By Grace Jajo
The implementation of the Right to Education Act (2009) is a watershed in the history of independent India. From 1st April 2010 elementary education became free and compulsory. Elementary education of every child between 6 to 14 years of age was guaranteed. The challenge before the nation is to effectively implement it so as to achieve the goals of universal enrolment, retention, completion and qualitative achievement at the elementary level. Against this backdrop it is interesting to look into the phenomenon of ‘privatization’ of government schools in the tribal districts of Manipur.
Almost all habitations of the tribal districts of Manipur have primary schools. However, there is no denial that many of these primary schools are non-performing due to the absence of adequate basic educational infrastructures. Most importantly, teacher absenteeism in many of the primary schools in the tribal districts has led the villagers to make necessary arrangements. It is important to note that besides the widespread and rampant absenteeism of teachers in the tribal districts there is also the ‘unofficial’ practice of ‘transfer of teachers with the post’ and transfer of teachers without replacement. In response many of the existing government primary schools in the villages are being ‘privatized’ not with the motive of profit making but essentially for making it functional. Villagers employ teachers besides the government appointed teachers, usually undergraduate and in some cases even class X appeared, unemployed youths in the villages without any training on school educational processes; thereafter funds are diverted from the mid-day meal schemes to pay the salary of these teachers employed by the villagers. Since the resources are not always sufficient to meet the expenses school fees are charged from the students just as in any private schools. “This is the last available alternative for us to save our children from ignorance” argued one elderly villager when asked about the privatization of government schools in his village. Who can possibly dispute it!
Nevertheless, the students end up being taught by unqualified teachers, malnourished and most importantly, free and compulsory elementary education become a fee paying affair. Within such a context, the have-nots decidedly remain outside the school system because they could not afford it. A widow woefully states, “Only my son is in school since I cannot afford the fees for his two sisters” further reflecting gender marginalization associated with the process of privatization. Free and compulsory elementary education continues to be a myth for these groups of people. They are condemned to ignorance. In villages where similar arrangement of privatization is not followed there is mass exodus of children from the villages to towns or district headquarters for elementary education along with either one or both the parents. Migration from the villages for higher education is a well-entrenched practice for a long time already. However, the recent movement outside the village for elementary education when there are primary schools present is a different story altogether and needs urgent probing. Such movements have also added a new hue to the manifold social, economic, demographic and gender related strains and stresses already extant within these communities.
Significantly, such phenomena of privatization of government primary schools and the mass exodus from the villages for elementary education are neither reported nor reflected in any of the state government’s discourses on the status of education in the state. At best the existing school inspection records are skewed and totally misleading and non-representative of the existing situations; and at worst, there is complete absence of inspection of schools in the tribal districts of Manipur as per the stipulated guidelines. This being so, educational policies after policies in the state continually fail to address the needs and requirements of the people while unauthorized practices goes on not only unchecked but have also sort of become the accepted (read as legitimate) norm among the educational practitioners. Monitoring, supervision and reporting on the conditions of the primary schools in these areas is completely non-existent. For how long can the state pretend that elementary education is being provided free and compulsorily to all the children? How long the concerned departments can ignore their responsibilities and hoodwink the public? Why should the state not be held responsible for denying or failing to uphold the fundamental right of free and compulsory elementary education? Thus, the concerned parent department of the state needs to take cognizance of these facts and initiate necessary actions at the earliest, at least for upholding the constitutional provision of Right to Education. A concerted effort towards overcoming the apathy of the state towards education in the tribal districts of Manipur is the need of the hour.