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Published in the 1-15 December 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Impediments to education

Low educational attainment among poor households may seem puzzling at first. After all education is supposed to be cheap in India. Then why do poor households consistently fail to advance in the field of education? In the last 10-15 years, many surveys notably 1993-1994 NSSO (National Sample Survey Organization) 50th round survey, 1996 All India Sample Survey (MIMAP) and 1999 PROBE (Public Report On Basic Education) Survey have thrown new light on the issue. PROBE report is specially significant as it provides detailed account of education system in four of the most backward states: UP, MP, Bihar & Rajasthan.

Traditionally, constrained factors e.g. financial constraint, child labor etc. have been blamed for the low educational attainment. Child labor driven by poverty has always been considered to be the main reason for low educational attainment among poor. It is assumed that poor households simply canít afford to loose income from their children. The survey reports and analysis based on them reveal a different picture. First, proportion of children in labor force has been on decline. NSSO 55th round survey, conducted in 2000, reported only 2.84% of urban boys and 4.85% of rural boys in age group 5-14yrs were in labor force. Second, it is wrong to assume that all out of school children are working to help family finances. Both NSSO 50th round survey (1993-94) and PROBE survey found that the majority of out-of-school children are not working. PROBE team found that only 18% of out of the school children worked more than 8 hours on the day preceding the survey. Many local and national level studies reveal that many of these children get into labor force because they are out of school. An exact opposite of the traditional belief that, children donít go to school because they are working. This hypothesis is also supported by NSSO 55th round survey that reports high jump in the labor force in 15-19 age group (36.6% for urban male and 53.2% for rural male) compared to 10-14 age group (5.2% for urban male and 9.3% for rural male). 

A majority of children in labor force do support family, but the impact may be highly exaggerated. Many NGOs working with child laborers e.g. CINI ASHA project in Kolkata and MV Foundationís works in Andhra Pradesh, have shown that even if children are taken out of the labor force and put into schools, it does not affect family finances too much. These projects revealed that many of the children were spending the income on leisure activities e.g. movies. Whatever contribution they were making, families were able to adjust themselves to the loss of income.

Mr. Basanta K. Pradhan and A. Subramaniam analyzed All India sample survey, conducted in 1996, for educational indicators among poor households. The findings are reported in a paper titled "Structural Adjustment, Education and Poor Households in India: Analysis of a Sample Survey". According to the paper, a high percentage (66.1%) among poor rural households attributed unconstrained factors (unwillingness on part of parents/children) whereas relatively lower percentage (49.2%) attributed constrained factors (financial constraint, attention to domestic chores etc.) for the non-enrollment. In urban areas, the picture was slightly different: only 28.3% of poor households cited unconstrained factors where as 69.4 % cited constrained factors for the non-enrollment. The responses were not mutually exclusive. Interestingly, PROBE team reports that 98% think that the education of boys is important whereas 89% think that the education of girls is important. How do you reconcile the fact that people believe in the importance of the education but are not interested in it?

According to Mr. Pradhan, high parental motivation for education does not necessarily lead to regular school attendance or even school enrollment. Parents may not be convinced of the schooling system or the return from the education. Education is an investment in the future. If the quality of education is not good and the education does not have a visible connection to job market, parents loose interest. These two factors affect poor parentsí attitude towards education more than they do for others.

Although availability of schools has increased Ė nearly 84% of habitations have a primary school within 1 km Ė the quality of education still leaves a lot to desire. PROBE team found that 59% of the sampled schools did not have drinking water, 89% did not have toilet, 26% did not have blackboards and 63% had leaking roof. Only 2% of the sampled schools had all the facilities. There was no teaching going on in half the sample schools they visited. According to the Seventh All India Education Survey, the teacher to pupil ratio in primary schools is as high as 1:85 in rural areas and 1:65 in urban areas of Bihar. To serve the increasing population fed up with govt. schools, many teaching shops have popped up. The quality of infrastructure is better than govt. schools, but the quality of education hardly deserves any marks. Additionally, the cost is too high for poor class. These so-called English medium schools are setup to exploit the hunger of lower middle class population for English education. It is another matter that hardly any of their teachers, specially in states like UP, can fluently speak English. Link between education and employment is another sore subject. Lot has been written about this missing link. It should suffice to say that one should not be surprised for lack of interest among poor class in a country where graduates can be found working as peons or pulling rickshaws.

The environment of neighborhood also affects interest in education. A typical urban Muslim neighborhood will be a good example for such a subjective analysis. The economic status of the population usually ranges from poor to middle-class. The neighborhood itself is characterized by corner shops, household enterprises and groups of folks either playing games oblivious to the world or sitting in teashops lamenting the young generation. Men/women, engaged in household enterprises, can be seen working from their houses. They often work in the front room attracting friends and neighbors for small chats. Children are either working in these enterprises, running errands or simply playing outside. Inside is factory. Outside is playground. No place to study.

The primary education system has fundamental problems. It has become more accessible to poor, but is still meaningless and hence useless. Unfortunately, our political leadership, be it Muslim or non-Muslim canít think beyond reservation. The solution lies in improving the quality of education in government schools and employment generating economic policies that will make education more attractive. To make matters worse, the poor are not willing to invest in the education and take the risk. It takes a generation to educate another generation and many simply donít have that much patience.

Zaigham A Kazmi

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