When he was in 5th standard, Badra Sen Negi ran away from his home in a small village in Himachal’s Kinnaur district. Later, when he came under the aegis of an initiative run by an NGO, he hesitantly told them about his dream of becoming an engineer.
Badra now works in a one of the most reputed technology companies in California’s Silicon Valley. Furthermore, humbled and inspired by the changes education brought in his life, he has decided to pay it forward. He provides scholarships for children from his home town to attend schools run by the NGO that helped him – VIDYA, and for those who cannot attend school for some reason, he has built a school in his village.
Is this not what the education scene should ideally be in India? Giving every child, no matter what the background, the freedom to dream? And letting those who have taken flight, help others fly in turn?
Although India’s education sector has grown by leaps and bounds in the last few decades, many of its children still fail to receive a quality education.
While some just do not have access to a school, others are hindered by socio-economic reasons. Those fortunate enough to enrol in classes, often drop out owing to poor infrastructure, absent teachers and lack of relevant curriculum.
In fact, the recently published census data by National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) revealed two alarming facts — 32 million Indian children (aged between 6 and 13 years) have never attended any educational institution while nearly 78 lakh children are forced to earn a livelihood even as they attend schools.
The urgency of the situation is compounded by the fact that a majority of out-of-school-children (OOSC) do not actually need to work to aid their family. This supports the NSSO’s finding that education being viewed as ‘unnecessary’ is a significant reason for school drop-outs!
It has been observed that girls, children belonging to marginalised groups (such as the very poor and the disabled) or children in far-flung rural communities, are usually the ones who are left behind.
This makes an equitable, inclusive and robust education system the bare minimum that India should strive to provide to its population.
Which means more investment in teacher awareness on equity, intervention programmes in mother tongues, disabled-friendly infrastructure and other initiatives needed to level the playing field.
Also, equity should not be just about access but also the quality i.e. using targeted strategies to ensure that the best quality of education is not restricted just well-developed zones.
And how can this be achieved? Sometimes it begins with the right intentions. Rashmi Misra founded VIDYA nearly 30 years ago and is an excellent example of such intentions.
A Delhi-based German language teacher, Misra would often visit her husband at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) where he worked as a professor. One day, while walking to the institute’s campus, she came across a stream of flowing sewage with little girls playing in it.
When she asked them why they weren’t in school, the response she got was, “Only boys go to school.” Having grown up in the poverty-stricken environment of slums, the girls considered going to school to be an unattainable privilege that could only be bestowed on boys!
It was at this heartbreaking moment that Misra knew that she had to do something to change this status quo. She opened her home to the five eager-to-learn girls she had met and began teaching them English, math and music. In no time, the small group had grown into a gathering of 20.
And it is a model that works and can be replicated across the country. Such organisations are usually run entirely by volunteers and use a multitude of integrative development initiatives to educate and empower women and children, who in turn, become leaders of social change within their communities.
This is crucial. Most schools in India happily train students to do rote learning just to pass an exam. But is that the kind of education that we are looking for? No – we are looking for holistic development, the need of the hour in India’s education system.
A well-rounded system of education doesn’t measure a student’s merit just by academic results. Instead, it identifies the unique gifts, interests and aspirations of every student and helps them develop his or her strengths, pursue positive passions and serve worthy causes.
In short, it understands that there is more to education than just academic knowledge; that while grades do have an impact on students’ job prospects, there are several other learnings during school that can have an equal; or even greater impact on their lives.
This is why using creative methods in classrooms exposes students to ideas that make them think about the world around them.
In our interviews with such organisations, it was repeatedly stressed that schools should ensure that students are taught not just academic subjects, but also the right attitude and values that many people don’t learn until much later in life.
Not only does this help them become confident, creative and well-balanced citizens who contribute to the society, but also helps them aspire to their goals.
But there is an important caveat to this. While schools do go a long way towards supplementing, enhancing and reinforcing life skills, it is at home where education actually begins. Thus, parents play a critical role in their children’s education.
In most underprivileged communities, the mother, wife or eldest girl is typically the primary caretaker of the family, and they are also the most marginalised. This means that educating and empowering women can be a powerful way of ensuring that their children receive schooling.
Studies have shown that children — especially daughters — of educated mothers are more likely to be enrolled in school and to have higher levels of educational attainment.
This can provide that crucial start to an upward spiral which leads women and their families out of poverty.
Along with the kids, programmes must help disadvantaged women become more confident and economically independent.
Here is a heart-warming story shared by VIDYA that perfectly backs up this claim –
Neelam was a mother of three children when she lost her husband. Using her determination and the initiative’s resources (basic education, skill training and a microcredit loan of ₹ 3000), she started her own business of selling Madhubani artwork.
Today, she has sent all her kids to college and employed 35 women, and plans to hire more!
Neelam’s story is just one among countless others. Thousands of young men and women have been able to let go of their poverty-stricken backgrounds, build a better life for themselves and transform into stronger individuals ready to face all challenges.
All thanks to the transformative power of education!
Today, India is home to nearly 300 million young people under the age of 15, more than in any country on Earth.
This future workforce, combined with the country’s current tech boom, has the potential to inject new dynamism into India’s growing economy and help overall development.
As such, India’s chances of emerging as a global superpower squarely rest on how well it responds to the challenges plaguing its education system. Though the road to reform will be fraught with challenges, the cost of inaction will be much higher.
That’s why it’s important to utilise the examples set by bottom-up, gender-focused and all-inclusive initiatives.
After all, as John F Kennedy famously said, “Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our fundamental resource.”
This article is a part of The Better India’s attempt to drive conversation around the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and where India stands with regards to meeting these goals. Many organisations across the country are helping India proceed towards fulfilment of these goals and this series is dedicated to recognising their efforts and the kind of impact they have created so far.
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