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Primary Education: As A State Service In India

Various theories in educational psychology have emphasised the importance of primary education in the overall development of a human. The primary among these theories is the ones given by Piaget and other behaviourists who have highlighted the importance of a holistic learning environment at a young age as an essential requisite for advancement into higher education. This would imply that a country like India, which has an ever-increasing young population, should therefore be spending a considerable chunk of its GDP on education. On the contrary, the country has been reducing its education budget considerably, and the same has gone down from 6% in 2014-2015 to around 3% in 2020-2021. At the same time, government schools, in particular, have performed poorly on a variety of indicators as captured by the data of the Educational Statistics at a Glance and Unified District Information System for Education. Therefore, the public's role in such cases becomes exceedingly important to exert pressure on the government and rectify the wrongs.

Still, unfortunately, a large part of the public in India views primary education as a non-issue. This allowed the government to successfully make funding cuts in education expenditure when it was already severely underfunded, to begin with. The losses associated with the unavailability of efficient schools cost a country’s GDP considerably, any rational economic agent should thus naturally be concerned about the same as opposed to being unbothered. We don’t mind stirring up a big issue anytime a matter of identity politics comes up; we want our outrage to be validated across social media, where we make it a point to highlight the issue as much as possible. The aim of this article is to understand why we don't care about an area that affects the country to such a great extent, like primary education, when compared to attacks on our identity or the various facets that are associated with that identity, such as our culture, religion and values.

To understand the same, we must look at the power dynamic that is at play in India presently and how the hyper-nationalistic middle class may have little reasons to care about an issue as pertinent as primary education. The majority of children who end up going to government schools belong to the lowest strata of Indian society, most of them being children of poor farmers, low-wage workers and seasonal migrants from neighbouring states, along with immigrants from neighbouring nations who simply don’t possess the financial resources to send their children to ‘private’ schools. People from low-income groups inherently hold little to zero political influence on leaders even despite being active voters; they largely lack the political strength to steer political discourse to suit their ends. The issue of government schools is not a middle-class issue but a lower-middle and below-poverty class issue, and the latter classes are the ones that hold the least political power in this country. Most of them are seasonal migrants from other states and seasonal immigrants from neighbouring nations who don’t even get voting rights, making the notion of wielding influence on political parties a far cry. Poonam Kumari & Dr Dinesh Chahal, in their research paper titled “A Study Of Children Enrolment In Government Elementary School In Relation To Socio-Economic Status”, also observed similar trends as mentioned above.

“Schools and learning in rural India and Pakistan: Who goes where, and how much are they learning?” is another fascinating research article which demonstrates that socioeconomic status and gender are important determinants of what type of school children get to attend. Rohini Pande, professor of economics at Yale University, argues, "In many settings, the economic elite can exploit their social connections and economic power to buy out poor voters. This, along with lower literacy and less access to relevant political information, can further weaken the ability of the poor to use their vote to hold politicians accountable” as prime reasons that lead to the disempowerment of the lower economic classes in being important stakeholders in the electoral process in the eyes of the political elite. Issues of higher education, such as building more IITs and AIIMS, have therefore received more attention and eventual implementation as these are the issues of the middle class and upper-middle class who don’t face many problems in the initial stages of education of their children as a result of their economic positions and ability to provide sound early education. Their priorities are, in that case, to get better colleges for their children and not primary government schools.

The general lack of a model of proportional representation to elect delegates could also be sighted as an important reason why many from the lower strata don’t enjoy better political representation. A more temporal look at the issue in terms of short-run and long-run cycles can also help understand the broader issue. A sector such as education and its eventual implications are felt in long-term cycles and are not generally as urgent as the issue of inflation that deals with petrol or oil prices, in which case price shocks lead to immediate reactions in public. Such shocks also end up turning into electoral woes, thus demanding greater political action. While on the other hand performance of essential sectors such as primary education doesn’t stir up any urgency as they are not short-term issues but rather those whose implications become more visible with time.

A prominent example of the same is highlighted by the increase of rape cases, crimes and urban sprawl in major metropolitan areas such as Delhi, Bangalore and Kolkata post-liberalisation. As a result of more excellent economic opportunities, many workers from lower-income backgrounds who didn’t have access to good quality and affordable government schools ended up migrating to these cities while being unprepared socially and economically to handle the demands and lifestyles of such places. Under ideal conditions, such preparation should have been provided by an efficient primary education system as opposed to an inept one that sadly doesn’t attract much attention due to the nature of the people who attend them; the Nirbhaya case would be one such an unfortunate example. A historical angle can also help understand the problem as it manifests in its present form. Post-independence, India's low education spending can directly be linked to its poor state today. Seeing the horrible quality of government schools, generations of Indians have become dissuaded from the idea of efficient primary schools. As opposed to countries such as the US and the UK, where a considerable chunk of the population has considered primary education as a public affair, India failed to establish a similar image which led a large chunk of Indians to choose private schools over public ones. As public education could never register as an efficient service, to begin with, many Indians revamped their expectations as consumers and therefore did not expect much from the same. This has led to a vicious cycle that cuts through both the demand and supply sides of the issue. All of the above have together led to the subdued interest of today’s public in primary education as a government initiative. The whole affair may surely be much more complex than my somewhat simplistic iteration. Still, sometimes simple and obvious facts are ones that we as a society often undermine the most.

Udyan Negi
Second Year Undergraduate Student At SRCC

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