Earlier this month, the Indian government issued a landmark ruling: ‘Every child between the age of 6-14 has a Right to Education.’
No mean goal for a country where over 35% of its 1.2 billion strong population is illiterate. Despite the fact that the private education market in India is estimated to be worth more than US$40 million, studies show that only 15% of the country’s youth ever reach high school.
Privilege of the elite
Education, highly prized in all of South Asia, still remains the privilege of the elite.
There is a nationwide shortage of half a million teachers, and of those who are employed, more than 300,000 working in recognized primary schools are considered to be untrained.
Then, leaving aside the education – let’s look at the more basic logistics.
Sikkim schoools lack basic facilities
Most government schools in India don’t even have elementary facilities like electricity, drinking water, desks, playgrounds or even toilets.
B.K Gazmar is the principal of Passingdong secondary school in India’s north-eastern state of Sikkim. He has repeatedly sent letters to the government requesting more toilets in his school. But so far there’s been no response.
“Our school has 200 students. And we have just two toilets and they are only for the girls,” he says, adding with a laugh, “The boys in our school enjoy the nature. They urinate in the open.”
A recent report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) reveals that a fifth of the schools in Sikkim do not have toilets for students. Of that number, a third of them have only basic shared facilities for boys and girls. And that’s not the only problem Gazmar’s school faces.
“There’s a shortage of teachers. We don’t have proper drinking water facilities for the students.”
Nearly half of the children enrolled in Sikkim’s schools drop out by fifth grade and more than two thirds of them are gone by eighth grade.
Some schools are luckier however, or they take matters into their own hands, such as Rangpo Mining School in Sikkim – its principal is Mala Jigbal.
“We received rupees 20,000 from the government last year under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan Scheme. But that was not enough, so we added some more to it from our school fund. We also got lot of help from the local community in the area. We pooled in all the money and successfully built toilets for our students.”
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, while introducing the Right to education law, cited his own story:
“I am what I am today because of education. I had to walk a long distance to go to my school. I read under the dim light of a kerosene lamp. No child will have to do that now, if the law is implemented properly.”
And therein lies the crunch. For the law to be implemented properly, it is not just the quality and reach of the education sector that needs to be improved, but facilities that should be taken for granted: electricity, drinking water and toilets.