01 02 03 Reflections: How the Real India Gets Literate 04 05 15 16 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 31 32 33

How the Real India Gets Literate

“I have carried out this research in many countries around the world,
but what fascinates me every time is to see how much you kids learn about your own country!"

I couldn't find a better way to sum up my 10 weeks working on the World Management Survey, than quote the above lines by our Project Director Daniela Scur.

To give you a background, I was amongst the bunch of 21 wide eyed Winter Analysts hired by the LSE to carry out the survey on the management practices in the Indian Retail, Healthcare and Education sectors. We spoke diverse local languages, and had a good idea of the Indian scenario. Or so we thought.

During the course of my internship, there were many experiences - funny accents, weird practices, and let me not get started on the people.

But of all, I shall never forget the experiences I had while speaking to rural schools. That’s when I realized that life is not as easy as we see it. And that we take so many things for granted.
(I have quoted the principals in Hindi sometimes to retain the emotion. For the less proficient, I have included a translation in the Queen’s Language!)

When we as educated, urban kids, think about a well managed school, we see tracking systems, planned curriculum, well defined roles, teachers training, periodic meetings, e-classrooms, well equipped libraries and the likes.

Take a look at the following conversation I had with a school somewhere in Madhya Pradesh.

Me: आप अपने टीचेर्स को अपनी जिम्मेदारियां कैसे समझाते है? मीटिंग्स होती है?
Principal: बेटा, हमारे यहाँ ५०० बच्चों के लिए सिर्फ ३ टीचेर्स है, मुझे मिला कर. कोई यहाँ आकर पढ़ाना नहीं चाहता. ज़रूरत पड़ने पर हम daily wages पर टीचेर्स रखते है. लेकिन वह जब चाहे आती है, कभी नहीं भी आती. इससे बच्चो की पढ़ाई पर बहुत असर पड़ता है.

[Me: How do you inform your teachers about their responsibilities? In a written form? Do you conduct regular meetings for staff?
Principal: Child, I only have 3 teachers among 500 students, including myself. Nobody wants to work in a remote area. When in need we hire teachers on a daily wage basis. They are irregular and this does affect students’ education.]

End of story. All my questions on targets, meetings, extracurricular activities, teacher's training, performance tracking, down the drain. I ask anyway, but you can well imagine.
He mentioned the school was in a remote area. Just how remote? I was soon to find out.

Me: How far is the nearest Highway from your school?
Principal: 40 kms
Me: The nearest Railway station?
Principal: 90 kms!

Even the nearest bank and police stations were 5-10 kms away!
Then you'd wonder what makes it distinctive to work at his school as opposed to other similar schools. I asked him that, and I'm sure you'd be as surprised as I was.

"Madam, if you would see other schools in our area, the nearest road about 40 kms away and they must walk for another 10 kms everyday to fetch drinking water.
Ours being a residential school, we are blessed with a perennial stream flowing just next to our campus and so there is sufficient water for our students and teachers to drink and bathe."

Another Principal said a "continuous electric supply" was a distinguishing factor.

Then, here’s a funny one, but not so funny if you think about it.

Me: Sir, what makes it distinctive to work at your school as opposed to others?
Principal: (excitedly) Ma'm! We have a computer here! 

Right. And we MBAs think of higher pay packages, teacher's relocation support, provident funds, insurance schemes and congenial work environments. 

As I interviewed more and more schools, I was intrigued by the fact that most rural schools were residential in nature. A Principal explained the logic as thus:

"It is a task for us to convince parents to send their children to school. They do not want to part with an extra source of income. So we convince the parents to send their kids to residential schools. Since these schools are free in nature, the incentive for them is one less mouth to feed. As simple as that!"

Let me now introduce you to the plight of the shepherd children.
While looking for numbers for Charwaha Vidyalaya, I came across this interesting concept of schools for Shepherd Children.

These schools were built for children below poverty line whose parents did not let them attend school. Instead, they would force them to use that time grazing cattle and earn extra income for the family.

So, Charwaha Vidyalayas were built to encourage education amongst this section of society. The children were actually allowed to bring their cattle to school!
The children would be made to study in class while the cattle grazed in the school’s campus. At the end of school hours, they were free to take their cattle back.

This seems like a commendable scheme taken up in 1990’s and was introduced with much fanfare. But owing to its remote nature, bridled by poor infrastructure, teacher’s indifference and prolonged absenteeism, the vidyalayas soon ran into trouble. Teachers stopped coming and consequently so did students. The vicious cycle went on and this meant ringing of the death knell for the much hyped initiative.

Well, the apathy continues.
Many teachers and Principals have to actually visit children's homes to be able to check their books and talk to parents. Because illiterate parents either don’t attend meetings or they don’t approve of their children to going to schools.

Regarding parents' participation in school activities and events, a principal said very matter of factly:

"हाँ करते है ना! स्वतन्त्र दिवस जैसे दिनों में Parents आते है, खाना खाते है, और बच्चों को लेकर चले जाते है!"
[Of course they do participate! On days like Republic and Independence Day, they come, eat, take their kids and leave!]

Another said,
"अनपढ़ होने की वजह से parents भाग तो नहीं ले सकते, लेकिन हाँ अपने बच्चों को स्टेज पर देखके बहुत खुश होते है!"
[Parents can’t get involved because they are illiterate, but yes, they do feel very proud to see their kids perform on stage.]

A funny response comes to mind when we talk about school functions.  In our interviews, we cover a segment where we inquire about the electricity situation and the ownership and intensity of use of power generators. 

Me: Sir is electricity a problem for your school?
Principal: Oh yes! Very much, but we own a generator.
Me: That's great, so does the entire school get powered by the generator during an outage?
Principal: Oh no ma'm! We only turn it on if our Mics and speakers don’t work during events. For other times, we have enough windows for direct sunlight and cross-ventilation!

Another funny one:
Me: यहाँ आस पास कभी चोरी होती है?
Principal: बच्चों की? नहीं मैडम! हमारे यहाँ के security guards ध्यान रखते है के कोई हमारे बच्चे  चुरा जाए
[Me: Sir, is theft a problem at your school?
Principal: Of kids? No way Ma'm! Our security guard makes sure nobody steals our kids!]

At another time, we were about 15 minutes into our conversation and his cell phone got disconnected. I called him back to continue.

Principal (hastily): Ma'm my phone is out of battery.
Me: Sure, can I call you back in 15 minutes so that you can charge it by then?
Principal: Ma'm there is no electricity here at the moment and a typical power outage lasts for 12-15 hours. By then, I shall be home. You cannot call me that time because in the area where I live, there is no network coverage. When I reach school tomorrow, I shall give you a call and we can then continue.

Talking about phones, I was pursuing a principal situated in North India. He was very difficult to reach because he was either absent from work or away on rounds. The very moment I got him on the phone, I very politely asked him for his cell phone number so I could contact him easily for interview.
His response went something like:

"Our school is situated on the Indo-Nepal border. We are not allowed cell phones here! Call me tomorrow at 11 am and I shall try and sit next to the phone."

The interview did go through in his heavily accented voice. The shocker was yet to come.

Me: Sir, for our record, could you share your school's pin code?
Principal: Madam, this is an area so remote, we do not even have pin codes here!

You think that is strange? Wait until you read this:

Towards the end of every interview were supposed to enquire about the kinds of admission criteria that the school employs to admit its students. After tens of interviews, you know. Private school- entrance test, merit, parents qualifications and so on. Government school- lottery system, quotas, first come, first serve...

But this reply from the principal of a remote rural school was a shocker:

"I, along with my trusted teachers scout the adjoining 3-4 villages and find households with children of school going age. Since most are illiterate tribals, they have a strong wish to educate their children. But because we too have a limited capacity, we follow a simple rule. We study the education background of the family. If none of the siblings of the child are literate, such a child deserves education and is taken in first."

Now, if we were to complete this Global Study, and wished to send across our report of findings to these remotely located respondents' email IDs, would that be an easy task? Take a look at some of the responses we got:

"Ma'm we do not have a computer here."

"There is no internet connectivity." 

"The cyber cafe is far away."

"I do not have an email ID. Call me after 2 days, my son who is currently travelling has one. I shall ask him to give you his."

"My email ID is very old and I have now forgotten the password. I tried creating a new one on this ancient computer, but either there is no electricity or the modem is not working. Why don’t you leave your email ID so that when I do create one of my own, I can send out my first email to you?"

Yes, your guess is as good as mine. We decided to make an exception and took their postal addresses instead, so we could send them physical copies of the research!

Well to conclude, being an MBA, studying in an airconditioned classroom and dreaming of a corporate career made me take so many things as pure "givens" of life.
My stint at LSE understanding rural schools changed my perspectives on many things. I hope sharing my experiences, will change yours too!
If you read this merely to entertain yourself or feel sorry for the apathy that surrounds the Indian Education Sector, my purpose is not even half served.

I urge you to share this with as many people so that it someday reaches people capable of driving a change. I urge you to do your bit.
Because, there a vast divide between us. As we take for granted the very same electricity, water supply, education, computers and concrete roads, that our dream of Shining India still considers as a priviledge!

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