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Since 1st March, 1999
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I sat with a group of village women under a tree in the compound of a government primary school in Madiyahu block, Jaunpur district, Uttar Pradesh. Most of the women had children who were enrolled in this school. Many of these mothers had never been to school themselves. But they were interested in talking about children’s education in general and their children’s education in particular. We discussed many issues. What kind of education were the children getting? Was it good enough? Why was it not better? How had the school been in the past and what was it like now?

At a particular stage in the conversation, I asked, “Yeh kiska school hai? (Whose school is this?).” “Yeh sarkari school hai (This is a government school),” they answered instantly. One of them went on to explain that because the school was a government school, it was not good. “You see”, she said “the sarkar should come and see what is happening here — then they will know that their money is getting wasted. Anyway, since it is free, we don’t expect much from government schools.” All the women agreed.

“Where do you think the money for running the school comes from? Who pays the teachers? Who pays for the books, for the building, for the midday meal?” I asked. “Sarkar se aata hai (It comes from the government).” “Where does the sarkar get money from?” I persisted. One woman looked disparagingly at me, as if I was asking a really silly question. “Sarkar ke paas paisa hota hai (The government has money),” she stated firmly. Those who rule have money, she elaborated.

I tried to counter the woman’s statement: “Sarkar ke paas apne aap se paisa nahi hota hai. Janta sarkar ko paisa deti hai (The government does not have money of itself. People give the government money).” My own words rang hollow. I could see that this logic made no sense to the women. They looked incredulous at the idea that people give the government money. I kept going, “Aap aur hum jaise logon se paisa jata hai sarkar ko (It is from people like you and me that money goes to the government).” Now I had the full attention of the entire group of village women. The woman who had spoken earlier stood her ground. “I don’t give any money to the government.” She looked around at everyone and almost challenged them. “Hum kyon de sarkar ko hamara paisa? (Why should I give my money to the government?)”, she emphatically challenged me in answer.

For the next half an hour, I worked hard to persuade the women that their money funded the school. But I made very little headway. Being agricultural people, they did not pay any income tax. They did not buy any branded product. They did not travel much by train or by bus and often, when they did, they did not buy tickets. I found it impossible to convince anyone that any amount of their money ever went to the government, let alone reach the school. I finally tried to explain using cell phones as an example. “Do you know that when you pay for cell phone usage, some portion of that money goes to the government and the government spends it on schools?” I asked. The women looked back at me. From the look in their eyes, I could see that no one was buying this argument.

This encounter in Jaunpur happened a few years ago. It bothered me enormously. Since then I have had similar conversations with parents of school children in many other villages in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. The script is almost identical each time. Always with the same ending. In every discussion, people conclude that the school belongs to the “sarkar”. The money running the school comes from the government. Government has its own money and is neglectful of how it spends its money. So there is waste. And so the teacher does not teach and the children do not learn. The village or individuals in the village do not contribute any money to the running of the school. But their children are entitled to schooling. At some level, the entire conversation ends with the concept of people being beneficiaries who receive or should receive entitlements. The delivery of the entitlements is weak and faulty. Monitoring is weak; people’s complaints are not heard or acted upon. The government either does not know how to do it or it does not care. The process of government and the nature of politics in many parts of India have left profound legacies for the people. We believe that we are the receivers and the government is the giver — like the sarkar, the feudal lord.

I was in Hapjan block, Tinsukia district, Assam. I happened to go to a rural school — a government-run lower primary school or “LP”, as they call it in Assam. The village was not far from the border between Dibrugarh and Tinsukia. The school was established in 1903 and has stood solidly by the side of the road since then. Two long corridors with flanking classrooms run at right angles to each other. The teachers proudly show me around the school. There are pictures painted on the walls and charts hanging too. The children are busy working on different lessons in different classes. They seem to know what they are doing. The classrooms have ceilings of cane and bamboo; high above the ceiling is the actual roof.

An elderly member of the school management committee tells me the history of the school. A few years before 1900, his grandfather donated the land on which the school building stands. His father studied in this school, so did he: his children and now his grandchildren study there too. Well maintained and well painted, there is not a crack in the wall. The building has survived earthquakes and other calamities. Over time, the panchayat has contributed to the construction of new classrooms, as has the local member of parliament. The headmistress proudly says that she does not allow any outsider, whether from the government or from elsewhere, to do any construction in the school. Anything that has to be built is funded and supervised by members of the community.

The school has an enrollment of over 250 children — very high for a typical LP school in Assam. In the headmistress’s office, there is a board on the wall. On one side, it lists names of the headmasters or head mistresses since 1903. On the other side, it names the children who have been awarded scholarships in the district- level Standard IV scholarship examination. On both sides, there are many names. Illustrious headteachers and talented children. This school is reputed to provide a good standard of learning.

A small boy in Standard II is learning to write. He sounds out the words and then starts to write. A teacher looks on fondly. I watch the child struggle and succeed. “He is doing a great job,” I tell the teacher who is looking on. The teacher looks bashful for a minute and then says, “I did not know he could write!” Then in a low voice full of pride he continues, “He is my son. My children study in my school.”

This is the biggest challenge that we face in our schools. How to convert the “sarkari” school into “my school”, into “our school”. We, the citizens, are not beneficiaries. We are the funders and the owners of the schools. And we must behave as such. It is as if only when something belongs to me, do I care. Only when it is mine, do I engage. If I realize that it is my money that funds the school, I will watch carefully to see how it is being spent and what my children are getting out of it. Ownership is the key to engagement; holding others responsible or accountable comes later. It is only when this sense develops that we will be able to give our children the education they deserve.

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