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Gujarat: Controversial blitzkrieg

EducationWorld July 13 | Education News EducationWorld

Although Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, now in his third term in office and recently confirmed as the leader of the national poll campaign of the BJP in the general election due next year, is an individual liberals love to hate, there’s no doubting the Gujarat strongman’s propaganda capability. On June 13, the entire Modi government took to the streets across the state to drumbeat its Shala Praveshotsav and Kanya Kelvani Abhiyan (School Enrolment Festival and Girl Child Education) campaign, now in its 11th year.

Routinely every June before start of the new academic year, Modi and his cabinet, babudom and even police personnel emerge out of their cosy offices to hit schools and streets for three days to drum up primary school enrolment.

“For the next three days, the entire Team Gujarat goes to school,” Modi blogged on June 15. “Yes senior ministers, officials and myself are going to spend the next three days in the rural areas of Gujarat, going to villages and asking parents to educate their children as part of the Shala Praveshotsav and Kanya Kelvani Abhiyan 2013-14. We will go to the rural areas of Gujarat from June 13-15 and urban areas on June 20-22,”  he vowed. Team Gujarat fulfilled its promise as scheduled.

Though the Gujarat electorate, which has re-elected the Modi-led BJP government for three consecutive terms with thumping majorities in the state legislative assembly — notwithstanding the shadow of the anti-Muslim pogrom of 2002 which hangs over the chief minister — is obviously impressed, there are skeptics. “It is a government engrossed in fairs and festivals rather than solid work, whether it is shalaotsavs (school festivals) or krishi melas (farmers’ fairs),” says Shankarsinh Vaghela, leader of the opposition Congress party.

According to the chief minister, dropout percentage in classes I-V has plunged from 17.83 percent in 2003-2004 to 2.04 percent in 2012-13, and from  33.73 percent to 7.08 percent in classes I-VIII. Simultaneously female literacy has increased from 57.80 percent to 70.73 percent. According to official sources, in Gandhinagar — the state’s adminis-trative capital — this momentum is being maintained. This year 480,556 children comprising 235,263 girls and 245,293 boys in the plus five age group were enroled.

However, the government’s claims of a primary education revolution are being questioned even by apolitical social activists. “If enrolments are rising then why is the government planning to shut down 13,450 primary schools in the state?” queries Rajkot-based Mukesh Vyas, promoter-director of Soldiers of Heritage, an NGO involved with education and basic healthcare in the rural areas of the Saurashtra region.

The official riposte to this query is that some primaries have been closed down for lack of students. “Some schools which had less than 100 students have been merged with the nearest government primary within a radius of 3 km. It’s pertinent to note there are a total of over 33,000 fully-functional government primary schools in the state,” says a government spokesperson, adding that 71,000 sanitation blocks have been constructed and 104,000 classrooms added in the state over the past ten years.

Yet, the excellent report card for promotion of primary education that the Gujarat state government has given itself is contradicted by the latest National Sample Survey Organisation’s Status of Education and Vocational Training in India report, published by the Union ministry of statistics and programme implementation in March. According to the report, Gujarat’s net attendance ratio of 6-10 year olds in rural primaries is 73 percent. All states of the Union except Bihar (63 percent) and Jharkhand (63 percent) have better attendance (cf. enrolment) records. Sustained attendance in urban primaries at 78 percent is only marginally better.

Debatable and contradictory statistics apart, a more serious charge against Modi is that of infiltrating hindutva propaganda combined with a personality cult into primary school texts and curriculums. For instance, municipal schools in Vadodara have distributed notebooks and schoolbags featuring photo images of Modi and former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. Last year, they featured Modi and Swami Vivekananda. Moreover in May, the state education ministry sent a circular to all government schools to begin shala praveshotsav (school enrolment) functions with an introductory song penned by the RSS — manushya tu bada mahan hai (‘you are a great man’).

Quite clearly while the controversial and abrasive chief minister’s focus on herding all children into school is laudable, what they are taught in government school classrooms is disturbing.

R.K. Misra (Gandhinagar)

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