School Where Caste Doesn't Count

HEADMASTER Mansingh Rahi is an untouchable, but high-caste parents send their children to his school. Mr. Rahi "proved his worth" as a teacher, in the words of a local doctor. The lethargy of India's bureaucracy is legendary, but Rahi succeeded in having the authorities construct a new school building in this north Indian village.

"These things don't happen easily," says the doctor, Divya Pal Singh, who left a practice overseas to return to a nearby village.

Rahi sits on a wooden chair behind a small desk on the school's veranda, which serves as an office and classroom. The class he teaches, about a dozen fifth-graders, is lined up in two rows, facing him. They are sitting cross-legged on a couple of long, thin burlap rugs, and everywhere there are blue splotches from their fountain pens.

The headmaster, a round-faced man whose strong glasses make his expression a little hard to read, seems entirely matter-of-fact about the caste controversy. He explains that the primary school at Rasmai is his 10th post and that high-caste parents have always been sensitive about entrusting their children to him. He comes from a sector of Indian society that is still responsible for the handling of feces and dead animals. He acknowledges that he had to "make constant efforts" to get the new school built,

but that's about all he says about it.

Rahi is much more easily drawn out on the problems he faces as a teacher in a village school in India. He wears a traditional dhoti - the long, pleated loincloth worn by Hindus - and a narrow white cap called a Gandhi topi.

It's an appropriate outfit, since Rahi seems to have benefited from Gandhi's attempt to abolish caste, and because Rahi is quietly outspoken in a way the Mahatma might applaud. He gripes about the meager, misguided assistance he receives from educational bureaucrats, says he has a hard time maintaining discipline, and complains about the lack of respect and remuneration accorded members of his profession.

Schoolteachers are not the only critics of primary education in India. Swami Agnivesh, a one-time minister of education for Haryana state and now a child-labor activist, says that primary education has been "left to fend for itself" in favor of spending on college-level education. Statistics on education in India tell an old story: More than half of Indians older than 15 are illiterate; the primary school dropout rate in 1988 was 39 percent, one of the highest in the world.

Rahi supervises two teachers at the Rasmai school, who each simultaneously handle two of the school's five grades, but Rahi says his first priority is more teachers. The school has 123 students, and the average class size is about 24. Rahi knows, however, that he isn't likely to get any more assistants, since the state guidelines say that a student-teacher ratio of 1 to 40 is acceptable - which means that the Rasmai school is entitled to only three instructors.

Rahi and Ram Prakash Kulshreshth, one of the assistant teachers, bring out a box marked "Tool Kit," a recent provision from the state educational department. It contains a child-sized hammer, an undersized pair of pliers, even a small electric drill.

The teachers point out that the school has no electricity.

They also produce a box containing plastic items that might be useful in teaching math - counting beads and colored disks divided in halves, thirds, and quarters. Rahi calls this material "irrelevant." Mr. Kulshreshth says he needs science kits instead.

RAHI says the bureaucrats who work in air-conditioned government offices do not understand rural education, which takes place "under a tree." Sure enough, the combined first- and second-grade students are sitting under a tree, lap-sized chalkboards in hand. Today Rahi happens to be in charge of all the students at the school, since his two assistants have been deputed to take part in a government economic survey of the district.

Looking out at the beige, denuded scrub that surrounds his school, Rahi says he would also like the money to construct a boundary wall. Then cows and goats wouldn't eat the plants he and the children plant each year, he says, and the school would have "a better look."

The students in the fifth-grade class at Rahi's feet seem attentive, but the headmaster says motivation is a problem because the government forbids teachers from failing students. Rahi says the policy is part of a 10-year-old scheme to boost literacy rates.

But the teacher says "the children have nothing to fear" and tend to lose interest. The only recourse is to "explain the importance of a good education," a strategy that is less effective than the threat of an F.

In spite of Rahi's comments about motivation, Devendra Pal Singh, a fifth-grader in shorts and a shirt, whose hair sticks straight up, says Rahi is a good instructor "who teaches each and every thing." It's not surprising to hear an 11-year-old praise his teacher to an inquisitive stranger, but Rahi lets a reporter quiz his students in private without a second thought. Interrupted in the middle of a dictation exercise, Rahi also explains what is going on by asking at random for a student's lesson book. T he child's work is neat and his Hindi flawless.

Aside from Hindi, the curriculum features math, science, a social science course that includes history and geography, and "moral education," which Rahi says involves tutelage in proper behavior.

The children come to school from 7 a.m. to noon in the hot season and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. when it's cooler. There is a six-week vacation in May and June. The school serves no meals.

Pressed on the caste issue, Rahi says his school "is contributing a lot to a breakup of the caste system," since his students will leave Rasmai knowing that untouchables can do more than clean latrines. But asked whether he would be allowed to live in the same part of the village as his high-caste charges, he says, "there is still some segregation." Mansingh Rahi and his fellow teachers may have a long way to go on that road as well. Other articles ran Nov. 4 and 18; Dec. 2, 16, and 30; Jan. 21; Feb. 3 and 18; March 2, 16, and 30; April 13 and 27.

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