Pinki and Rinki rush home during a school break. Their mother, Vimala Bai, merely glances up from her work. It's a familiar routine ï¿½ the girls normally come home twice during school hours. This is not out of choice but because their school (the Silawat Village School in the Shahpur block of Betul district in Madhya Pradesh) does not have a toilet. Like thousands of other adolescents around the country, these two young girls represent that much talked about group that has been enrolled in village schools. Madhya Pradesh, according to the Human Development Report of 2001, has a low adult literacy rate of 49.6 per cent and an even lower female literacy rate of 32 per cent. Girls' school enrolment is a matter of deep concern.
However, the lack of toilets is not the only hurdle in the way of girls' education. Retaining them in schools is another major issue. The MP Directorate of Public Instruction puts the dropout rate for girls as high as 63 per cent.
Ashok Verma, Secretary of the Silawat Village Education Committee that was set up following the implementation of the Gram Swaraj (village autonomy) program, says that most girls studying in the village drop out once they reach Class 7 because their families do not allow them to study further.
For a state that boasts of innovative educational schemes initiated by the government, reality at the grassroots is very different. The Headstart Program, for instance, was launched in November 2000 under the Rajiv Gandhi Shiksha Mission (RGSM) to create contextualized educational software in Hindi for rural schools. Despite the ambitious objective of expanding computer-enabled education to rural schools in the state, a study conducted last year by the Samarthan Centre for Development Support (a non-governmental organization specializing in training and capacity building), computers given to schools were lying unused.
Similarly, the Education Guarantee Scheme (EGS) launched in 1997 to ensure a primary school in every habitation, has encountered problems at the ground level. The state has devolved powers in the field of infrastructure of primary education and Panchayats (local self-governing bodies) have been given the right to demand an Education Guarantee School in their village if there is no school within a one km radius. The state government has guaranteed the opening of an EGS school within 90 days of demand.
On the face to it, Madhya Pradesh has done really well since coverage of educational infrastructure is 100 per cent and there is almost no habitation without a school in the one km radius.
However, the study found that in many cases persons from outside a village have been selected as teachers despite educated and willing persons available in the village.
Another victim of skewed management is the construction of school buildings. Take, for instance, two schools in the Ajaygrah block of Panna district. One additional room each for the schools were sanctioned and Rs 75,000 (1US$=Rs48) was to come from the Rajiv Gandhi Shiksha Mission and the Panchayat was given the responsibility to build these extra rooms. In both the schools these additional rooms are lying abandoned as these semi-constructed structures with no flooring, no plaster and no windowpanes are not habitable. Panchayat members blame officials at the district level for this state of affairs and complain about irregularities in disbursement of funds, including cuts and commissions at the district level.
As it is, this tribal-reserved Panchayat has been facing caste politics over the last few months, which has hampered development in the village. According to Verma, following the implementation of Gram Swaraj, there has been a lot of party politics in the village and education too has become a victim of political intrigues. Adds KP Malviya, the headmaster of the local primary school in Silawat, "Politics plays a major role in the lack of development in the village. Even the progress of the local school has suffered a setback because of local politicking." Malviya has been fighting a lone battle to get an extra room constructed in the school. Despite the fact that the community realizes the need for the extra room and is willing to help him, things are unable to move because they are caught in a political wrangle.
According to Malviya, even though Panchayati Raj has now been in place for a while, people are yet to realize that there is very little that the Panchayat can actually do unless people themselves take the initiative. The devolution of powers to the Panchayat has also led to a situation where people assume it is the Panchayat's responsibility to shoulder the entire burden of the village.
Another important issue that 35-year-old farmer, Dhanraj, identifies is that despite the fact that nearly 70 per cent of the youth in the village have passed the higher secondary level of education, they are still faced with severe unemployment. In such a situation many villagers ask: "Why should we send our children to school?"
If this state of affairs does not change, it seems only a matter of time before Pinki and Rinki follow the path taken by their older sister Gita and sister-in-law Indira: Drop out of school and attend to household chores.
The writer is a senior Copy Editor with the Hindustan Times and is a Fellow of the National Foundation for India, 2001-2002.