Sreelatha Menon: Buried under figures

Sreelatha Menon / New Delhi April 15, 2007

When many of our elders walked to school four or five kilometres away barefoot, there was no Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (SSA). Nor was there a District Information System for Education (DISE), enumerating data on enrolment and infrastructure at the village level and feeding it to New Delhi.

No one knew how many enrolled and how many dropped out on a monthly basis. What one knew was that whoever went to school came back changed. Even if they did not go beyond Intermediate or did a rare BA Honours.

So what is the difference between 60 years ago or even 40 years ago and now?

Shobha Bajpayi is a school headmistress in a village near Devas in Madhya Pradesh. Her heart sank as her former chief minister Arjun Singh, now in the incarnation of the country’s education minister, presided over a meeting of state education ministers in Delhi this week.

There was no talk on the plight of teachers or the falling standards of teaching. There were teachers from Puducherry and Orissa and all were disappointed.

Bajpayi said what her minister didn’t say. The government is obsessed with SSA and it has meant a mad chase after statistics.

Teachers are being forever asked to dig out data to prepare reports on SSA and this affects their classes. When it is not the SSA data, then it is the BPL survey, says Bajpayi. “How can we teach?” Bajpayi asks.

So the difference between then and now is not only SSA, but its obsession with statistics, rather than an obsession with education.

Check what a government website says about the 10-year-old District Information System of Education. “The system collects and computerises detailed data on school location, management, teachers, school buildings and equipment, enrolment by gender and age, incentives and the number of disabled children in various grades.”

The DISE, which prepares detailed report cards for every district in the country on the government’s success or failure in increasing or maintaining enrolment rates has been designed by the National Institute of Educational Planning and Authority, New Delhi, in collaboration with the Directorate of Elementary Education and Literacy, Government of India.

Supervisions under SSA are about mid-day meals or the water pipes but seldom about the ability of the children to read, say activists of Pratham, an NGO working in many states, trying to train teachers to educate.

Come Monday, the education secretary will give away district report cards. It may be a report card that reassures the Centre about how its funds are spent in each district. But it is hardly on the children going to school. Not certainly the result of supervisions of the kind fabled from the time of Gandhiji and even recent times which reminded teachers that their only duty was to teach.

The difference is that those supervisions were done by the states to gauge their own development and not ordered by the Centre, which wants to count every penny it gives.

Today, education is just an excuse under which states get some of their legitimate funds in bulk. Is education still a state subject?