Rural India: Waiting to excel

Anita Chaudary is the first girl from her farming-caste village in dusty Rajasthan state to make it to 10th grade. Both of her parents are illiterate. But neither wants their promising daughter to spend her days bent in the fields, as they do. So when an all-girls school opened in Phagi, the small town supporting tiny surrounding villages like Mandi - Anita's parents promised to help in any way they could.

Traditionally, Rajasthan is one of the most regressive parts of India for females. Only about 35 percent of them can sign their names or read street signs. Only 2 of 10 get to Grade 8.

Yet attitudes about schooling girls are starting to change, even here. Phagi All-Girls Government School has taken away the argument and fears of rural parents who don't want their adolescent daughters attending co-ed schools. It also deals another blow to one of the most insidious of arguments about rural South Asia: that parents don't want their sons and daughters in school, but out working. In study after study, the old saw that child labor is the preferred - and only - option for poor offspring, is contradicted by Indian parents. What they ask for is decent education - a desire with which official India is still coming to terms.

When Anita walks 45 minutes down a dirt road to school today, she dreams of "helping people," of being a doctor. "But that will require a lot of work. My grades need to improve. I was careless in ninth grade, but I'm studying harder now. What I really want is to travel to the US. But I'll probably end up in Jaipur."

In her mind, she is not a village girl. She has visited her brother in nearby Jaipur, the state capital. She has been exposed to films, pop music, English-language magazines like Cosmopolitan and Elle. She and her friends shake with giggles when they tell of organizing semi-surreptitious dance competitions.

At home Anita's parents are proudly bewildered by their daughter's new demands: She wants the table set properly, the house kept clean. Her uncle jokes ruefully that when he comes home from the fields, his niece tells him to "take a bath."

Anita is not typical. She is a young woman who may escape the ordinary fate of females here. What she needs to do to ensure a better future, however, is score well on the all-India 10th-grade exam - the most important test for students in this country of 1 billion people.

Anita studies fairly hard. What she doesn't realize is how far behind she is: She does not know that only 5 percent of those who ever make it to 12th grade go to college. She has not been told of the coaching classes urban girls use to prep for the exam. She does not know how to use a computer; her school doesn't have one.

Anita's saviors may be the five often-heroic teachers who bounce in on a 70-minute bus ride to school and back each day to teach 300 sixth- to 12th-graders. They tell Anita her grades must rise 10 points to have a chance at a junior college. They target her and several others to possibly join the dozen names enshrined on the principal's wall - those who made it to higher study since the school opened in 1995.

About three-quarters of India is rural. In New Delhi, where it is easy to forget the country's bulk, talk is of a "new India." Following the nuclear tests of 1998, and fueled by a more aggressive Hindu nationalist government, India seeks recognition as a "great nation" - deserving of a seat on the UN Security Council, among other things. Indeed, India's most privileged 5 percent today get an education that rivals or is better than that available in the US - one of the many active legacies of the upper-caste tradition. Students are worked hard, in math and science especially, and their talents are forged in a mind-bogglingly stiff competitive arena.

Widening urban-rural gap

Yet if educating less-pedigreed sons and daughters is a benchmark for greatness, India has a long way to go. The story of schooling outside cities like New Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, Chandighar, Bangalore, and Madras is not of a new India, but of a widening gap. Tensions are slowly building over what is a sadly simple equation in the countryside: a greater demand for better education - marked by less delivery.

"The new 'real story' is that the social cohesion of 30 years ago, when rich lived with poor, is no longer true, either for education or health," says Krishna Kumar, former dean of Delhi University's School of Education. "The segregation in India has grown wider. In many villages there is not a single middle-class child in a government school. The systems are poor; the teacher- absentee rate is high; the parents have no power; there is a heavy failure rate among kids."

At Anita's school, one teacher confides: "I would never let my daughter attend this school. She would never make it out of here."

The exact state of education in rural India is not well known. Government figures are considered unreliable by most experts. Mostly the picture is developed by private nongovernmental groups, or international organizations like the United Nations or the World Bank.

One recent investigation into rural Uttar Pradesh state by the Madras-based Frontline magazine revealed that, in some schools, the teacher only showed up twice every few months. English instruction - needed for computer literacy, if nothing else - was rare. Books, blackboards, desks, and other common tools in that large northern state, often called "the cow belt," were often missing. School conditions match the wrenching state of the Indian countryside: 226 million Indians have no safe drinking water, 640 million lack sanitation. Some 44 percent of India lives in absolute poverty.

India has always had such problems. Some have improved. Yet unlike previous eras, lacking today is a reform-minded spirit. "Why do you need reform if you are happy at the top?" Rajiv Desai asks bitterly. A columnist and adviser to the Gandhi political family, Mr. Desai echoes the critiques of many. "Why do you need reform if your children will study in the US?"

For the first time, India's slowly opening market economy is attracting modest direct foreign investment. The talented business class is relieved that old socialist norms set by founder Jawaharlal Nehru are being removed. Yet critics warn that the ideal of responsibility for one another, the egalitarian side of the idea of India put forward by Mohandas Gandhi, is gone.

What has replaced it, Dr. Kumar notes, is a focus on projects like intercontinental ballistic missiles: India's defense budget last year jumped 24 percent, the largest in memory. A hackneyed comparison speaks louder in a developing country: The cost of one ICBM could finance 65,000 new primary schools.

In an otherwise triumphal anthem to his country, Gurcharan Das argues in the book "India Unbound" that "The 10 most important Indians are the education ministers of the 10 largest states; the next 10 are the secretaries to these ministers. Alas, they do not realize their historic mission."

The lack of reform most affects village students, especially daughters. Leading Indian educational thinker Vimala Ramachandran says of rural adolescent girls, "No one is today talking about the learning needs of this section of our society...."

The literacy myth

In the larger scale of things, Indian schools, education policy, and the needed spirit of reform have been tragically hollowed out by 10 years of a cheaply bought emphasis on "literacy," argue the current dean of Delhi University's School of Education Anil Sadgopal and others.

In the early 1990s, goes the story, India signed on eagerly to the ideals of "universal education." In an evangelical campaign to increase the numbers of those who could read, policymakers funded a variety of "literacy campaigns" that sidestepped ailing school systems in villages and towns.

Ten years later, literacy levels may have improved, but at the cost of doing the hard work of helping schools. The "parallel" literacy programs, also called "alternative education centers," have largely dried up - with ordinary schools further forgotten and usually worse off.

"We look at 'literacy' very skeptically," says one teacher from Anita's school. "I've watched how it works. When a female can sign her name, she is described as literate. Then she leaves and forgets what she's learned. That is no education. Meantime, our school has no fans for the heat, no computers, five teachers for 300 students who sit on the floor, and no money for anything special, like field trips."

From a ground-level view, education problems for nonprivileged females seem a complex web of language barriers, poverty, lack of proximity to schools, patriarchy, sexual abuse, a colonial-era system of exams that allow no slip-ups, and a higher-education system with few seats. Yet these ills may derive from a more simple cause: an inability or unwillingness to address a tradition that amply rewards the few at the expense of the many.

Indians abroad often tell their US counterparts that Brahminism in India is over with. Indeed, 19th-century horror stories, in which "untouchables" may not walk through upper-caste neighborhoods, are hard to find today. But a "Brahminism of the mind" is still a powerful fact in Indian society, says Mr. Desai, the political adviser. "The upper classes here don't want the lower classes to succeed. That extends fully into education. In America, education is about empowerment. Here it is about selection. Ours is a Darwinian system, with strong roots in Brahminical attitudes about superiority."

But Anita and a few others like her continue to push the limits of the system. Urban parents in Delhi and Bombay credit the media for influencing their daughters to reach for more, to set their sights to live in the US, for example. Although to a lesser degree, girls in rural areas are also hearing more about the outside world through media, aid groups, and some teachers - and are testing old boundaries.

Anita, for example, was part of a group of girls who held several underground dance contests by introducing Bombay music, the big song-and-dance numbers in Hindi films, to other village girls. And Anita tried to spearhead a movement in her school for a group of girls from villages in the upper grade levels to live together in a youth hostel near the school.

"Distance is our big problem. We have to walk such a long way and it is a waste of time." she says. "Some parents didn't say 'no' right away, and we could have got chaperones. But it didn't work out," she says with a shrug.

India's rural schools may not yet prepare doctors and astrophysicists. But there's a look in Anita's eye that suggests she won't be a farm laborer, either. "The question is not if Indian parents and kids are finally ready to value a good education," says Dr. Sadgopal. "They are! They are waiting! The question is whether the Indian government is ready."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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