By Apratim Ghosh
The state of West Bengal was once the beacon of India’s education system. Famed universities such as Presidency College and celebrated scholars including Nobel Laureate Rabindanarth Tagore could proudly claim West Bengal as home. However, such plaudits are no longer to be trumpeted due to the abject failure that constitutes the modern West Bengal education system. Specifically, its primary education system lies in splintered ruins depriving Bengali children of their future. The West Bengal primary education system seemingly suffers from a perfect storm of maladies including: gigantic rates of teacher absenteeism, a daunting lack of trained teachers, impossibly difficult assignments facing teachers, the evil necessity of private tuition, crippled and antiquated infrastructure of West Bengal primary schools, incentive schemes that that are woefully under funded by the state government, and rampant discrimination against children of scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, and Muslim origin by school authorities. This amalgamation of calamities has created a situation in West Bengal where only 6.8% of the students who enter the primary education system later reach universities. It is the purpose of this paper to comprehensively review the challenges facing the West Bengal Primary education system and argue for action on the part of the West Bengal state government where it is needed. This issue is at the heart of India’s future. The robust economic growth India has recently enjoyed is not sustainable and the stability of the Indian state cannot be assured if millions of supposedly free and equal citizens are left mired in poverty shackled by the lack of an education.
Teacher absenteeism is a pervasive issue encumbering the West Bengal primary education system. It is not just that an all too gargantuan number of teachers are not attending work, but teachers who are present are not actively involved in teaching their pupils. It is estimated that at any one time, “twenty-five percent of teachers were absent from school, and only about half were teaching.” (Kremer et. al, 658) If so many teachers are simply not teaching, present or not, the implications for students are clear. Primary school students cannot be expected to learn to read and write or do basic arithmetic if there is no one there to teach them. It is not merely the performance of students that is affected but their motivation to attend school. Teacher absenteeism, “has contributed to a high level of absenteeism among the children. We found attendance rates of only 54% in the primary schools.” (Rafique, 2) Teacher absenteeism in West Bengal vastly reduces the capabilities of Bengali students and all too often is partially responsible for their jettison from the primary education system.
Leading scholars have thus made a significant effort to deduce what the leading causes of such enormous levels of teacher absenteeism are. Teachers are more likely to provide a more consistent presence, “at schools that have been inspected recently, that have better infrastructure, and that are closer to a paved road.” (Kremer et. al, 658) School inspections are generally considered toothless in West Bengal and are conducted highly infrequently. School inspectors contend that “they are overburdened and apprehensive of the teachers’ unions’ reactions if they report unfavorably about any primary school.” (Rana et. al, 4) As a result, school inspectors simply do not visit their assigned schools or they water down their reports in order to assuage those in power. This cannot be allowed to continue because school inspections are indispensable to any serious effort to lower unwarranted teacher absenteeism. It was found that a school that has been inspected within the past three months removes nearly 30% of the level teacher absences. (Kremer et. al, 664) Furthermore, basic infrastructure in government primary schools is dilapidated to say the least. The situation in these schools is so deplorable, “most of these schools are plagued by some of the most basic infrastructural problems such as no electricity, no water supply, no separate toilet facilities for girls and few teachers with most of the schools having an average of 3 to 4 teachers.” (Ghosh, 14) These severe deficiencies within the infrastructure of public schools must be corrected if teacher absenteeism is to be reduced. It has been proven that, “teacher absence is considerably lower in schools with better infrastructure, a potentially important element of working conditions.” (Kremer et. al, 666) The remoteness of schools is an additional factor contributing to teacher absenteeism. Teachers who must travel unfeasibly long distances at great personal expense face perverse incentives to simply not show up to work. Teachers that must travel to schools far from paved roads “are nearly 4 percentage points less likely to be in school than those closest to a road.” (Kremer et. al, 664) The West Bengal state government must make additional steps not only to make schools less remote from roads, but to develop the basic infrastructure of public schools and to strengthen school inspections if it is serious about drastically reducing teacher absenteeism.
The West Bengal Primary education system also suffers from a lack of teachers and training. Teachers in public schools are spread so thin that, “on an average there were three teachers per school. Each teacher had to mange 69 students, perhaps spread over two classes. With the norm of 40 students per class the total number of teachers should have been 2,002,088. Thus there is a shortage of 48,868 teachers.” (Bandyopadhyay) Teachers simply cannot offer students the attention they need to properly learn the essential material of primary school if their focus is divided amongst so many students and classes. This problem is further compounded by the fact that the total number of primary school teachers in West Bengal is falling as concurrently more students attempt to enter primary school. (Ghosh, 17) Furthermore, there is not only a need for more teachers but much more extensive training for its existing ones. There has been little consideration of this factor from the state government. As recently as 1999 only 65 % of teachers in primary schools were properly trained compared to 1964 when only 64% of primary school teachers were trained. (Rana et. al, 4) If West Bengal teachers continue to be so miserably under trained anecdotes provided by parents of teachers asking children to pick their grey hairs during class will continue unfettered. Steps must be taken in order to secure more teachers that are better trained as more of West Bengal’s youth seek an education.
According to Amartya Sen, “education has ceased to be a right of all children particularly because of the artificially generated need for private tuition.” (Pratichi Trust) Due to the fact that government run public schools perform so abominably, parents of West Bengal primary students are forced to seek out private tutors to fill the ever widening gap of knowledge. In fact it is estimated that of the children who do not receive private tuition only, “only 29% of these children could read, write and do simple sums.” (Rana et. al, 2) However, private tuition is extremely costly and only rich and influential parents can afford it. The flight of such parents from public schools leaves advocates for improvement in the primary school system without their most powerful constituency. If the wealthy and dominant families feel no stake in the public primary schools since there children receive private tuition then there is no need for them to campaign for needed changes in the schools. Even of those parents who can afford private tutors many “do so with utmost difficulty…many depend upon borrow and suffer else where in order to afford private tuition.” (Rana et. al, 2) Anecdotes of parents forced to enter near feudal working conditions in order to acquire private tuition are an all too common reality in West Bengal. Finally, the Indian Constitution explicitly claims in article 21A that “The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of six to fourteen years in such manner as the State may by law, determine.” However, the necessity of private tuition undercuts the fundamental principle that a proper education can and must be provided by the state. If the conditions of primary schools are this poor, which necessitates the pursuit of private tuition in spite of its back breaking costs, how can one consider access to the West Bengal primary school system to be free of cost? Private tuition is a function of the free market and cannot be abolished, but the West Bengal state government must take steps needed to improve public primary schools in order to make private tuition redundant.
Discrimination is an all-encompassing ailment key to explaining the current state of the West Bengal primary education system. Discrimination largely occurs against scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, and those of Muslim origin. (Jha, 2839) Coincidentally, these groups are also the most financially destitute in West Bengal. The manner in which children in primary schools are first and foremost discriminated comes from inside the school. To begin with, there are exorbitantly higher cases of teacher absenteeism in majority scheduled caste, scheduled tribe, and Muslim schools. “The incidence of teacher absenteeism was recorded to be high in schools with a majority of children from SC and ST (75 per cent) as compared to other schools (33 per cent).” (Jha, 2839) Furthermore, teachers harbor poor and discriminatory attitudes against these children. Teachers, the majority of them men from the general caste, “showed a poor opinion of these children’s interest in studies and their ability to learn. They usually think that “the SC and ST children are less motivated than the others, more timid, and finally less intelligent than the general caste students”.”(Jha, 2840) These attitudes manifest themselves in teachers forcing children of these societal groups to sit separately from the rest of the class while hurling derogatory slurs against them and their families. Thus, there can be no surprise that there are much higher dropout rates amongst children in these groups. (Rana et. al, 3) Compounded with the fact that they and their families suffer from extreme poverty a more complex structural discrimination begins to take shape. Students of these origins suffer a three pronged discrimination in West Bengal where “they are often neglected in their schools and their largely uneducated parents (and other family members) cannot help them with lessons at home. Also their poverty puts private tuition beyond reach.” (Rana et. al, 2) Consequently all avenues of education and opportunity for children of scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, and Muslim origin are deprived. It is the uncomfortable truth that the West Bengal primary education system contributes to a widening chasm of inequality and impoverishment.
Discrimination against scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, and Muslims is a deep seeded cultural problem that cannot easily be erased. However, a push for greater diversity amongst the teaching corps is one certain step that can be taken to enable a less discriminatory ethos in West Bengal’s primary schools. Teachers in West Bengal are too homogenously male and of the general caste. The consequence of which, is the complete lack of diversity amongst the teaching corps that has provoked this monopolistic tone of discrimination. West Bengal has “a general deficit of female teachers (female teachers constitute only 25%; figures for Kerala and Tamil Nadu are 70% and 66% respectively)”. (Rana, 3) A greater push for diversity amongst teachers can shore up those who are more sympathetic and tolerant of children from these societal groups. In a topic that will be delved further into later, this process has already shown desired results in schools specifically created for these very children. In the end, it is only a proper education that can overcome man’s baser instincts to discriminate against others who are in some way different. Dreze and Sen state best “the spread of education helps to overcome the traditional inequalities of caste, class and gender, just as the removal of these contributes to the spread of education.”
Primary education in West Bengal has seen some promising new developments, chief amongst them are the Sishu Siksha Karmasuchi (SSK) schools. SSKs were established in 1999 to bring children from areas of extreme impoverishment under the state run primary education system. (Rana et. al, 2) The success of the SSKs is primarily due to their ability to create institutions of competence and consistency for those of “extreme impoverishment”, synonymous with children from scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, and Muslim origin. SSKs have thus been responsible for the, “enrolment of children from poorer families, including those belonging to SC, ST and Muslim house-holds, has increased significantly during the last decade. (Jha, 2840) Teachers in SSKs are typically women from the same village as the children. The fact that these teachers are simply members of the same local community, “requires them to contact parents frequently and also to bring children to schools, and creates an in-built local accountability system which allows greater role for local community.” (Jha, 2840) These simple acts of accountability within the SSKs have created operational efficiency and regularity. For example, when a child misses class one day 95% of the time an explanation is directly sought from the parents versus just 55% in regular primary schools. (Rana et. al, 2) An additional symptom of the greater levels of accountability to the local community is lower incidences of teacher absenteeism in SSKs. The frequency of teacher absenteeism was “lower (14 per cent on the days of visits as against 20 per cent in primary schools).” (Jha, 2840) It is important to note that Bengali women are a deprived group in their society. Those women who become teachers in SSKs are empowered by their new responsibilities and salary. In stark contrast to the teachers of primary schools, they approach their pupils with a much greater degree of sympathy and affection since they too are subjects of arbitrary prejudice. (Rana et. al, 4) The direct correlation of such efforts has been the increased participation of poor and discriminated in SSKs.
It should be the priority of the West Bengal state government to duplicate the success of the SSKs throughout West Bengal. However, SSKs are not perfect institutions and suffer from fundamental weaknesses that must be corrected before such a course is possible. The first is to do with severe pay inequities between SSK teachers and those of regular primary schools. As has been indicated SSK teachers perform better in almost ever aspect of their profession but are paid severely less than their counterparts. In fact, SSKs “are paid considerably less than primary schoolteachers (1000 rupees per month, while the primary schoolteachers now receive seven or eight times more) creating unequal working opportunities.” (Rana et. al, 2) How can quality teachers be expected to work in SSKs if their pecuniary needs are so drastically undercut in these institutions? The West Bengal state government must eliminate this inequality if it expects SSKs to become a viable model for the rest of the West Bengal primary schools. Furthermore, SSKs suffer even more debilitating problems related to the infrastructure of their schools. (Educating Bengal) Being taught in an abysmally decrepit building seems to be a luxury for the students of SSKs. Stories of children learning without desks, chairs, and even being forced to stand outside in order to attend school are unfortunately ordinary. These conditions are in no way shape or form beneficial to learning and the West Bengal state government must construct new facilities or renovate existing ones. Finally, SSKs need the same incentive schemes that the West Bengal state government provides for primary schools. These include free textbooks, school uniforms, and a free cooked mid day meal. At the moment free textbooks are stipulated as part of the SSK program, but hardly any of the SSKs actually receive them and when they do they are in inadequate condition. (Rana et. al, 3) Most importantly, a mid day meal must be instituted in SSKs if children suffering the brunt of poverty and inequality are to be included in primary schools. Studies concerning the inclusion of a mid day meal scheme discovered “that the attendance of Muslim children had increased by 13.2 percent (attendance of scheduled tribes by as much as 19.9 per cent, scheduled caste by 12.6 per cent and rest of the Hindus by merely 3.8 per cent).” (UNICEF) The factor of poverty and extreme hunger cannot be easily skimmed over. Some children who could attend SSKs will forgo better educational opportunities in order receive a meal at defunct government schools. The deficiencies of unequal pay, poor infrastructure, and the lack of incentive schemes must be rectified in order to enhance the effectiveness of SSKs.
The state government of West Bengal has certain responsibilities as mentioned throughout the paper. However, their primary responsibilities must be to increase expenditures on primary education as a matter of GDP per capita and to create institutions of accountability to the local community. The areas of needed expenditure have been expounded upon, but what must be understood is that unless expenditures are increased the principle of free public education in primary schools will cease to exist. More so, government is the only actor that can create local institutions which are capable of fostering accountability in primary schools.
As indicated there are huge areas in need of expenditure by the state government, yet GDP per capita on primary education has dropped in recent years. (Ghosh, 2) The result of such a drop off has been the creation of fewer new schools and teachers, little investment in needed areas such as infrastructure, and the transfer of costs to parents. The latter of these issues undermines the basic principle of free and compulsory primary education. (Ghosh, 19) Public education in West Bengal cannot be considered a public good if parents must absorb the costs of textbooks, school uniforms, desks and chairs, and the crumbling infrastructure of the school itself. Amartya Sen makes the point that such additional inputs act as barriers preventing impoverished families from sending their children to school. “The economic circumstances of the families often make it very hard for them to send their children to school, particularly when there are fees or other charges to be paid.” (Ghosh, 20) As aforementioned, the focus of additional expenditure should be to cover the basic responsibilities of the state to provide those things they are legally required to do so. Incentive schemes for regular primary schools and SSKs should be fully funded and properly administered. The decaying infrastructure of primary schools must be rejuvenated or replaced. The fundamental principle behind public education, that it is free of cost to students and their families, is at stake and the West Bengal state government must turn the tide of their own ineptitude.
In addition, to increasing expenditure on primary education the government must create new and legitimate institutions that facilitate accountability to local communities. Existing accountability boards such as Village Education Committees (VECs) are redundant and perform no worthy task. These VECs are highly politicized and membership tends to be a reward for political loyalty to the ruling party while parents of children in the schools are largely barred. (Rana et. al, 5) Government run primary schools are failing in so many aspects because there is no accountability to stakeholders in those schools. Specifically parent teacher committees such as those found in SSK communities, “should be mandatory with legal standing and renewal of grants to schools should be conditional on their recommendations.” (Educating Bengal) If parents are allowed to be legally involved in the day to day functions of the primary school and are armed with enough leverage to induce needed changes primary schools will begin to serve the needs of the children who attend them. The state government of West Bengal must devote the full measure of their effort to the further creation of legitimate institutions capable of creating accountability in the primary schools of West Bengal.
Fixing the West Bengal primary education system will be by no means a simple task. The full gamut of its deficiencies is overwhelming to say the least. The spheres of dysfunction include: teacher absenteeism, an unbearably miniscule number of teachers, poor teacher training, private tuition, discrimination of students, pitiable infrastructure, the lack of consistent inspections by the government, massively inefficient deliveries of incentive schemes, lagging GDP per capita expenditures on primary education, and the lack of legitimate institutions to create accountability within schools. Such a quick redaction of these issues must not obscure the human cost of this failure. Students in West Bengal are losing their futures and sole prospect for clawing their way out of the bitter vice of impoverishment. These trends must be reversed. India cannot sustain herself if the vast majority of its youth in West Bengal are being torn asunder by the ravages of an inept and lackluster primary education system. In the areas expounded upon in this paper the state government of West Bengal must commit itself to a firm reexamination of its methods and to a new course of action. But for the sake of West Bengal’s sons and daughters the status quo of primary education must be rejected as the vile horror it truly is.