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The disconnect between urban and rural schools

May 08, 2009 14:34 IST

We have all seen the spectacle put up by the television networks put out when Aakriti Bhatia, a 17-year old girl student of Delhi's Modern School died some two weeks ago. The sadness of the death of a young person in such circumstances is tragic and can be overwhelming, especially when shocked school fellows and parents who came crowding to the school and there is a ruckus.

More than this, what the anchor said was -- at least, on one channel, I recall distinctly -- that that it was a "pity the school does not have an in-house doctor" and a while later, a parent lamented that it was "bad enough the school does not have a full-time doctor." All said, I am sure, when they were all carried away by the emotions, their rationality had abandoned them.

But it made me think.

Do the well-heeled people who can send their children to schools like Modern expect a doctor on hand? Which schools, and for that matter, or even which expensive hostels in places like the Doon valley have such facilities on board? Is the expectation of this quality of attention to the students whose parents can afford high fees, realistic? Is it, in fact, practical to have such arrangements at all?

However, that single newscast also showed how such people as were seen screaming, raving and ranting and demanding that the principal be sacked, are in a state of disconnect with the rest of the country, especially in the education sector. In fact, leave alone a doctor, there are huge slices of India, including urban areas like even Mumbai where you may have schools but not teachers. And in such schools, students may not even remain till they complete their courses.

The tragic incident was at a top-notch school where nothing was perhaps found wanting. There are schools like that across India and there are also schools galore which are not anywhere near them. There are schools that charge a bomb to admit a child and more to keep him there. There are schools where teaching is not even incidental activity as the following argument of mine would show.

Some data that had come in the public domain in 2004 indicated that absentee-teachers account for about 15 per cent in Gujarat and 39 per cent in Bihar. Moreover, half of the chores done by a teacher have nothing to do with teaching. And in poorly provided schools, often one classroom accommodates several classes and even the most conscientious teacher would find it difficult to impart any knowledge to the students.

A UNESCO report had indicated how education in India was "an endangered resource" and that about a fourth of the budget is wasted on absentee-teachers. Some quantitative assessments indicate that rural schools start late and end early in the day and the number of teaching days is much lower than the general expectation of 200 school days.

In a city like Mumbai, most of the girls who drop out from the elementary school do so for the simple reason that when they attain puberty, they have no privacy because the toilets are just not there for them to change their sanitary napkins or tampons. In Thane, a civic run school, which is some 20 years old, has never had its water tank cleaned even once; the students go to families in the neighbourhood to quench their thirst. In villages, they may not even have benches to sit on, sometimes make do under the shade of a tree. Blackboards could be just missing.

If this were the status of provisioning for schools in cities, here is another shocker: studies have revealed that students after spending years in schools, at least six on one count, cannot read or write, much less do simple arithmetic. They are virtual illiterates despite the state spending its resources but not using it properly and parental ignorance or carelessness. Maharashtra alone had such 8.1 lakh illiterate students in 2004-05; Mumbai had some 48,000 such cases and it could be a gross undercount.

In short, the system is rotten and nothing can better exemplify this contention than the reality that more than schools, the attainments of students upon passing out of schools with good ranks are attributed to coaching classes. A school's name is incidentally of some interested because the student was enrolled there. However, I am not discounting the contribution of some schools which have good tutoring and mentoring of the wards.

Let me narrate what I heard from a senior politician with deep rural insights in Maharashtra. One day, he told me, he was on a visit to attend an event in a village which was organised near a school. The local elders suddenly asked him to accompany them to the school building which on a working day was found deserted. The classrooms were open but empty. But one particular classroom was, however, closed and bolted from inside.

He was asked to knock on it and lo and behold! When opened from inside, there was an assortment of bottles indicative of alcohol consumption, several packs of playing cards around and teachers in the midst of a card game. At one point, a respected Marathi newspaper had reported that in some villages, after pay hikes due to the Fifth Pay Commission, teachers who virtually got most things cheap due to their perceived status, had turned moneylenders. They collected the debts by blackmailing the students.

So there are schools, swanky, modern, well-equipped -- though without a full-time doctor in attendance -- and expensive, the fees often being multiple times the earnings of any middle-class family. And there are schools which are mere shells of the concept where nothing is done, not even providing simple, basic, even ordinary education.

This lament of mine can go on and on but contrast this to the disgust and anger of the people who were seen on the television screens after Aakriti died of a severe asthma attack.

And I rest my case about the prevailing disconnect between the haves and the have-nots, between India and Bharat, except that even in urban areas, there is Bharat.

Mahesh Vijapurkar is a former deputy editor, The Hindu.

Mahesh Vijapurkar