India is today seen as one of the leading economics in the world and counted among the top 5th. The competition is open to occupy the first and second spot by China and India respectively in about 30-40 years. Is this a true and real picture of India while a large portion of our citizens languish under the stress of poverty, deprivation even lack of food and high malnutrition. On a similar count India still has one of the largest illiterate population both in terms of absolute size and in proportionate terms. How and why India should heralds such a puzzling scenario. What is at the root of this puzzle is hope. It is the connect between what we are today and what we can be tomorrow which bridge this gap and explain the disconnect. This article takes the issue of literacy and education as an example and discusses as to what it takes for India to ensure creditable presence in the ‘league of top end nations’ marshaling achievements in the areas of ‘development, democracy and diversity’.
Accomplishments since Independence in 1947 in terms of literacy, spread of institutions, participation and equalization of educational opportunities have been quite significant. There has been phenomenal increase in the number of educational institutions, faculties, in teachers and students. The number of teachers has gone up five-fold and the number of schools three fold. Literacy rate has nearly trebled. The decennial census, 1991, saw India across the 50 per cent mark, and by 2011 the literacy level has reach 74.5%. This is not a mean achievement for India - needs to cherish this feat because literacy has more than tripled while its population also tripled during the same period.
Yet the rural-urban disparities in literacy have remained large, although there is a marginal decline in gender disparity only lately. As a thumb rule there has been around 20%ge point deficit in rural literacy and female literacy respectively. It is also no time to feel good and procrastinate since the level of learning and competence of those considered literate is lot to be desired. Further to understand future progress in literacy and education one needs to analyze the process indicator such as the ‘enrollment’ and quality of education.
PRATHAM a well know civil society organization since last seven years undertakes ‘annual assessment of education’ and brings out a report identified as ASER. The seventh such report with reference year 2011 provides a conflicting scenario – that practically all children 5-14 years are enrolled in the schooling system, over one quarter of them attend private schooling but a substantial proportion of children in government schools have very low levels of learning in terms of language, comprehension and numeracy. While there is something to cheer about in terms of enrollment efforts, with the private sector doing its bit, there are serious problems in the process, impact and outcome of education sector in India. The quality of schools and schooling is of poor quality in government system, although the government appointed teachers are well educated compared with the purely private schools. The private schools excepting in Kerala (actually government aided schools in Kerala) can also be of suspicious quality, as most do not meet the RTE standards and tend to appoint poorly trained and poorly paid teachers. Thus overall the situation is like – one has ‘sowed all her land with seeds, but at the end of the season there is no crop to reap’. This report itself has indicated that what is measured as enrollment does not reflect school attendance which has remained very poor and in states such as Bihar, UP and West Bengal there is a sharp decline in school continuation. Another disturbing factor is an increase in multi-grade class rooms which could be a factor for children shifting away from government to private schools in most of the states.
ASER dichotomize the schooling identities into government and private; although it refers to un-aided schools which can be considered private schools, what is disputable is to consider aided-schools as private, since while community groups manage the primary and elementary school most of the expenditures including teachers’ salaries are met by state budgetary mechanism. Overall, however, the private primary and elementary schools appear to produce relatively better levels of literacy compared with the government schools, although if other factors are controlled for this advantage may disappear. Further, the fact that private tutoring would sustain levels of learning somewhat has been enunciated through this research although generally it is only complimentary to the quality of schooling itself. The worrying fact is that that compared to previous years the learning levels in government school system has declined while the private school have maintained its own quality of education.
ASER-2011should be appreciated for a rare analytical measurement of learning ability and change over the last seven years for with the annual series of data are available. Generally one finds that the percentage of children who can read class 1 level of matter increase as the current grade increase which is but expected. However, the disturbing fact is this percentage in many higher grades has remained low since for example in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in fact there is sharp decline at grade 3 in Jharkhand, Odhisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and even in Haryana. Many factors can impact this which can be identified as sampling as well as non-sampling errors. The fact recent survey was undertaken about the time census of India 2011 was in operation could impact school education due to absence of teachers from school. Similarly, often the basic literacy programs are implemented in various formats, for example there can be special campaigns when quality of learning can increase al beit temporarily and so on. Analysis on learning abilities in arithmetic has also been evaluated and the scenario is much worse than the one enunciated in case of reading alone.
While ASER’s effort is commendable in exposing the state of literacy in the rural parts of India, I would have wished if a few crucial factors which impact school continuation rates were to be explored further. There is this debate as to what is the impact of mid-day meals on continuation, similarly provision of drinking water and toilets are expected to help improve girls schooling. High cost of education is considered an impediment to schooling, yet one finds large increase in private schooling in India. How can this trend be explained, and in this context it should be stated that during the last 2-3 years there is an emphasis pre- and post-matric scholarships, what is its impact. While it is true that there is a slow increase in literacy, enrollment and continuation rate in India, which is important to note is due to inefficient and asymmetric program implementation, the literacy, enrollment and continuation deficits are likely to be concentered amongst specified population groups or socio-religious groups. It would have been highly timely if information on language of instruction was also analyzed especially with respect to learning ability of English. It is essential that this dimension in the dynamics of literacy and education can also be a separate chapter in ASER at least as a supplementary report of 2011, and certainly as an integral part of its report in 2012.