Posts Tagged education

Symbol, action and meaning

It’s not very often that you read  something positive about politicians.  And by ‘positive’ I mean ‘doing things they’re elected to do’. (Isn’t that sad? That we only get to read that they’re doing their job, not that  they’re doing much more?)

So when I read this news item in The Hindu today I was happy.  I’ve been following the  Lok Satta’s  survey of government schools, wondering if it would be just another report that tells us what we all know anyway.  And I was pleasantly surprised to read that they’ve transformed a government school in Kukatpally (the constituency that JP represents), giving it amenities like drinking water, toilets, and a clean, white-washed building.  At a cost of Rs. 60,000,  over a period of a fortnight, through donations collected by the party. Which makes you wonder: sixty grand plus two weeks  per government school.  Is this too much to ask of the government? Isn’t this the kind of thing one wants to see done with tax-payer money?

But of course the government has other priorities — like sponsoring Varuna Yagams to propitiate the rain-god.   (In the process, the TTD not only gets free publicity, it also gets paid!) And once the rains do come down, thanks to the monsoon, the government will of course claim credit and tell us: “See! We will bring the heavens down for you!”

What’s a government school by comparison? Pshaw! Insignificant stuff.

But I’m being foolish. Is education even on the agenda for the government? If it were, Kapil Sibal would be tackling the real problems plaguing education, like the  wildly diverging standards of schools  even within a single state,  not just across the country, and the commercialization of (and thereby restricted access to) education. Problems which can only be exacerbated by making school-leaving examinations optional and FDI the focus of reforms.

Education is all set to become THE  cash cow for  the next five years. Cui bono? one asks (not) in utter despair.

Tokenism. We’ve become so accustomed to it, that  we’ve come to expect it as the norm.  Not just tokenism, but symbolism as well.   Like Mayawati’s statue-unveiling spree? So much is being made out of it — that it’s  a symbolic act of claiming public space for the unrepresented, that its purpose is not self-glorification, but self-respect for Dalits.

And people actually buy this. That self-respect comes not from having decent education, healthcare, sanitation, and employment, but from statues! That all of these can be deferred, achieved at a later date once self-respect has been achieved.

Yes, Mayawati is an awe-inspiring  phenomenon; a Dalit woman serving as Chief Minister of the country’s most populous state for four terms is nothing short of a miracle. And yes, the media and opposition parties’ criticism is unfair, given the legacy of the upper caste parties as far as statues and memorials go.  So Mayawati’s statues become  symbolic  attacks on this upper caste legacy.

Again, cui bono?  The people whom  upper caste parties represent have the means, the resources, the abilities to  run their lives without government help. The people whom Mayawati represents do not.  Give them self-respect? Give them (her famed birthday) cake?

As S. Anand puts it in this wonderfully balanced piece on the issue:

“While symbolic politics have played a significant part in democratization, today this seems a convenient motive for the Dalit middle class leadership to sweep issues of class under the carpet and to talk exclusively of issues of dignity.”

Education is the only thing that can dignify the lives of Dalits.  And to think that Mayawati had the opportunity given to her to make this change happen, not once but four times . . . tragic.


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Of stone-throwing and dilapidated buildings . . .

In class last week during a course on Speech Communication,  a student wondered about the role of physical noise (sounds, objects, etc., that distract and therefore affect communication) in our classrooms of yore when students sat under a tree and listened to their guru with all of Nature as backdrop. Well, noise or no noise, it was probably infinitely safer back then! At least they didn’t have parts of their building suddenly collapsing on them.

 Like it did on Saturday in a college on the outskirts of Hyderabad, killing one student and injuring several others.

So what’s new? School and college buildings have been collapsing with tragic regularity all over Andhra Pradesh.  Undoubtedly it’s a shocking and distressing incident, but as if to prove that one death is news and several just statistics, the media and the government have gone into a tizzy over the incident. The Chief Minister has ordered the inspection of all private colleges in the city and the tabling of a report thereafter.

Hey-lo? Now this is what I call stone-throwing by people in glass houses. Except that we’re talking dilapidated school buildings here, and other people  children  are getting hurt. The management of this college is guilty of criminal negligence  no two opinions on that. But I’m dumbfounded by the government’s disparagement of conditions in corporate colleges. 

For one thing, the Neerada Reddy Committee submitted a scathing,  extensive report on these conditions last year. What happened to the report? Why hasn’t action been taken on it?

For another, what about government school buildings? Yes, go ahead and inspect all private colleges. But shouldn’t that favour be extended to government schools as well?

This picture of a government school (from Kalpana Sharma’s article on primary education in India in last Sunday’s Hindu)  is representative: 






A lot of government schools are little better than this. Like the ZP school in Madhapur, in the heart of Hyderabad’s “Hi-tech hub” — a stark contrast to the sprawling, luxurious buildings around. 

When basic sanitation, ventilation, space, and safety are compromised like this, how can we expect children to be in  any frame to study? 

As Sharma rightly asks in her article:

When we can contemplate investing in nuclear arms and energy, in highways and airports, in oil fields and mines, in industry and the market, can India not build schools?

 Government schools in Hyderabad beg the question: if governments can invest in swanky airports and countless SEZs, why can’t they spend on decent buildings for schools? Why do we repeatedly elect such governments back to power? What is happening to the taxpayer’s money?

And we hear all the time of plans for more and more universities, Centres of Excellence, IITs and IIMs. Depressingly ludicrous. What is the point in investing in higher education when the base of the pyramid is rotten and tottering? Will any government have the sense to redirect at least a part of that funding to primary education?  






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