Monday, September 13, 2010

Light in August

Author:- Anurag Behar

In a nation of 1.3 million schools, mostly in places where electricity finds it difficult to reach, reform has to be locally owned.

Kanivekoppalu is a small village in the Pandavapura taluk of Karnataka's Mandya district. To reach it, you have to turn off the Bangalore-Mysore highway around 10km from Mandya, and drive north-west 19km further.

The daylight was fading when we reached this village of 1,475 people, and we went straight to our destination - the sole government school that, with six teachers for 142 students, has a better pupil-teacher ratio than the national average of 39, and even the 30 prescribed by the Right to Education Act.

This really is middle India: Fed by the waters of the Cauvery dammed at Krishna Raj Sagar, it's not an agricultural wasteland. Around 40% of the families depend on quarries, the rest on agriculture. Only 110 of the 310 families in the village live below the poverty line.

As a result of our visit, the teachers, headmaster and students were still at the school at 6 p.m. Earlier, when our colleagues had fixed the meeting, we had wondered why they had insisted on 6 p.m. They said that the whole school could turn up only in the evening. We did not understand.

After we were lovingly fed "chou-chou bath", we dutifully inspected the school. The office doubled up as the music room and trebled up as the library, and also housed the public address system. There were four classrooms. Inspection complete, we were ushered into one of them.

The light outside was dying. The guests (us) were seated facing a classroom full of standard school benches. In 10 minutes, the room was full - around 70 parents, along with the teachers and our team.

The master of ceremonies was a confident young teacher who was clearly a good public speaker. He introduced us to the members of the "School Development and Monitoring Committee (SDMC)" - a bunch of quarrymen and farmers whose children studied in the school.

By then it was completely dark outside. In the light of a "petromax", speeches were made. One of them pointed out with pride that there was a "girl's toilet" under construction. Another vowed to ensure that they will get one more teacher. There was a jovial, polite and firm demand for computers too.

Then, one man started explaining why he had shifted his child to this school from the "convent" (meaning private) school slightly far from the village. A lady at the back, who knew the story, thought his explanation was woefully insufficient. So she got up, and as she spoke, her eyes welled up with emotion. There were many strands to her story, but it boiled down to two things. One, the man shifted his child as a student of this school, because they learnt better and the teachers cared. Second, she said, "This is our school."

Indeed, it sank into me with each passing moment that these people were there that night because it was their school as much as it was their children's. That, despite it being a 'government school". I understood why my colleagues had said that the "whole school" could turn up only in the evening: The village community was as much a part of the school as the teachers.

In the colorful history of Karnataka politics, I hope there will be a page for how, in 2002, then education minister H. Vishwanath used all his political guile to introduce SDMCs in the state. He did so against strong opposition from practically every quarter, because almost every set of local stakeholders had a vested interest in not having a transparent, democratic oversight of schools by the local community. People closely involved in this drama say he did it because he had come to believe that SDMC was really the only institutional method to continually try to improve education in the remotest of our villages. One more good political deed, more or less erased from our collective memory. That doesn't matter though, because the effect of that deed is visible where it should be.

Its effect was there in Kanivekoppalu, working with extraordinary intensity. It doesn't work as well everywhere in Karnataka (and other states which have done similar things), but often it does.

The central question of education reform in India is: how do you make it happen? The policies are not so bad, the science of education is good enough, there are some committed and competent officials, and, though most won't believe it, teachers are reasonably compensated.

There is progress on many fronts. Still, I wonder why it seems so impossible to pull it all together - pedagogy, management, assessment, accountability, outcomes and so on - and really make it happen. India's physical, economic and socio-cultural terrain is central to that question. That is what makes it too difficult, makes everyone too far away and dwarfs all grand notions, including that of the state, to nothingness.

In a nation of 1.3 million schools, mostly in places where electricity finds it difficult to reach, no reform can penetrate unless locally owned. That is the magic glue that can bind everything together at the 1.3 million ends of the chain. It's not easy to do this magic, but it's possible. In Kanivekoppalu, on that dark August night, I saw light.

(This piece was published as a part of Anurag's fortnightly column, "Other Sphere", in Mint on September 8, 2010.)