The hoarding for “Sunbeam School Chaubeypur” displays two improbably white girls reading from the same book. Another, for “St John’s World School”, has a picture of a child playing. “Ved International School, Saidpur” advertises smiling children in front of an algebra-laden blackboard. Welcome to Ghazipur, which goes to vote on Monday. It’s hard to miss the shiny “world” schools being set up on dusty wheat fields here. But at least one person hasn’t noticed. Samajwadi Party candidate Shivkanya Kushwaha, whose party runs the state and controls a majority of the assembly seats here, says, “I don’t know about schools. I am new to politics.”
Kushwaha is from a roster of candidates straight out of an Anurag Kashyap film. Her politician husband is in jail. She is up against a western UP don from a party run by a local variant. The man to beat, though, is the BJP candidate, a landlord. He hopes to benefit from the “Modi wave” in nearby Varanasi.
No candidate though is talking about another wave washing the region – the demand for quality schools. Ghazipur has seen a 72 per cent increase in the number of schools, public and private, between 2008 and 2012, according to the District Information System for Education. This is the second largest increase in any district in India. During this period 2,15,041 additional children were enrolled here, the fourth biggest increase in the country. Many other districts in UP are doing well. What explains this development? Is it leading to votes?
The writings on the wall confirm the private school revolution in Ghazipur. To that extent, the statistics hold true. But improvements in government schools are limited to brick and mortar, and more enrollments doesn’t mean more students in class.
The “upper” primary school (for 6th to 8th standards) in a small village in Ghazipur is freshly painted. Tapeshwar Singh Yadav, the assistant teacher, says three new buildings have been built since 2006, when the Congress-led central government ramped up expenditure on primary schooling. Yadav says: “I have been teaching here since 2002. In 2006, 45 children studied here. Now 90 are enrolled”.
But mere buildings and enrolment do not an education make. Only 12 children are present on the day this reporter visits the school. The remaining 78 are “in the fields, not come, or in private schools”. Yadav also points out that no new teachers have been hired. “There are still three teachers here.” Only two are visible. The third “has gone to her village”. During an afternoon English class, the 12 students leisurely copy ‘CAT’ and ‘HOUSE’ from the blackboard to their books. They have been studying English for six years. One of them is asked to speak in English. She slowly spells her name out, then falls silent.
Asked why buildings have not led to learning, the bureaucrat in charge of primary education in the district replies: “The [central] Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan focused only on accessibility, not on teaching… there is a problem of teachers in entire UP.” The Congress candidate, Mohd Maqsood Khan, is more scathing. “The Centre gave money. But the state has stolen all of it. What can be worse than stealing from the poor. It is a tragedy that an area that once produced IAS, IPS officers, now has a 5th standard child who can’t read.”
Rajeshwar Singh, a former primary schoolteacher and long-time Congress worker, adds: “All that money has made schools into hotels. Children come, eat [midday meals], and go learn elsewhere”.
Singh sends his own children to private schools, as does anyone with means in Ghazipur. “There are four government schools, but 12 private schools [in his village],” Singh says. Baladevan Rangaraju, director of the education think-tank India Institute, argues that the actual number of private schools is likely higher. “These can be even a single room. But unlike government schools, teachers show up and listen to parents. Ghazipur, like the rest of India, is witnessing a private school revolution for the poor. And it is because the government is incapable of delivering quality.”
The worst of private schools are the one-room horrors that Rangaraju mentions. At the top end are schools like Mount Litera Zee School, whose architecture seems more Germany than Ghazipur. For around Rs 2,400 a month, students have access to 21 dedicated teachers, a CBSE syllabus, arts and crafts, and a large computer room. Mohit Srivastava, the director at Mount Litera, says that “in just the last two years, four big private schools have opened here”. Priyanshu Saxena, the school’s headboy, speaks practised English as he explains that his “father has a medical supplies business and mother is a homemaker”. He will soon leave Ghazipur, he says, to study in Delhi.
Politics as usual
Shivkanya Kushwaha is unaware of the surging demand for quality schooling in her constituency. The Express met her in Khanpur village. She is sitting by a truck with an LCD screen projecting videos of party leaders Akhilesh and Mulayam Singh Yadav to villagers. Inside, a live band of singers, harmonium and tabla players belt out Bhojpuri tunes set to Samajwadi lyrics. Asked what the problems of education in her constituency are, she says, “I have just left the home for politics. I will take time to know these things.”
The Congress’s Maqsood Khan sees a sinister motive for this inattention to government schools. Both the BSP and the SP came to power on the backs of backward caste and Dalit voters. Khan says, “Now in government schools, only backward children study. They don’t want their vote bank to get educated. because they will start demanding more”.
Sriram Kiritram, a Dalit, works at the sprawling opium factory in Ghazipur. The eight children in his family are playing hide-and-seek in front of his two-room house. He cannot afford private schools. So they waste their days in the government school, a 100-child nightmare where only one teacher shows up. Asked who is responsible, Kiritram smiles. “Today, we can attend schools with the others. She [Mayawati] gave us strength”.
The BJP’s candidate, Manoj Sinha, claims to strengthen everyone. Speaking to farmers in Phulli village, he promises the “Gujarat model of development for all”. Sinha, MP in 1996 and 1999, is being optimistic, since even BJP workers see no overwhelming “development wave” here. They believe that any of three parties — SP, BSP, BJP — could win. But even a five per cent swing for the BJP may result in victory, such are the workings of the first-past-the-post system in a multi-cornered fight. And the once-dead BJP local unit now has a fighting chance. Asked who her nearest rival is, Kushwaha says “Modi”, not Mayawati. Kiritram adds: “Every shop in Ghazipur has a lotus sign. His [Modi’s] face is on TV all the time”. Kiritram himself will vote for “elephant” [BSP, whose candidate is Kailashnath Singh Yadav], but there are some in his 10-member household who will “try Modi” this time.
Campaigning at Phulli village, Sinha stands atop a steel cot propped over an open drain. He blames the Congress for price rise and warns against regional parties that want votes not to govern but “to sell themselves in the bazaars of Delhi”. But even he is silent on primary education, on the schooling revolution taking place in his constituency. Asked why, he says: “Schools is a state subject. Central government [and so, the MP] can’t do much. We have to win the state first.”
Aspirations and central funds create possibilities for every child. But they turn real only when the state government thinks this will lead to votes. Where that happens, as in Tamil Nadu and Gujarat, schools shine. Where it doesn’t, like here in eastern Uttar Pradesh, aspirations are met through private enterprise and migration. It is the poor, condemned to absent government teachers or high private fees, who suffer most. Ghazipur’s sordid reality is of a 13 year-old girl still struggling to spell.