Sonam Wangchuk, Director of the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, who inspired the largely applauded Bollywood film “Three Idiots” recently made scathing comments on the education system in India. He said that he has travelled to many countries “but if we talk of equity I have not seen any country as unfair in its education as ours.” He went on to say “it is a country where 5-10% children study in such schools which are probably far ahead of schools in the US. Around 90% schools are worse than those in Sub-Saharan Africa.” He also said that the “binary” of public and private is the biggest shortcoming in the Indian system.
This must be true as it has come from no less a person than Sonam Wangchuk. But it was not always so and the government schools were not all that bad. I went to school when private schools in small towns were a rarity. Like in Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh, there was only one private school that I recollect and it was close to our house. It was Miss Hill’s School that was run by donation by an American elderly lady. The head mistress was one Mrs. RK Hukku, a very genial lady who was a family friend and her four daughters and a son were very dear to all of us. Yet when it came to admitting me in school for primary education in 1943 I was admitted in a government school.
As my mother had schooled me at home, like she did all my older siblings, I was admitted in Class III. It was the Sarafa School not far from our place. There were no nurseries or pre-nurseries; even kindergartens were rare to find. I was not sent to Class I as I was judged fit enough for Class III by the Head Master.
Because of my father’s very modest salary as a professor in the local (at that time) degree college he could not have afforded the somewhat elevated fees of Miss Hill’s School. Although Mrs. Hukku very much wanted at least one of us kids in her school yet father did not relent as the household budget would have got a big dent. Despite that it was the grounds of Miss Hill’s that we used to go and play with the Hukku children every evening. My eldest brother, however, used to keep Mrs. Hukku’s paralysed eldest son in good humour and occasionally play Mahjong with him.
Facilities in Sarafa School were basic. In Class III we were made to sit on the floor on hessian mats and we had only a single teacher who used to teach us all the subjects – from arithmetic to English, Hindi, Geography, history, etc. The teacher was a Maharshtrian Brahmin with a shaven head and a tuft of hair at the back. Since he was a pucca Brahmin he gave us a lot of ethical instructions and instructions on morality.
The school was subjected to inspections almost every six months for which the headmaster and the teachers used to prepare. From the standard of teaching to cleanliness and availability of furniture, everything was brought within the ambit of the inspection. This kept everybody, including the teachers and students, on their toes as nobody knew when the inspector would make an appearance and ask some uncomfortable questions.
As I remember it now after so many decades I find it was a well run school and perhaps the same was the case with other government schools where my older siblings, including my sister, were educated. We all worked our way up to the college and then made our careers through competitive examinations. In the college four of us distinguished ourselves. My eldest brother made it to the IAS in 1953 and a brother qualified for Central Services in 1955. I myself did likewise and was selected for Central Services in 1961. My sister went on to become a lecturer and then a professor in the US, eventually ending as professor emeritus. Another brother retired as Managing Director of Madhya Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation. Primary schooling was largely responsible for our successes.
I have narrated all this in some length only to emphasise that well-administered government schools and colleges were as good as any. But that was the fact in those days now considered hoary past in pre-independence India. However, as educational expansion took place and more and more schools and colleges were opened, especially in rural India, the standards dipped remarkably. Besides, the government did not have the wherewithal to effectively maintain, administer and monitor the standards in myriad institutions that came into being resulting in a crisis in public education.
That was perhaps the reason for privatization. The state was flooded with demand which it was unable to meet. It had to, therefore, partially abdicate its responsibilities and throw open the sector to the market where numerous what are known as “edu-preneurs” appeared to establish schools and colleges to satisfy the burgeoning demand. Parents would go for them even at the risk of damaging their financial equilibrium. Nonetheless these schools did come to the rescue of the government. But there was a flip side. “Netas” became corrupt and they turned the sector as a money spinner. Hence we got schools, colleges and even universities in apartment blocks sans teaching staff and necessary infrastructure.
While the government institutions suffered from utter neglect it winked at most of the private institutions that were inadequately equipped to produce properly educated human beings. Privatised education as a movement has, therefore, largely failed in India. And the reason is not far to seek It is all because of the greed of the “edu-preneurs” and the political class who wanted a quick buck as returns on their investments.
There is no gainsaying the fact government schools have always been kind of a boon for the poor for providing a semblance of education. Poor have no way out except of sending their children to the schools run by public agencies. But they have to go through their schooling in very shoddy conditions, deprived of a proper, fulfilling education. Most of the schools suffer from neglect and want of wherewithal to run them effectively. Sonam Wangchuk said that In order to ameliorate the conditions and in order extend equitable education to all sections of society the government schools should be strengthened.
Suggesting a policy intervention in this respect Wangchuk said that children of public representatives – MPs and MLAs – should study in government schools. While admitting that none can be forced to send children only to government schools but the “public representatives should use the services that they claim they are giving to others. I can guarantee that in five years their children will not suffer and instead everyone’s children will improve – teachers will be sent for training and books will be improved.”
Calling the “binary” of public and private education to be the biggest shortcoming of education in India Wangchuk said if everybody’s children – high or low – studied in government schools then there would be far more attention paid to them. He also said that a lot of times it is said that nothing good could happen to government schools. That is largely true as children of powerful and influential do not study there. “As long as clientele are not those who can demand greater quality, there will be no one to give it either”, said Wangchuk articulating a truism.