Let’s start with a quiz question. What was the last Indian state government to lose re-election due to its failure to provide good schools? Read on for the answer.
Assembly election results will be announced in five Indian states on Thursday. In terms of geography, culture and development, these states could not be more different. They include one of India’s richest (Goa) and one of the poorest (Uttar Pradesh); a state with a majority Sikh (Punjab) and one without a majority religion (Manipur). With the partial exception of UP, the campaigns have all been dominated by state-specific issues.
What they have in common is less the problems that are talked about than the problems that are not. In particular: education. Yet only a few weeks ago, before Russia invaded Ukraine, education was in the headlines. Not for what was taught or learned there, but for whether Muslim girls should be allowed to go to college with a hijab.
Education, especially school education, is perhaps the most enduring and damaging failure of our Republic. It is sometimes claimed that Narendra Modi does not value education because he himself did not need it, that it is the government of “hard work, not Harvard”. This assertion is used to explain his previous choices as Minister of HRD, his reluctance to increase central funding for education (as opposed to, for example, infrastructure spending), and his apparent willingness to sacrifice the interests of students on the altar of the fight against Covid-19. .
All this may be true, but as so often, we overattribute to an individual psyche what is in fact a collective pathology. Narendra Modi may be an autodidact, but the Indian state neglected education when ruled by products of the Harrow and Doon school. When Free India celebrated its Golden Jubilee in 1997, there were actually more illiterate Indians than there had been 50 years earlier.
Compare that with the achievements of China, where literacy has risen from 20% in 1950 to over 95% today, or Vietnam, where Ho Chi Minh’s “call for literacy” has led to a 90% illiterate population in 1945 to achieve near universal literacy. in two decades.
According to the gross measure of literacy, we have done better since 2000. But even before the pandemic, broader measures of learning outcomes – like the ASER report – revealed a school system that had stagnated at a level of criminal inadequacy.
Modi’s immediate predecessor as prime minister – an equally self-taught man, if a little quieter about it – knows better than anyone the power of education to uplift a life. But the flagship policy of Manmohan Singh’s government, the Right to Education Act, was ill-conceived, input-focused legislation that, as experts warned at the time, failed to address. improve learning outcomes.
All of this was true before 2020. But for the majority of Indian children, the pandemic has meant two years not of learning stagnation, but of learning theft. They were deprived of both what they would have learned in those years and what they learned in previous years. And the deprivation has been terribly unequal.
To the quiz I started with: the answer, of course, is no government, ever. From Jawaharlal Nehru to Modi, the Indian state is not interested in running good schools, and Indian voters show no signs of contesting this disinterest. Two decades ago, we were told that voter expectations had grown: that of RKM (roti, kapda, makaan) the voter had passed at the request of BSP (Bijli, sadak, paani). The next step, towards SSN (shiksha, windrow, naukri)seems more elusive than ever.
And yet, across class and community, Indians are obsessed with education. From families in South Mumbai paying thousands of dollars to an American admissions counselor to families selling their land to send their child to Kota, most Indians see education as the best route to social mobility, or less to secure their current position.
How do we reconcile our obsession with education at the family level with the absence of education in our politics? One possible answer is that education is representative of our broader tendency to privatize public goods. This may be due to zero-sum thinking (my child’s gain is, by definition, someone else’s loss in a world where places are scarce) or a chronic lack of confidence in the ability to the state to provide services. But the net result is a country in which those who can afford it – often those who can’t afford it – seek private health, private security, private drinking water, private oxygen.
The pandemic temporarily reversed the privatization of our schools as many families could no longer afford fees or did not want to pay for online-only classes. But once Covid is more firmly behind us, the original trend will be restored. In many states, a majority of students have left the state system. Soon this majority will be national.
Narendra Modi has perfected what his former chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian calls “the new welfarism” or “the public provision of essential private goods”. New welfarism now forms a central part of the Prime Minister’s political platform, as well as that of Yogi Adityanath. Education, like breathing air, is another matter. By far the largest population of Indians affected by toxic air pollution live in Uttar Pradesh. Yet the fact that air pollution and learning outcomes are not political issues in Uttar Pradesh elicits no comment. The government, the opposition and the media take it for granted.
In education, as in other areas, our print and broadcast media reflect the class interests of their audiences (the richest 5-10 in India), not a broader conception of the public interest. . Recall the energy devoted during Kapil Sibal’s time as HRD minister to the question of whether the CBSE should scrap its Class X exam, an issue that concerns a small minority of Indian students. English-language media coverage of the 2022 Union Budget has been exercised more by the crypto tax than health and education allocations. To hell with the ASER figures, we often hear our elites say that our education system must be the best in the world; after all, he produced Sundar Pichai and Satya Nadella.
Politicians cannot be counted on to prioritize education unless voters demand it. Improving learning outcomes is a slow business, unlikely to produce tangible results with a mandate in the Assembly. The rare Indian chief minister who improves the schools receives little credit either from the voter or from posterity. Take K Kamaraj, whose emphasis on school education, unlike his contemporaries in Congress, has produced extraordinary long-term benefits for Tamil Nadu. Kamaraj should be seen as an example for all Indian Chief Ministers. Instead, he is just another victim of a narrative that says the only important Congress leaders are called Nehru or Gandhi, and another that nothing good happened in Tamil Nadu before 1967.
Or take the great education success story of northern India, Himachal Pradesh. When was the last time you heard a politician say we should be more like Himachal? At the national level, we have convinced ourselves that we have nothing to learn from other countries. At the state level, we believe that we have nothing to learn from other states.
Arvind Kejriwal and Manish Sisodia have the merit of having explicitly sought to politicize the quality of public schools. Their claims have not always stood up to scrutiny, but they are alone among Indian state governments to actually invite that scrutiny.
The hijab controversy revealed that we are a society that cares more about what students wear to school or college than what they learn there. The most compelling reasons to care about public education are patriotic and humane: the desire to see all of our fellow citizens have the chance to realize their abilities. It should be obvious that our goal should always be to find a way for our children to study. Instead, many of us would actually prefer some of them to stay home because it will give us a chance to say, look at you backward Muslims, you will not educate your daughters.
To describe the effects of the pandemic on education, I have used the term “learning theft”, not “learning loss”, because the loss was not fatal but chosen: by governments who have put students last, and by voters who let them off the hook. Chances are, for tens of millions of our children, theft is permanent – and all we can probably offer them are free rations and cheap data.
(Keshava Guha is a writer of literary and political journalism, and the author of ‘Accidental Magic’.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.