Online edition of India's National Newspaper
Saturday, Aug 14, 2004


It takes a village

An education camp held in a remote hamlet dispelled some long-adopted notions.
K. V. Srinivasan

Is money the only constraint in providing primary education.

In India, the dispensation outlining a Rs. 40,000-crore programme for primary education was concomitant with the United Nations urging governments around the world to spend around six to eight billion US$ (Rs. 27,000 to Rs. 36,000 crore) a year to tackle the problems of illiteracy and the lack of primary education.

Contrary to general opinion, money is not the main restriction in providing primary education. The problem lies in the bottlenecks like regulations on land use rules, fulfilling criteria for schools to be recognised, teachers' salaries and so on that force the cost of education upwards. In such a situation the poor are, of course, the worst sufferers.

Some myths
The general agenda has been to push for greater governmental role in primary education. This has given rise to shortage of quality education. Another commonly held belief is that the poor are either ignorant about the value of education or cannot do much to acquire a better quality of education. The Liberty Institute thought otherwise, and went on to win the prestigious U.S.-based Templeton Freedom Prize for Excellence in the Social Entrepreneurship category for the education camp they organised recently.

The current status of education is about 60 per cent literacy and over 80 per cent enrolment at the primary level. The dropout level is high, and higher still for girls. The quality of education is abysmal — run down classrooms, absent teachers, missing books and in some areas where there is the mid-day meals scheme the teachers become cooks and grocery managers.

The Liberty Institute's camp for teenagers and adults from rural areas was an unorthodox experiment. Born of the desire to test the validity of free market policy prescriptions in the area of education, the month-long camp was organised last year in the remote hamlet of Satoli, 2,000 metres above sea level and about 380 km from Delhi. The camp enabled low-income students from rural Himalayan villages in Nainital district to learn English in an interactive manner, while discussing the ideas of freedom, dignity and responsibility. The students were exposed to computers for the first time and got a glimpse of the enormous opportunities that English and IT could open for them.

What the Institute does
The Liberty Institute is a think tank engaged in public policy research aimed at building public appreciation of the institutional pillars of free society — individual rights, rule of law, limited government and a free market. The Uttaranchal camp was conceived as a vehicle to demonstrate the practical validity of the ideas and to build a new network at the grassroot level. The age group of the students ranged from eight to 48 and they were divided into groups based on their knowledge of English. Apart from breaking down the inherent fear of English as a "foreign" language, the students also gained self-confidence. In the first week, many participants were self-conscious but by the end of the second week, they were all making short presentations to the class. By the end of the fourth week, they were making cogent and interesting presentations and conversed only in English.

Barun Mitra of Liberty Institute says, "The demand for basic education can be met substantially through market economics if the policy framework is conducive towards educational entrepreneurs. If the government withdraws its hand from the education sector and allows the private sector, formal and informal, to design and deliver education, things will be much better."
The camp proved that there is a demand for functional education and the opportunity to introduce value education as a corollary of the functional aspects of education. It took a village to show us that.


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