“Educate and raise the masses, and thus alone a nation is possible”
~ Swami Vivekananda
Education in rural India is a catalyst to improve the economic and social well-being of the nation. According to the 2019 Annual State of Education Report (ASER), which surveyed 26 rural districts, only 16% of children in Class 1 were able to read text at the prescribed level, while almost 40% were not even able to recognize letters. To achieve the dream of Skilled India requires an enhanced focus on upgrading the rural education system, which starts with building safe and stimulating spaces for schoolchildren.
Many government schools in rural India do not have adequate resources or facilities to provide a safe and conducive learning environment to children. Schools are often found without drinking water, sanitary facilities are defunct or non-functional without access to water, and the school campuses are poorly maintained. Many school management committees exist only on paper. SMC members are often unaware of their roles and responsibilities and lack the skills to function as effective members. As a result, children are not inspired to attend school, and their parents are not motivated to send them. Without drinking water and toilet facilities, schoolchildren (especially girls) are forced to leave school premises in the middle of the school day, and often they do not return.
This lack of continuity and discipline demotivates teachers as well, which affects the quality of education and reaffirms parents’ doubts about the school—creating a vicious circle. The student attendance in these government schools is low compared to the total number of children in the village and further decreases day by day due to the lack of essential facilities and the unfavorable environment for quality education.
The Constitution of India recognizes universal primary education as a right with a goal of compulsory education for all children between the ages of 6–14. However, despite the well-meaning intentions and ambitious targets, India still lags behind on primary education, especially in rural India.
Barriers to Education in Rural India
1) Poverty. With a significant portion of its huge population below poverty line and illiterate, affordability and remunerative employment are major issues.
2) Gender gap. Many rural communities hesitate to send girls to school for safety reasons, early marriage, or societal and patriarchal issues. This is visible in the low enrollment ratios and literacy rates of girls compared to boys in rural India.
Source – https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/06/09/education-deficit/failures-protect-and-fulfill-right-education-through-global
3) Accessibility. With a country as vast as India, proximity to schools is an issue. Traveling long distances and lack of transportation are time-consuming and act as a dampener.
4) Lack of Facilities and Infrastructure. Schools in rural and “backward” areas often lack teaching aids, drinking water, and toilets. The lack of access to digital infrastructure only widens the digital divide.
5) Strength and Quality of Teaching Staff. Many schools in rural India are understaffed. The existing teachers lack proper training and motivation.
The contribution of education to a nation’s progress is recognized by policymakers. Education has the ability to uplift the socioeconomic status and rapid development in India, but structural inequalities have led to a gap and a huge divide between the have and have-nots. Education has the potential to create employment opportunities, and increase productivity and sources of income generation. Balanced growth, which is desirable for the country’s progress, is only possible through reduction of poverty, and education has a major role to play in this. Social change and transformation are possible with an inclusive development approach.
Transforming Lives through Education and Digital Awareness: Sehgal Foundation
S M Sehgal Foundation, an implementing NGO in social work, has created a program called Transform Lives one school at a time. The program undertakes school improvements that boost enrollment and education outcomes in the long-term, creating a better future for rural youth, including digital awareness and life skills education. A hundred schools across 10 states under Sehgal Foundation interventions’ footprint have been transformed.
The program supported by donors and partners has two components:
- Transform students’ lives by creating an optimal environment for learning.
- Empower village-institutions and stakeholders toward the education of children.
As part of school transformation, the overall school ambience is converted into a stimulating space for schoolchildren, including upgradation of classrooms, educational wall paintings, upkeep of the premises, smart classrooms for digital training, and drinking water and sanitation facilities are made accessible.
Constructed with innovative designs such as models of ships, trains, etc., smart classrooms are equipped with smart TVs that can be connected to any android smartphone through screen mirroring. Teachers leverage this feature to show audio-visual educational content to students to aid their learning and make an interactive and immersive experience for them.
As part of community empowerment, several initiatives are undertaken, e.g. training of school management committees (SMCs), and the formation and training of community champions of the Village Development committees (VDCs), along with a cadre of adolescent schoolchildren as youth champions. The empowered panchayats ensure the continuity in the work related to improving the schools on a sustained basis.
The New Education Policy puts emphasis on distance learning, however this leads to a situation where the rural population may be deprived for want of infrastructure. With limited access to smart phones or the internet, the policy objectives may be defeated. Furthermore, privatization of the education systems may make it inaccessible to a large population especially in rural India.
With education being increasingly technology-driven, digital learning will continue have a major role to play. Digital literacy has the potential to make education accessible to all, thereby transforming lives. The platform has to be laid out, and public private partnership is key in a country as vast as India.
Transform Lives advocates Digital and Life Skills Awareness training for schoolchildren and youth in alignment with the vision of National Digital Literacy Mission “to empower at least one person per household with crucial digital literacy skills by 2020.” This focus was intended to bridge the divide between rural and urban children and, when accomplished, helps to develop social and emotional skills.
Some Examples from the Ground
In an endeavor to positively impact the lives of people in marginalized communities, Nestlé India, in collaboration with S M Sehgal Foundation, launched Project Vriddhi 2.0, an initiative for village adoption in July 2021 building on the success of the earlier partnership. The first phase of the project launched in April 2019 aimed to improve the livelihoods of 1,500 people in the village of Rohira and bring positive change to the lives of the locals.
As part of the project, a transformation in Rohira School was completed in October 2019. This project included a rainwater harvesting system along with plantation, swings, educational wall paintings, sanitary facilities, and a midday meal kitchen to provide all the basic necessities for schoolchildren that make a stimulating learning environment. A Digital Literacy and Life Skills Education Centre cum Library was set up to impart training to schoolchildren at the school. The school interventions are expected to lead to increased curiosity and confidence in students as they gain greater access to new information and knowledge.
With the objective of making the government schools of Bhandari in Sitamarhi district, Bihar, safe, healthy, and stimulating for learning, S M Sehgal Foundation in collaboration with PTC Foundation and Power Finance Corporation Limited under their CSR initiative, implemented Hamari Paathshaala (2018–2021).
Under the Hamari Paathshaala initiative, two schools in Bhandari Panchayat now have intact classrooms, safe drinking water, working toilets, solar-powered energy, and digital smart classrooms. The transformations undergone in Manchi and Bhandari schools were based on BALA (Building as a Learning Aid) accreditation, so that the classrooms, floors, walls, pillars, corridors, and outer spaces act as added sources of learning. BALA surface art helps to strengthen language, communication, and math skills of students and increases their awareness of nature and the environment.
A literate and digitally aware India isn’t only a dream, but has an essential role to play in India’s march toward being an economic superpower.
Policies and pledges are well-meaning and speak to the vision, but implementation can be difficult, and goals hard to achieve. Will financial and infrastructural bottlenecks bog India’s march toward inclusive growth? The answer lies in a synergistic effort by the government and the bridging of partners, i.e. private sector and NGOs.
Transform Lives one school at a time is one such program that shows the light. Many more similar and focused programs to bolster education are needed to prepare our next generation for a better future.