Why is education not a poll issue?

Why is education not a poll issue?

In March, media reported that 46,000 government-run schools in Uttar Pradesh had been “illuminated”, which until then were un-electrified. This could have been good news except that this electrification was courtesy the Election Commission of India (ECI), which has designated these schools as polling centres. Once these elections are over, these schools will depend on regular payment of power bills by the government to remain “illuminated”. It is then that the students of these schools would need help from our journalist friends to track the government’s promise.

It has been nine years since the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009 came into force. The Act had provided a time frame of three years from its commencement for the completion of school infrastructures across India. School infrastructure includes school building, clean drinking water facilities, clean toilets and electricity. Yet, it took the Election Commission to electrify these schools. It seems that 94,427 government schools in Uttar Pradesh which, a review found, have still not been electrified will have to wait for another general election.

Across India, merely 12% schools are RTE compliant, the percentage of which is much less in Uttar Pradesh. If such is the state of affairs, then candidates across party lines must be making “tall promises” to improve our education system! But, is it happening?

The Right to Education Act which was brought by the previous UPA government, thanks to the civil society pressure, was poorly funded and casually implemented. The NDA government that came to power also did nothing substantial and made amendments in the act which kept the education department resource less. The result — 2,24,329 posts of teachers are still vacant in Uttar Pradesh.

Results for the recent UP board exams, which were released on April 26 should worry us. Nearly 10 lakh students failed in Hindi language exam. These students are from the Hindi heartland state of Uttar Pradesh.  A similar situation was seen for subjects like Mathematics. Over 7 lakh students failed in their math exams in Classes 10 and 12. It is not difficult to understand how India’s education system plummeted to this pitiable stage.

The Oxfam Inequality report highlights that government spends Rs 27,000 per child per year in government-run Kendriya Vidyalaya schools which are for central government employees. However, it spends merely Rs 3,000 per child in a year in other government schools across India. Instead of addressing the existing gaps, there are proposals being floated for opening more Kendriya Vidyalaya (which will be accessed only by children of government employees) and Sanskriti Vidyalaya (which will be for children of bureaucrats).

Unfortunately, the system is not just punishing the students for poor quality of education we are providing but also building fear of examination. Nineteen students have committed suicide in Telangana during last one week over the failure in the Intermediate examinations.

The NDA government recently amended the “No Detention Policy” under the RTE Act. The policy guaranteed promotion through Class 1 to 8 for all children, irrespective of their readiness. The now amended policy allows state governments to frame rules that could re-introduce detention in Class 5 or Class 8. There is no evidence to support that detaining students in classes or failing them improves their learning or gives better results. Instead, it pushes the weaker students out of the school system due to social pressure or humiliation.

In 2018-19, the UP state education department came up with the benign number of 27,695 out of school children. To check this ‘remarkable achievement’, State Collective for Right to Education (SCoRE) — the state chapter of the national RTE forum — conducted a sample survey in 26 village panchayats and found 1,501 out of school children. Extrapolation of data and analysis presented an alarming picture which challenges the government data — there are approximately 3.4 million out of school children, of which 38% are Dalit and 22% are Muslim in Uttar Pradesh.

Election should be about these issues that matter to you and me. If we fail choose the right government and demand accountability, we fail to invest in our future. Uttar Pradesh has the largest number of representatives in the lower house of parliament and the voters can push the political class of the state to demand their political will and commitment to build a strong education system in the state. It is for the adults to fight for the future of their children. We must not fail them.

(The writer is Programme Coordinator, Oxfam India)