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HVK Archives: Get your basics right - An open letter to PM

Get your basics right - An open letter to PM - The Indian Express

Madhu Kishwar ()
26 September 1997

Title: Get your basics right - An open letter to PM
Author: Madhu Kishwar
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: September 26, 1997

When I read the front page lead story which said: Link Senior
School-Certificates with teaching of 5 illiterates.. Gujral, I found it
hard to believe that a thinking and well-informed person like you can come
up with such a naive reaction to one of the most serious problems facing
this country and could propose such a hare-brained scheme. You are reported
to have suggested that no student who clears ten plus two should be awarded
the certificate until it is accompanied by another certificate saying the
student has made five persons, including two girls, literate. In the same
breath you announced that "India commits itself to make itself a nation of
100 per cent literates in another five years." With schemes such as the one
you proposed, it won't happen even in another five centuries. lie
widespread illiteracy in India ought to be treated as the highest priority
task rather than the joke you have made it out to be. I won't be surprised
if in the next literacy conference the government comes up with another
desperate proposal that anyone who applies for a telephone or gas
connection ought to produce a sarkari certificate claiming to have made 20
people literate.

Fifty years after Independence India stands distinct for having the largest
number of illiterates in the world. Let us not be fooled by government
claims that the literacy rate has gone up to 52 per cent. The actual
figures are much lower. The shame of India is not only that a vast majority
of people are still illiterate but that even those supposedly educated are
taught so poorly that despite their BAs, MAs and even Ph Ds, they cannot
write five correct sentences in any language in the world.

If young children are to be coerced into taking responsibility for teaching
five others for free as a dharmic duty, why do we need the Education
Ministry, numerous departments, a whole chain of dysfunctional government
schools and teachers? Why don't we just wind up the whole show which is, in
any case, just a pretense? In the process we could reduce government
deficit by saving the hundreds of thousands of crores being wasted in
providing salaries, perks and vast opportunities to embezzle public funds
to people who do little work. You wouldn't dare suggest that because the
entire might of the Indian state cannot be used to fire one government
official, high or low, one peon, one teacher -no matter how serious their
dereliction of duty. You will have the trade unions bring the whole country
to a standstill by going on strikes. Sarkari oh holders as well as the
maibaap sarkar have come to treat jobs as property - a life-time's licence
to loot. Your government schools exist mainly and, often only, to provide
jobs to teachers and a whole army of babus supposedly overseeing them,
rather than to provide education to children. it is no secret that there
are innumerable schools in this country where a class has never been held
but where teachers continue drawing their salaries. Too many others teach
so little and so poorly that calling them teachers is to insult the very
idea of education.

Having become the laughing stock of the world for failing to provide even
primary education to most of our people, some years ago our policy makers
began talking of involving NGOs in this noble task. In actual fact, this
alliance with the NGOs became a cover to corner huge amounts of World Bank
and UN grants and aid money from various Western governments in the name of
running literacy projects, reforestation projects, sanitation and sundry
other projects. A lot of these projects exist only on paper.

Overnight hundreds of thousands of NGOs mushroomed, many of them started by
wives, children and sundry relatives of various bureaucrats and politicians
to corner the funds coming as international aid. Lots of additional goodies
came their way, including more frequent foreign trips, under the guise of
attending conferences, study tours and what have you. It also provided
fancy jobs to a whole army of NGO leaders many of whom have become as
parasitic as the bureaucracy. In the last few years, the GOs (governmental
organisations) and NGOs together spent more money on publishing glossy
newsletters and posters, inserting big newspaper ads, TV commercials,
organising fancy conferences to "publicise" their work rather than doing
any actual work.

Barring a few rare exceptions, most of these literacy projects have been a
flop. Despite all the hype, very little is taught and even less is
retained. Now that the honeymoon with the NGOs is beginning to wane, the
honest ones among the bureaucrats are beginning to admit that the whole
thing has turned out to be a colossal waste.

What does one see coming out of it? No sensible school child would be
willing to actually take on the job of educating five illiterate children
and jeopardise his own career opportunities. Even students in elite public
schools have to do all their study by hiring private tutors because of the
pressure to compete. Most of those who have studied in government schools
are in no position to teach others, since they have been taught so little
themselves. Therefore, if your writ actually runs, most kids would be
compelled to purchase certificates from teachers claiming that they have
made five children literate. An industry of forged certificates will
emerge providing additional lucrative opportunities for school teachers who
will get yet another excuse not to teach for they will be busy "monitoring"
their students' teaching skills. With the new certificate-giving industry
adding to their work load, they will indeed have no time to teach!

Gujral, you are one of the few politicians in this country, who we believe
means well by India, yet the government machinery you preside over does not
know the ABC of governance. It functions more like an organised extortion
racket. Therefore, it is not a fit instrument to teach dharmic duties to
its people. May I suggest a more do-able and modest agenda. Let the
government simply reduce its nuisance value, not work zealously to generate
poverty. People will learn to take care of the rest.

If the government does not pursue policies which obstruct and thwart
people's economic initiative and ability to fend for themselves, poverty
will disappear from India in no time. Once people have enough money in
their hands, they will find a way of organising schools and educating their
children and perhaps import teachers in case they find our desi variety has
forgotten how to teach!

(The waiter is the editor of Manushi)

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