Private school students in the market area of Tigri Extension, a lower middle class neighborhood in Delhi.
Credit: Sami Siva

Correspondent's Note: Inequality in education struck me as the most important story in India for GlobalPost’s Special Report on income inequality, “The Great Divide,” because it results in a vicious cycle: For the most part, the poor do not have access to a good education, which forces them to fall further. At the same time, the increasing privatization of schools has made Indian education as segregated as the American South ever was — and all signs point to it getting worse. India's school system has already been privatized. And only those who can pay hefty fees get an education.

That struck me as an existential crisis for India, because Indian society is already unequal in so many ways. India’s poorest people don't have access to basic needs like food and clean water, and huge numbers die from starvation, malnutrition, and treatable diseases. The Muslim minority ranks shockingly low by almost any measure of prosperity, thanks to historical discrimination. And while some members of the lowest castes have benefited from quotas in jobs and education, most have not.

What I find most disturbing, and what originally drew me to this story, is that opposition appears to be growing to any efforts to create US-style “equal opportunity,” not to mention real equality of circumstances. During my time living in India, I've seen elite university students launch a mass movement against the system's only functional attempt to uplift the lower castes — a perverse inversion of 1967's “Summer of Love.” I've watched a government that was once committed to making society more equal abandon essential public services like health care in favor of haphazard privatization. And I've seen the growing gulf between the haves and have nots slowly but inexorably tip toward violence — not only in the obvious form of a Maoist rebellion that now simmers in about half of India's 26 states, but also in a breakdown of day-to-day law and order that hints at a massive collective despair.

NEW DELHI — In the tiny, one-room shanty that she shares with her father, mother, brother and sister when she is home for the holidays, 11-year-old Babli answers questions about the private boarding school where she lives and studies for nine months of the year.

Babli Thakur, 11, poses for a picture in her dorm in the hostel building in Shanti Gyan International School, a reputed private school, in Delhi.
(Sami Siva/GlobalPost)

“In my school, they teach English and different-different subjects,” Babli says. “We have more activities, games, football, table tennis, dancing, singing, yoga, musical instruments. There are also lots of cultural programs. My favorite subject is English.”

Typical of the makeshift homes of New Delhi's hundreds of “jhuggi (hut) clusters,” Babli’s house is an eight- by ten-foot cell, with a corrugated aluminum roof and concrete walls. There is no window. The ceiling is low enough to force an average-sized American to stoop.

Against the back wall, a cot stretches from corner to corner, where Babli's elderly father is sleeping off a bender. There's a desert cooler for the hot summer and a single, bare fluorescent bulb for light. A 21-inch television, bought on an installment plan, enjoys a place of pride atop the family's only other piece of furniture — a battered wooden cabinet.

The family's clothes — half a dozen faded outfits — hang from a steel pipe overhead that doubles as the center roof beam. Next to the front door, which leads to the gutter, a shower caddy nailed to the concrete holds four toothbrushes and a tube of toothpaste. In another corner, plastic jars hold a dusting of flour and foodstuffs next to a two-burner stove.

“I'm a casual worker at a thread factory nearby,” says Babli's mother, Santosha, the family breadwinner. She has been forced to stay home today, without pay, because the factory where she works in violation of India's labor laws is undergoing a government inspection. “I make 150 rupees ($3) a day,” she says, “working seven days a week, from nine in the morning to nine, ten, or sometimes eleven at night.”

Santosha, the family, and everybody crowded into the tiny room hope that Babli will fight her way out of this place to a better life.

As part of an experiment conceived by activist-educator Anouradha Bakshi, who runs a non-profit called Project Why, Babli attends an elite, English-language boarding school on the outskirts of the city instead of her area's government-run, Hindi-language school. By every available measure, that gives her a much better chance at breaking out of the slum. And it makes her a kind of advanced case study for a potentially revolutionary Indian government program designed to offer millions of poor families the chance to send their kids to private schools. For the lucky ones, it's like winning the lottery.

But even Bakshi herself, who fought school authorities and dipped into her own pocket to get eight slum kids into posh boarding schools, remains deeply worried that for the majority of the population the creeping privatization of India's education system will only increase inequality further.

“The government schools today, especially the primary schools, have mostly illiterate parents,” Bakshi said. “Ten years ago, 20 years ago, you had a better social mix in government schools. Because privatization hadn't really happened then.”

“What happened is the middle class moved out,” she said. “Unless you have a school system where several social strata learn together, you're not going to be able to rise. It's not by buying a mobile phone or getting a TV in your house that things are going to change.”

In 2009, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's United Progressive Alliance government pushed through a new law enshrining education as a fundamental right and guaranteeing free, compulsory education for every Indian up to age 14. The law sets requirements for schools — many of which lack basic facilities such as toilets. It prohibits schools from holding back or expelling students. It requires that surveys be conducted periodically to measure the school-age population of every neighborhood and make sure every child has a school to attend. It calls for the setup of school management committees — where 50 percent of the members are parents — to ensure schools are performing.

And it makes radical new demands of the country's private schools, which already serve about a third of India's elementary school students, although the government accounts for 80 percent of the country's schools.

Promising to reimburse schools for their fees, or at least the amount the government schools spend per student, Section 12 of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009 (RTE) makes it compulsory for every private, unaided school to reserve 25 percent of the seats in its entry level class for poor or disadvantaged students. Meanwhile, government-aided private schools are required to provide free education to poor and disadvantaged children in proportion to the aid they receive from the government.

This year, the first such students entered first grade, in small numbers, at private schools around the country.

“It has the potential to be the world's largest school voucher program,” says Parth Shah, director of the New Delhi-based Center for Civil Society, which has long argued that India should adopt the “school choice” concept pioneered by University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman.

There are plenty of reasons to believe that the RTE policy is on the right track.

By the Gini coefficient that economists use to measure inequality, India is a more egalitarian society than China, Mexico, Thailand or the US. But a walk through New Delhi is proof enough that where the gap lies is at least as important as how wide it is.

Some 400 million Indians like Babli's family are fighting to survive on less than $1.25 a day, and despite the government's good intentions, they can't count on the state for low-cost housing, clean water, reliable public transport or much of anything at all.

Meanwhile, across town from Babli's slum, at the DLF Emporio luxury mall, every minute or so a Mercedes-Benz E-class sedan glides to a stop in front of the massive hoardings for Louis Vuitton and Dior. Valet parking runs 200 rupees ($4, a third more than Babli's mother, Santosha, earns in a day). At the busy atrium cafe inside, a cappuccino costs 310 rupees ($6). In the Gucci store, one of Delhi's top earners picks up a belt for 16,000 rupees ($300).

“Our constitution says that the income gap should be reduced, but it has not happened and it is not happening,” said Delhi High Court advocate Ashok Agarwal, whose organization, Social Jurists, has fought harder than anybody to get poor children into the country's private schools.

On the contrary, the gulf between rich and poor is getting wider. The gap between the incomes of the top and bottom tenths of India's population has doubled over the past 20 years, since India liberalized its economy in 1991. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD) 2011 study, “Divided We Stand: Why Inequality Keeps Rising,” India's top 10 percent of wage earners now make 12 times more than the bottom 10 percent, up from a ratio of six in the 1990s.

“It is one country, practically divided into two countries,” said Agarwal. “It's a very alarming situation.”

One of the biggest reasons may be growing inequality in education.

India has made vast strides increasing access to primary and secondary education over the past 60 years, and in recent years it has succeeded in boosting the literacy rate to 74 percent in 2011 from 65 percent in 2001.

But the country's government-run schools are failing, and Indians, including all but the poorest of the poor, are spending an ever-greater amount to send their kids to private schools.

According to government data compiled by researchers Rajesh Shukla and Mridusmita Bordoloi, spending on education was one of the fastest growing household expenditures over the past 20 years. And as that spending increases, the gap between the education that the rich and poor receive widens in proportion. In the latest nationwide survey of household spending, the bottom 10 percent of wage earners spent 1.9 percent, or about $15, on education, while the top 10 percent spent 13.5 percent of their much higher household expenditure — or about $550.

It's a thorny issue.

Public education was intended to be India's great leveler. But the country's government-run schools are in such a shambles that only a quarter of the teachers actually show up and only half of them do any real teaching. According to the New Delhi-based Center for Civil Society, a third of India's primary schools don't have permanent school buildings and one out of ten are so lacking in materials that there is not even a chalkboard. More than 1.4 million teaching posts are vacant in government schools. And fewer than 1 percent of the graduates leaving India's universities with a bachelor's degree in education were able to pass a Central Teacher Eligibility Test (CTET) introduced last year.

A classroom at the Project Why school, a New Delhi-based NGO engaged in education support of slum children, in Govindpuri.
(Sami Siva/GlobalPost)

Most likely as a direct result, half of the Indian children who attend first grade drop out before reaching the fifth, and two-thirds drop out before the eighth. And that's despite knowing, in a vague way, that earning power grows dramatically here with even a basic education. A primary school graduate earns 21 percent more than an illiterate person, while a high school grad nets more than double and a college grad pulls in nearly four times more, according to a study by India's National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER).

Even budget private schools deliver better results than the vast majority of government-run schools. That's why proponents of the RTE's 25 percent quota for the poor and disadvantaged see it as revolutionary. And it's why parents of quota students at the private, unaided Sainath Public School in New Delhi jumped at the chance to get out of the government school system.

For Satish, a young shopkeeper who nets about $100 a month and lives in a slum house much like that of Babli's family, even the school's low, $20 per month charges would be unaffordable for him to send his seven-year-old daughter, Disha, there without government aid.

“The teaching is much better at private schools,” Satish said. “A lot of times, the teachers don't show up [at public schools]. There's no drinking water. The place is never cleaned.”

“Even if the teachers are there, they don't pay any attention to the students,” said Shabana Bano, the mother of six-year-old Mohammed Rihan, another quota student. “The teacher will be sitting in class and the students will walk in and walk out whenever they want and the teacher doesn't even notice.”

From private school, they expect much more.

“A government job will be great, and when I talk to my daughter she says she either wants to be a teacher or a doctor,” said Satish.

“The way we think is, our children will study, become someone, and show society what they can do,” said Bano.

That's great for the lucky parents. But already competition for places in the country's better private schools is so fierce that until most of them instituted online applications, parents camped out overnight just to pick up application forms. Similar welfare programs that depend on identifying Indians from the so-called “economically weaker section,” such as the public distribution system (PDS) for subsidized food and kerosene, have excluded millions of the destitute and have been crippled by fraud.

And critics like Project Why's Bakshi point out that only the most rudimentary of budget private schools, if any, exist in the rural areas peopled by the poorest of the poor. Meanwhile, the 25 percent quota may accelerate the flight of the most capable and concerned parents to private schools, thus undermining the effort to make teachers and administrators in the government system more accountable.

“The focus of RTE has become this 25 percent, with little else being talked about,” said the Center for Civil Society's Shah. “That, in a sense, is diverting attention from all the other things that need to be done to fix the system. This is just a quick-fix for the group of people who might benefit from the scheme.”

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