Editor's Note: A network of 60 reporters set off across India to test the idea of development as it is experienced on the ground. Their brief: Use your mobile phone to record the impact of 120 key policy decisions on everyday life; what works, what doesn't and why; what can be done better and what should be done differently. Their findings — straight and raw from the ground — will be combined in this series, Election on the Go, over a course of 100 days.
Patna: A new railway line, which apparently has been in the works for the past 11 years, has finally taken precedence over a school in Phulwarisharif block, just 15 kilometres from Patna. The 280 students and teachers of the Kurji Mohammadpur middle school, which will be shut down to build the new railway line, are yet to be told where they will be shifted to. As do the students and teachers of another middle school (class 1-8) in the same area, which is slated to shut down due to unavailability of land.
"The school caters to students from four nearby villages — Mohammadpur, Kurji, Bhusala and Beldari Tola," said a worried Sanjeev Ranjan, principal of the middle school. Ranbir Singh, a resident of Kurji whose daughter is a student at the school said, "We will have to shift our kids to the school at Phulwari, which is five kilometre away."
Government officials and public representatives too are uncertain about the students' fate. Local MLA Shyam Rajak, who is close to Chief Minister Nitish Kumar said, "We will take up the matter with senior government officials so that students are shifted to a nearby school."
Schools across Bihar face an uncertain future as the state government has decided to close down or merge nearly 3000 schools, due to unavailability of land or lack of enough students. Amit Kumar, Public Relations Officer for Bihar’s education department said, "The education department has decided to merge schools which don't have adequate number of students. Also, such primary and middle schools, which don't have their own building and land, are to be merged with nearby primary or middle schools."
Some years ago, the Bihar government introduced a scheme under which private landholders were requested to donate their land for construction of schools in their villages and in return have the schools named after their family members. But there was little response from landowners. Also, with the opening of private schools at panchayat and block level, parents prefer to send their children to these private schools, as most government schools do not have qualified teachers and lack basic facilities.
Government schools remain the last choice
The annual status of education report (ASER), 2018 survey showed that 47.8 percent government schools do not have their own playgrounds and 40.9 percent of schools do not have a library. A scarcity of toilets and potable drinking water is another issue plaguing government schools.
"Our school has no toilets,” said Shailesh Kumar Punam, principal of the primary school at Bedary Tola, just two kilometres from the Kurji middle school. “Students and teachers have to go to nearby fields. There is one hand pump but the water quality is very poor. We have made several requests to education department officials and public representatives for constructing toilets, but nothing has been done.”
Referring to the lack of teachers, government sources say that for around 73,000 elementary schools (Class 1 to 8) in Bihar, 2.53 lakh teachers' posts are sanctioned, but nearly 1 lakh posts lie vacant. The last teachers’ (contractual) appointments were made in 2013, that too based on Teachers Eligibility Test (TET) held in 2011. No tests have been held since then.
And a majority of teachers who did get appointed to these elementary schools on the basis of recommendations of the village mukhiyas, ward councillors or other civic bodies, did not have proper educational qualifications or subject knowledge. A fact that came to light when the ASER report showed that around 42 percent of students studying in class 5 did not have the basic learning and mathematical skills that students of class 3 display.
"The basic learning and mathematics skills of Bihar students is poorer than the national average," said Sanjay Kumar, regional (Bihar) head Pratham Education Foundation. For instance, Soni Kumari, a class 8 student of the Khurji middle school could not even name the chief minister of Bihar or the prime minister of the country.
Anand Kumar, who runs Super 30, a private coaching school for underprivileged students, more than 300 of whom from have cleared the IIT entrance test, said the priority must be to improve teachers' training programmes for government employees. "Without this, the quality of education in the state can’t improve," he said. "A few decades back, government school students used to be good in mathematics, but now the scenario has changed as teachers themselves have poor knowledge of the subject."
Kumar maintains that the state government is serious about the quality of education and apart from teachers training, the government on various intervals also conducts eligibility test for teachers. But the teachers association clearly feels these efforts are insufficient. Shatrughan Prasad Singh, the general secretary of Bihar Secondary School Teacher's Association said, “There is a severe shortage of science and English teachers at middle and high schools. There are just 30,000 teachers for around 52 lakh students at around 5,000 government schools from Class IX to XII. Getting qualified teachers for subjects such as science and English still remains a challenge."
A breeding ground for scams
Shatrughan Prasad Singh, a former Member of Parliament from Bihar said, "There are schools which have just one or two teachers for science subjects. A few months back, the government made ad-hoc appointments with teachers getting Rs 1,000 per class to make up for the shortage of staff. But that effort too has failed in providing quality education at high schools."
The direct result of this are the various cheating scams that rocked Bihar's school education system. Cheating in matriculate and intermediate exams had become so common that when the Bihar School Examination Board employed strict measures in 2017 to prevent mass copying by the over 12 lakh students who took the exam in all three streams (science, commerce and arts), over eight lakh failed.
The mass copying scandal of 2015 hit national headlines when a picture of people scaling the walls of an examination centre in Mahnar in Hajipur district to hand over answer sheets to their wards inside went viral, bringing ridicule to the state’s examination system. As did the topper scam in 2016, when the toppers in the arts section Ruby Rai and science topper Saurabh Shrestha failed to answer even basic questions on their subjects before the media. Ruby Rai, a student of Vishnu Roy College, Kiratpur in Vaishali district pronounced political science as “prodigal science" and said the subject was about cooking. While Saurabh Shrestha described aluminium as the most reactive “element”.
This exposure led to the arrest of their college's principal-cum-director Baccha Rai, who had the backing of Lalu Yadav’s RJD and was in connivance with then Bihar School Examination Board chairman Lalkeshwar Prasad Singh. Both are currently in jail for having tampered with the answer sheets of the 'topper' students. A subsequent detailed probe by the education department and Bihar police revealed that around 270 intermediate schools and colleges were granted affiliation by the school examination board despite poor teacher strength and infrastructure. Moreover, many schools in Gaya, Arwal and Jehanabad districts existed only on paper, but were registered with school examination board list of intermediate schools for getting state government grants.
Nothing much has changed since then, despite lofty claims that the Nitish government is giving education the highest priority and providing sufficient budgetary support for the sector. "The Rs 34,798.69 crore provision for education is nearly 20 percent of the total budget for the current year," said NK Choundary, economist and former principal of Patna College.
But without curbing large scale corruption and dismantling the education mafia, a change for the better will not happen.
The author is a Ranchi-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com