Sunday, February 16, 2014

Quality matters

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Feb 16, 2014

Photo: M.Karunakaran
The HinduPhoto: M.Karunakaran

Thanks to the unfortunate and virtually relentless reports of sexual violence against women in different parts of the country, the question of women’s safety has found a place in pre-election debates. Every sexist or gender-insensitive remark made by a politician is noted and the individual is asked to explain what he meant. Several politicians, including those from the Aam Aadmi Party, have been literally hauled over the coals for such remarks, and rightly so. Mainstream parties have been alerted and are being more careful.
Similarly, the issue of bodies like Haryana’s khap panchayats that have arrogated to themselves the right to pass judgment on all manner of things including who can and cannot get married, has come up for discussion. Political parties are now being asked to state explicitly their stand on such bodies. Is it really possible to “engage” with them? Can they, should they, be banned? How do we disempower them and ensure that the rule of law, as laid down in the Constitution, prevails?
Yet a much more pervasive and in some way more insidious way of keeping women back does not get addressed. No one asks the questions. And political parties feel no need to say anything about this. It is taken for granted that everyone is concerned, much like the issue of poverty; apparently so concerned that attention to the issue slips under the radar.
This is the issue of education, not just access to education, but more importantly the quality of education that our children are getting.
Every year since 2005, the Pratham Education Foundation has been conducting a survey. Covering 550 rural districts, the latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) reminds us yet again of the grim statistics of learning outcomes, based on assessing the ability of students to read, write and do simple arithmetic.
Between 2005 and 2013, although the enrolment of children in school has jumped from 93 per cent to 97 per cent, the quality of education has actually declined. For instance, a higher percentage of students today in Std. V are unable to read a textbook assigned to Std. II as compared to the figures from 2005. Similarly, more students of Std. VIII were unable to do simple division this time round compared to students of the same class in 2005.
How and why has this happened?
Internationally too India figures in the list of countries where there has been a perceptible drop in the quality of education. The 11th EFA (Education For All) Global Monitoring Report brought out recently by Unesco reveals that one third of all primary school age children do not learn the basics even if they go to school. The report points out that the goal of achieving universal primary education by 2015 is a long way off if the quality of what is taught is so poor.
Apart from those who are in schools, and yet learning very little, over half of all children out of school are girls. The problem with low quality education is that it compels parents, who believe education could pull them out of poverty, to send their children to private schools. They automatically equate such schools with a better quality of education. In India, the percentage of children enrolled in private schools is steadily increasing, even in the poorer states.
If forced to make a choice between a boy and a girl, most poor parents would spend their limited income on giving the boy a better quality education. Thus the long-term impact of poor quality education will inevitably lead to a larger percentage of girls either being pulled out of school, or being left to attend schools where they learn little.
All this then feeds into the vicious cycles of girls being given no option but to work in low-end jobs, get married young and become mothers before their time.
So, when so many questions are being asked of all political parties in this election, this is one that should be asked. Apart from access to education, what are they going to do about quality? For all its talk about education, and the allocation of additional resources, according to ASER, the quality of education has actually declined in the last decade. That does not speak very well of the current government.
Education is a vast and important subject, one that cannot be addressed adequately in this space. But the ASER report, with its devastating data, is a reminder of an issue that has to be brought to the forefront of debate during this season of talking heads. What could be worse than raising the hopes of a child and her parents with the promise of education and all it carries with it, only to have it dashed to the ground because the child comes out having learnt nothing that can carry her through to a better life?
(To read the original, click here.)

Monday, February 03, 2014

Give them a fighting chance

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Feb 2, 2014

Real laws, not vigilante justice. File Photo: V.V.Krishnan
The HinduReal laws, not vigilante justice. File Photo: V.V.Krishnan

In the midst of the raging debate over the Aam Aadmi Party’s actions, inaction and reaction to various events, some fundamentals are getting buried. Some of these fundamentals have a direct relationship to questions of women’s safety and their status. The intense media scrutiny to which AAP has been subjected, and which some would argue is unfair and excessive, has raised many issues that go beyond the future of this one fledgling party.
What is the basic premise that is now being challenged? AAP has campaigned for putting power in the hands of “people”. It holds that the governance deficit can be overcome if people are empowered, if decision-making moves from government offices to neighbourhoods; it believes that everyone has a right to know and to have a say in how government should run and what it should do.
Within days of AAP coming to power in Delhi, we have witnessed some aspects of this being played out. And those used to a different way of business being conducted are legitimately uncomfortable. This is disorder, not order, they say. Who are “the people”? How can you let them decide?
The most unsavoury aspect of this, of course, was what happened in Khirkee village in Delhi, where “the people” chased and caught women who they had decided, without any evidence, were soliciting and therefore had to be punished for introducing “immorality” into their neighbourhood. When power to the people is interpreted as this kind of vigilante justice, not just women but any minority group will feel unsafe.
There are hundreds of incidents across India of precisely this type of lawlessness that cannot be justified in the name of democracy or “empowering” the “people”. Surely, when members of Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) decide that “the people” are fed up of north Indians in Mumbai, and go about demonstrating this by roughing up poor street vendors, it is not an action that anyone who believes in democracy can support. Unfortunately, so far, AAP has failed to put in place processes that check vigilantism while still allowing a space for ordinary people to express their grievances and seek redress.
What would be the fallout of this for women? As Pratiksha Baxi points out in a prescient piece on the website Kafila (, AAP’s formulation of constantly referring to the women in Delhi as “ma, behen, beti” actually lays the grounds for problems for all women because whether they mean it or not, they are saying that as long as you are “their” women you are safe, but if you are not, you are on your own. That is not the kind of assurance of safety that any woman wants. In fact, even the safety guaranteed if you “belong” to a group of men is hardly something to celebrate given the insecurities that women face when surrounded by the men tasked to “protect” them.
The deeper problem, however, with the debates in the media and elsewhere is the issue of whether “the people” can really participate in governance. By focusing on an individual, in this case the actions of Delhi’s Law Minister Somnath Bharti, and one incident, the vigilantism displayed in Khirkee, there is a real danger that the baby will be thrown out with the bath water, so to speak.
For there is no question that AAP’s attempt at being inclusive, by involving ordinary people in decision-making and in politics, is something that is essential to strengthen democracy.
The panchayati raj system, with all its shortcomings, has been an outstanding example of how this has worked, and women have been the principal beneficiaries of this. Of course, there are problems. Of course, it is not perfect. But it is far better than top down governance. It is far better than excluding women from institutions of governance. It is far better than concentrating powers in the hands of a few.
Even in the panchayati raj system, it has not been easy to ensure that the powerless, including poor women, actually have their say. In too many instances, the powerful find proxies who run the show.
There is also the very real danger, especially in our cities, of “people’s power” being distorted into moral policing, or into attacks against “outsiders”, whoever they are.
What AAP is attempting, much like earlier such experiments as part of the Jayaprakash Narayan-led movement did in the 1970s, is complex and not just a convenient slogan. It is something that should not be dismissed lightly or disparaged to the point that even the kernel of good it represents is crushed.
The danger of pulling this sapling up from the roots before it has had a chance to establish itself is that it will lay the grounds for the demand for strong, centralised leadership, one strong individual who will sort everything out. India has gone through that phase once. We do not need it repeated.
(To read the original, click here.)