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School blight stalks laptop-driven Akhilesh

Lucknow, Dec. 10: The laptops are piling, the classrooms are empty.

The Akhilesh Yadav-led Uttar Pradesh government today indicated it was ready to shift gears and focus on tackling alarming school dropout rates after being slammed over misplaced priorities and cash-guzzling populist schemes like free laptops.

The issue was raised by a Congress legislator, Pramod Tiwari. BJP MLAs soon followed suit, drawing the government’s attention to the large number of dropouts at the primary level, especially among girls.

“It is time we shift our priorities from populist programmes like laptop distribution to the basics of primary education. When are we going to wake up?” Lakshmikant Bajpai, a four-time BJP legislator from Meerut, asked in the Assembly today and reeled off grim statistics.

He then focused attention on another frequent allegation — that the Samajwadi government has failed to ensure law and order — and linked it to dropouts. “Many girl students drop out because the state’s law and order is abysmal.”

Primary education minister Ram Govind Chaudhary promised change. “We will seek region-wise details about dropouts from schools and address the problem.”

But some might be tempted to ask if Chaudhary was the right person. The minister had kicked up a controversy last year by saying primary education was suffering in the state as the practice of caning students had been stopped.

Today, however, it was the minister who faced the whiplash from his rivals when he admitted that at 8.4 per cent, the state’s dropout rate was one of the worst in the country.

The figure is 5.1 per cent in Rajasthan, 3.7 per cent in Bihar and 3.3 per cent in Bengal, according to a survey by NGO Pratham that had highlighted dropouts as the biggest problem in Uttar Pradesh.

Chaudhary attempted a face-saver, saying the rate had declined from 10 per cent in 2011-12 — when rival Mayawati was in power — only to quickly add that efforts were on to bring it down further and improve school infrastructure.

But Tiwari, the Congress legislator, said primary schools had virtually no infrastructure or enough teachers. According to official figures, the pupil-teacher ratio is 1:46 in primary schools and 1:59 in upper primary schools. The ideals are 1:30 and 1:35.

Bajpai, the veteran BJP legislator, shone a harsher light on the problem, citing statistics from government surveys that suggested only 8 per cent schools had furniture, barely half had proper toilets and only 8 per cent had libraries.

Bajpai’s point that poor law and order made it harder for girls to attend school resonated among education experts who linked it to another challenge — early marriage.

Mahendra Singh Rana, the state’s additional director of basic education, said school staff and teachers had been asked last year to escort girl students home in remote villages but admitted the directive could not be implemented as the authorities refused to take their responsibility after classes.

Sunita Chug, a Lucknow researcher, had studied the problem of dropouts and blamed it on a “multitude of factors”. These included lack of congenial atmosphere in schools, insufficient commitment by teachers and psychological reasons such as having to repeat a class after failing exams.