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Why primary education should be the Government’s primary concern

Last week,while the Prime Minister and Sonia Gandhi were choosing ministers for the new government...

Written by Tavleen Singh |
May 31, 2009 1:06:56 am

Last week,while the Prime Minister and Sonia Gandhi were choosing ministers for the new government,I read a paragraph in The Economist that summed up in a few short sentences the enormity of India’s problems. It said,“About 27 million Indians will be born this year. Unless things improve,almost 2m of them will die before the next general election. Of the children who survive,more than 40 per cent will be physically stunted by malnutrition. Most will enroll in a school,but they cannot count on their teachers showing up. After five years of classes,less than 60 per cent will be able to read a short story and more than 60 per cent will be stumped by simple arithmetic.”

India’s children are India’s future and this future looks very depressing. There is nothing more important than making sure that by the next election something is done to drastically rectify our shameful failures in education,healthcare and nutrition. Our problem is that the Government of India does not concern itself with primary education,nutrition or primary healthcare because these are state subjects. But,surely a nation of half-starved illiterate children is a monumental national problem? Is it not time for some serious rethinking at the highest levels of government? The solutions are simpler than we think.

Last month I visited a Satya Bharati school run by the Bharati Group. It was in a small village in Haryana and as different to any village school I have ever seen. There were proper classrooms with brightly painted walls and in them were teachers actually teaching. There were separate toilets for girls and boys and clean water to drink. At lunch time arrived a delicious midday meal cooked by a woman from the village. The Bharati Foundation runs more than 250 such schools in North India. It all began as a private-public partnership with the Government of Rajasthan. The former chief minister,Vasundhara Raje,asked the group to take over 49 of her schools and run them as best they could and from this came the idea to build such schools in villages that needed them. The children who come to these schools are from the poorest rural families and so tuition is free. Bharati pays its teachers half of what government teachers are paid. They recruit mostly unemployed graduates who are then trained to teach through special teacher training programmes.

Why should it not be possible for our next Minister of Human Resource Development to come up with a policy that would encourage this kind of public-private partnership on a national scale? Thanks to Dr Manmohan Singh’s economic reforms Indian companies are now so rich that if they want they could transform public education. It cannot be done without government but it cannot be left only to government either. The problem is too serious and it affects us all. Every time someone points out that half of India’s children are malnourished by the age of five,it shames us all.

In the glittering conferences that big businessmen organise in Delhi and Mumbai they usually talk of how fast our economy is growing and how much India has changed since the economic reforms began. But,the sad truth is that far too few Indians have benefited from these reforms. In rural India things remain almost as bad as they ever were. Real primary education could bring real change. We need to build proper schools that serve at least one meal. Just that one hot meal a day can lift a child out of malnourishment.

Why,if the solution is as simple as I am making it sound,has no prime minister done anything about it so far? Well,because the bureaucrats who design our anti-poverty programmes like to design elaborate ones filled with holes big enough for serious leakage to become possible. These same high officials are allergic to ideas that involve private money so we continue to waste taxpayers’ money on massive schemes that rarely benefit those they are meant for.

If the Prime Minister wants things to change,if he is serious about what he calls inclusive growth,then he must become personally involved in finding out what has gone wrong with schemes like the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. Not only does he have the mandate to make any change he wants,he even has the support of Rahul Gandhi who recently pointed out that there were severe leakages in government programmes for the poor. And,with the Left in the doldrums,there will be no silly protests about private money being used to tarnish the ‘family silver’. All we need are real schools in the villages and proper midday meal schemes and India could be a totally different country by the next general election. It can and must be done.

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