India's elusive goal: getting all its children through primary school

An astronomical dropout rate is bedeviling one of India's most cherished and oft-postponed goals -- primary education for all young children.

Recent official surveys, sending waves of consternation through government and parliament, make it clear why millions of little Ashoks and Ashas can't read: They're not staying in school long enough to learn how.

Sixty-three percent of the Indian children who start primary school leave by the end of the fifth grade, according to Education Minister Sheila Kaul. By the eighth grade, 77 percent have dropped out.

Education officials place part of the blame on a bookish curriculum that has little relevance to the children's lives. Another factor is the country's population growth, which has outpaced government efforts to build schools and recruit teachers.

But primarily, officials cite ''socioeconomic'' reasons -- a euphemism for the poverty that compels parents to make breadwinners of their children at early ages. One-fifth of India's young never make it to school at all.

The Deccan Herald, a Bangalore daily newspaper, offers an explanation that is in vogue among some political commentators. It says the rural elite wants to preserve the status quo.

''Both the government and the rural elite have to share the blame for this sad state of affairs,'' the newspaper editorialized. ''The former for not providing enough schooling facilities and the latter for developing a vested interest in keeping the large mass of people uneducated for fear of losing their traditional hold over them.''

The net result has been the stretching of a deadline written into India's 1950 constitution: free, compulsory education for all children aged six to fourteen by 1960.

Over the years officials have simply pushed back the deadline -- first to 1970, then 1976, then 1988. It now stands at 1990, and a recent conference of education officials yielded little optimism that it would be met.

But India has made some progess in education. In 30 years, primary school enrollment has swelled from 22.3 million to 90.5 million -- no mean achievement for a country ranked 15th from the bottom on the world poverty scale. The world's second most populous country, India boasts the world's third largest pool of scientifically and technically trained manpower.

But as Education Minister Kaul has publicly acknowledged, India's elementary school enrollment achievements have been ''negated'' by its soaring population and the high dropout rates.

India's population has doubled since independence in 1947, and census commissioner P. Padmanabha estimates that at the current growth rate it will double again in 31 years. He notes that although literacy is slowly rising -- 36 percent of Indians can read and write -- because of the population growth India has more illiterates than ever before.

Concerned observers contend that unless India gets -- and keeps -- its children in school, it will face increasingly severe problems in its drive for economic development.

In economic growth, they note, India is falling behind other Asian nations that have compulsory education. They argue that a largely illiterate workforce is less able to absorb and keep up with new technology and increasingly sophisticated tasks, whether in factories or on the farm.

Another reminder came from economist John Kenneth Galbraith, a former US ambassador to India, in a New Delhi lecture in March.

''Many have looked at the world and seen one highly obtrusive fact: There is no country with a uniformly literate population that does not have a relatively high and progressive living standard,'' he said. ''There is no country with a generally illiterate population that does.''

Selected literacy rates LITERACY COUNTRY YEAR AGE PERCENTAGES Total Male Female Africa Egypt 1976 15+ 38.2 53.6 22.4 Ivory Coast 1980 15+ 41.2 57.9 24.3 Kenya 1980 15+ 49.6 64.3 35.1 Liberia 1980 15+ 25.4 42.2 9.3 Mozambique 1980 15+ 27.5 44.4 11.3 Nigeria 1980 15+ 29.9 46.5 14.0 Somalia 1980 15+ 5.2 10.0 .5 Uganda 1980 15+ 47.9 64.4 31.5 Zaire 1980 15+ 57.9 77.2 39.4 Zimbabwe 1980 15+ 70.8 78.0 63.8 North America Cuba 1979 15-49 95.6 95.7 95.1 El Salvador 1975 10+ 62.0 65.5 58.9 Guatemala 1973 15+ 46.1 53.9 38.5 Honduras 1974 15+ 56.9 58.9 55.1 Mexico 1980 6+ 81.0 83.3 78.8 Nicaragua 1971 15+ 57.5 58.0 57.1 United States 1969 14+ 99.0 98.9 99.0 South America Brazil 1976 15+ 75.7 78.0 73.5 Ecuador 1974 15+ 74.2 78.2 70.4 Uruguay 1975 15+ 93.9 93.4 94.3 Asia Afghanistan 1975 6+ 12.2 19.2 3.7 Bangladesh 1974 15+ 25.8 37.3 13.2 India 1971 15+ 33.4 46.8 18.9 Laos 1980 15+ 41.0 54.9 27.0 Nepal 1975 15+ 19.2 33.4 5.0 Pakistan 1972 15+ 20.7 29.6 10.3 Europe Italy 1971 15+ 93.9 95.3 92.6 Portugal 1970 15+ 71.0 77.6 65.3 Spain 1970 15+ 90.2 94.3 86.4 Yugoslavia 1971 15+ 83.5 91.9 75.7 Middle East Saudi Arabia 1980 15+ 16.2 29.9 2.3 Iran 1976 15+ 36.2 47.6 24.3 Soviet Union

1979 9-49 99.8 Source: UNESCO Statistical Yearbook, 1981.

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