Supaul, where several girls were recently brutally thrashed while playing in their school compound, claims its heritage from Sita. This did not hold much meaning for the boys and their parents involved in the incident. The official website of this border district of Bihar presents an impressive list of measures taken by the police to ensure security and peace. These measures didn’t suffice to help the 10 to 14 year-old girls who protested against the lewd messages conveyed on their hostel walls.
The school where the girls reside carries the name of Kasturba Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s wife. Residential schools like this one were set up all over India under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA). This national flagship programme started when the Vajpayee-led NDA government pushed enrollment and retention rates in elementary classes to levels few could have imagined and many still refuse to believe. The Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya (KGBV) scheme forms a glorious chapter of SSA. The purpose of setting up these schools was to give rural girls who had dropped out of school before ending the primary stage a second chance. Instead of asking them to go through the primary stage again, Kasturba schools offer a full-time residential opportunity to start at grade 6 level and finish grade 8 when everyone else does.
This goal seems tough and unrealistic when you hear about it for the first time. Only when you visit a Kasturba school do you realise what astonishing success this scheme has had. Despite extremely modest financial support, KGBVs have been doing remarkably well, in terms of retaining the girls they admit from marginalised sections, including the Schedule Castes, Scheduled Tribes, the minorities and upper castes below the poverty line. The government has announced expanding the scheme to class 8. Let us see whether this move brings substantial funds to improve teacher emoluments and living conditions for the students.
The Supaul incident raises some familiar questions once again, but it also asks us to worry about the tedious sluggishness in policy making. Press reports of the incident suggest that the girls were attacked because they resisted lewd remarks. The boys who had threatened to harm them and then carried out the threat, were from the same village where the KGBV is located. For them and their parents, who assisted them, the name Kasturba Gandhi apparently meant little. That the awful attack occurred barely a week after the fanfare of the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi had started reveals how tough the task of reviving Gandhi’s message of practising non-violence through self-restraint might prove in the current social climate. This climate is characterised by hostility towards girls. The mix of backgrounds among the girls who got badly injured makes us forget the common element in their lives — poverty. Their parents prefer to let them stay at a poorly funded hostel because conditions at home are worse.
This is not the first time that a KGBV has faced a security breach. Housed in rudimentary buildings, many KGBVs are, in fact, quite insecure. The parents who send their daughters to study in these rural residential schools value the opportunity which they cannot otherwise afford. As it happens in all schemes meant for the poorest sections of society, the infrastructure and services are also minimal. The Supaul KGBV is attached to an existing junior school. Until a few years ago, the state government ran some of the KGBVs with help from the Mahila Samakhya, a reputed programme of women’s empowerment. The Mahila Samakhya leadership imparted both efficiency and institutional capacity to the KGBVs under its care.
Sadly, that era is now over and KGBVs have lost their special status. The larger umbrella of SSA has been shrinking, both financially and spirit-wise. Lack of motivation and adequate funds to keep up with inflation cannot be compensated by the supply of smart boards and digital devices announced recently. Compromised provision for basic needs like food, healthcare and security has restrained the progress of many KGBVs, especially in northern India. Poorly trained staff and vulnerability of employment have also enfeebled the scheme. In the Supaul incident, the staff’s role and response are being probed, and this will not be easy, given the political volatility of rural Bihar.
For years, the KGBV scheme has been waiting for a long-term policy to guide its progress. I recall the debate held more than a decade ago about the future of these schools. The question was whether they should multiply as stand-alone institutions or gradually merge into the larger system. The question derives its importance from the Right to Education (RTE) Act. If RTE is fully implemented, there will be no “drop-outs”, hence there shall be no need for KGBVs. It is clear by now that RTE will continue to face chronic inadequacy of funds. It is also facing sloth and apathy of the old directorates of education in many states. That means KGBVs will remain in demand, and if that is the case, they will need a longer-term plan and infrastructure. Temporary arrangements will not do.
All over northern India, the structures created under SSA, including KGBVs, carry a ramshackle look. You don’t need to be told that they serve the poor. Their role in improving gender parity is submerged in coping with poverty and its numerous consequences. In her book, Education, Poverty and Gender: Schooling Muslim Girls in India, Latika Gupta has examined the varied effects of poverty on girls’ educational experience. Her analysis demonstrates that for schooling to make a dent on the effects of poverty, financial and pedagogic inputs will have to be radically enhanced.
A correspondent of the BBC’s Hindi service spoke to one of the girls who became unconscious when she was assaulted and had to be admitted to a hospital. She recounted that the attackers had come armed with sticks. Her description invokes an ethos one can hardly associate with education. The authorities probing the attack on Supaul’s KGBV should also worry about the education of boys enrolled in the nearby school.