Ending centuries of ignorance


Program: A social revolution is sweeping the Indian countryside and bringing education to villages whose inhabitants have led lives of almost total isolation.

January 12, 2000|By Dexter Filkins | Dexter Filkins,LOS ANGELES TIMES

KHAJOURTOLA, India -- The people in this hamlet of rice paddies and mud do not know what year it is and cannot name the country they live in, and they are demanding an end to their ignorance.

In October, in a document scratched out by one of the village's few literate men and signed with residents' thumbprints, the villagers took up the unprecedented offer of the state's chief minister to provide a teacher and books within 90 days to any village that requested them.

"We are all waiting for our school," says Prem Singh.

Singh and the villagers of Khajourtola are the latest enrollees in a social revolution that is sweeping the Indian countryside and bringing education to villages whose inhabitants have led lives of almost total isolation. Begun nearly three years ago in Madhya Pradesh, a sprawling and impoverished state of 80 million people in northern India, the "education guarantee" program has created 21,000 schools in the most remote villages.

It is education at its most basic: Children study in mud huts or next to bean fields. The teachers, drawn from the villages, often have received little formal schooling. Many students are the sons and daughters of the social pariahs in India known as the "untouchables." A large number are girls -- historically deprived of education in India -- going to school for the first time.

"I don't want to be a thumb-stamper," says Sunita Kumari, a 9-year-old girl in the remote low-caste village of Ganeshpura, using a term to describe one who cannot write his name. "I want to stay in school as long as I can."

Madhya Pradesh's village schools have spread so fast and created such a stir that two other states have enacted similar programs.

Rajasthan has created 11,000 makeshift schools since April; Uttar Pradesh, population 140 million, is just getting started. The World Bank and European Union, encouraged by the effort's success, have agreed to help fund schools in the three states.

The Indian bureaucrats and politicians who dreamed up the program believe they have found a way to provide basic education to India's villages, where roughly a third of the nation's almost 1 billion people live.

The program's backers believe that the lack of universal education in India has been one of the main obstacles to the country's attempts to modernize. They say the goal is to break long-held traditions of caste and gender, which for centuries have made the schooling of girls and the impoverished among the lowest national priorities.

"Somewhere along the line, India got off the track," says Digvijay Singh, the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh and the driving force behind the village schools. "We decided that if we put a teacher in every village, everything else would take care of itself."

Yet for all the enthusiasm inspired by the experiment, some experts worry that the village schools may become a shoddy replacement for more formal education. Their chief concern is the teachers, village men and women who are trained in 20 days. The big test for the schools, the experts say, will come soon, when the first village children enter the equivalent of fourth grade.

"My guess is that the teachers won't be able to do the higher- level classes," says Jacob Aikara, a professor of education at the Tata Institute in Bombay. "They just don't know enough."

When he began the program in 1997, Chief Minister Singh faced a situation in Madhya Pradesh that was at once catastrophic and common throughout northern India: More than half of the state's people over age 6 could not read. In some areas, female literacy was unknown.

Numerous studies condemned the government-run primary schools, where teachers often failed to show up for class. Worse, there were no schools in about a third of the state's 73,000 hamlets. That left nearly 1 million village children for whom schools were out of reach.

Singh, an elected official who wanted quick results, hit on a radical idea. Instead of relying on the state's education bureaucracy, he created a parallel system answerable to him. Instead of waiting for schools to be built, Singh decided that the students could initially get along without them. To fight teacher absenteeism, Singh decided to give preference to people who lived in the villages, even if they didn't have much schooling. To force parents to get involved, they would have to demand the school and eventually help build it.

The most novel aspect of the plan is its preference for hiring villagers as teachers, even if they have as little as 10 years of schooling. In ordinary state-run schools, most teachers have a college diploma, but those assigned to small villages quite often continue to live in cities and regularly fail to show up for classes.

Singh decided the trade-off was worthwhile. He would hire less-educated teachers, but teachers who had a stake in what they were doing.

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