In her book, Unequal: Why India Lags Behind Its Neighbours, academic and activist Swati Narayan argues that India is in the grip of “systemic and, at times, barbaric inequalities.” As Narayan undertook a five-year study across four countries, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal, she found that even poorer neighbours were doing better than some Indian States on a range of social indicators like health, education, nutrition and sanitation. An excerpt:
Bangladeshi preschool teacher Shaheen was only twenty-six, but she was a dynamo, brimming with energy. Married at the age of fifteen, despite all odds, she’d completed her studies. Her preschool students were able to read better than even second-grade students we had met in nearby schools. Shaheen employed a range of innovative teaching aids, including picture cards and abacuses. She showed her students multiple picture cards and combined different words phonetically making it easier for them to grasp. Most importantly, her students understood the meaning of every word they read, not only in Bengali but in English too. She was using a learning method called the Kajoli Early Childhood Education Model.
This asbestos-roofed classroom with bamboo walls, virtually no ventilation and little sunlight, was buzzing with activity and joy. In Bangladesh, the government does not run pre-primary schools. Across the country, there are numerous such learning centres operated largely by NGOs, including BRAC (earlier called the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee).
Most of them use different techniques of joyful learning. The Kajoli model is based on play and peer learning.
Shaheen’s inspiring early childhood education centre was financed collectively. The mothers’ committee of the village pooled money to pay her a modest honorarium. The school ran for only three hours a day, and the mothers brought ‘khichuri’ (a mixture of rice and lentils cooked together, often called ‘hotchpotch’ in Dhaka) by rotation for all the children to eat together.
The young teacher was ambitious about the future of her young students: ‘You can’t expect all five fingers of the hand to be the same. But I do hope that for some children who are intelligent, I am able to show them the right way. And for those who are laggards, it is my job to bring them ahead. A few days ago, I asked the children what their aspirations were. One girl wanted to be a female police officer and did dishum dushum [boxing moves]. Another wanted to be a doctor, the third a teacher. My students are so smart that the primary school teacher had to conduct a lottery to decide whom to give the most marks to, as she was flummoxed with their calibre.’
Most people are equally astonished when they see my survey results. Almost 90 per cent of the students in grade 5 whom we tested across twenty villages in Panchagarh were able to read at least a grade 2 level paragraph in Bengali. Even in Nepal, nearly two-thirds of the students we tested in grade 5 were equally competent. But in the two Bihar districts, less than half the students could read as fluently. These results for Bihar were nearly identical to those in the Annual Status of Education Report that the NGO Pratham has been preparing for the last decade in India. For the first time, with the same ASER tools, my survey tested children’s learning levels across borders. The results were crystal clear — Bangladeshi children were strikingly ahead.
In Bihar, amongst the children we tested, those from more affluent families scored markedly better than those from poorer ones. Poorer children had less than half the learning competencies. This inequality is largely due to the additional money that wealthier families spend on private schools and private tuition. In contrast, family income did not influence learning levels in Nepal. Even better, the Bangladesh district had a high progressive ratio, with pupils from the poorest families turning out to be better learners than the wealthiest. Competent and dedicated teachers trained in joyful learning techniques, timely availability of textbooks, scholarships for poor and female students as well as the Bengali cultural emphasis on education are all important factors in Bangladesh’s educational successes. In contrast, the repeated complaint of the parents we met in Bihar was that despite good intentions, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s ‘Degree Lao, Naukri Pao’ (Get a Degree, Get a Job) scheme to recruit local teachers en masse had boomeranged and worsened the quality of education. Many upper caste teachers with fake degrees had usurped these plum jobs but were obviously unable to teach in the classrooms.
Signs of decay
In school after school in Bihar, we noticed clear signs of decay. In one government school, we saw two teachers in crisp saris sitting behind wooden desks, side-by-side, in the same classroom. They were apparently trying to simultaneously teach two different grades of students who sat on the floor in rows in front of them. In another dimly lit classroom, possibly due to our presence, the teacher pretended to make the children ‘read’ in the darkness. Many students across schools also confided in us that their teachers beat them mercilessly, even though corporal punishment is strictly against the law.
In Bihar, we noticed that many children were officially enrolled in government schools, but did not attend classes. A recent 2023 post-pandemic survey by the Jan Jagran Shakti Sanghatan found that, in government primary schools in north Bihar, ‘only 23% of children enrolled were present’ and dismally concludes that ‘schools in Bihar seem to be in danger of mass displacement by private coaching centres’. My survey also confirmed that 82 per cent of students enrolled in private schools and 44 per cent in government schools also went for several hours of private tuition.
On the other hand, in Bangladesh, on an average only 35 per cent and, in Nepal, only 29 per cent of students paid for extra tuitions. In fact, the draft Bangladeshi Education Act, that has been under debate for the last decade, proposes an absolute ban on all private coaching centres, private tuition and even on the publication of guidebooks.
Excerpted with permission from Westland Books