An Indian girl studies in a rural school. Photo: iStock

The post-independence Indian education system was designed with the aim of national development and integration. Nearly 20 years later, the first National Policy on Education (1968) provided for a radical restructuring of the education system – advocating free and compulsory education by adopting an affirmative action approach emphasizing education for girls, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.

Since then the National Education Policy has dictated the educational goals of the country, emphasized access, equity and inclusivity in planning and implementation of educational programs and schemes. However, the social transformation envisaged five decades ago is yet to be achieved.

The Right to Education (RTE) Act of 2009 introduced free and compulsory education as a fundamental right for all children in the age group of six to 14 years, through a constitutional amendment.

RTE 2009 along with Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) – a campaign of the Indian government aimed toward universalization of education – were able to fast-track the necessary changes required to increase enrollment and ensure regular attendance and availability of basic infrastructure.

According to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) of 2018, rural India had witnessed a 96% rise in the enrollment rate at the elementary level since 2010. However, that percentage is not consistent across the geographical extent of the country.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 – quality education – aimed at ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education, and promoting life-long learning opportunities for all, gave the necessary incentive to achieve the education goals for the country.

According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), only 25.4% of girls enroll in secondary and higher levels of education in India. NITI Aayog, the policy think-tank of the government of India, in its 2019 SDG Index indicated that the average national dropout rate at the secondary level was 19.89%, and the gross enrollment ratio in higher education was 26.3%. Only 61.18% of differently abled children (five to 19 years of age) attend an educational institution. 

In parallel, the economic support to achieve educational goals and targets is dwindling. The National Education Commission (1964-66), commonly known as the “Kothari Commission,” recommended annual budgetary allocation of 6% of gross domestic product toward education. To date, we are yet to reach that figure.

As enrollment rates increase and dropout rates fall, and funds are allocated to developing infrastructure and providing amenities; the learning outcomes, literacy levels and cognitive skills do not portray a positive picture. The ASER of 2017 pointed out that 57% of 14-to-18-year-olds could not perform a simple division and 25% in the same age group could not read basic text in their own languages, while 40% of 18-year-olds could not read a simple sentence in English.

India stands at a crucial point in its history, with one of the youngest populations in the world. It is time for the country to realize the demographic strength that is available.

However, the challenge does not merely lie in “realizing” this demographic strength, but in enabling this young population inclusively and impartially. The country can only harness the immense potential of this group if good health facilities, quality education institutions and employment opportunities are created and distributed equitably among different regions.

Interventions aimed at merely improving enrollment rates do not address the intrinsic value of education that leads to the necessary social transformations required for a healthy society, genuine development and democracy. The levels of understanding of students, the critical thought processes in students, and the ability to raise pertinent questions by students are a testament to the quality of education that is imparted in a nation.

The inconsistent quality of teaching and non-contextual material along with the inability to tackle stigmas and taboos raise a formidable challenge to the envisaged social change while deepening the disparity between urban and rural needs. These matters need to be addressed so that we can deliver meaningful and quality education to our nation’s children.

The budgetary allocations toward education should also be increased according to the Kothari Commission’s recommendations to tackle these issues. This increase in budgetary allocation should be used innovatively to restructure the system to impart contextual teaching and learning – develop newer pedagogies that help students learn through non-text-based media, invest in education and skill-based training for the differently abled, and contextualize pedagogies according to needs.

Aspirations among youth for a better life and better opportunities are ignited by society. It is up to the country and the education system to equip the population with the knowledge, skills, attitudes, values and employable skills that would enable them to realize these aspirations.

A place to study, access to libraries, and in today’s times access to technology and online learning opportunities are the bare minimum that are required. As we prepare for a post-Covid-19 world, making education more equitable plays a crucial role in bridging the already widening chasm between the varied socio-economic and cultural strata in India, and in addressing issues that have plagued us long before this pandemic.

Kartikeya Jain

Kartikeya Jain is a researcher and project manager at Katha’s Child Poverty Action Research (CPAR) Lab. He currently heads the Swachh Maharashtra Project, a behavior change communications program in Zila Parishad schools of Chandrapur district in Maharashtra.