BJP leaders at a march last month protesting against the state of education in Bihar. (PTI)
Education minister Ashok Choudhary seems in denial about the state of learning in Bihar, if his comments on Sunday are anything to go by.
" Bihar mein shiksha ka DNA shandar hain (The DNA of education in Bihar is good)," he declared at the seventh foundation day event of the Bihar State Educational Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited. "The students of Bihar have lots of potential and there is big challenge too but we are taking these challenges as opportunity in providing quality education to students," he added.
While the potential bit is true - as proved by scores of Biharis who crack tough competitive exams such as for the IITs and the civil services every year - anyone familiar with education in Bihar would need a generous helping of salt to digest the rest of the minister's statement.
The state this year notched up its lowest Intermediate pass percentage in over two decades. The government itself attributed it to strict anti-cheating measures imposed after images of people climbing school walls to help their candidates cheat became synonymous with exams in Bihar, followed by the toppers' scam that blew the lid off a rampant grades-for-money racket.
Education minister Ashok Choudhary at the event in Patna on Sunday.
Picture by Ashok Sinha
The higher education scenario is no better; all state universities are facing acute shortage of teachers and lack of infrastructure facilities. On Saturday, chief minister Nitish Kumar himself had pointed out that Bihar has a Gross Enrolment Ratio of just 13 per cent in higher education, which means that around 87 per cent of those who pass the Class XII board exams stop studying further.
The teacher shortage in the state is alarming, especially in science subjects, at all levels.
For example, there are just 27 physics teachers in the 197 government high schools in Patna district. There are around 41,000 teachers at 5,200 government high schools. Out of these, 34,200 are working on contract while the rest are regular teachers appointed by the government.
"The minister saying that Bihar mein shiksha ka DNA shandar hain indicates that he has not received the correct education DNA from his officials," quipped Shatrughan Prasad Singh, general secretary of Bihar Secondary School Teachers Association.
He said the government's promise of "providing quality education" stands exposed as more than 12,000 subject expert teacher posts are vacant at secondary schools.
Even for teachers who are employed, salaries are often delayed. "We are not getting salaries on regular basis," said a teacher at a government school at Patepur block in Vaishali district. "Our salaries are pending for three to four months." University teachers, too, get salaries delayed by three to four months.
There is a huge question mark over the quality of education teachers impart.
"As the government has not held teachers' proficiency test for five years, it has no parameters to judge the quality of teachers at government schools," an education department official said, requesting anonymity for obvious reasons. Many universities are functioning with a fraction of the strength of sanctioned teachers. "The state universities are functioning with just one-third of teachers," said N.K. Choudhary, economist and former Patna College principal. "The government is not interested in filling up teachers' posts at state universities as they want to promote private universities."
For the last three years, the government is trying to complete the recruitment process of teachers at universities. The Bihar Public Service Commission has to recruit 3,364 assistant professors at nine state universities, but till date only around 750 candidates have received their joining letters.
The teacher shortage at universities can be gauged from the fact that of the sanctioned strength of around 850 teachers at Patna University, the country's seventh oldest varsity which is going to celebrate 100 years of its inception, is running with just around 270 teachers.
Another problem plaguing education in the state is lack of infrastructure. Many - if not most - government schools lack basic facilities such as laboratories and libraries.
To tide over the crisis of laboratories and scientific equipment at government schools, the state government recently issued a directive asking district education officers (DEOs) and district programme officers (DPOs) to provide funds to schools to develop laboratories. Teachers, however, remain sceptical.
"The government effort of proving funds to schools for upgrading laboratories and libraries is not going to yield results as it will again lead to corruption as concerned principals and DEOs will gulp major share of funds," a schoolteacher in Patna said under cover of anonymity.
At Sunday's event, however, minister Chowdhary highlighted the role of the Bihar Educational Infrastructure Development Corporation Ltd in infrastructure development of educational institutions in the state.