Education and Society ( India)

Historically, Indian education has been elitist. Traditional Hindu education was tailored to the needs of Brahman (see Glossary) boys who were taught to read and write by a Brahman teacher (see The Roots of Indian Religion, ch. 3). During Mughal rule (1526-1858), Muslim education was similarly elitist, although its orientation reflected economic factors rather than those of caste background. Under British company and crown rule (1757-1947), official education policies reinforced the preexisting elitist tendencies of South Asian education. By tying entrance and advancement in government service to academic education, colonial rule contributed to the legacy of an education system geared to preserving the position and prerogatives of the more privileged. Education served as a “gatekeeper,” permitting an avenue of upward mobility to those few able to muster sufficient resources.

Even the efforts of the nationalistic Indian National Congress (the Congress–see Glossary) faltered in the face of the entrenched interests defending the existing system of education (see Origins of the Congress and the Muslim League, ch. 1). Early in the 1900s, the Congress called for national education, placing an emphasis on technical and vocational training. In 1920 the Congress initiated a boycott of government-aided and government-controlled schools; it founded several “national” schools and colleges, but to little avail. The rewards of British-style education were so great that the boycott was largely ignored, and the Congress schools temporarily disappeared.

Postprimary education has traditionally catered to the interests of the higher and upwardly mobile castes (see Changes in the Caste System, ch. 5). Despite substantial increases in the spread of middle schools and high schools’ growth in enrollment, secondary schooling is necessary for those bent on social status and mobility through acquisition of an office job.

In the nineteenth century, postprimary students were disproportionately Brahmans; their traditional concern with learning gave them an advantage under British education policies. By the early twentieth century, several powerful cultivator castes had realized the advantages of education as a passport to political power and had organized to acquire formal learning. “Backward” castes (usually economically disadvantaged Shudras) who had acquired some wealth took advantage of their status to secure educational privilege. In the mid-1980s, the vast majority of students making it through middle school to high school continued to be from high-level castes and middle- to upper-class families living in urban areas (see Varna, Caste, and Other Divisions, ch. 5). A region’s three or four most powerful castes typically dominated the school system. In addition, the widespread role of private education and the payment of fees even at government-run schools discriminated against the poor.

The goals of the 1986 National Policy on Education demanded vastly increased enrollment. In order to have attained universal elementary education in 1995, the 1981 enrollment level of 72.7 million would have had to increase to 160 million in 1995. Although the seventh plan suggested the adoption of new education methods to meet these goals, such as the promotion of television and correspondence courses (often referred to as “distance learning”) and open school systems, the actual extended coverage of children was not very great. Many critics of India’s education policy argue that total school enrollment is not actually a goal of the government considering the extent of society’s vested interest in child labor. In this context, education can be seen as a tool that one social class uses to prevent the rise of another. Middle-class Indians frequently distinguish between the children of the poor as “hands,” or children who must be taught to work, and their own children as “minds,” or children who must be taught to learn. The upgraded curriculum with increased requirements in English and in the sciences appears to be causing difficulties for many children. Although all the states have recognized that curriculum reform is needed, no comprehensive plan to link curricular changes with new ways of teaching, learning, teacher training, and examination methods has been implemented.

The government instituted an important program for improving physical facilities through a phased drive in all primary schools in the country called Operation Blackboard. Under Operation Blackboard, Rs1 billion was allocated–but not spent–in 1987 to pay for basic amenities for village schools, such as toys and games, classroom materials, blackboards, and maps. This financial allotment averaged Rs2,200 for each government-run primary school. Additional goals of Operation Blackboard included construction of classrooms that would be usable in all weather, and an additional teacher, preferably a woman, in all single-teacher schools.

The non-formal education system implemented in 1979 was the major government effort to educate dropouts and other unenrolled children. Special emphasis was given to the nonformal education system in the nine states regarded by the government as having deficient education systems: Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Jammu and Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal. A large number of children who resided in these states could not attend formal schools because they were employed, either with or without wages. Seventy-five percent of the country’s children who were not enrolled in school resided in these states in the 1980s.

The 1986 National Policy on Education gave new impetus to the nonformal education system. Revised and expanded programs focused on involving voluntary organizations and training talented and dedicated young men and women in local communities as instructors. The results of a late 1980s integrated pilot project for nonformal and adult education for women and girls in the Lucknow district of Uttar Pradesh provide important data for analyzing recent implementation trends and initial results of both the nonformal education system and adult education in India. Under this project, 300 centers were opened in rural parts of the district with the approval of the Department of Education, the central government, and the state government of Uttar Pradesh with financial and advisory support from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Because of the shortage of women teachers in rural areas of Uttar Pradesh, in the pilot project nonformal education for girls aged six to fourteen was integrated with the adult education program for women aged fifteen to thirty-five, so that the same staff and infrastructure could be used. Most of the families of the project participants were in subsistence farming or engaged as farmhands, clerical workers, and petty merchants. Often the brothers of female participants attended a formal school situated about one or two kilometers from their homes. Most of the 300 instructors for the 300 centers were young women between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five. Each center averaged twenty-five women and twenty girl participants. The physical facilities of the centers varied from village to village. Classes might be held on the balcony of a brick house, within a temple, in a room of a mud-walled house, or under open thatch-roof structures. Besides focusing on the acquisition of literacy skills, the project increased participant motivation by also offering instruction in household work, such as sewing, knitting, and preserving food. In 1987 a UNESCO mission to evaluate progress in this project in the areas of functional literacy, vocational skills, and civic awareness observed that randomly chosen participants in both nonformal and adult education classes effectively demonstrated their reading and writing skills at appropriate levels. As a result of many such local programs, literacy rates improved between 1981 and 1991. Male literacy increased from 56.5 percent in 1981 to 64.2 percent in 1991 while women’s literacy rate increased from 29.9 percent in 1981 to 39.2 percent in 1991.

Understanding India’s health care and education systems contributes to the larger understanding of this complex nation’s diverse society. General trends and averages concerning social conditions on a national level may not adequately describe how human activity is expressed spatially and temporally in specific areas. The great variations in local environmental and social conditions require that national and state or union territory programs aimed at improving the quality of life not adhere too strictly to any one standard plan. Local climate, topography, and drainage patterns all need to be considered in terms of how they relate to local forms of land use and ethnic and linguistic groupings. Increasing urbanization in India also complicates efforts at monitoring local conditions. Only with the full support and understanding of India’s many rural and urban residents will new ways of focusing India’s immense human resources toward the goals of developing and conserving renewable natural resources, limiting population growth, providing increased health care, and achieving education for all be successful.

Indian atlases useful for gaining a basic understanding of India’s physical, political, and cultural geography include A Social and Economic Atlas of India edited by S. Muthiah and the River Basin Atlas of India prepared by the Central Board for the Prevention and Control of Water Pollution. V.S. Katiyar’s The Indian Monsoon and Its Frontiers provides a good description and analysis of one of the major facets of South Asian climatology. A standard work on postpartition Indian boundaries in terms of their political status is John Robert Victor Prescott’s Map of Mainland Asia by Treaty . A Historical Atlas of South Asia edited by Joseph E. Schwartzberg, is another extremely useful resource.

Official information on India’s demography can be found in the Census of India 1991, Final Population Totals . These results also provide useful data on literacy levels in India. Additional insight into the contemporary field of Indian population policy is given in G. Narayana and J.F. Kantner’s Doing the Needful: The Dilemma of India’s Population Policy . Concise official data on health care are listed in the Ministry of Planning’s annual Statistical Abstract . An informed outsider’s view of the health situation in India is presented in Roger Jeffery’s The Politics of Health in India .

Contemporary official education plans and goals are outlined in J.C. Aggarwal’s National Policy on Education: Agenda for India 2001 . A more critical account of India’s education system has been compiled by UNESCO’s Asia-Pacific Program of Education for All and published in National Studies: India . Detailed field results of a recent UNESCO project to provide nonformal and adult education for women and girls can be found in Simultaneous Education for Women and Girls: Report of a Project . Myron Weiner’s The Child and State in India has useful analysis of education policy.

Data : 1995