Today in America, a teacher spent extra time with a student who needed it and did her part to lift America’s graduation rate to its highest levels in more than three decades. This is the way the President Obama began his State of the Union speech. I must confess that I am not interested in American politics, have scant if not no knowledge of economics and other such matters but have admired President Obama’s oratory skills and found inspiration in his speeches. Today his opening words unleashed a torrent of thoughts I could barely control. It is almost the best example of brain mapping one could find and I hope I can put all of it in some coherent way in this post. Please forgive me for the heady cocktail of emotions that I am about to pour out.
(Before we go any further, I would like you to pay a little attention to the picture above. It was taken in our Govindpuri primary class and the teacher you see is Anita one of the first students of Project Why. She joined us when she was in class I and graduated school two years ago. She has been teaching for the past 3 years and is about to complete a Bachelor in Commerce from the Open University. Her father is a contractual worker in a factory and her mother is a housewife. She is an extremely dedicated teacher and has spent many extra hours helping students in need. She came to my mind when I heard Obama’s opening words.)
I heard bits and pieces of the speech as I was going about the morning routine. My mind kept going back to his opening words and suddenly it was like an epiphany that brought some kind of order to the disturbing, angry, sad, despairing and troubling thoughts that I have had in the past weeks as I helplessly watch the political circus and the aberrations that come my way when I flick on a news channel, open the morning paper or browse through a magazine. What you get is a dissonant variation on the same themes. Speeches that mean nothing, sycophancy that makes you gall, promises that are and cannot be kept, vigilantism that makes no sense, protests for to save egos, calls to anarchy, shouting matches on the idiot box, battles over whose statue should be higher, and on the other hand, kangaroo courts that have scant respect for the law of the land and condemn a woman to be gang raped for having loved, courts that uphold antediluvian laws that criminalise a whole section of society for their sexual preferences, bonded labour whose hands are chopped because they dared to speak, a 14 month old girl raped by her father’s friend, homeless dying of the cold in India’s capital city in spite of promises of shelter. The list is endless. Seems like everyone’s priorities are skewed and wrong. It is all about agendas and egos. I almost feel sorry for the desperation to make a statesman out of a reluctant soul because of some feudal and dynastic past we refuse to shed. In our land a beggar’s son has to be a beggar and a leader’s son a leader.
I am sick and tired of all the, moral policing. I was shocked to hear the spokesperson of a leading political party defend her party’s view on homosexuality, a view that reeked of false morality. I am sick of vote bank politics that accept denying basic human rights to people who hurt no one.
For the past weeks I have been wondering why I am so disturbed. It was Obama’s words that made me realise why. If you think of any recent speech by the PM, by aspiring PMs, by leader of political parties, any political debate on TV and so on you realise that you never hear anything about education, or of you do it is yet another promise that will remain just that. Obama began his speech by talking of a teacher and a student and the need to lift graduation levels. He had his priorities right. Change, empowerment can only happen when people get education and not the kind of literacy that we see in India, where writing your name makes count as ‘literate’.
What we hear in our political firmament is one person attacking his opponent time after time, or vague promises of empowering large sections of society like the women and youth (they form the largest vote banks). No one tells us how. We never hear of education because children are not vote banks. We do not hear of malnutrition that stunts the development of children, of hunger that makes women ferret rat holes for grain. We never hear anyone telling us they will ensure that every child will go to school including the child who begs at red lights and that no one will go to sleep hungry. Hunger is something that deprives you of every shred of dignity as you spend every living minute thinking of food and how to feed your children.
The women, the youth you want to empower can only become empowered if they are not hungry, if they have a roof on their heads. And once you have dealt with hunger, the first step to empowerment is education and unless you address that problem India cannot change. We all should be ashamed of the state of our education.
I have written ad nauseum about the state of our education as I have, for the past 14 years, seen every aspect of what we call education in India, beginning from the aberration of a paltry 33% to acquire a certificate or degree that gets you nothing to the pathetic and shameful state of state run schools. I have also witnessed the heart breaking hunger for learning in every child that has come to project why. I have seen failures become toppers with just a gentle push and spent many a sleepless night wondering how could help more such children with the meagre resources at my disposal.
Education in India is abysmal. It is not I alone who says that. A UNESCO report published yesterday states that even after completing four years of school, 90% of children from poorer households remain illiterate. And this also holds true for around 30% of kids from poorer homes despite five to six years of schooling. This in spite of all the policies, Acts of Parliament and promises we are now sick of hearing. And as for the women that one of our aspiring PM wants to ’empower’, if things remain as they are the richest young women have already achieved universal literacy, the poorest are projected to do so only by 2080. That is 66 years down the line.
Simply sending children to school and giving yourself a pat in the back is not enough. With the no fail policy till class VIII you now have children who will spend 8 years on a school bench and still be illiterate though they will have a certificate saying they are class VII passed!
The same report also states that India has the highest population of illiterate adults: India has the highest population of illiterate adults, 287 million, 37% of the total population of such people across the world, according to Unesco’s Education for All (EFA) Global Monitoring report.
Every time we eat out we pay an education cess of 3%. I realised this a few days back. Where does the money go? It is shameful that in India’s capital city we cannot send all our children to school in the most productive hours ie mornings. Our boys go to school after 1pm when the girls have finished their shift. Schools still run in barracks or even tents and in the open come rain, sunshine or cold. Over 100 children are crammed in a class meant for 40 kids. What kind of enabling environment is this. It takes court interventions to get drinking water or acceptable toilets. And no one cares.
I feel both humbled, blessed, frustrated and elated at the fact that for the past 14 years we have been reaching out to an average of 600 kids a year. Today our headcount is 1000 but will not remain so for long as we have limited resources and the cost of living will compel us to cut our numbers in order to retain our staff.
I wish people who have deep pockets understood the importance of education and reached out to those like us who have our priorities right and helped us. But it is simply banging your had against a wall and no matter how hard a nut you have, there comes a time when it hurts and you give up.
So when I see what is happening I see red. A government we elected because we thought it may be different has lost its way. And unless they too have an epiphany, we are condemned to more of the same.
What have the children of India done to deserve this fate. Stupid me. We are feudal and a beggar’s child has to remain just that: a beggar’s child!