Social science has been keenly focused on the dynamics of the processes involved in the transformation of economies as they embark on the road to development. History shows us that the transformation of any economy is a process that diverges from an agrarian industry and converges to a manufacturing and service-oriented industry. The transformation of an economy is structural and leads to a host of factors that fuel the change. The labor markets in such transformation are highly dependent on skilling, industry location and choice of occupation for these markets. In a diverse and structurally imperfect labor market such as India, the social process of development is driven primarily through education. However, there is no end game with transformation, but rather a continuous and cyclical process of change that evolves over a period of time.
With agriculture in India accounting for more than 50 percent of GDP, the models in development economics somewhat fail to capture the complexities of transformation that are incentive driven as well as driven by “social formations” and “social processes.” India, with its large population, is perceived to be a developing country with unlimited supplies of labor. The dual-sector model of W. Arthur Lewis, if applied to the Indian economy in the current context, can look at two sectors: the subsistence sector and the capitalist sector. The Lewis model looks at a higher wage rate of the capitalist sector than in the subsistence sector to drive a shift of labor to the latter and lead transformation for the economy. For this to happen, the skilling process needs to be vitalized, and the primary way forward is through education. Unfortunately, literacy levels of the workforce in rural areas are still in a dire state. The shift to technology-based learning has seen rural students falling behind, and the situation has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
The focus of the Union Budget 2022 has been on making India into a knowledge society and taking forward the vision of the National Education Policy 2022. The increase in outlay of about 11 percent speaks volumes of the intent of the government to transform education. In effect, it also realizes the challenge in bridging the rural/urban divide and focuses on neutrality. The ground-level situation, however, is totally contrary to the envisioned policy in the focus of e-learning. While digital education can address issues of delivery, it cannot be an alternative to in-person learning. The education infrastructure in rural India is dismal, to say the least, and requires a complete overhaul. Rural India has been driven by primary education but continues to lack in higher education. Even primary level education leaves a lot to be desired and the so-called transformation is only good on paper, so far.
What Ails Rural (primary) Education in India
While there has been considerable progress in terms of statistics in the coverage and access of primary education across the “countryside,” the ground reality is different. The reasons are discussed in wide forums, and there is no dispute that even primary education in these areas leaves a lot to be desired. The reasons are a mix of demographic, social, and economic factors. The pandemic has only added to the glaring disparities in the Indian education system. At the risk of being repetitive, some of these are outlined below.
Infrastructure. With dismal investment and maintenance of physical and basic infrastructure, primary educational institutions in rural areas are bereft of classrooms, toilets, playgrounds, etc. When the basics are missing, the children also go missing, enrollment is low, and dropout rates high.
Faculty. Underqualified teachers, absenteeism, and lack of timely recruitment of teachers lead to poor quality and a limiting reach of education.
Economic Issues. With low income, education is often a low-priority area to start with. Employment opportunities are also limited and add to the perception of the futility of education.
Social Issues. Some societies do not permit girls to go to school as part of the social culture, lack of transportation, or missing toilets. While the solution is to build more schools, in reality, rural schools are instead being shut down, and there is little effort to promote girls’ education.
Technology. With the shifting emphasis to digital “vidya,” schools and children in rural areas are devoid of the basics in terms of computers, internet access, and also the know-how to derive benefits from the intentions of the policymakers.
No wonder that the Annual Status of Educational Report (ASER) points to a poor outcome in terms of quality as far as primary education is concerned.
Further Issues: Education and Macro Environment
As pointed out earlier, rural education in India is a continuous, evolving, and dynamic process. Though a small step in the right direction, the government erroneously assumes that investing resources in infrastructure (however small) would result in realization of functionality as well. In this sense, the situation of education in rural India is leading to a “capability trap.” Mere allocation of resources without their efficient use has led, or is leading to, a situation where the environment to derive the intended benefits of education is missing. Simple statistics look good on paper but do not lead to achieving the goals of inclusive development. The evolutionary process that leads to capability requires a coordinated effort between the polity, state, and administration; and the role of the nonprofit sector is also important here.
Education policy also follows a path of isomorphic mimicry and fails to realize that mimicking models that have worked elsewhere may not have the intended results back home.
Rural education in India has placed emphasis on enrolments, reducing dropout rates in school, and adequacy of physical infrastructure and tends to ignore the other soft aspects of child learning and skill development.
Rural India is in a learning crisis as its education system is failing to produce children ready for challenges of the twenty-first century. A radical change is the order of the day—one that synergizes the education systems design and keeps away external pressures that rely on mere enrollment statistics.
Agents of Rural Development In India
Rural education in India requires a decentralized approach, one that gives inclusive autonomy to local bodies and encourages local participation. A systems approach is the way forward, including curriculum design, recruitment of teachers, resources, and systems to check for challenges that may emerge.
S M Sehgal Foundation (Sehgal Foundation) has been working since 1999 to improve the quality of life of the rural communities in India. As a rural development NGO in India, established as a public, charitable trust, S M Sehgal Foundation has been actively working in creating programs to address the most pressing needs of the rural areas of the country. S M Sehgal Foundation’s grassroots programs and development interventions have already reached more than three million people across the country. Their underlying mantra is to achieve sustainable rural development in India, thereby empowering individuals and communities in need to escalate and enhance their own growth.
Transform Lives one school at a time is one of their focus areas. As part of this program, S M Sehgal Foundation provides schoolchildren access to drinking water, better sanitation facilities, a learning-conducive school environment, and digital and life skills awareness training. Parents, teachers, and children are encouraged to increase enrollment and reduce dropouts in rural government schools, especially for girl children. School Management Committees (SMCs) are provided with support and training to build their capacities for improved and sustained functioning of the schools.
Wakod School in Aurangabad
The upper primary school of Wakod is situated 12 km from block headquarters Phulambri and about 38 km from the district headquarters, Aurangabad (population 1,648). The lives of the students in this school were transformed in 2021. The School Development Committee (SDC), school students, and teachers are now ecstatic about having a better learning environment for the 218 students of the school.
Through the program, major repairs were done to five classrooms, and the damaged roof was fixed. Wall painting and coloring throughout the entire school blocks were done based on the BaLA concept (buildings as learning aids). An aesthetic school gate was constructed, the boundary wall was repaired, both toilet blocks were repaired, a drinking water tank was built, a stage was constructed for flag hoisting and cultural programs, ornamental plants were planted, school grounds were levelled, a recharge system was installed, and new flooring was done. The porch was covered to create additional room for a science lab. A digital system was installed for students along with the provision of learning materials. Twenty-seven students of grade eight completed a three-month program on digital learning. This complete transformation of the school premises created a positive effect on the students and their enthusiasm.
A school development committee (SDC) was formed, and capacity building was done through monthly meetings and specialized training programs. The transformation work was completed under the supervision of the SDC. The SDC collected contributions of about three lacs, maintained in a separate bank account for future repairs and maintenance.
The school headmaster, Sadashiv Badak, says, “The transformation of the school is the talking point among teachers and communities in the block, as they have not seen such a government school in the district. Moreover, the block education officer has made it compulsory for all headmasters in the block to visit our school. All teachers are visiting our school and appreciating the work done. Digital literacy classes are found very useful for the students.”