Patna: To get to the primary school, Lohanipur, East Salam, in this Patna borough, visitors have to walk past human excreta, heaps of plastic bottles and several brass and iron shops that give Lohanipur its name.
Anjali Kumari, 8, sits on a plastic mat that has seen better days, reading out a lesson in Hindi from her book. On the other side of the classroom, a math teacher explains a concept using the blackboard.
At any point in time, Kumari and the other students in her class share their classroom with at least one other class. The two-room building, where the primary school, Lohanipur, East Salam, is located, is also home to two other schools. Together, the three schools, each running classes I-V, serve 384 children.
“That leaves less than a room for each school,” says Dhananjay Kumar, assistant programme officer in Patna for the government’s flagship programme Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), launched in 2001 to put every child in school.
Then, there is non-governmental organization Nidaan, which runs classes for out-of-school children in the district and has grabbed the narrow verandah without, according to Kumar, “valid permission”.
This is the story of many government schools in Patna and in other parts of the country. In Patna alone, there are at least a hundred such schools—according to figures available with the Bihar Education Project Council (BEPC)—which survive without buildings to their name, sharing space with the few lucky ones, such as the primary school at Lohanipur, that have a building of their own. Kumar calls this an “urban problem”. The state government, he says, is finding it difficult to find or acquire land on which schools can be built.
BEPC is an autonomous body spearheading the SSA programme in the state.
It is far easier to add rooms to existing buildings, says the council’s director Rajesh Bhushan. The money for the land isn’t the problem, he adds. “It’s now difficult because Patna is already a congested city; funds for this purpose are lying unused.”
Patna was allotted Rs100 crore in 2008-09 under SSA. Only 60% of this was spent. “About 33% of SSA allocation is meant for civil works, but where do we spend?” asks Bhushan. Bihar isn’t the only offender on this count. In 2008-09, Rs20,592.2 crore was supposed to be spent on SSA. Only Rs13,273.4 crore of this money was actually spent.
According to data compiled by the human resource development ministry, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar are large states that do not use enough of the money given to them under SSA. All three states lag Kerala, the leader in terms of literacy rate, with at least nine out of 10 of its residents knowing how to read and write.
Between them, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh have 57 districts (out of a total of 81) where half the people cannot read or write. Tamil Nadu has a literacy rate of 73%.
Still, even in Bihar, SSA has made some difference. According to data provided by BEPC, around 19.18 million children in the state are covered by SSA. And the state government has come up with programmes targeted at extending the coverage of SSA to unschooled, minority communities and girl children. In 2007-08, the retention rates in Bihar’s government schools for children in classes I-V (primary) was 75.53% and in classes VI-VIII (upper primary), 82.25%. Those figures compare well with corresponding figures of 2006, when 14.6% of children in the age group of 11-14 were out of school. This dropped to 8.6% in 2007, according to the Annual Status of Education Report (Aser) released by Pratham, a non-governmental organization that works in the education sector, in 2007.
Not too far from the chaos of Lohanipur is the Middle School, Turhatoli, on Patna’s outskirts. Here, Rajmati Kumari, 10, daughter of a housemaid and an alcoholic father from Bakhtyarpur, a small town in Patna district, is a student of a residential bridge course, and she doesn’t want to go back home. The bridge course prepares children who have never attended school for formal education and entry into a grade commensurate with their age. “I study here, play with friends here and eat to my heart’s content,” says Rajmati Kumari.
Three months ago, the girl couldn’t even hold a pencil, says Shweta Kumari, her teacher. “It was very difficult to convince her parents to enroll her here, since most of them in their community employ their children in the fields. We enrolled her for a week, after which she did not want to go back.”
As part of the programme, Rajmati Kumari is provided free books, a uniform, food and board. “Once she completes the course, she will be enrolled in class VI,” says Shweta Kumari.
Rajmati Kumari’s younger siblings aren’t as fortunate. They do not attend school, much like millions of other children across India. According to Pratham’s Aser release in January, 2.7% of children between the ages of 7 and 10 and 6.3% between the ages of 11 and 14 are not in school.
The problems range from gaps in SSA to the contours of the programme itself.
Some teachers say mid-day meals, another key scheme of the government to provide food to schoolchildren and thereby draw them to school, have been put on hold in many schools including the ones in Lohanipur since August when non-governmental organizations managing the scheme were blacklisted by the state government because it found some malpractices in the scheme, including lack of proper nutrients in the food supplied.
Officials here also say there is a lack of interest in monitoring the programme, especially because the state is awaiting a new law that will govern Vidyalaya Shiksha Samitis, the cooperative societies that run government schools. The monitoring and implementation are now done by ad hoc committees, says BEPC’s Bhushan, and “they do not serve sincerely”. And although Bihar has recruited around 200,000 teachers over the past two years, it is still short of trained teachers and administrative staff for schools, according to BEPC.
There is also no emphasis on the outcome of such education programmes, says an activist.
Madhav Chavan, founder of Pratham, says the Union government’s approach towards education has not been serious about assessing learning outcomes. “Quality-wise, not much has happened. The government has not been able to give any direction to initiatives on quality. Then finance minister P. Chidambaram and even the Prime Minister have been saying that fiscal outlays should match the learning outcomes, but the Union government could not come up with any leadership on this.”
Kusum Kumari, daughter of scavengers and a class V student at Primary School Kathpul West in old Patna, seldom misses her school. Reading aloud diligently from her books, she stops occasionally and waits to be appreciated. Her performance, however, falters when she is asked to read from an English book meant for class III. “Here, government schools introduce English as a subject only in class III. That’s why they are weak in English,” says teacher Rekha Kumari.