The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2018 released in Delhi on January 15, confirms the worst fears of your editors that under the indifferent watch of the neta-babu brotherhood at the Centre and in the states, the country’s vitally important primary/elementary (classes I-VIII) education system is going from bad to worse. Although the credentials of the authors of ASER — the outcome of field-testing by 25-30,000 volunteers of the Delhi/Mumbai-based Pratham Education Foundation (estb.1994), which has been measuring learning outcomes of children in the 3-16 years age group in rural India for the past 14 years — are unimpeachable, there is little alarm or anguish within the establishment and society about its damning annual surveys.
For the overwhelming majority of rural India’s 600 million inhabitants, life continues to be nasty, brutal and short. Although rural constituencies contribute the majority of members to Parliament in New Delhi and the state legislative assemblies, they are evidently seduced by the relative opulence of urban India and have established a tradition of abandoning their rural electorates.
The very least they could have done was to ensure that public anganwadis (early childhood care and education centres) and 1 million rural elementary schools are well-equipped and provide minimally acceptable learning outcomes. Like its predecessor annual reports on rural primary education, ASER 2018 reports that 27 percent of class VIII students cannot read and grasp class II textbooks in their own vernacular languages, and 61 percent cannot manage three digits by one digit division sums. ASER 2018 also exposes the pathetic condition of the country’s dilapidated rural — especially government — elementary schools with hundreds of thousands lacking weather-proof roofs, classroom furniture, often electricity and over 80 percent of children in some states obliged to learn in multi-grade classrooms because of inadequate capacity and/or teacher vacancies estimated at 900,000 in public primaries countrywide.
Yet despite the deplorable condition of public elementary education faithfully reported by Pratham year after year, it’s difficult to recall any of the worthies who expound on Indian education on television news channels and op-ed pages, bringing to the forefront the Kothari Commission (1966) and Subramanian Committee (2016) recommendation of urgent increase of Central plus state expenditure on education to 6 percent of GDP. Government schools have to be well-equipped, showpiece institutions to attract and retain parental interest and students.
Failure to address and improve the rock-bottom learning outcomes of rural elementaries vainly recorded by the ASER surveys is reflective of a deep India-Bharat divide. It also exposes urban middle class indifference to the majority of our rural brethren callously deprived of upward mobility opportunities conferred by good quality education.