Here's a reality check for the challenges faced by the education system in contemporary India.
Case I: Two little girls are stripped by their class teacher at a private school in Begusarai, near Patna, the state capital of Bihar, for their father's failure to pay for their uniforms within a stipulated time.
Case II: A recent survey, with a sample size of 2,000, claims that 67% of parents would not want textbooks to be replaced by tablets in schools in eight cities across India.
The priorities, set by the conditions of class and privilege in each case, are staggeringly different: ensuring basic dignity to children who manage to go to school at all in spite of towering hardship versus pedagogical comparison of the relative merits of different modes of teaching. Each has its validity within a system that is characterised by a mind-boggling diversity of problems. But these examples also show up the gulf that is waiting to be breached for any education policy to have a tangible impact on the population.
Policy-makers can go on spending every resource available to them, but nothing will fundamentally change in the system, unless the human face of it learns to be human.
Even though the teacher and principal of the school responsible for mistreating the girls in Begusarai have denied the incident, eye-witnesses have another story to tell. The girls were asked to remove their clothes, forced to walk back home in various states of undress, amid tittering from their schoolmates. They became a spectacle in their locality, until a kind neighbour gave them some clothes to cover themselves up with. If this is how people who are responsible for teaching kids decide to impart education, no amount of outrage will be able to curb the easy preference for wild justice and public violence in this country.
According to a UNESCO report published last year, about 47 million young people drop out of school in India before their tenth standard. The reasons behind their decision to leave the schooling system are complex—and poverty is just the tip of a massive iceberg of social injustice. From the lack of proper toilets for girls to caste-related stigma that isolates young people from the earliest years of their lives, children across the country face a range of discriminations that are enough to crush the spirit of any adult.
Earlier this year, a 16-year-old boy in Hyderabad allegedly committed suicide because he was harassed by his school for non-payment of fees. Hit by the government's plan to demonetise high-value currencies late last year, his family hadn't been able to clear the dues for two months. Last year, a 12-year-old boy in the same city was barred from writing examinations because his parents failed to pay an outstanding fee. For those who manage to survive these humiliations to get a higher education, worse fates often await.
In 2016, the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a PhD student at Hyderabad University, exposed a long-festering rot in the education system—one that begins from the dawn of a child's life, as they face systematic exclusion and harassment for their caste, class or religion in school. More recently, an MPhil student at Jawaharlal University in Delhi called J Muthukrishnan, who supported Vemula's anti-caste crusade, killed himself after suffering years of insult from the upper castes. His ordeals didn't stop even after he had gained entry into one of India's premier institutes after several unsuccessful attempts.
In the last few weeks, India's education sector has also thrown up stories of triumph against all odds. The successful candidates of the UPSC examinations this year not only included several women but also came from a multiplicity of caste, ethnic and economic backgrounds. But for every message of hope in a country of the size of India, there are staggering numbers of tales of despair. The story of the sisters in Bihar is one among a million others waiting to be told.
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