Nalanda's glory can be reclaimed — if Bihar addresses the flaws in its education sector

‘Contemporary accounts tell us that Nalanda’s large and distinguished library — apparently housed in a nine-storeyed building — burnt for three days in the flames of destruction. While Nalanda lingered on for some time more after it had regrouped and reorganised itself following the devastation, it would never regain its former size, quality or reputation.’ — From 'An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions'; Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen.

Ranjan Kumar, Subhash Kumar, Dipesh Kumar and Chandan Kumar are from Nalanda. They haven’t attended college and instead work as housekeeping staff at Nalanda University’s convention centre

Ranjan Kumar, Subhash Kumar, Dipesh Kumar and Chandan Kumar are from Nalanda. They haven’t attended college and instead work as housekeeping staff at Nalanda University’s convention centre

The ruins of Nalanda bear testimony to Turkish invader Bakhtiyar Khilji’s dishonourable deed of burning nine million books — encompassing subjects as diverse as literature, astronomy, theology and astrology — c. 1200 CE. At this ancient seat of higher learning situated in Bihar, the past is imagined time and again — sometimes in its ascendant, sometimes in its descent. But, the present is almost equidistant from both and has the will to align itself to either version of the two pasts.

After APJ Abdul Kalam mooted the idea of Nalanda University’s revival in 2006, the school woke up from its long slumber. With the cooperation of the government of Bihar and the Government of India, 450 acres of land were identified for a new structure in Rajgir to come up around Nalanda’s remains. Since the ancient university attracted scholars from Japan, Tibet, China, Mongolia, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Korea and South East Asia, internationalism was at the core of this redevelopment. It 2013, under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) were signed with Australia, Cambodia, Singapore, Brunei, New Zealand, Lao PDR and Myanmar, and the first academic session began in September 2014. In the same year, the Centre sanctioned Rs 2,727 crore for the construction of the university over the next decade.

On board the national train journey of social entrepreneurs, the Jagriti Yatra, Firstpost reached Nalanda and got a look into the problems of quality education that lie beyond infrastructural developments and large spends.

At the convention centre, whose plane glass windows offered unspoiled views of the Rajgir hills, we found four 20-somethings — Ranjan Kumar, Subhash Kumar, Dipesh Kumar and Chandan Kumar — locals who work as part of the housekeeping staff. Ask them if they’ve attended college or finished school and they tell you they had neither the motivation nor the money — the two prerequisites for the pursuit of higher education.

“It has been two years since the establishment of the Samastipur Government Polytechnic but classes are still held in Adarsh Madhya Vidyalaya, a government middle school. On one side the students have begun graduating from college and on the other side, the college doesn’t have its own building. Similarly, the Sher Shah College of Engineering at Sasaram operates inside a polytechnic at Dehri-on-Sone. Why should we trust what’s on paper?” asks Preetam Kumar Shahi, who teaches civil engineering at a government polytechnic in Darbhanga. He wonders how hundreds of students prepare for IIT-JEE at centres in Kota, Rajasthan, but are somehow able to show 75 percent attendance in schools back in places like Rajgir, Kishanganj, Buxar, Araria, and Bihar Sharif. “Many engineering students feel they gain more from attending tuition in Patna because government colleges don’t have labs. Due to a shortage of full-time staff at colleges, professors have to make students do lab work,” informed Shahi, who also alleged that at the Munshi Singh College in East Champaran releases only half the merit list because the rest of the seats are paid for. “The scandal of paid seats must be investigated further, it is quite a common problem in Bihar,” he told us.

Munna Kumar had a similar story to share. He is lecturer at Lakshmi Narayan Dubey College, a Bihar government college established in Motihari in the East Champaran district in 1966. “In our college, the teaching staff numbers in the single digits and most of them are hired on a contractual basis. I also teach at the Dr Shri Krishna Singh Mahila College because the Bihar government doesn’t match the UGC minimum wages. Most teachers start their own tuition centres since it’s more profitable,” he said, explaining how economic loopholes are causing a disruption within the system. Kumar, who teaches MCA students, confessed that his pupils often 'outsource' projects like website designing and software development to teachers and pay them a good amount. Munna talked about a dearth of teaching staff in establishments like the Aryabhatta Knowledge University, Patna; Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar Bihar University, Muzaffarpur; Lalit Narayan Mithila University, Darbhanga; Magadh Univesity, Bodhgaya; Bhupendra Narayan Mandal University, Madhepura.

RS Mehta, who runs a community welfare project named Samajik Vikas Sansthaan in Nalanda, said that the government, in its large scale awareness drives against liquor and dowry (nasha-bandi and dahej-bandi) involves school administration along with district administration. This adds to the burden of teachers. He asked why a similar road-mapping cannot be done for education. Recently, Minister of State for HRD in Bihar, Upendra Kushwaha’s party Rashtriya Lok Samata Party conducted an awareness program called 'Shiksha Sudhar Manav Katar', where critical issues in education were being raised. Mehta called this a welcome move but insisted that such efforts must be consistent.

Monks in the Nalanda complex

Monks in the Nalanda complex

After seven decades of independence, awareness about the need for education is still necessary in Bihar. As stated in the Government of Bihar’s Economic Survey 2016-2017: ‘In 2011, the literacy rate in India was 72.9 percent, with male literacy at 80.9 percent and female literacy at 64.6 percent. The literacy rate in Bihar was much lower at 61.8 percent, with male literacy at 71.2 percent and female literacy at 51.5 percent. However, the increase in literacy rate in Bihar was 17.9 percentage points between 2001 and 2011, compared to 10.9 percentage points for the entire country.’ Bihar still has a long way to go.

Mohd Tausifur Rahman runs an education-awareness NGO named Aapka Banjariya in Banjariya, East Champaran. “Champaran, where Gandhi started the first satyagraha of Indian independence is now a hotbed of crime. The bahubalis and dacoits are a real threat and years after the Land Ceiling Act, the zamindari system still exists. This results in economic deprivation and children drift further away from education,” he explained.

According to the Tendulkar Committee estimates, the poverty ratio for Bihar is 34.1 per cent for rural and 31.2 percent for urban households in 2011-12, implying an overall poverty ratio of 33.7 percent. Between 2004-05 and 2011-12, the poverty ratio declined by 20.7 percentage points for Bihar, as against 15.3 percentage points for all-India. Much like Champaran, life in Bihar’s Jamui district isn’t easy. The region is fraught with Naxal terror. It is here that Niwas Kumar lives. The 20-year-old school dropout-turned-social entrepreneur is working on the concept of teacher-less schools through his NGO Saathi Education. “In Jamui, you’ll find that in one classroom, children between the ages of 10 to 15 studying from different textbooks. My concept is that the students can be moulded to teach their juniors instead of waiting for teachers to finally show up,” he said, adding that time is being wasted in waiting and a chain of knowledge can be formed to make the students more interested in each other’s welfare.

Razia, who works for an NGO called Project Potential, works on mindset change among the women of Kishanganj. “I come from a Muslim family and I know how I have overcome social and economic factors to complete my education. Unless we work on mindset change through counselling, the literacy rate might not improve, more so for girls.” Rajasthan and Bihar had the lowest female literacy rates in India at roughly 53 per cent each (Census of India, 2011).

As per the Annual Status of Education Report 2016, (a household-based survey, conducted by the non-profit organisation Pratham) the attendance rate in schools in Bihar ranges from 50 to 60 percent. Project Potential is an NGO is working on hacking the problem of unemployed and migration in Bihar, where 25 percent of graduates are currently unemployed; close to 4.5 million people migrate out of Bihar each year to try to find work.

Zubin Sharma, the founder of Project Potential, is a New Yorker, but has shifted base to Bihar (namely the Kishanganj, Araria, Katihaar and Purnia districts). “The problem we have noticed in primary schools is that teacher absenteeism is rampant. The contract teachers are paid less and made to work more and the older teachers are paid more and get away with doing less. There are two teaching unions that are constantly at war with each other and strikes happen often,” he said, adding that another problem he has noticed in schools of Bahadurganj is that the student-teacher contact is quite low, sometimes as little as an hour a day.

Zubin Sharma is a New Yorker who has shifted base to the villages of Bihar to work on improving primary education. He runs an NGO called Project Potential

Zubin Sharma is a New Yorker who has shifted base to the villages of Bihar to work on improving primary education. He runs an NGO called Project Potential

The doctrine that serves as the axis of existence for a Buddhist is 'anitya', or the truth of impermanence. No amount of fame or privileged insight can survive change, for it is the only reality that is constant. Unless the state of Bihar wipes the mist off the mirror and sees the flaws in its education sector with clarity, despite efforts of magnificent scale, the narrative of Nalanda will remain one of lost glory.

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Updated Date: Jan 11, 2018 19:41:42 IST

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