The socioeconomic development of a country is based on key indicators and education and literacy are of primary importance among them. In an effort to tackle environmental and economic challenges facing the world, and to address issues of inclusive development, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were drafted through a consultative process by nations. The commitment of the SDG framework is to create a harmonious and sustainable global macro-environment to permanently end poverty. Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) is the education goal that specifically recognizes the need to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”
Education in India has made significant progress in the goal to provide education for all. Several key policies and programs were constitutionally mandated to provide free and compulsory education to all children in the age group of six to fourteen years. Initiatives such as Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) and Right to Education Act, 2009 (RTE) provided much required impetus to the education system, particularly in rural India. Education is now enshrined as a Fundamental Right and has led to the near-universalization of education at the elementary stage (age group 6–14). However, achieving the goal of elementary education is only a primary step toward creating an effective education system that is sustainable and creates an environment that can provide requisite skills and gainful employment for the large rural population of India. In this context, it would be pertinent to note that almost 65 percent of India’s population is rural and primarily dependent on agriculture. Another issue that plagues this vast majority is an absence of an effective education system up to secondary and higher education stages. With rampant poverty, much of the rural population is unable to access education. And the existing education system itself fails to deliver on generating livelihood and income in the absence of relevant skills.
Education in Rural India: The Infrastructure and Life Skills Gap
Even Primary education in rural India throws up multiple challenges and deterrents. The infrastructure is woefully inadequate to cater to the large population with a limited number of schools, lack of transportation, lack of proper buildings, little or no drinking water, lack of toilets, etc. The scenario is a perfect recipe for dropouts as students enter the stage of secondary education. A recent news report painted a dismal picture that is representative of what is happening across rural India. The learning outcomes are very poor as there are cases of schools being managed by only one teacher. It seems that the children are only keen to come to school for the midday meal.
In addition, the curriculum followed in rural schools is outdated, ineffective, and there is little or no access to technology to keep pace with the modern world. Clearly, lack of funds hinders the upgradation of systems in the schools, and teachers are woefully inadequate in quality and quantity.
Developing life skills is integral to break barriers and overlap application of knowledge, values, and skills—an integral part of quality education. Life skills are a broad set of skills that may encompass specific livelihood skills, technical skills, health, gender equality, leadership, etc. Broadly speaking, a knowledge, skills, and attitudes (KSA) approach in education can help rural children to transition from just making up the numbers to accomplishing activities that will help them navigate challenges and lead a healthy and productive life. India has an advantage with its young population, and this demographic dividend can be harnessed with an improvement in health, education, and skill development.
Learning and Important Life Skills
The New Education Policy formulated by the government of India has been looking to tweak the pedagogical structure for primary education with a concerted effort to develop children to well-rounded individuals that are equipped with key twenty-first-century skills. To make India a knowledge hub, it is important to equip rural students with skill development and vocational training. Learning life skills can help in imparting well-rounded education and meet the changing needs of our time.
Some of these important skills could be:
- Digital, e.g. computer literacy
- Legal, basics of the legal system
- Media literacy
- Civic Literacy, e.g. fundamental rights
- Multicultural literacy, e.g. appreciating cross cultures and social values
Achieving Sustainable Education in Rural India: The Gray Areas
The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2017, titled “Beyond Basics,” throws up a picture that does not bode well in the long run. While primary education enrollment has gone up substantially, leading to the transition into secondary education the enrollment rate drops drastically. Learning outcomes are poor as children lack foundational skills, 73% standard VIII children only able to read a standard II level text, and a dismal 43% only able to solve a three-digit by one-digit division sum.
As these rural children progress in life, dropouts increase in the absence of gainful and relevant employment. Little or no investment by industry in remote areas means that these children get caught up with no jobs and go back to marginal farming, leaving the sector underemployed. To achieve sustainable rural education in rural India, it is important to upgrade physical and human infrastructure. Pedagogy and curricula should look at holistic development of children in line with their aspirations for a comparative lifestyle with urban life. Education attainments at primary, secondary, and tertiary levels in rural India are key to its future development and growth. Government should look at requisite policies and incentives to deepen talent pools and expand access to market-relevant skills development to disadvantaged sections of the population. For this to be achieved, infrastructure upgradation and a change in mindset is important. Lack of resources threatens to hamper the vision of unified and inclusive growth.
Spearheading the Vision of Sustainable Education in Rural India
S M Sehgal Foundation (Sehgal Foundation), a sustainable rural development NGO in India has been working since 1999 to improve the quality of life of rural communities. S M Sehgal Foundation has been employing a community-based approach that looks at empowerment and accountability. The positive impact on the ground has been felt by over three million people across eleven states in rural India.
Government Senior Secondary School at Village Haldina in Alwar District of Rajasthan exemplifies the vision of digital India. Government school in Haldina, Umrain block, Alwar district, Rajasthan, takes pride in hosting a model demonstration of a cruise ship that serves as a classroom on their school premises.
Implemented by Sehgal Foundation together with the district administration and village communities is an innovation done under the foundation’s Transform Lives one school at a time program. Other transformative changes in the school include rainwater harvesting, separate and functional toilets for boys and girls, educational wall paintings, leveling of the playground, and a new school boundary wall, which had been in a dilapidated condition.
Another example from Bihar of lives that have been transformed from under the trees to smart classrooms shares how infrastructure changes have brought a boost to education and enrollment in the school. Vibhuti Kumari, student of class 8 in Rajkiya Buniyadi Vidyalaya Manchi, Bhandari, recalls that her school only had two classrooms, and there was no furniture. Grades 6–8 had to sit together in one classroom on the floor. “It was very difficult to sit on the floor and write. Study was no fun.”
When students have fun, learning follows. For learning to follow, places of learning have to be stimulating and welcoming.
Life skills education in the country can provide solutions to prepare our rural youth for the demands of approaching adulthood. It is the responsibility of the government, business community, and education stakeholders to help rural children attain a promising future. To assess and rebuild education and redefine its fundamental objectives is the need of the hour. The sustainable approach can help us bridge the educational divide and facilitate continuity in learning in rural India. An integrated approach of building infrastructure and redefining the role of education is required.