In 1991, within weeks of each other, two books were published, both on the same subject; both by scholars, with a deep and abiding faith in the transformative power of education in the lives of children and nations. Both were to be successful, yet the two books could not be more different.
IN1951, 18 per cent, or less than one of every five Indians, could read and write. If the census of 2021 had been conducted on time, last year, it would have shown that less than 1.8 per cent of Indians are illiterate. A moment of satisfaction, for we had not let ourselves down. As India’s first Prime Minister put it so well at the moment India became independent, we have redeemed our pledge not wholly, but quite substantially.
We almost didn’t make it. In 1981, the census reported that only four of every 10 Indians were literate. Change was happening, but really slowly. At that pace, few believed India would ever achieve the goal of universalising education.
Based on research in the 1970s and 80s, through the length and breadth of India, American political scientist Myron Weiner, ended his book, ‘Child and the State in India’ (1991), with the bleak prophecy, “With illiteracy and child labor declining worldwide at a faster rate than in India, India’s global share of illiterates and child laborers will continue to increase.” India was to prove him wrong.So what changed? For that, we will need to revisit the years 1991 and 1992.
In 1991, within weeks of each other, two books were published, both on the same subject; both by scholars, with a deep and abiding faith in the transformative power of education in the lives of children and nations; both were to be successful, yet the two books could not be more different. It would be 1992, when their impact would begin to be felt on public conversations.
Written by an enlightened outsider, Weiner’s Child and the State in India is majestic in its scope, and a trenchant critique of India’s policy making elite for keeping children out of school and at work. Conversely, written by an involved insider, (intellectual and academic Krishna Kumar is one among the ruling elite that Weiner indicts) ‘Political Agenda of Education’ (1991) provides evidence of the continuity in colonial thinking on the relationship between the child and the school well past independence.
Kumar would point to the slow spread of education among the masses during colonial rule. He would show that the enrollment figures would begin to climb only in the 20th century, with the growing groundswell of support for a change in the political order and demands for social change. Education would begin to be seen as a form of mobility. The colonial State, in contrast, would be viewed not as an ally of the socially and economically oppressed, but as a protector of the propertied interests and the status quo. In the post-independence period,
Kumar would point to both dramatic changes, such as the inclusion of all castes within schools, while also pointing to ways in which the changes were accompanied by subtle continuities. Where earlier, the struggle was access to school, now the struggle was to somehow manage, even mitigate, the prejudices which had entered the classroom and were working to push select children out of school. In his analysis, there is a central role of caste.
Appreciation for the subtlety of Kumar’s argument would ensure that it would help mould the thinking of a generation of thinkers and practitioners on school education. On the shaping of the wider national policy on education, though, Kumar’s nuanced argument, would find fewer takers.
There, Weiner’s push for legislative action, and advocacy of India following the same path as the east Asian countries, was what gained political and public attention. In contrast to Kumar, Weiner builds his case for compulsion, through insights gleaned from speaking to the Indian elite. In ‘Sons of the Soil’ (1978), his study of migration and ethnic conflict in India, he shares the perspective of Members of Parliament on the role of education
Weiner was an all-weather friend of India. His book Child and the State in India would achieve cult status, available on bookshelves and their well-thumbed look, testimony to the book having been read, and often more than once. In a country, known to be prickly, and wearing its nationalism as a badge of honour, his central thesis, that the reason child labour is rampant and children are not in school is because India’s elite want it like that, is cited by everyone – those who want to change the system and equally by those who want to maintain the status quo.
In 1999, Weiner passed away. The New York Times’ obituary for him was headlined Myron Weiner, 68, Expert on Child Labor in Developing Lands. The author of 38 books, it would be Child and the State in India for which he remains the best remembered. As an economist colleague put it, it was his crowning achievement for it would change the terms of the debate in India. There is possibly no more often cited book on education, or indeed on child labour or on the belief system, which underlies public policy decision-making in India.
American economist and trade theorist Jagdish Bhagwati, would recall to NYT the story of an argument between a senior Indian civil servant and Weiner. ““He told me that he had a meeting with the man who was the chief civil servant in charge of education in New Delhi,” Mr. Bhagwati recalled. ”The two argued over whether there was compulsory education or not in India. Myron said there wasn’t and the Secretary insisted there was a constitutional provision. Eventually Myron pointed out to him the language that the Secretary had assumed to be a guarantee merely enabled the various states to pass their own legislation to provide compulsory education, which most of them had not done.””
Appreciation for the subtlety of Kumar’s argument would ensure that it would help mould the thinking of a generation of thinkers and practitioners on school education. On the shaping of the wider national policy on education, though, Kumar’s nuanced argument, would find fewer takers. There, Weiner’s push for legislative action, and advocacy of India following of the same path as the east Asian countries, was what gained political and public attention.
What Bhagwati points out is possibly the most heralded section of his book, which includes long extracts of conversations with both policymakers, and those who chose to try and influence policy.
The exchange begins as a disagreement, and ends with possibly his most insightful and troubling observation.
“Argument: “Did you and other officials,” I asked a senior official in the Ministry of Education, “who had been working with Rajiv Gandhi on the government’s new National Policy on Education consider making education compulsory? If you did, what were the arguments for and against, and why was a decision made not to make it compulsory?”
“The question didn’t arise,” came the reply, “because we already have compulsory-education laws in sixteen of our twenty-two states, though given the social conditions in the country it has not been possible to enforce the laws.”
I know, I continued, that you have numerous state laws called “Compulsory Education,” but what you have is enabling legislation that permits local authorities to make education compulsory, but does not compel them.
“That’s not so,” the official contradicted me. “These laws may not be enforced, but they do provide for compulsory education. The question was raised in Parliament when the prime minister introduced the new education policy and my assistant researched the matter for us.”
Once again I challenged him. …
I left his office surprised that a high government official was unaware that state governments had not made education compulsory, but on second thought I realized that we had disagreed on a technical matter. Whether the legislation says “may” or “shall,” all government officials agree that in fact virtually no authority in India makes education compulsory. There are no enforcement authorities, no provisions for the compulsory registration of names and birthdates of children, no enumeration registers, no procedures for issuing notices to parents and guardians whose children are not attending school, and no penalties for failing to send children to school. No cases against parents or guardians are brought before administrative agencies or courts. Nor have elected or appointed officials in the state or central governments pressed for the enforcement of compulsory-education legislation.
What was more interesting in our discussion was to hear the view that education should not be made compulsory not only because parents need the income of their working children but because the educational system is itself worthless. It was a view I had heard before, but not from a high-ranking education official within the central government.”
Shift in thinking
The millennial census would show that Independent India had fulfilled one of her most important promises to herself and to the world. Among children born after 1985, just about the time when Weiner began his research, there were more children in school than out of it; clearly something had been changing on the ground. India’s primary education investments had begun to show results. The table below, though, shows why he made the mistake he did.
Until 1981, the base year on which he based all of his observations, clearly literacy rates were moving slowly, the decadal growth rate being less than 10 per cent. Also, while male literacy was moving slowly, that of females was crawling. Between 1971 and 1981, the growth in female population clearly outstrips the growth in female literacy rates.
The real shift begins to be visible between 1981 and 1991, and yet through his travels, Weiner seems to have completely missed the groundswell of change. From 1978, the proverbial night schools would get an important overhaul. From the ideal of functional literacy, the classes would now focus on literacy for social change. In the mid-1980s, these programmes would get a brand makeover, and would become the National Literacy Mission.
The demand on the ground would lead to a shift in the expenditure profile of states and the Union. Due to policy attention, education began to gain a higher share of government revenues.
Along with the National Education Policy, 1986 and the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, the government invested significant political capital on the literacy mission. In particular, the Total Literacy Campaign was designed to shift the needle on adult illiteracy, particularly of boys and men in the 15-35 years age group. Designed in the bhavans of New Delhi, the classes were held in school premises, panchayat bhavans, at night. The policy makers believed that this would ensure maximum attendance by the demographic they had designed the programme for.
Only what happened was women showed up in droves, sincere and hungry for knowledge, with a keen desire to make up for lost time. Another factor was that many government functionaries completely owned the programme. Stories of district magistrates teaching at the night classes, complete with photographs of adult learners, largely women, watching the magistrate’s fingers write words in chalk on the black board, initially made the front pages of newspapers, and then became so common that it stopped making news.
What the classes also did was create a demand for school education. Women would question the volunteer teachers and the many, many visitors, who would arrive, what about our children? And it was from these women that the first shift of an aspirational India was visible, though possibly overlooked.
Women were clear that while these evening and night classes were adequate for them, for their children they wanted more. For their children, they wanted regular schools, with uniforms, in proper classrooms, with regular teachers. They wanted parity and equality with the children of the teachers.
Both the State and families actively support education; the incidence of child employment is down. Over nine of every ten children are enrolled in school, and at least six of those nine complete primary school. Importantly, the idea of economic responsibility for children is perceived as a duty of tomorrow, rather than today.
The demand on the ground would lead to a shift in the expenditure profile of states and the Union. Due to policy attention, education began to gain a higher share of government revenues. As the table below shows, the first spike in expenditure happened in the second half of the 1980s, and then from 1992, the expenditure grew exponentially. This has led to a real and long-term shift.
Now, 30 years later, both government figures and independent estimates clearly show there has been a real shift on the ground. Both the State and families actively support education; the incidence of child employment is down. Over nine of every ten children are enrolled in school, and at least six of those nine complete primary school. Importantly, the idea of economic responsibility for children is perceived as a duty of tomorrow, rather than today.
Would Weiner have revisited his conclusion?
In 1996, Weiner would write a long essay for the social sciences academic journal Economic and Political Weekly, which reiterates his point that it is the lack of compulsion which is keeping children out of school. It is titled, Child Labour in India-Putting Compulsory Primary Education on the Political Agenda.The title is the only formal acknowledgement that he had read Kumar’s opus. He does not cite Kumar.
In this article, he acknowledges investments by the government in adult literacy and non-formal education. Yet, the transition from how those investments by the State of resources, and by people of their time, would interplay and impact the democratic process, he was unable to capture. Fundamentally, in his understanding of the relationship of the child with the State, an element of duty and of compulsion was embedded. He saw this element as part of the historical transition in the United States and Europe, of going from a situation where children working was the reality, to the idea that children going to school became the norm.
What also comes through, is that in the interim, he has read and assimilated the ideas articulated in the seminal Political Agenda of Education. Without acknowledging the knowledge debt, he is able to retrace the source of his ideas, not just from western scholars, but through Kumar, to the freedom movement, and even further, to social transformation efforts.
The original demand for regulation of child work, and unionization, came from a civil liberties struggle. The idea of the State enforcing a shift in social norms through legislation, something he advocates for in the book originally and much more forcefully in the article, only harkened back to the dark days of the Emergency, when the State did attempt to enforce its view, through punitive action.
In some ways, it is human to not acknowledge the work of someone who is at the least an intellectual equal – in both thought and articulation. However, despite the gap of many years, and his frequent travels, he was unable to pick up on the impact of the Emergency on India’s intellectual elite. The original demand for regulation of child work, and unionization, came from a civil liberties struggle. The idea of the State enforcing a shift in social norms through legislation, something he advocates for in the book originally and much more forcefully in the article, only harkened back to the dark days of the Emergency, when the State did attempt to enforce its view, through punitive action. The vision of penalties on parents, the principal duty-bearers, simply was not politically feasible.
We will never know what Weiner would have made of the dramatic changes in policy, the making of the Right to Education Act, and its impact in schools and neighbourhoods, on the ground. Would he have seen it as a vindication of his principal observation that it would be a shift in conceptual thinking within the policy-making elite that would lead to transformation? Or would he have acknowledged that the change process had already begun while he was researching, only it had been happening among adults, and it was this public pressure that had forced change? We can almost certainly be sure that he would have revisited his conclusion:
“One is then left with the pessimistic conclusion that barring a conceptual change in the thinking of those who make and implement policy, and a new direction in policy by the Indian government, the number of children in the labor force will not significantly decline, conditions for working children will not significantly improve, school retention rates will not significantly increase, and literacy rates will continue to grow at a slow pace and will leave a large part of the Indian population illiterate well into the middle of the twenty-first century.”