“For reasons unknown, the gross and glaring in-built inequity and class-bias of post-independence India’s school system has not bothered the nation’s know-all central planners and social engineers. Mumbai which is a microcosm of India provides the best example of the unquestioned class disparity of Indian education.Â Ketan TannaÂ reports”
When national luminaries led by the President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee descended on Bangalore for the 90th session of the Indian Science Congress held between January 3-7 some monitors of the education scene in India were moved to comment about the paradox of a country which simultaneously boasts perhaps the largest pool of scientifically trained personnel and the largest number of illiterates in the world. Ironically one segment of India’s moribund and dilapidated education system keeps pace with first world science and technology institutions and supplies them with a continuous flow of the brightest Indian minds. On the other hand, at the base of the pyramid, elementary education institutions which serve the poor are hopelessly mired in inefficiency. The latter provides a quality of education that condemns the poor – even those who against tremendous odds manage to get through school – to forever remain hewers of wood and drawers of water.
For reasons unknown, the gross and glaring in-built inequity and class bias of post-independence India’s school system has not bothered the nation’s know-all central planners and social engineers. This well-entrenched class divide allows the rich to send their children to global standard English-medium schools staffed by committed teachers, classrooms in fine repair and carefully designed curriculums which nurture minds and bodies. On the other hand, vernacular-medium schools run by the state and devoid of the most basic infrastructure and comforts are regarded as an immutable given. In the great majority of these schools for the masses teachers hardly teach, when they are not absent (as is usually the case), reading-learning materials are in short supply, classrooms are poorly ventilated, furniture is dilapidated and toilets are the exception rather than the rule. Little wonder that of the 146 million children who enroll in primary school every year, 59 million dropout before they make it to class VIII.
“Ironically the quality of government schools in pre-independence India was better than it is today,” says Dr. Kirit Parikh, emeritus professor and former director of the Mumbai-based Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research who also serves as a member of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council. “In the old days public or government schools were attended by the children of rajahs and the poor. However the situation has changed since independence and today the standard of education provided by most government -run or aided schools is abysmal. The quality of a school depends on the passion and determination of those who run the institution and in the case of schools managed by government it is difficult to discern either.”
Over the past half century the efforts of the central and state governments have been focussed on improving access to schooling with commendable success. The number of schools has increased from a few thousand to 880,000 in 2001. This expansion of the system has helped improve the literate percentage of the population from 18 percent to 64 percent. However the current gross enrollment ratio in secondary education in India is a mere 48 percent (cf. China’s 66 percent) whereas in the developed nations of the first world, secondary education is universal.
These high drop-out ratios have somewhat belatedly focussed the attention of educationists on the quality of education issue. In the fast-paced, contemporary technology-driven world, literacy – the mere ability to read and write one’s name – is hardly a meaningful qualification. Quality edu-cation which prepares students to think, innovate and emerge as confident individuals, and which has been the bedrock of the economic success achieved by the East Asian ‘tiger economies’, is still a dream for millions of Indians. This despite significant initiatives like the decade-old, centrally-funded District Primary Education Programme (DPEP) which currently covers most of the backward districts in the country and which has had some success in improving student retention, teacher motivation, etc. Nevertheless perceptive educationists are almost unanimous that the goals of the 93rd constitutional amendment which seeks to make education – as opposed to mere literacy – a fundamental right for every child is still a distant dream.
It is against this backdrop that the widening gap between private and government schools which is increasingly being accepted as the natural order assumes significance. Though qualitative differences between the best private and government schools are self-evident in most countries, such differences are a matter of few degrees rather than of heaven and hell as it is in professedly socialist and egalitarian contemporary India where there is a widening chasm between those who can pay for good quality education and those who cannot. This gulf is likely to widen with active encouragement by the state, bending to the winds of liberalisation and globalisation, of private investment in education.
Inevitably while improving quality of education, private sector initiatives in education tend to make it less affordable for the poor, which is why the government needs to maintain a presence in education – especially at the school level – in India, and more importantly, improve the quality of the education it offers to children from poor and disempowered segments of the population.
But thus far there seems to be little official concern about the quality of education being delivered in govern-ment schools in which 90 percent of the nation’s school-going children are enrolled. Says Dr. Snehalata Deshmukh, well-known educationist and former vice-chancellor of Mumbai University: “Barring a few exceptions, teachers who are not really capable are employed in municipal and government schools. They are not subject to appraisal because life time tenure and relatively high salaries are guaranteed to them. Moreover in most government run or aided schools, many children belong to the first learner category i.e they are the first from their families to attend school. In their case not much assistance is provided by parents to help them with their studies either.”
Low efficiency and effectiveness of government run schools crippled with inadequate infrastructure is compelling a growing number of the poor to enroll their children in privately managed institutions. Though some educationists tend to regard this as a positive development, the trend is hitting household budgets, necessitating curtailment of expenditure on food, clothing and other essentials thereby hampering the overall development of children and family units.
This stark inequity which is a dominant characteristic of post-independence India’s school education system is amplified in India’s cities where high quality elite schools exist cheek by jowl with poorly run, ill-equipped municipal schools bereft of the barest necessities. Mumbai (pop. 12 million), India’s commercial capital which attracts migrants from all over the country is a microcosm of India with its stunning contrasts of private affluence amidst public squalor and provides perhaps the best example of the great class disparity which characterises the school education system in contemporary India after half a century down Freedom Road.
In this first-of-its-kind story, EducationWorld profiles the daily lives of three class X schoolgirls in Mumbai, all of them studying for their crucial school-leaving examination of March 2003. Each girl student is enrolled in a typical independent, aided and municipal government school.
All three of these student citizens of contemporary India are reading for broadly comparable final examinations. Yet their differing lifestyles, academic environments and dreams and aspir-ations are a damning indictment of the glaring inequities of India’s school system which perpetuates rather than eliminates inequalities within the social order.
Sasha Mansukhani’s supportive environmentÂ
It’s 6.30 a.m on a mildly cold December morning in Mumbai and 16-year-old Sasha Mansukhani is grooming herself for school. At 5 ft. 6 inches, the daughter of an upper middle class doctor duo Anil Mansukhani, an eye surgeon in private practice, and Khushnuma, who works in the neuro-logy department of Bombay Hospital, she is a picture of confidence. Gulping down her breakfast of egg and toast, Sasha picks up her school bag and heads for the door. For the next 20 minutes she is ensconsed in the roomy air-conditioned interiors of a car pool sedan on her way from her parents’ plush four-bedroom flat on Adenwala Road, Matunga to the elite J.B. Petit High School in upscale south Mumbai.
At 7.45 a.m Sasha is all set to begin classes at one of Mumbai’s most sought after schools. Founded in 1859, J.B. Petit offers K-X education to 1,000 girl students. Though the school’s teacher pupil ratio of 1:44 seems formidable, it is perhaps the lowest of any school in the city. Even if somewhat cramped for space, the three-storey school in down-town south Mumbai offers state-of-the-art laboratory facilities, modest sports facilities, excellent art and craft training and information technology education in a fully-fledged computer room containing 12 pentium chip personal computers.
“We receive an average of 500 admission applications every year from which 70 students are selected. There is constant pressure on me to increase the annual intake of students. Ideally, classroom strength should be around 35 but many a time it is difficult to turn away needy students,” says Shirin Darasha, principal of the school which is housed in a spotlessly clean, freshly painted, well ventilated structure with plenty of natural light. Replicas of the works of Renaissance painters adorn the entrance and portico.
The education that Sasha and her colleagues receive is on a par with the best in the country. The school boasts a 100 percent pass record in the school-leaving ICSE board examination. In 2001 80 students wrote the ICSE exam scoring an average of 90 percent with 48 passing with distinction.
The school library boasts more than 8,000 books and five periodicals for the girls to supplement classroom learning. “We encourage our students to take books home and read as much as they can,” says Darasha, herself a playwright and author with a book titled Limelight to her credit.
The annual budget of the school is Rs. 1.25 crore but much of it goes towards the remuneration of the school’s 52 teachers and 75 support staff. Students pay an aggregate tuition fee of Rs.960 per month and costs of infrastructure maintenance, administr-ation costs and miscellaneous expenses are met from voluntary donations, festivals, plays, interest on bank deposits, etc.
Darasha believes that the gap between J.B. Petit and government schools can be bridged. “Government should spend the money it allocates for education more carefully. Money is available but it needs to be canalised into education. More funds can be raised by cutting non-merit subsidies for improving teaching conditions and infrastructure,” she says.
Until recently Sasha and her sister Raina used to share a bedroom at home so that “they could grow up with and relate to each other better” as their mother Khushnuma, puts it. But given the importance of the looming school-leaving exam, Sasha has been allotted her own room to facilitate her studies. “Exams are all what life is about these days,” Sasha admits. “I used to attend piano, classical music, singing, and kathak classes. Now barring yoga and mallakhamb (rope gymnastics), I have stopped everything so that I can study for longer hours,” she says.
To supplement classroom teaching, Sasha enrolled in coaching class in the Tardeo area of central Mumbai but is dissatisfied with the quality of tuition. Her supportive family environment and the high quality of schooling she receives is reflected in the self-confidence Sasha exudes. “My parents have left my career decision to me,” she says. “I like biology and science. If I secure a good percentage, I will do medicine not because my parents are doctors but because I want to. On the other hand I may even opt for the computer sciences,” she says.
As someone who has interacted with less privileged children, Sasha is concerned about the gross inequities in the school system. The J.B. Petit School regularly organises interactions with NGOs and other welfare organisations which offer education to the less privileged. “I feel sorry for poor students like Prachi (featured on p.36) who have to worry about their next meal and about how they will pay their fees. To have this kind of tension and yet write the class X exam requires great courage and determination. Ours is an unfair society. I wish the politicians would run it better,” says Sasha who vows to help the less privileged when she graduates.
Asya makes a little go a long way
Asya Hanif Rakhangi (14) is a class X student of the government-aided Urdu-medium Anjuman-I-Islam’s Dr. Mohammed Ishaq Jamkhan-wala Girls’ High School (MIJGHS) in Bandra, a prosperous suburb of northwest Mumbai.
Standing less than 5 ft. tall, this frail and bespectacled student with her hair tied in two neat plaits has two younger brothers. Her father Hanif Rakhangi is the owner of a chicken cold storage shop in Worli, central Mumbai. The Rakhangi family moved home from Worli to the Kalina area of Santacruz in northwest Mumbai in the aftermath of the 1993 anti-Muslim riots which claimed more than 1,500 lives. Asya, her parents and two younger school-going brothers share a one bedroom apartment.
To prepare for her imminent class X school leaving exam, Asya’s day begins at 4 a.m. She studies till 5.30 a.m and then gets ready for school in Bandra, a short train ride away. Classes start at 7 a.m and go on until 1 p.m. From 1 to 2.30 p.m the girls in her class are given additional coaching in English and maths. After finishing her extra classes it is time to go home which she reaches by 3 p.m when she has lunch. From 3 p.m to 4 p.m she rests and thereafter it is study time until 11 p.m when she calls it a day.
Since her class X exams are drawing near, Asya’s parents don’t give her any household work to do. Instead they encourage her to study.
Asya attends geometry and science coaching classes three days a week which sometimes go on till 9 p.m. This means she has to return home alone at night. Since the classes are held in the same school that she attends, meant for the Muslim community, her parents aren’t worried about her safety. MIJGHS is a government-aided school and promoted by the well-known Mumbai-based Anjuman-I-Islam Trust, which runs over 80 schools with 50,000 students. A majority of the girls in MIJGHS are from middle and lower middle class families.
The efficiency of the well-maintained school is there for all to see. It runs with clockwork efficiency under the watchful eye of principal Salma Lokhandwala who has been at the helm for over a decade.
The three-story building houses 3,000 students and nearly 100 teachers. Motivational posters, drawings adorn the neat and clean school. Class leaders and talented students are given due recognition. Their names and achievements are highlighted on the notice board.
The teacher-pupil ratio in this school is 1:45 and a sum of Rs.1.04 crore per year is paid by the municipal corporation towards salaries and wages. BMC also allocates a 6 percent administrative grant to cover additional expenses though this additional grant has not been paid for some time due to “budget constraints”. The school gets grants from the Anjuman-I-Islam Trust as well. The tuition fees which Asya and her fellow students pay are rock bottom, ranging from Rs.4-10 per month.
Lokhandwala is committed to the holistic development of her students. This has made MIJGHS an example of what an aided school can do with a progressive principal. Yet another example is the computer room of the school. Twelve pentium chip driven personal computers loaded with multimedia accessories and printers are accessible to students to connect them with the world. “The computers were donated by a US-based charity organisation and have helped the girls look beyond their immediate environments,” says Lokhandwala.
These encouraging and facilitative home and school environments have inspired Asya, like Sasha to give her class X exams her best shot. Her future plans oscillate between studying science and pure arts though she is more inclined towards interior design. “My first cousin is a doctor. So studying is a tradition in the family. However, I am not sure whether I can be a doctor. I am keener on interior designing,” says Asya.
To secure her future, she has made up her mind to migrate to Pune and study at the Azam campus run by the Azam Foundation. It is a residential college for talented students of the minority community who do well in the class X board exam. Though there is an entrance test, tuition and accommodation is provided free of cost by top-grade teachers. Asya is confident she will be admitted. “I’m sure my parents won’t mind. For the sake of my future and my career, moving to Pune wouldn’t be a big deal for them,” she says.
Asya doen’t resent students who attend better equipped schools in the city. “I am thankful to Allah for what he has given me. I have all the books and facilities needed in this school. We may be middle class but I am not deprived of anything,” she says.
“I could have gone to an English medium school. However my grand-mother was particularly interested that I study in Urdu. I don’t regret being steeped in Muslim culture and traditions. I feel complete in this school and confident about the future.”
Prachi Dhera’s modest aspirations
Prachi Dhera (15) is a class X student of the Marathi-medium coeducational Parksite Secondary School in Vikhroli, a suburb of Mumbai. Less than 5 ft. tall and weighing barely 35 kg, Prachi is emaciated and obviously undernourished. Parksite is one of 50 secondary schools in Mumbai run by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC).
Prachi’s mother Anita works as a part-time cleaner in a private nursing home for which she is paid Rs.500 per month. She is the only earning member of her family, which consists of her six sisters and parents in addition to her son Nikesh who is 11 years old. Her wayward husband deserted Anita early in their marriage. Since then, he has remarried twice, and lives in his native village Sangli in western Maharashtra. “He used to beat up my mother and drink heavily,” is all that Prachi remembers of her father. But with her father no longer around to support the family, Prachi, her brother and the nine adults are crowded into a one-room tenement in Vikhroli’s Municipal Colony.
Prachi’s day begins at 4 a.m. She gets up early as this is the only time she gets some peace and quiet to study. Two hours later she gets ready for school which begins at 7 a.m and concludes at 12.30 p.m. Her home environment is anything but supportive. Her grandparents and aunts make her mother’s life on whom they are dependent for the Rs.500 she brings home at the end of each month, miserable. Prachi cooks for the entire household. Anita helps out when she is not working a shift. When the rest of the house has finished, Prachi eats the leftovers.
Barely has lunch finished when it’s time for Prachi to collect and store water that starts to trickle from the taps of their one-room tenement. Her next two to three hours are spent in water storage, washing dishes, clothes and cleaning the room. By the time she is through it is 7 p.m. “I study from 7 until about 11 at night with dinner generally taken care of by my mother,” says Prachi.
Though her school-leaving class X examinations loom, private tuitions or coaching classes are out of the question as Prachi doesn’t have time nor does Anita have the money. As for leisure, hobbies and entertainment, she watches television at home when her grandparents switch on the set. She isn’t allowed to touch it.
Unfortunately school is hardly a haven for Prachi. Parksite School sounds grandiose, with the name promising a trendy school facing a park. In reality, the park is an apology for mounds of dirt, a few dust covered trees and precious little greenery, old broken railings with young BMC school boys scampering around, some of them smoking slyly.
The three-storey school building is a nightmare from the hygiene stand point. It seems like decades since a sweeper’s broom swept the three floors of this unkempt school with 2,600 students. Crumpled papers, thick layers of dust are easily evident in this class I-X school which offers secondary education in the Marathi, Hindi and Urdu mediums. Broken sewage pipes and chipped staircases many of them with large cracks (several small children have suffered as they stumble when their feet fall into the gaps), tell a sorry tale of poor infrastructure and worse maintenance.
The school’s students do have some facilities but they are more like showcase pieces meant to be admired from a distance. The science laboratory is a case in point. Until they reach class X, students don’t have access to the school lab. Class X students are given some demonstrations and allowed to do the bare minimum practical tests. The reason: there have been several instances of children breaking test tubes and other lab equipment.
Ditto the library. It has a collection of some 1,000 books, but students are strictly forbidden from taking them home. Most of them are kept under lock and key and the only time students can refer to them is during a free period under strict supervision. “We don’t allow books to be taken home, as many of the students don’t return them, or return them in torn condition and we have to pay the damages to a strict BMC from our pockets,” says. S.B. More, headmaster of the school.
More’s major achievement is that the school he heads is functional. It had a notorious reputation for many years as an institution to which neither students nor teachers ever came on time or, for that matter, came at all. It was his predecessor, Mr. Kute who set things right. However he was summarily transferred by the BMC for reasons unknown.
Surprisingly, the school has a relatively comfortable overall student-teacher ratio of 41:1 (better than J.B. Petit). Girl students are exempt from paying tuition fees and the only costs they have to incur are expenses on laboratory equipment and the school uniform. Boys however are charged a highly subsidised monthly fee of Rs.4-10.
More says that Parksite’s students are the poorest of poor and nearly 60 percent of them cannot afford even the modest fees payable. But even so, many students have deserted the school for private schools offering English medium education. “This is very disturbing. Unless some-thing is done, all BMC schools will close down,” he warns.
Despite the obvious lack of quality teachers and teaching facilities, with barely four months to go before her crucial tenth standard exam, Prachi is determined to do well.
Driven by an inner fire, she takes the inequities of society and the education system in her stride. “All I want in life is to complete my education, find a job and take care of my mother,” she says. That’s Prachi’s life and her future as she sees it.