Education is not merely a window to the world; it is without doubt the most essential means to move forward in social and economic progress. The course of human evolution through ages till this day stands testimony to this fact. Modern industry and technology-oriented world has reinforced the fact that human progress and development are inextricably linked to learning and knowledge. For quite some time in our state [Jammu and Kashmir] now, as in the rest of India, not enough has been done regarding our education system, its current state, and the ways and means to make it more affordable for everyone. Undoubtedly, some strides have been made in the advancement of education in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, yet, a lot more is desirable and needed. There are many fault lines which are hampering state’s education system and not a few. These fault lines demand immediate course correction which should be promptly pursued with dedication and priority if we are really serious about the future of our society.
Since education is key to social and economic emancipation, what is urgently needed is that education reaches the deprived classes of our society, that is, to those people for whom not much has been done in this respect. All the hollow talk of social and economic prosperity in a scenario, where almost 30% of the population is totally deprived of education, seems preposterous. This not only impacts the socio-economic progress of these classes, but also hinders their participatory roles in the institutions of democracy. The only way to take them out of the state of deprivation is to provide them better and equal opportunities in the field of education, besides other welfare measures. It has come to fore through various studies conducted in our state that massive number of children belonging to the peasantry, rural and urban working classes are not able to get education because of the obvious reason of economic inequality even though Jammu and Kashmir was one of the few states in India to offer free education under Sheikh Abdullah’s New Kashmir Programme. Successive governments in the state have done nothing concrete in this regard despite opening a web of schools and introducing schemes such as Mid-Day Meals, etc. It proves that the government has not been able to foster those socio-economic conditions wherein the marginalised classes (BPLs as they are referred to in the official parlance) are willing to send their children to the school. Often, these kids end up doing menial jobs and hard labour in their school-going age, which is such a tragedy. This not only results in the loss of potential human resource, but also further reinforces the already entrenched economic and social inequalities in our society. In such a scenario, it is extremely imperative that urgent measures are taken at the governmental level so that the marginalized classes are provided equal opportunities for free and quality education. It is something that is already enshrined in the Constitution and it is both the duty and responsibility of the state to ensure it. It is worth remembering that the authors of India’s Constitution laid great emphasis on the spread of education among the deprived sections as the Article 45 would suggest. This seems the only way through which we can overcome the rigid and exploitative socio-economic structures. As the web of commercialisation and neo-liberalism penetrates deep into our educational system, the responsibility of state and the larger society becomes much more in exploring ways to attain free and quality education for all.
As described earlier, the state of Jammu and Kashmir, despite being one of the earliest states to adopt free education for all, has not been able to pay much attention towards education. Successive governments seem to have ignored it. The state has not been able to spread comprehensive literacy or establish top public-funded institutions of learning. First of all, there is a dearth of quality institutions in the state. There are no IITs, IIMs, or other top public institutions either in humanities/social sciences or sciences. Students from the state are often forced to go to other states – especially in North India for technical and professional courses and degrees – which results in a huge financial drain to the state. And whatever institutions of learning are there, also come under scanner for not being able to offer quality learning and education. For quite some time now, education in the state has got linked to the sharp class division and vice versa. The rigid class division is fostering various standards of education and this in turn further reinforces the already prevalent inequalities between the various classes. As the things stand in the state now, there is no one uniform standard of education; there are many “systems” or “standards” of education till senior secondary level in operation depending upon the rigid socio-economic divisions in the state. For rural peasantry and working classes, the preferred mode is the government-owned schools and the schools run by private trusts and charities like Falahi-Aaam Trust (backed by Jamat-i-Islami) along with religious seminaries like madrassas or Darul Ulooms. Then, there are privately owned schools which operate in small towns and cities and also in some villages, which attract the burgeoning middle class. There also occurs another chain of “elite” schools which operate in cities like Jammu and Srinagar, and are owned by corporate individuals which attract the upper classes—politico-business-bureaucratic elites. All of these systems of education offer different curricula and teaching methods which further reinforce the existing economic inequality and opportunity.
The quality of education and infrastructure along the modern lines in the government-run schools often comes under the scanner in the state. In the far-flung areas, especially the frontier areas, the situation of primary schools, high schools, higher secondaries and colleges is pathetic. There is an acute dearth of teaching staff, basic infrastructure, and not many teaching subjects or disciplines. Government-owned higher secondaries, colleges and universities across the state have been left to the mercy of adhocism and contractualism. Teaching staff cannot be treated with the exploitative dictums like ‘hire and fire’.
Without doubt, a teacher is an essential component in the system of our education, or, for that matter, our society, but he is not alone accountable for the proper running of the either of the two. Even as we rightly expect teachers to develop our society and civilisation, there is also a need to look dispassionately at the innumerable problems that they face in our societal setup. Aristotle had remarked about the teachers, “Those who educate children well are more to be honoured than they who produce them; for these only gave them life, those, the art of living well,” and specifically, it is where we have failed our teachers both in the confines of a classroom and more outside it. Laying aside the clichéd notions that we have construed about our teachers, do they get the dignity that they deserve? While we go on sermonising them about the high sanctity and ethics that their profession carries, we profusely refuse to pay attention to the fact that they deserve an honourable living. In our state, teachers who work in the government-owned schools and private schools are highly underpaid and often overburdened with work. Add to this, how on earth can the village-level panchayat and town-level municipal committees act, having absolutely no idea of what education is, as the regulatory bodies of supervising the education and teachers at the local levels as our government has decided? Isn’t it a disgrace to the credentials of dedicated teachers? As matters stand today, various studies have revealed that many of our teachers are unable to do the best of which they are capable. For this, there are a number of reasons which need our immediate attention. It has often been stated by the great philosophers of education that it should be the aim of the educator to train a child free from the psychological misfortunes, and not rob child of his happiness. But have we ever thought about our teachers who face a similar predicament? Have we ever thought about their own children who too deserve a good quality living?
Our successive governments have put adhocism in place, and our teachers are paid an appalling amount of Rs 1,500 or Rs 3,000 at the primary level. Urgent initiatives are needed to eradicate this agony which is simply a bare form of exploitation. The instant requirement is to free our teachers from all these constraints which get in the way of fulfilling their true roles, besides granting them proper respect and recognition.
As the situation demands, it is not about the teachers alone; many more questions need to be asked to the people who are responsible for recruiting our teachers, to those who create our curriculum, to those who formulate our education policies, and to those who supervise or administer our educational system. Is our curriculum eclectic? Is it humanistic? Does it promote plural values? Is it in line with the contemporary needs and demands? Does it produce critically thinking intellectuals or just ‘obedient’ subjects? Are our methods of teaching up to the mark or too outdated? Since a long time, our education system and institutes of learning including our universities have become too solipsistic and exclusive. There is a real necessity to make them more connected to our larger society by bringing in vibrancy and inclusion.
The writer is an activist and blogger based in Kulgam, Jammu & Kashmir. Views are personal.