Give teachers their due

A couple of days ago, I was riveted to a news channel for the same reasons that usually repel me. It was a much-touted interview with Maharashtra Navnirman Sena leader Raj Thackeray. If his insistence on being interviewed in Hindi on Times Now, an English channel, was audacious, his utterances were shocking (but not surprising). He had, earlier this year, given another English channel an interview in Marathi. Hence, one should thank Raj for speaking in Hindi and letting a larger number of people know the danger that lies in his exclusive agenda.

The pointed finger, the raised voice and eyes flaming with anger were symbols of the rowdyism Raj’s uncle, Bal Thackeray, and his Shiv Sena created in the 1960s with ample help from the Congress, a street culture which both Senas have practised through the decades. Raj’s refusal to see any other point of view; the harping on alleged crime by migrants from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand; the quoting of a Bihar crime report while rejecting Maharashtra’s own figures that a far larger number of people from Karnataka, Gujarat and Rajasthan have arrived in Mumbai than those from Bihar — all left no doubt that Raj (indeed, all the Thackerays and their outfits) will continue to play their dangerous identity politics.

Amid all his belligerence over migrants from Bihar-UP-Jharkhand, and Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, Raj had no mention to make of the Mumbaikar’s economic status or his living conditions. Wouldn’t a Marathi Manoos working in another state be stealing a local’s job? How should a Maharashtrian who breaks the law in another state be treated? The Thackerays will never have convincing replies to these.

The Senas, of course, claim their anti-‘outsider’ crusades have been for the rights of the Marathi Manoos. But the reality lies elsewhere. The goal is political power. When not in power, the Senas wield authority though the politics of intimidation and control. Witness how entertainment-industry personalities like Karan Johar, Boney Kapoor and Asha Bhonsle have had to kowtow to one Thackeray or another.

The Frankenstein didn’t come on its own. The Congress has been widely held responsible for the rise and growth of the Shiv Sena. An unchallenged political force in the 1960s, it is accused of funding and letting the Sena loose on the then powerful Communist Party of India in Mumbai, an offensive that would put McCarthy to shame. Bal Thackeray also tilted at other windmills: Gujaratis and ‘Madrasis’. His party’s attacks on South Indians were a shame on a Mumbai that took pride in its cosmopolitanism. Muslims have for long been Thackeray’s pet target.

The Congress has for decades looked singularly incapable of taking on the Shiv Sena ideologically. Right from the time Vasantrao Naik was chief minister, its leaders in Maharashtra have been cosy with the Sena. It has become a wimp playing with the Senas the game of “you scratch my back, I will scratch yours”. Of course, the Congress (along with the NCP) has managed to keep the Shiv Sena (and its ally the BJP) out of power by playing one Thackeray against another. But that is not the point. Because the Thackeray clan is as powerful in opposition as it is in office.

To keep the Senas and the Thackerays from appropriating socio-political centre stage, the Congress must counter their divisive politics — as also the politics of those at the other end of the communal divide. The Maharashtrian must be stopped from gravitating towards xenophobes and their agendas of hate. The Congress is the only political force with the power to do so. Will its politicians allow it?

Very little money is spent on primary and middle schools, particularly in rural areas where the foundation of education is laid. Photo: P.V. Sivakumar

Our tertiary education system does not serve the masses

I was at Jawaharlal Nehru University recently with some of the top senior academicians in Delhi, before dinner.

I was told that the budget of the University Grants Commission was Rs.41,000 crore in the Five Year plan and the annual budget of JNU was about Rs.150 crore.

In my usual blunt way I said, “How has this benefited the Indian masses? It seems that the huge funds being ploughed into higher education in India are for the benefit of foreign countries and to give you professors huge salaries and fine houses to live in rather than to benefit the Indian people.”

This sparked off a lively debate. Some of the professors tried to refute my statement, but I stuck to my guns.

I said that most of the money spent on education in India went to the institutes of higher education like the IITs and universities, and very little money was spent on primary and middle schools, particularly in rural areas, where the foundation of education was laid. There are very few facilities such as proper seats, electricity, books, classrooms, etc in these primary or middle schools, whereas the institutes of higher education are given huge funds and have very good facilities, state-of-the-art campuses, air-conditioning, etc. I then gave a few examples to prove what I said:

1. I once went to a village about 40 km from Allahabad (my native city) to meet a farmer friend of mine, with whom I had studied at Allahabad University.

At his home I met one of his sons who had passed class seven and promoted to class eight in his high school in the village. I asked him to bring his class 7 mathematics book and solve a few simple problems. He could not do so. I wondered how he had been promoted when he could not solve simple class 7 problems. I then solved those simple problems, and asked him to attempt the other problems in the lesson. He was obviously an intelligent boy, because having learnt how to solve the simple problems, he proceeded to solve the rest.

At this I asked him, “Did your teacher not teach you all this?” He replied, “Master Sahib thekedari karne lage hain, aur doosre master sahib class lene aate naheen hai” (the teacher has become a contractor, and the next teacher does not come to take classes”).

2. I went to a reputed intermediate college in Allahabad and was told that in a section in Class 11 there are 250 students. I was shocked. Under the rules there should not be more than 40 students in a class. What teaching can possibly be done in a class of 250 students? I also learnt that in some of the sections at Allahabad University there are over 300 students, and there is not even place for a student to sit.

In view of this, much of the real education takes place in private coaching institutes, or at the residence of teachers who make much more money there than in their institutions. As a result, these teachers evince little interest in teaching in their institutions, and a student who does not join the coaching (paying high fees) finds it difficult to pass.

3. In many of the staffrooms of our educational institutions, teachers, instead of discussing academic matters, often discuss petty politics, often of a casteist nature or matters pertaining to their service conditions. Senior professors often try to promote lecturers of their own caste, whether they have merit or not.

4. Teachers are often appointed not on merit but on extraneous considerations, like political connection, caste, etc. They are appointed on contract basis. In some States, “shikshamitra” who have been appointed on a salary of Rs.1,500 a month have no degree or teachers’ training qualification.

5. The level of intellect of many teachers is low, because many of them have not been appointed on merit but on extraneous considerations. To give an example, when I was a judge of Allahabad High Court I had a case relating to a service matter of a mathematics lecturer in a university in Uttar Pradesh. Since the teacher was present in court I asked him how much one divided by zero is equal to. He replied, “Infinity.” I told him that his answer was incorrect, and it was evident that he was not even fit to be a teacher in an intermediate college. I wondered how had he become a university lecturer (In mathematics it is impermissible to divide by zero. Hence anything divided by zero is known as an indeterminate number, not infinity).

BRAIN DRAIN

I gave them many more such examples, and told the senior academicians at JNU that huge amounts of money of the Indian taxpayer is spent on the IITs and other institutes of higher education, but the graduates of these institutes usually take up jobs in foreign countries. This results in brain drain. Thus, while Indians pay taxes which go towards educating our bright students, the benefit of their education goes to foreign countries and not to the Indian people. These foreign countries benefit because higher education in their own countries is very expensive, so they have to pay only a fraction of that amount to get our bright young students.

I posed them another question: the test of every system is one simple question. Does it raise the standard of living of the masses or not? I said that the huge amount of money being spent on higher education in India is not raising the standard of living of the Indian masses because over 75 per cent of Indians live in dire poverty. There is massive unemployment, skyrocketing prices, huge problems of health care, housing, etc.

Apart from that, I asked them how many Nobel laureates have our universities and other institutes of higher education produced. Hardly any.

In many American universities one will find half a dozen Nobel laureates. Australia, which has a population of about 25 million, has 180 academicians who have an F.R.S. (Fellow of the Royal Society), while India, with a population of 1,200 million, has only about 20. So what are the achievements of our scientists and other intellectuals? It is only when they go to the United States or Canada or Europe that they achieve anything.

What is the quality of research work done by our academicians in institutes of higher learning? Unfortunately it is abysmally low and does not benefit the Indian people. Their publications are mostly poor, and done only to improve their CVs in order to get jobs.

The purpose of education is to help raise the standard of living of the masses. But in India it seems that its purpose is to raise the standard of living of a handful of people who get jobs as teachers, particularly in institutions of higher education.

I must say to the credit of the professors assembled there that they did not take any of my remarks personally. I told them that I had no intention to insult them but was only voicing my genuine grievance about the educational system in India, and the need to make it more beneficial to the masses.

At the end it was agreed that my views required serious debate which hopefully shall be held at JNU or elsewhere soon.

(Justice Markandey Katju is chairman of the Press Council of India.)

 Some of my blogger colleagues here have resurrected the debate on the value of education in one’s mother tongue. Educationists have long recognized this value. But the move to bring the issue to the fore again comes too late.

I’m part of a charitable organization that runs a school for poor children in Bangalore. The children’s fathers are graveyard keepers, autorickshaw drivers, carpenters; mothers are homemakers or maids.

It’s a very well run and well kept English medium school, as good as many of the ones that middle class children go to. We don’t charge any fees. Last year, our first batch of kindergarten children was to move into Std 1. We had previously applied to the Karnataka government for permission to start Std 1. The government responded saying we could start only if we use Kannada as the medium of instruction.

When we communicated that to the parents, many immediately said they would withdraw their children from the school. It was a huge disappointment for us, having spent years building and growing the school. We came very close to shutting it. But then somebody alerted us to the possibility of continuing with English medium through the central government’s National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) scheme. NIOS accreditation comes with the condition that the school must not charge any fees. Since we weren’t charging fees, that was not a problem for us.

So that’s where we are now. We have applied for NIOS accreditation and the school meanwhile has started Std 1 with English as the medium of instruction.

My point is simple. Many of the poorest in our society also today want English as the medium of instruction for their children. The notion that English is necessary for progress and that English as a medium of instruction is necessary to fully absorb and understand the language has gone deep into the psyche of our people. Too deep for any government now to make radical changes to the policy on medium of instruction.

Indeed, the Karnataka government attempted it again, as recently as 2006. The then JD(S) government found that hundreds of schools that had received permission to start schools with Kannada as the medium of instruction had violated that condition and quietly converted to using English as the medium of instruction. The government issued an order derecognizing the schools, and directed the lakhs of students in them to shift to other schools.

The matter went to court. And at each step, the courts struck down the government’s order, saying it went against the rights and desires of parents.

The Supreme Court’s observations in its ruling in 2009 was telling. A three-judge bench said that if states tried to impose their mother tongues on unwilling students, it could turn counter-productive. “They (those who study in schools imparting education in mother tongue) are unable to get even clerical posts. It is easy to say things. How do we survive in the world?…Students from villages can’t compete with their peers in urban areas…Parents are ready to pay Rs 40,000 to Rs 50,000 for getting their children admitted to English medium schools. This is the real state of affairs. They do not want to send them to schools of their mother tongue. It should be left to the parents,” the judges said.

Even if some government still tries to impose the mother tongue, I’m sure parents and schools will find ways out of it, just as we did with NIOS. Anyway, the Karnataka government is currently busy shutting down many of its own Kannada-medium schools because they have no takers. In 2009-10, nearly 500 government-run lower primary schools across Karnataka were shut as they had fewer than five students each. Last year it announced that it is looking at shutting another 1,500.

There’s another huge problem in India. In most countries where the mother tongue is the medium of instruction, just about everybody, including the elite and the upper middle classes, go to such schools. In India, can we now even imagine convincing our elite and upper middle classes to send their children to schools where the medium of instruction is not English? Indeed, for a significant proportion of these sections, English has become the mother tongue, and if it hasn’t yet, it will certainly become within the next generation. And as the joke always goes, even the politicians and litterateurs who make much ado about the need for mother tongue as the medium of instruction send their children to English medium schools.

If the upper sections of society continue to send their children to English medium schools, with what face can we ask others to go into mother-tongue medium schools? They certainly won’t accept it. And they certainly won’t accept the premise that it’s possible to learn English well even if the medium of instruction is the mother tongue.

Yes, many of us will feel a massive sense of loss for India’s language diversity. But equally, over time, we may learn to celebrate the oneness that a single language brings.

The attention, or rather the lack of it, we as a nation have given to teachers is a sad commentary on our misplaced priorities. And therein also lies the reason why India, after so many decades of self-rule, is still merely a paper tiger, while many other nations march on, providing better living standards for their people.

The true greatness of a country lies not in the size of its army or the wealth of its citizens. It lies in the quality of its educational institutions. Schools, colleges and universities are where ideas are incubated and given shape to, so that they take the form of products, tangible and intangible, which make our lives comfortable, happy and prosperous.

Needless to say, it’s teachers who make up these educational institutions.  And, we don’t care for them. Look at the plight of our school teachers. Primary and secondary schools, in a sense, are far more important than colleges, because that’s where children in their formative years are. Basic values are picked up in schools. And when you have teachers who are poorly paid and demotivated, what sort of students can we expect from the schools? From these schools, students move on to colleges, and the story continues there.

To begin with, teachers, especially in schools, need to be better paid. They get a pittance compared to their counterparts in colleges and universities. And the burden in schools is no less compared to colleges; in some ways it’s more.

Good pay will achieve two objectives: one, we will have more number of good teachers. There are surely many people who love to teach but who are keeping away because of bad pay. Two, they will be more motivated, and their quality levels will proportionately go up.

Secondly, there are many systemic bottlenecks and official rigmarole that stifle creativity. Decisions on academics should be left to the wisdom of teachers. They should have more resources at their disposal. True, lot of money is pumped into educational institutions. But not all of it is going where it should. There is very less money for experiments, research and such academic pursuits.

But the bright side is that in spite of extremely poor working conditions, we have teachers, who are selflessly working, fully committed to not just the academic excellence of students but to their all-round development. They don’t go after money; they don’t care for honours. Their rewards are the affection and respect of their students. Their joy lies in seeing their students becoming good citizens useful to the society they live in.

But sadly it’s a very small number for a big country like ours. We can’t be the powerhouse we aspire to be, if we don’t invest in teachers. Advanced nations are what they are because of the excellent quality of their educational institutions. It’s not too late for people who run schools to wake up, and the least they can do is to give the teachers their due.

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