgupta.
New Delhi / Kapurthala (Punjab): Jasbir Kaur, a wiry 35-year-old agricultural worker, shares a dream with millions of poor Indians — that her high-spirited daughters, Sonam (6) and Jyoti (8), will not end up illiterate and poor like their mother.
So, every morning she walks 2 km with them to their primary school in Kapurthala, northern Punjab, and then rushes to work at the paddy fields of a local landlord. In the evenings, Jasbir works as a maid and at other odd-jobs to supplement her monthly farm income of Rs 3000.
"Some families send their children out to work. But I will never do so," says Jasbir. She pauses and, almost seeking reaffirmation, asks, "They must stay in school today for a better life tomorrow, isn't it?"
As the demand for a better tomorrow through education becomes one of the biggest expectations changing Indian politics, delivering it to what is now the world's youngest country is a formidable challenge.
By 2020, the median age in India will be 28, in China 37, in the US 38 and in western Europe 45. But this demographic dividend could turn into a deficit if these young people — more than 500 million are under 25 — remain under-educated, unskilled, unemployed or unemployable.India's successes mask a potentially crippling shortage of skilled employees in almost every sector. By next year, India could be short of 5 million with the right skills, says a report from the Boston Consulting Group, at a time when there already are 1.3 million unskilled and unqualified school dropouts and illiterates.
There is little time to lose if young people like Rajbala are to make the transition from school to the job market.
Prima facie, India's education advances appear decent. The 2011 census shows India's literacy rate has jumped 9% since 2001 to reach 74%. But India is last even in its club of emerging economies, the BRICS. The literacy rate in Brazil is 90%; Russia 99.4%; China 93%; South Africa 88%.
Now take India's primary school enrollment figures — at 93%, these are impressive.
But the quality of such education for children between six and 14, the base for all future learning, shows a consistent decline. Only 53.4% of children in Class 5 can read even Class 2 texts, says the 2010 Annual Status of Education Report, published by leading education advocacy group Pratham.
Nationally, there has also been a decline in the ability to do things such as basic math and recognise numbers. More than half of children in Class 5 are incapable of completing elementary education, except by blind promotion. A yet-to-be-published human-resource development ministry (HRD) report is more hopeful. It says "average achievement" in primary schools has increased in all subjects and across all age groups except in language.
Primary education is covered under the 10-year-old Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), the universal education system, the primary vehicle for delivering the 2010 Right to Education Act. Govern-ment figures say 192 million children in 1.1 million habitations access government schools.
Obviously, reforming the public-education system is the key to quality education and delivering the demographic dividend. "Eight per cent of our 220 million children go to government schools," says Anurag Behar, co-CEO, of the Azim Premji Foundation, which works with government schools in rural areas. "It is clear that only the public [system] can reach out to the poor."
Money—and the lack of IT
It doesn't matter if you fail in a government primary school. You will be promoted anyway until Class 8.
The mundane task of setting learning targets is vital to reversing India's quality slide. "There's a need to clearly outline the learning outcomes that must be achieved at the end of Class 2, Class 5 and Class 8 in order to give substance to Right To Education Act," says Madhav Chavan, head of Pratham.
Punjab, as our next story shows, has done that and is now reaping the benefits. With this must come school infrastructure, teacher-training and accountability. Otherwise, warn experts, the next generation will be lost.
Money isn't as much of an issue — as yet — as how it is used.
Over the last five years, central and state governments have more than doubled combined spending on education to Rs 1.92 lakh crore. But most of the money goes to salaries and office infrastructure. Allocations for important programmes for out-of-school children and remedial teaching decreased by a third between 2005 and 2010. Also, much of the money remains unused, and there's always a chaotic, last-minute rush to spend it, says a report by the Accountability Initiative at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.
"There has to be proper information about its [funds] flow and usage," says Unique Identification Authority of India boss Nandan Nilekani, who explored the demographic dividend in his book Imagining India. "We need to bring all educational entities under one network with its money flow streamlined".
The most formidable issue relates to teachers. The HRD ministry's figures reveal that more than a fifth of all SSA teachers have no professional qualifications, the share of funds for their training declined from 5% to 3% from 2005 to 2010, and, in any case, the public-school system is short of 1.4 million teachers. "We tell states to appoint qualified teachers," says a senior HRD official, on condition of anonymity. "But recruitments are often stopped due to litigation and local politics impacts quality recruitment". There is little thrust on teacher training. "Our district and state-level institutes have become data collection centres. We need longer training modules for new teachers," says Dhir Jhingran, a bureaucrat who has worked in the central and state education ministries.
Over the years, many students, even the poorest, have moved to private schools for simple reasons — private-school teachers tend not to be absent and the infrastructure is better.
It is time the government realises that private schools have a role to play in educating the poor, says James Tooley, professor of education policy at Britain's Newcastle University. In his book, A Beautiful Tree, Tooley challenges the assumption that free public education is the only way to educate the poor.
With education now a legal right, many public schools cannot meet its requirements for infrastructure and number of teachers in each school.
It will cost Rs 50,000 crore for all public schools to be compliant with the right-to-education laws, which means India needs to set aside 6% of its gross domestic product for education, says Member of Parliament Jay Panda, who is on a parliamentary panel on education. The figure now is lower than 3%.
Clearly, the promise of the demographic dividend is in peril.
As Kartik Hosanagar, a professor at Wharton business school in the US, recently wrote: "I sincerely hope history does not judge it (the dividend) as India's democratic liability."
Poor learning outcome: In 2006, 48% class 3 students could read class 1 texts. In 2010, 46% could do the same.
Solution: Punjab improved in basic learning and maths by deploying more teachers in schools and strengthening its monitoring programme.
Just four years ago, Punjab’s primary education system faced the usual challenges: staff absenteeism, late delivery of books to schools and inadequate infrastructure. To counter these and other issues, in 2007, Krishna Kumar, an IAS officer, along with Pratham launched the Parho Punjab (Read Punjab) programme, which focuses on getting the basics right. There are 13,450 primary schools with 1.4 million students in Punjab; eight schools form one cluster. First, teachers were deployed evenly in these clusters. Next, teachers were warned not to leave school during their duty hours, and district collectors were requested to stop using teachers for other government work.
A four-tier pyramid of trainers and monitors watches teachers.
At the base are primary school teachers; above them are 1,500 cluster master trainers, then 216 block master trainers and at the top are 20 coordinators.
Teaching methods have changed: There's a profusion of new child-friendly teaching aids like straw bundles and charts for counting, flash cards for words and small story books with interesting illustrations — colourful and tamperproof.
Punjab recognises that learning capacity varies. So, during the first three hours of a school day, children are grouped and taught English, Maths and Punjabi, according to their abilities, not age. This helps weaker students immensely.
Teacher absenteeism: 25% of government primary teachers in India are usually absent from work; in Bangladesh it is 16%
Solution: While the state pays for the teachers and infrastructure, communities keep hawk eye on the daily functioning of their local schools
In 2010 February, when the government primary school at Bamunpukhuri-A village lost 11 of its 14 staff members following a crackdown on non-existent teachers, village council chairman Ronju Johori authorised the village education committee head Bimol Jigdong to appoint volunteers to teach at the school. Jigdong appointed two for Rs 1,000 a month each, to be paid from the local fund.
This flexibility was possible thanks to the Nagaland communitisation programme, a contract between the state and the community, where the latter becomes the owner of government assets and is granted powers and resources to maintain institutions.
It all began in 2000, when school students complained to (then) Nagaland chief secretary RS Pandey — now the Centre's interlocutor for peace talks with Naga rebels — that "the government had failed them because their schools did not have teachers". In 2002, the state passed the Nagaland Communitisation of Public Institutions and Services Act. Its agenda: Trust the community; train it to discharge responsibilities; then transfer government powers of managing school resources.
A 2007 Unicef report showed communitisation has led to an increase in enrollment and a fall in the dropout rate of students in 23 of 28 communitised schools in as many villages. Teacher attendance improved 90% in 18 villages and unauthorised absence had stopped in 17. The passing rate improved by 25% in 24 schools. More importantly, children shifted from private to government schools in 17 village schools. Now, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur also want to replicate the Nagaland experiment. The rest of India might want to take heed.
Rahul Karmakar in Kohima
Low female literacy rate: In India, 35% Muslim women are literate. The all-India female literacy rate is 65%
Solution: Meo Muslim women force the state administration to upgrade primary school and appoint new teachers
Winds of change are blowing through Mirzapur, a hamlet in Kishangarh Bas block of Rajasthan's Alwar district. For the first time in their history, a backward caste of Muslims called Meos are allowing their girls to attend school.
The local primary school was set up in 1970, but until five years ago no girl studied beyond Class 5. The community was conservative, but the school wasn't particularly inviting. It didn't have basic facilities, such as toilets, and 350 students shared one teacher. Little wonder that Mirzapur's female literacy rate in the 2001 census was 6%, the lowest in the district.
Change began in 2006, when five girls were admitted to class 6, thanks to a bridge course — a compressed nine-month curriculum for children who had dropped out or never went to school — started by two NGOs, Alwar Mewat Institute of Education and Development and Room to Read. Initially, the fathers resisted. But mothers stood by their daughters.
The next battle was against religious clerics, who advocated madrasa (seminary) education and tried to dissuade parents from sending girls to the government school. The parents refused, and six months ago, they forced the clerics to change madrasa timing, making it easier for children to attend school from 7 am to 1 pm.
Parents also went on protest marches and pressed the local legislator to have the school converted from a primary to an upper primary. Today, the Rajkiya Madhyamik Vidyalaya has five government teachers and 575 students, including 283 girls. Their new demand: subject teachers for senior classes.