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Exploitation of aspirations

What was a shocking aberration just a few years ago appears to have settled into a distressing annual ritual: Farmers' suicides in large numbers followed by the routine announcement of 'compensation' to their families have become a simple part of the administrative order. Every year, waves of rural distress, indebtedness and suicides have produced no effective mechanism for relief, no established policy of debt management, deferral or waiver, no feasible crop insurance or security net for the poor farmer, which could prevent these entirely avoidable personal tragedies that bring shame to India.

In the absence of such cyclical tragedies, or of the rising tide of Maoist violence, it would seem, the rural and peripheral areas of the country are invisible to policy makers, to the media, and to the national elite. The destinies of over 700 million people in the country's hinterland are abandoned to the vagaries of fortune, the accidents of climate, and the numbing exertions of survival at the margins. We speak of the great potential of India's youth, but millions of lives, entire generations, are being systematically destroyed each year, because our capacities to add value to our human resources remain abysmal.

A succession of Prime Ministers has been eloquent in their emphasis on a rural focus in their policy pronouncements. Increasing sums have been allocated to a wide range of rural services in Budget after Budget, but the delivery mechanisms appear to have been progressively dismantled. On paper, the picture drawn out appears rosy: In his Budget speech, the Finance Minister disclosed that the 2006-07 allocation for the Sarva Shikhsha Abhiyan would increase by over 40 per cent over the preceding year, to Rs 10,041 crore, creating 500,000 new class rooms and bringing in 150,000 new teachers. Already, by 2005-2006 'two independent surveys' had shown that 93 per cent of children in the 6-14 age group were in school. The education cess would transfer Rs 8,746 crore to the Prarambhik Shiksha Kosh in 2006-07, etc.

It is heartening to see education outlays go up over the past years from under two per cent to over 4.2 per cent of GNP, but this yields so much more of the 'India Shining' delusion that finds little reflection in the realities of the ground. The truth is, with more and more being spent, less and less appears to be achieved, particularly in the 'social sectors' such as education and health care, and in rural development. There is increasing evidence of the utter and distressing failure of the education system despite the enormous allocations and generous salaries now paid to most categories of rural teachers. One study covering 20 Indian States found that 25 per cent of all teachers were chronically absent, and another 20 per cent of those who did attend school did not, in fact, bother to teach.

Worse, with rare exception, the quality of teaching is abysmal, and creates little by way of capacities in children, which could help them escape the grinding poverty and hopelessness that has been the rural lot for generations. Millions of village children drop out before they complete eight years of elementary education, and one report estimates that, out of every 100 village girls enrolling in Class I, just one survives in the system to reach Class XII. Fifty per cent of all children in the rural areas leave school before they reach Class V. The dubious 'literacy' that they may achieve by this stage is meaningless in terms of creating employable skills. Rural schools are, in fact, simply not equipped to create such skills. The best they can do is provide a third class education for a people who generally appear to be regarded as second class citizens.

Unsurprisingly, parents in rural areas give in to despair, and pull their children out of this unproductive system, which they feel has little power to improve earning capacities or living standards. The hunger for a meaningful education in these areas is, however, acute, and where opportunities arise, where occasional (though increasing) private sector interventions occur - despite their higher costs - or where an exceptional teacher turns a rural school around to give hope of a better future to children, there is a near desperation among parents to secure these opportunities for their children.

It is encouraging to see exceptionally committed parents and their determined children breaking out of the miasma of poverty and rural backwardness to shape their own destinies - with a little help - to secure a place in the All India Services, in the IITs and IIMs, and to perform, at least on occasion, brilliantly, not only matching, but sometimes exceeding their infinitely more privileged urban cousins. These occasional exceptions, however, only underline the reality that, while manpower is our greatest and most abundant resource, we have been most profligate in its waste.

Instead of exerting efforts to address these abiding issues, India's political leadership appears eager only to exploit popular aspirations for electoral advantage, and to dilute the country's few institutions of excellence - the IITs, IIMs and a handful of Central Universities - that are providing the limited trickle of professionalism and efficiency to the system, instead of attempting to raise the standards of education across the board, to make the children of the poor enter the productive, competitive stream.

The Prime Minister has spoken of equity and merit, but both these values have been relentlessly neglected and subverted for the nearly six decades of India's independent existence. The utilisation of vast resources allocated to the social sectors in rural areas has been riddled with nepotism, and rural institutions have become a sanctuary for the unemployable, irresponsible and unaccountable. The decline of rural administration has been precipitate, as more and more gifted officers seek to avoid postings that would take them out of State capitals and metropolitan areas. Even the focus of non-governmental organisations - in whose efficacy great faith is placed - is overwhelmingly urban or peri-urban.

So many bright, eager youngsters join the administration, so many others graduate from technical institutions and universities with great enthusiasm to serve the nation, but within a few years, the system has extinguished their ardour. Political tokenism and cynical exploitation of caste sentiments cannot transform these realities. A far more sagacious leadership and policies will be needed if India is to tap the real potential, energies and aspirations of its marginalised millions.


(Published in The Pioneer, April 15, 2006)





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