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Structural Constraints in Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan Schools

A survey of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan schools in Sahibganj district of Jharkhand reveals that the SSA, despite its emphasis on decentralisation and inbuilt flexibilities, is not making much headway in a socially and economically differentiated setting. This reflects a perception of poor quality of the SSA and also a lack of understanding by the programme of social relations and structural constraints.


entiated context. The problem was not one

Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan Schools

of implementation, but rather reflected a perception of poor quality on the one hand, and a lack of understanding of Nitya Rao s ocial relations and structural constraints

A survey of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan schools in Sahibganj district of Jharkhand reveals that the SSA, despite its emphasis on decentralisation and inbuilt flexibilities, is not making much headway in a socially and economically differentiated setting. This reflects a perception of poor quality of the SSA and also a lack of understanding by the programme of social relations and structural constraints.

Nitya Rao ( is with the School of Development Studies, University of East Anglia, United Kingdom.

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april 18, 2009

espite the constitutional provision of reservations for scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs), jobs reserved for them, especially at higher levels of public employment, and in professional occupations, continue to remain vacant, while they remain concentrated in casual work. This has led to strong advocacy for improving basic education, particularly in the rural areas. Building basic capabilities, it is expected, will ultimately do away with the need for reservations. In this context, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) was introduced in 2002 to universalise access to elementary education even in the remotest hamlets in India in order to give every child an equal educational opportunity. A further goal is to bridge social, regional and gender gaps, with the active participation of the community in the management of schools. The SSA framework, in thus recognising education as a social institution, focuses on critical dimensions of i nstitutional reforms, community ownership, capacity-building, role of teachers and so on ( ssa_1.asp accessed on 24/10/08). Yet its experience of dealing with social structures or delivering qua lity education has been uneven. Jharkhand exemplifies a state, where the SSA is still to overcome structural constraints in order to meet its goals of providing quality education to children in the remotest hamlets of the country.

A Village Study

I was recently in a village in Borio block, Sahibganj district of Jharkhand, educationally perhaps the most backward district in the state (total literacy rate of 37%, female literacy 26%, and for ST f emales as low as 13% as per the 2001 Census). Sixty five per cent of the population of this block is categorised as ST. It became obvious that the SSA, despite its emphasis on decentralisation and inbuilt

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on the other.

The village is a fairly large one, with 330 households: 176 Santal and Mohli (STs), 94 Hindu (other backward classes (OBCs) and dalit) and 60 Muslim households. A railway track divides the village into two parts: one side is inhabited by Hindus (who refer to this part as a separate Hindu village) and the other by the STs and Muslims. The government middle school is located at the centre of the Hindu tola, as are the government health centre, post office, local ration shops and telephone booth. The other side of the village has none of these facilities, the exception being an anganwadi centre run by Integrated Child Development Services.

The livelihood activities of these groups are also distinct. The Hindu OBCs, including caste groups such as the Telis, Sahs, Kumhars and Thakurs, reside by the road near the middle school. Most of them are literate, and while many continue with activities associated with their castes, their current livelihoods are geared towards salaried jobs in the government sector, primarily teaching, and also in sectors like banking, insurance, petty contracts and journalism. The lower ranked OBC groups along with the SCs work as wage labour, but in the past few years, also e ngage in trading in coal, either collected from non-working mines, or furtively t aken from the National Thermal Power Corporation rail tracks. The Santals and Mohlis (bamboo workers) own land, but with agriculture at subsistence levels, a large majority migrate seasonally to the sugar cane fields of western Uttar Pradesh, or the paddy fields or stone crushers in West Bengal. The Muslim groups are largely dependent on petty trade, casual labour, migration to factories in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh and selling coal. Apart from a few upper ranked OBCs, a majority have insecure livelihoods, moving in and out of the village when the need arises, characterising the village as largely poor.


A quick census of the village has re-one more in the Mohli tola, this time an vealed that only 32.4% of the village pop-educated Santal man. School buildings


ulation is literate, with 6.5% having completed secondary schooling and less than 1% graduation (Table 1). There are, however, huge differences by ethnicity, with literacy rates ranging from 53% for Hindu men, to as low as 20% for Santal men, and a dismal 1.5% for Santal women. To some extent, this position can be explained by the physical location of the school. A problem for both the Santal and the Muslim children is the existence of the railway track separating their hamlets from the school, and while the train comes only four to five times a day, this is still a risk and a reason for poor attendance.

Table 1: Literacy Levels by Ethnicity (Population six years and above)

and infrastructure have been sanctioned. There has clearly been an emphasis on improving access and creating the requisite infrastructure to facilitate learning. Mid-day meals are also provided to the NPS. In terms of academic support, a cluster resource centre (CRC) has been constructed in the middle school complex (upgraded in 2007 to a high school) and an academic in-charge appointed in N ovember 2005 to support teachers, e specially in maths and science. Progress has been made: primary schools have been set up in each of the hamlets and better infrastructure provided alongside

ST SC Muslim OBC Total
Illiterate 486(80) 26(41) 132(62.75) 142(50.75) 786(67.6)
Primary (1-5) 81(13) 18(28) 62(29.5) 49(17.5) 210(18)
Middle (6-8) 19(3) 10(16) 10(4.75) 46(16.5) 85(7.5)
Secondary (9-10) 19(3) 4(6) 4(2) 22 (8) 49(4.25)
Intermediate (11-12) 1(0.25) 3(4.5) 1(0.5) 14(5) 19(1.75)
Graduation (13-15) 2(0.5) 1(1.5) 1(0.5) 6(2) 10(0.5)
Postgraduation (16-17) 0 0 0 1(0.25) 1(0.1)
Not answered 1(0.25) 2(3) - - 3(0.2)
Total 609 (100) 64(100) 210(100) 280(100) 1,163(100)

Figures in brackets are percentages. Source: Village survey (2006).

Table 2a: Enrolments in the Government Middle School

(Grades 1-8)

Caste/Ethnicity Male Female Total
2006 2008 2006 2008 2006 2008
Harijan (SC) 11 5 9 6 20 11
Adivasi (ST) 56 84 68 38 162 122
OBC (Hindus) 117 114 100 91 217 205
Muslim 28 0 0 0 28 0
Total 212 204 177 134 427 338

Source: Information from school (2006, 2008).

With the launching of the SSA in N ovember 2002, the first priority of the government was to resolve the problem of access. Abhiyan schools were therefore set up, one each in the Muslim and Mohli tolas (adjoining the Santal tola). One para-teacher was appointed to each of these schools: a local educated Muslim youth in the former, and in the absence of a suitably educated ST youth an educated Hindu OBC in the latter. As the number of children increased, both schools were u pgraded to primary schools in June 2006, and are now listed as new primary schools (NPS). Two additional teachers were appointed in the Muslim tola and attention to quality through the provision of academic support.

A Comparison

Unfortunately this is not the reality. A comparison between the three schools is disturbing. It points to the setting up of differential standards and norms for different types of schools, and consequently, to enhancing inequalities even within the state education system in a single locality.

The government middle school, located in the Hindu tola, has eight regular teachers, four pucca buildings, a handpump, toilets, and a computer room, though the lack of electricity has made this non-functional. All ST and SC children receive free textbooks, albeit late, and a scholarship to cover their costs. SC/ST girls in Grade 8 are given bicycles by the Jharkhand education department to encourage them to continue with their studies. Most of the educated in the village have had their basic education in this school. Table 2a provides enrolment figures for 2006 and 2008. What is

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Harijan (SC) – – – – – –

Total 100 73 173 43 32 75

Source: School information (2008)

u nderstandable is the decline in the numbers of Muslim and ST children, explained partly by the fact that they now have schools in their own hamlets, with considerably higher enrolments. What is disturbing is that none of the Muslim children seem to have entered middle school following the completion of primary level.

Contrasting Pictures

The visits to the two new schools, however, have brought out contrasting p ictures. While the school in the Muslim tola now has a pucca building, three t eachers, all local Muslim youth, a functioning balwadi centre for three to six year olds and a regular provision of mid-day meals, the school in the Mohli tola was a complete contrast. The building is yet u nfinished, the school is still running in the veranda of the hut of the chairperson of the village education committee (VEC). The school has only one teacher, a Hindu OBC, who rarely comes. In the words of the chairman,

I have called him many times, but he does not come. The school hasn’t opened for the last three months. He says he has to go to the bank, or to a meeting or file a report. While officially, there are 75 children enrolled, there are no studies here, about 20-25 go to private and mission schools. I send my three children to the Pathra Mission School. It is expensive, costing almost Rs 4,000 per year for each child, but what is the alternative?

This state of affairs was confirmed by many others. As it turned out, the major cash expenditures incurred by them are on healthcare and education. Fourteen children study at the St Paul’s Mission School at Pathra, perhaps five to six kms away from the village, and an equal number at the Holy Cross Mission School at Balidih. Most of these children commute daily, walking for more than an hour each way, yet parents find it worthwhile for the learning it provides. Fees are high, Rs 400 to Rs 500 per month as these

Economic & Political Weekly

april 18, 2009

schools receive no state aid. While ST children are entitled to scholarships in government schools, they do not receive them in the mission schools many of which lack state recognition in the first instance, nor do they get mid-day meals. While the meals are important, they do not compensate for the lack of quality education even in a poor hamlet such as this.

When I discussed the problem with the headmistress of the middle school, a Santal herself, she clarified that since the new schools have been upgraded to primary schools, they each have a clearly demarcated catchment area, and she cannot therefore give admission to children living in the catchment area of the Mohli school. She admitted that those who could afford sent their children to mission or private schools, but the rest remained out of school. The single teacher of this school explained the difficulties he faced in terms of lack of infrastructure, lack of scholarships, and the attitude of the parents, who preferred to send their children to work or graze cattle than to school. This tends to be an easy escape route, blaming ST parents for their lack of interest in the education of their children, while clearly, as i llustrated above, this is not the case. In fact, during the year 2006-07, when there was a Santal teacher, the attendance was high. He said,

I am more qualified than the present teacher, yet could not represent myself, hence was appointed only as a helper in this school on a 10-year contract and a salary of Rs 2,000 per month. I have to support my family and this is totally insufficient, but without money to pay bribes I am unable to get a job.

Yet, he worked hard in the school, encouraging all children to study, explaining things to them in Santali, till he left in O ctober 2007, to a job as gram sevak r esponsible for the implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme in an adjacent block. Though still on contract, this brings him a slightly better salary.


There are two important issues here, reflecting discriminatory practices in relation to both the children and the teachers. First, while the NPS now have permanent infrastructure, the children in the NPS are

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not eligible for scholarships. As already mentioned, the majority of STs, though owning land, are extremely poor; this is one reason that children often go to work rather than to school. When enrolled in the middle school, these children received scholarships; they are now neither entitled to be enrolled in the middle school, nor entitled to scholarships in their own school.

Second, as per official notification, the NPS are only ever entitled to have parateachers. Though young, local and better educated, they remain contract workers, with low salaries of Rs 3,000 per month and while sincere about teaching, are pushed to finding supplementary sources of income. At best they teach for half a day. There has been considerable mobilisation of para-teachers in Jharkhand over the last two years and negotiations with the government, yet the new guidelines for para-teachers are disappointing. Wages can be increased to Rs 5,100 per month, subject to certain conditions. Most i mportant is a clause stating that they can never claim regularisation as a government employee. Bihar, on the contrary, has announced regularisation of all para-teachers till the age of 60, a salary of Rs 5,000 per month, with an increment of Rs 500 per month every three years. This at least gives some motivation for work, though the inequality with the regular teachers, often only matriculation pass, but earning three times this amount, is glaring. Teacher motivation is clearly central to improving educational quality, and this seems the weakest link.

Apart from monetary payments, the other intervention for improving quality was the setting up of the cluster, block and district resource centres. The cluster incharge is meant to conduct fortnightly meetings at the CRC, once with the headteachers and once with assistant teachers on improving the subject matter being taught, alongside visiting the schools in the cluster by rotation. He admitted, however, that due to a tremendous load of reporting work, he has little time for academic advice.

As one of the villagers asked me, “despite so much investment, why is state education not succeeding, while private and mission schools do not seem to have


this problem?”. I have no immediate answers, but the evidence above raises several issues: the provision of monetary support for education of the poor, teacher recruitment to avoid elite capture, and teacher support to genuinely provide r esources and academic support, not just turn out reports, which, in this instance at least, do not reflect ground truths.

F urther, segregating even the state school system into government primary schools and new primary schools is hardly h elpful. While students in the former are entitled to receive scholarships and have regular teachers, students in the latter have neither. If one goes by the very logic of the new primary schools, set up in r emote areas with poor access to government schools



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-in the first place, they are likely to cater to the poorest, most marginalised and least educated sections of the society. Yet, they are the ones who will continue to be denied benefits, both monetary and in terms of teacher quality. If India hopes to truly provide quality education for all, these structural constraints need to be urgently addressed.







april 18, 2009 vol xliv no 16

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