Updated: December 25, 2020 1:01:34 am
What does the Indian voter truly want? Her expectations have ranged, over decades, from the minimum of bijli-paani-sadak and naukri to the over-arching dream of vikas to any arrangement that conforms to the calculus of caste and religion. Surprisingly, for a country with a large young population, education has rarely been considered the stuff of exciting political contests — even if it makes a significant difference to opportunity and income. And so it is both novel and heartening to see the education ministers of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh sparring over the state of public schooling in their respective states. Much of it has to do with the Aam Aadmi Party’s decision to contest UP assembly polls in two years from now. In Delhi, the AAP’s push to funnel resources into the public school system has not only seen changes in government schools — but also reaped electoral benefits. The AAP’s pitch to UP led to a challenge from state education minister Satish Dwivedi, who invited Delhi education minister Manish Sisodia to visit government schools in UP to see their credit-worthy state for himself. Sisodia promptly turned up at Lucknow, where he was stopped by UP police from carrying out his surveys.
Optics aside, there is no better time than this pandemic-struck year to make education a matter worth fighting over. Several surveys as well as anecdotal reports have flagged a nationwide crisis in learning triggered by the closure of schools. That crisis is likely to be more acute in the northern states, which, even before the pandemic, lagged behind the south in the provision of public schooling. For instance, the Niti Aayog’s School Education Quality Index (SEQI) 2019 ranked UP right at the bottom of the large states. An analysis of ASER reports from 2006 to 2014 also shows a sharp fall in the already low-reading levels in UP’s government schools. The geographical divide in learning is an outcome of historical investments made in public schooling in states like Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Southern India’s head-start in education, arguably, is also thanks to a larger, more effective politics of social justice. The Delhi government has done well to walk on that path.
Education is, not surprisingly, a political hard-sell, given the difficulty in quantifying its gains and given how tangled it is in social bottlenecks of caste and gender. But for Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, an exchange of repartee between their ministers might serve to bring education some welcome political attention. At the least, it will be a refreshing change from a politics so accustomed to the fever pitch of identity that it neglects the grim material realities holding India’s aspiring youth back.
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