Kannada is the mother tongue of the overwhelming majority of the state's 61 million population. But the number of Kannada-medium primary schools - Classes 1 to 5 - with single digit enrolment is increasing by the year.
Two reasons are given for the decreasing number of students in these schools - the preference for English-medium schools and the opening of too many schools as part of the programme to have one primary school within one-kilometre radius of a habitation.
In 2009-10, nearly 500 government-run lower primary schools across Karnataka were shut as they had fewer than five students each. Now the government wants to shut 1,500 of them on the ground that running them is not cost effective and also does not provide a school atmosphere for the children.
But the move is being opposed by several legislators of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and even the opposition Congress and Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S). Hence the government is not calling it a closure but merger and is offering financial assistance to parents to shift their children to nearby schools.
To encourage parents to agree, the government is offering to meet the travel costs of the children. With preference for English-medium schools increasing by the year in the state and more parents opting for private schools, the government is also thinking of offering English medium in its schools from Class 6.
This, it hopes, will particularly help students in rural areas where not many private schools are found. Minister for Primary and Secondary Education Vishweshwara Hegde Kageri has said the government move follows the "demand from the public to introduce English as the medium of instruction" from Class 6.
He said it was necessary as teaching students in English will help them in higher education and employment. The state has around 55,000 primary schools (nearly half of them having Classes 1 to 4 and the rest from Classes 1 to 5) with over 5.4 million children studying in them.
Of these, only about 4,800 schools have English as a medium of instruction. Most are private with very few of them receiving financial assistance from the government. A majority of the new private high schools (Classes 8 to 10) coming up across the state also opt to offer English medium of instruction because of the increasing demand for it.
According to a government report, only 23 of the over 600 high schools opened since 2008 had Kannada as a medium of instruction. Karnataka governments since 1994 have been involved in legal battles over their language policy in schools. In April 1994 Kannada and seven other languages were made compulsory mediums of instruction in all primary schools in the state.
The other languages are Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Urdu, Marathi, Hindi and English. Private schools went to the high court against the decision and the verdict came in their favour in 2008. The court ruled that the government can enforce this rule only in schools run by it or in those getting financial assistance from it.
The government has moved the Supreme Court where the case is pending. Chief Minister D.V. Sadananda Gowda has appealed to pro-Kannada organisations, writers and others opposing the government move to shut down 1,500 primary schools to see it in proper light.