The ABC of a whole new world
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The ABC of a whole new world

Tribals in Chhattisgarh are yearning to learn English, and dreaming new dreams. For the BJP-led government that just returned to power, it’s proof that good governance pays. A report by KumKum Dasgupta.

india Updated: Apr 10, 2009 20:13 IST
KumKum Dasgupta
KumKum Dasgupta
Hindustan Times

The last generation knew one language. The next will probably know three.

Education is transforming the lives of millions in Chhattisgarh, where children are eager to study after innovations in the village schools.

Their parents last November voted back the BJP-led state government, which has made education a thrust area, in proof that good governance can also be good politics.

And the 20.8 crore tribals that make up over 33 per cent of the population here seem determined that that education include English.

“We want our children to be equipped to step out into the world,” says Prem Lal Saalam (30), speaking through an interpreter in a mix of tribal dialect and broken Hindi. “Today, even government jobs require some knowledge of the language.”

Salaam’s two children are in Classes 2 and 3 at the local government school. But before they and their classmates — 90 per cent of them first-generation learners — can learn their ABCs, they have to learn another language: Hindi.

“Most tribal children only know their own dialect. So to teach one English word, we first have to tell them the word in their dialect, then translate it into Hindi,” says DR Maurya, who teaches at a government primary school in Bastar. “Once the Hindi has been internalised, we teach them the English equivalent.”

Thanks to Hindi serials on cable TV, Maurya says, the students have a basic understanding of Hindi, so it can be used as a bridge language.

It’s a tedious process, but the results are encouraging.

Over 98 per cent of children aged 6 to 14 are now enrolled in Chhattisgarh’s 38,000 government schools — higher even than the national rural average of 95.7 per cent.

And the children are being lured to school — and kept there — through innovative schemes and even extra tuition for slower students.

For instance, in Kanker, a largely tribal district 192 kilometres south of capital Raipur, learning English is as easy as listening to the radio.

At noon, the silver-coloured two-in-one crackles to life at a government primary school. Teacher Neerja Satpute (26) takes her position near the blackboard.

A half-hour programme called English is Fun has begun on All India Radio, teaching conversational English through rhymes, songs and games.

Such low-cost teaching aids are becoming increasingly common in the state's rural schools.

And funds from the central government’s Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (Education for All) and a recent teachers’ recruitment drive by the state have ensured that the stress is also on quality along with quantity.

The results are already showing. The dropout rate in Chhattisgarh has dropped to 10 per cent.

And the fourth Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) released in January found that the state had fared much better than even developed states like Gujarat when it came to primary education.

“For activity-based teaching to be successful, the state has to put in place trained teachers and training materials. Chhattisgarh has managed to do it,” says Anit Mukherjee, fellow with the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy.

According to the report, the proportion of children in Class 3 who can read a Class I level text has increased from 31 per cent in 2007 to 70 per cent in 2008.

The success of these programmes has not been lost on either the Congress or the BJP.

In its election manifesto, the Congress has promised quality education for all, while the BJP has talked about earmarking 6 per cent of the GDP for education.

At a rally in tribal-dominated Bastar in the last week of March, Chief Minister Raman Singh promised to open more schools in far-flung areas.

“We have recruited 30,000 more teachers across the state,” he declared, to thunderous applause. “There will be no shortage of money for the mid-day meal scheme or school infrastructure.”

For the farmers, each new school holds the promise of a better tomorrow.

“I could not go to school because there was none near my village,” says Chetu Dewangan of Karpawal village in Bastar. “But the Dr Raman sarkar has started one in my village. My two daughters go there. They can talk in English, just like the people on the radio.”

First Published: Apr 09, 2009 23:57 IST