Debating India

Real issues on the back burner

Siddharth NARRAIN, T.K. RAJALAKSHMI & Purnima S. TRIPATHI

Wednesday 17 December 2003, by NARRAIN*Siddharth, RAJALAKSHMI*T.K., TRIPATHI*Purnima S.

Article paru dans Frontline, Volume 20 - Issue 25, December 06 - 19, 2003.

Never before have bread-and-butter issues been ignored in electoral campaigns in India as in the December 1 round of elections to four Legislative Assemblies in north India. Illiteracy, starvation deaths, unemployment, lack of water and electricity supply - all these remained relegated to the background throughout the campaign. Reports from Siddharth Narrain in Madhya Pradesh, T.K. Rajalakshmi in Rajasthan and Purnima S. Tripathi in Chhattisgarh.

MADHYA PRADESH

A FRONT-PAGE picture of the Itarsi edition of Dainik Jagran shows Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee addressing reporters in candlelight, while campaigning for his party in the Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh. Electioneering in the State has revolved around two issues - its power crisis and the bad state of its roads. Says Mohan Bhai from Davdi village near Kesla: "The most visible problems are that of power and roads. The government school where I send my children is practically non-functional. There is one teacher for more than 115 children, but this is not an issue in these elections."

Although the State’s education policy has often been touted as a model for the rest of India and an important achievement of the Digvijay Singh government, the Congress manifesto does not dwell on the rise in the literacy levels in the State. The manifesto mentions briefly that Madhya Pradesh would celebrate its 50th anniversary of Statehood in November 2006 with the achievement of 100 per cent literacy and the universalisation of education. The BJP on its part has hardly paid any attention to the issue of education.

The statistics are impressive. The 2001 Census shows that the adult literacy rate has increased from 44 per cent in 1991 to 64 per cent. The rate of male literacy increased from 50.5 per cent to 76.8 per cent. The government has built 31,000 schools over the past 10 years, of which 26,000 are under the radical Education Guarantee Scheme (EGS) promoted in 1997 in order to increase enrolment in tribal- and Dalit-dominated areas. These schools cater to 1.3 million children most of whom belong to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (S.C./S.T.).

R. Gopalakrishnan, Secretary to the Chief Minister, who along with Amita Sharma shaped the State’s education policy, says: "These achievements were made possible because of the community management model." The government has created primary schools through the World Bank-sponsored District Primary Education Programme (DPEP), the alternative school programme, especially through the EGS. Under the EGS, the government gives a guarantee to provide the primary school facility, in a habitation where no such facility is available within a kilometre, within 90 days of receiving a request for such a facility from the local community. The school is meant to operate with the collaboration of the State government, the local body concerned and the local community.

According to C.N. Subramanian of Ekalavya, an organisation working in the field of education in Madhya Pradesh, global trends point to a massive reduction in investment in education and a decline in the commitment to long-term education. He says that the State government has frozen the recruitment of regular schoolteachers, and the panchayats, which have been empowered to appoint teachers, hire them on short-term contracts on lower salaries.

Subramanian says that in government schools the trend of engaging teachers in non-academic jobs has established itself in the past 10 years. "There is greater pressure not to recruit regular teachers but the State is still increasing their spheres of work. As the information flow between the school and the government increases with the policies of decentralisation and community-based development, there is a massive expansion of clerical work, the burden of which falls on the teachers," he says.

Says Mahadev Prasad Tiwari, a retired government schoolteacher from the Sarvodaya Vidyapeet in Hoshangabad district: "Teachers are asked to help revise the electoral rolls, distribute bonuses and even do an animal count in the village, besides academic-related tasks like supervising adult literacy programmes. With these additional responsibilities, their teaching time gets reduced."

Anil Sadgopal, Professor of Education, University of Delhi, says: "Although the reforms in Madhya Pradesh have increased access to education, yet it may not have had any decisive impact on the functioning of the schools." He points out that the State government’s policy of introducing parallel streams of education would result in institutionalising discrimination against the poor, the majority of whom are Dalits and Adivasis. He says that while Dalits make use of EGS schools, in effect the parallel streams recreate caste divisions. "The wealthy and upper-caste families send their children to private schools and those of the intermediary castes usually send their children to government schools," he says.

Francois Leclerq, a French research scholar who has done a micro study of EGS schools in Betul and Dewas districts, says that although the EGS has increased access to schooling for Dalit and tribal children, the main problem with these schools is the poor quality of teaching. One reason for this is the appointment of para-teachers or `gurujis’, who are recruited locally by the panchayats, paid less and not trained adequately. He says that the EGS is designed to raise the number of schools without a corresponding increase in expenditure. According to him, the State government’s reliance on the private sector has increased with the easing of restrictions on private schools.

The study, which was published in the May 10 issue of Economic and Political Weekly, was criticised by the Madhya Pradesh government. Amita Sharma and Gopalakrishnan, in a detailed response to the results of the study, pointed out that the main aim of the EGS was to retain children in schools and thereby universalise access to education. They said that the teachers working under the EGS were as qualified as government teachers and questioned the categorisation of `para-teachers’. They maintained that since Madhya Pradesh has demographically scattered habitations because of a large Adivasi population, the EGS was used as a strategy to enrol children, and the scheme did succeed in enlisting more than 13 lakh children. They also criticised the methodology used by Leclerq and claimed that his perspective was representative of an outsider who did not take into account the local context in which the scheme operated.

In July, the government of Madhya Pradesh took the controversial decision to shut down the 30-year-old Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme (HSTP). The objective of the programme was to improve the quality of science teaching in Classes VI-VIII, within the existing government school system. The programme worked within the mainstream syllabus but used an innovative pedagogic approach to enable students to learn from observations and discussions instead of the prevailing textbook-centred method of "learning by rote"(Frontline, September 13, 2002).

Started by the Friends Rural Centre (FRC) and Kishore Bharati (KB) in collaboration with the State government in 16 rural middle schools of Hoshangabad district in 1972, the HSTP expanded to include 13 other districts by 1986. Since the programme needed an autonomous institution to serve as a nodal agency to develop the curriculum, Ekalavya was formed in 1982 as an independent institution with the support of the Planning Commission, the University Grants Commission (UGC), the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the Ministry of Education. At the time it was shut down, the programme covered 1,000 schools with around 2,500 science teachers, and over 100,000 children every year.

The programme faced intense pressure from the Sunderlal Patwa government and was closed down by the Congress(I) government on the suggestion of the Bharatiya Janata Party MLA from Itarsi, at a meeting of the Hoshangabad District Planning Committee. In a report prepared by Gopalakrishnan, the government justified its decision on the basis of the Class X results in the district and the literacy rate, both of which compared unfavourably to those in the neighbouring districts. It also said that the children of Madhya Pradesh should be given the right to study standard textbooks and that the HSTP curriculum could be used as a supplementary one.

Ekalavya’s response was that Class X results did not reflect the conceptual understanding of the student. It pointed out that one of the central arguments against the social science programme related to a chapter on panchayats and nagarpalikas, which said that it was necessary to put pressure on elected representatives. The government also pointed out a news item used as part of the teaching material showing people stage a dharna. Says Subramanian: "The crux of the arguments of both the BJP and the Congress(I) in support of shutting down the HSTP seems to be that students were taught to critique the functioning of the government within a classroom. One must keep in mind that no elected body actually passed a resolution against the Science Teaching Programme."

Despite the strong views on universalisation of elementary education, the issue of education only has a token presence in the elections. There are fundamental questions on the possible long-term effects of replacing regular formal schools with parallel streams of education on which the government has to spend much less. Says Subramanian: "Forget about alternative pedagogy, even the non-functioning of government schools is a widely felt problem but has not become an electoral issue. In fact, even the achievements of the government such as increased access to schooling have not been highlighted."

RAJASTHAN

IT was only last year that the news of starvation deaths among the Sahariya tribal people of Baran district jolted the political class of Rajasthan from its apathetic slumber. It had been a severe drought year but no one expected that a combination of poverty and drought could claim as many as 20 lives. The Baran Assembly segment, represented for 15 years by Congress (I) legislator Heera Lal Sahariya, comes under the Jhalawar Lok Sabha constituency of Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament Vasundhara Raje Scindia. At least on the face of it, both parties have not been able to absolve themselves of the responsibility of overseeing the well-being of the grossly impoverished Sahariyas. When news of the starvation deaths broke, both political parties swung into action with assistance. The ruling Congress(I)denied that the deaths were owing to starvation. It was disease, it held, and not hunger. Later it was revealed that the impoverished Sahariyas had consumed chapatis made of sama, a jungle grass that had turned poisonous. The BJP made political capital out of the tragedy and raised a hue and cry, oblivious of the fact that the Hadothi region had been a BJP stronghold and that, if anything, it had been equally, if not more, indifferent to the plight of the tribal people.

Things have not changed much in Baran since. At least, they have not changed in Shahbad and Kishanganj blocks where the Sahariyas are predominant. However, the immediate fallout of the tragedy was that the administration announced food-for-work programmes throughout the State. Although such programmes helped prevent starvation deaths, from the point of food security, it was not adequate. The programme turned out to be the barometer of the acute demand for work in the State. People squabbled to be included in the programme, which fetched 10 kg of wheat and Rs.16 for eight hours of work in the scorching heat. The Sahariyas, young and old, who had never learnt to hoard, found themselves queuing up to earn food, as payment was task-based.

With the arrival of the monsoon, the administration decided to discontinue the work after July 15. Its foot soldiers argued that household granaries were overflowing as people had earned enough under the programme. Said a farmer in Kota: "It rained all right. But it rained water and not foodgrains. How are people expected to continue till the harvesting season?" Despite the attention Baran received in the aftermath of the deaths, the situation is much worse, especially in the interior parts.

The Hadothi region, mainly Bundi, Kota, Jhalawar and Baran, receives the best rainfall in the State, as high as Dungarpur, which is called the Cherrapunji (the place in Meghalaya that receives the highest rainfall in the world) of Rajasthan. Baran is quite unlike the rest of the State. The landscape is lush with mustard fields. The rainfed rivers, the Kalisind and the Parvati, add to the greenery of the district. The parts irrigated under the Chambal Command Area are also verdant. The favourable monsoon has ensured a successful soybean crop. But the Sahariyas, as is evident, are not partakers of this prosperity, as they do not own the land. There has been no effort at land redistribution, with the result that all the fertile land, coming under the Command Area, is owned by non-tribal people. So, as one moves further towards the Madhya Pradesh border, the lushness disappears, giving way to stumps and impoverished households. Successive governments have taken little interest to create avenues of employment in this region.

Although the government appears to have failed miserably on the development front, the issue of development and drought management was paramount in the electoral campaigns of the Congress(I) and the BJP. If development was to have resulted in the well-being of the majority of the people in Baran, then it has not happened. The only positive aspect of drought management under the Ashok Gehlot government is that it has prevented more deaths from taking place. But the burning issues are unemployment and lack of irrigation facilities. The manifestoes of the two political rivals promised employment and special provisions for the tribal people without specifying the nature of jobs they planned to generate.

The Hadothi region has witnessed an industrial decline in the last decade. All over the State, nearly 66,000 small industries and 50 big industries have closed down. The government admits that 74 per cent of the unemployed are in the rural sector and 60 per cent of them comprise the educated unemployed. The number of closed units as of March 31, 2001, stands at 229, representing around 30 per cent of the total units in the State. Kota, which was the industrial hub of Rajasthan, has witnessed the closure of several factories.

The situation in the agricultural sector is equally depressing. Said Mohan Lal, a farmer from Ladpura in Kota district: "All governments talk about the beautification of the cities. What use is it to us? " He said that electricity supply had improved only in the past few months. "We grow vegetables, rice and garlic and we need a good supply of electricity for irrigation. But we have to manage with four hours on an average," he said. (After Ganganagar, the Hadothi belt is famous for the Basmati strain of rice.)

The farmers do not understand what the government means when it says that the State is self-sufficient in power. A government employee, O.P. Lala, said: "If the Congress has failed to revive any of these sick industries, one might ask what the BJP has been doing in this area which is considered its stronghold." "Baasi kadhi mein naya ubaal", (akin to stale curd that has been boiled once again) is how he describes the manifestoes.

Baran was part of Kota district before it acquired its distinct status in 1992. Baran town, 72 km from Kota, is a shabby spectacle with hardly any civic sanitation in sight. A former government employee and resident of Baran said: "There is no drainage system here."

The civic conditions are even more appalling in Pharedua village in Shahbad block. All that the people talk about is the free availability of subsidised liquor in pouches. For the past three months, electric supply to Pharedua has remained disconnected and as the evening descends, the only light available is that from the kerosene lamps. Said Shivakant, district secretary of the Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti (BGVS): "The transformer got burnt. It will get repaired only when the families pay up their electricity dues. The Assistant Engineer has sent word that we should deposit Rs.5,000 for the repair of the transformer. No one has that kind of money here."

The government had promised to waive 10 per cent of the total electricity dues, but still the people could not pay. Shivkant said that barring agriculture, there was no other form of employment. The only time people were found engaged in employment generated by the government was during the drought-relief programme. Much of the drought relief work was generated after a lot of pressure from farmers’ organisations and other democratic sections. In Amrod village, dominated by Sahariyas, the residents were yet to be paid the cash component of the work done.

Gehlot is reported to have visited Shahbad and Kishanganj blocks several times after the starvation deaths took place. But things did not change substantially for the Sahariyas. "Drought relief work should have continued beyond July," says Uday Bhan Singh, an agriculturist of Pharedua village. Sahariya women worked very hard but at the end of the day the menfolk ask them, Mu, thaili nahin layee tu (Have you not got the pouch)?

If employment is scarce, then so are health facilities. BGVS volunteers say that although there is a referral hospital in Shahbad, it is next to impossible to find a bed. The Primary Health Centre, which did not function during the drought period, has become functional now.

"The ANM (auxilliary nurse midwife) talks down to us. She does not even treat cuts and injuries. She takes money for the medicines," said Munnibai. Shahpur is one such Sahariya village where four persons of a family died. This was Murari’s family. Murari himself has left the village in search of work The only good thing that happened after tragedy struck the Murari family was that the government initiated some drought relief work. But only one member from each family was given work under the muster roll system. Evidently, the earnings did not last long.

The Sahariyas spend a lot of time collecting forest produce for which they are paid measly amounts. The harvesting of jowar will get over in another fortnight, and that would push the Sahariyas back into the jungles.

The Public Distribution System (PDS) is non-existent in Baran. Among the 50-odd families in the village, only eight families have been provided ration cards in the Below the Poverty Line category that will entitle them to wheat at specially subsidised rates. According to the BPL Census of 1997, 69 per cent of the Scheduled Tribe families and about 45 per cent of the Scheduled Caste families came under the BPL category. Daujiya, 70, showed his food entitlement card under the Annapurna scheme, under which he can avail himself of 10 kg of wheat a month. Before August, Daujiya did not possess any food entitlement card. The Sahariyas are also ridiculed and categorised as indolent by the non-tribal people.

The mass education and literacy programmes run by the State or the Centre have failed to evoke any real response in the district. Renu Sharma, who works as a para-teacher in a government school in Samrania village, said that her work was like that of a bonded labourer. Two years ago, in a bid to generate employment and to take education to the farthest reaches of the State, the scheme of para-teachers was floated. But the teachers received a measly salary of Rs.1,200 (less than the minimum wage), which was raised to Rs.1,800 only after they protested. This was further increased to Rs.2,400, from July 2003.

These teachers enjoy no benefits but are expected to be involved in all kinds of government work, including the Pulse Polio programme. The approach to education is ad hoc and does not do justice to the goal of delivering quality education. With posts like para-teachers, shiksha karmis (education workers) or shiksha sahayogis (education helpers), it can be surmised that quality teaching and education is not a priority.

Although tucked away in one corner of the State, Baran is representative of the condition of the underprivileged in the State.

CHATTISGARH

OF the four States going to the polls, Chhattisgarh is unique in several ways. As a nascent State having its first Assembly elections, one thought that the real problems and issues such as unemployment and lack of infrastructure would figure prominently in the political debate. The problem of naxalism, which has acquired serious proportions in the State in the last three years, was also expected to dominate political discourse. But sadly enough, this was not the case.

Naxalism, which spread to Chhattisgarh from neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Orissa and Uttar Pradesh, threatens to undermine the government’s authority and impede developmental projects in some of the most backward areas of the State. While in 1998 naxalite activity was confined to three of the 16 districts in the State, it has spread to seven districts now. Of the 90 Assembly seats, at least 24 are in naxalite-infested areas. This is important in view of the fact that naxalite organisations, like the People’s War (P.W.) and the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC), have given a call for a boycott of the elections in areas where they have influence. The State’s Chief Electoral Officer K.K. Chakravarty said: "No Election Commission [E.C.] can solve this problem overnight. Naxalism in these areas is the result of a long history of discontent. These areas have had a long period of conflict, witnessed various peasant movements, uprisings and so on. The exploitative nature of various political groupings, traders and banias has only added fuel to the popular discontent. It cannot be treated like a simple law and order problem because it is a socio-economic-political problem and our role gets limited in this context." He said that in dealing with the naxalite problem in the State, all that the E.C. could do was to ensure that the campaign was unimpeded and voters were allowed to vote.

However, Chakravarty said that even in this regard the E.C. had not been very successful. "In some areas, especially in the interiors of Bastar, Sarguja and Rajnandgaon districts, not more than 10 per cent of the voters exercise their franchise. Even in areas where we claim we have conducted polling successfully, the voting percentage at best remains low at 25 to 30 per cent."

In fact, in order to instil some confidence into polling officials and ensure that they reach the polling centres, the State has arranged for them to be dropped at the centres by helicopter. This will spare them the long and dangerous walk to remote polling centres and also help in speedy evacuation in case of emergencies like a naxalite attack. In view of the naxalites’ call for a boycott, polling is likely to be affected in the whole of Bastar and Sarguja districts and parts of Rajnandgaon district. The State has asked for 130 companies of Central forces, most of which would be deployed in the naxalite-affected areas. Moreover, 40,000 to 50,000 armed personnel of the State police and 5,000 to 6,000 armed personnel from the neighbouring States have been deployed on election duty.

The government, apart from deploying Special Task Force personnel in all 16 districts, has also decided to raise two new battalions of State police.

Village courts, to counter "people’s courts" conducted by naxalites in rural areas, have been established and a minor forest produce costs and prices committee has been set up to recommend minimum support prices for all minor forest produce except tendu leaves in order to check the exploitation of tribal people. Significantly, naxalites continue to have a decisive say in the matter of tendu leaves. They have prevented government intervention in the picking of tendu leaves; they get it done through contractors appointed by them. Recently, a prominent naxalite leader admitted this in an interview to a Raipur-based daily.

A year ago, Chief Minister Ajit Jogi had submitted an action plan to the Central government, which emphasised the creation of social-political awareness and education of the masses in the Bastar area, and concerted action by all the naxalite-affected States. The Centre, however, is still to respond to the plan. Meanwhile, the Centre convened a high-level meeting of police chiefs and Home Ministry officials in Bhubaneswar on November 21 to work out a strategy to tackle the naxalite problem. However, the Centre’s strategy mostly deals with the policing part and ignores the socio-political aspects.

The magnitude of the problem could be gauged by the fact that as many as 17 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) battalions are already involved in anti-naxalite operations in Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh. The forces, according to a report, had already arrested 141 ultras from Orissa alone since the beginning of 2002. In a similar initiative in March 2000, the Centre had debated the desirability of raising an Indian Reserve Battalion to fight naxalites, taking aerial photography of the affected zones, making available monitoring equipment to intercept naxalites’ wireless messages, outlining a development plan to address the socio-economic causes of naxalism, setting up special training facilities with the assistance of the Intelligence Bureau, and forming special inter-State operation groups. The outcome of these initiatives is yet to be known.

While these developments indicate that the Central and State authorities have realised the gravity of the problem, it is inexplicable why it has not become a topic of discussion for the political parties in Chhattisgarh. Observers say that since the problem relates to rural areas dominated by tribal people, the urban-centric media do not take note of it. This, in turn, makes the politicians ignore the issue. Apparently, this cycle ensures that the problem remains confined to the fringes of the political debate.

According to S. Kumar, secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) unit in Chhattisgarh, the Congress(I) gains from the problem because the naxalites allow it to rig elections in areas of their influence as the party is perceived to be "soft" on naxalites.

Kumar said that the naxalites feared the BJP because it had declared that it would deal with them sternly if it came to power. However, the BJP has ignored the issue because it has no presence in the areas dominated by tribal people. "In the past, polling officials did not ev en go to the polling centres in the interiors and the ballot papers used to be stamped by them in favour of the Congress(I). Why should the party talk of the problem and antagonise the naxalites?" asked Kumar.

P.S.

Pic1: A.M. FARUQUI; At a school built under the Education Guarantee Scheme in Narsingarh block of Rajgarh district in Madhya Pradesh. Such schools cater to 1.3 million children, most of whom belong to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

Pic2: GOPAL SUNGER; Members of the Sahariya tribe in Baran district of Rajasthan, who were forced out of their dwellings by starvation deaths in 2002. A file picture.

Pic3: V.V. KRISHNAN; A classroom in Palak village in Kawardha district of Chattisagarh.

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