Will we allow the 'desi' to survive?

Will we allow the desi to survive?

A group of young women from the small village of Heggodu, Sagara Taluk in Shivamogga district have come together and formed a multipurpose co-operative society called Charaka, that produces naturally dyed cotton handloom garments sold under the brand name 'desi'. They have been fighting the inclusion of handloom and handicrafts products under the goods and services tax. They have undertaken padayatras and protest demonstrations against the state and central governments in the 'tax denial satyagraha'. Imposition of tax has affected them, who are already reeling under the onslaught of the largescale power loom sector. Prasanna, a prominent theatre personality, writer and one of the founders of Charaka, along with Grama Seva Sangha, consisting of mainly the urban consumers, are leading this satyagraha.

A parallel for the duel between the power loom and the handloom sectors could be drawn in our present day primary education system. English medium education that too in private institutions is seen by the upper and middle income families as a means of social mobility and economic progress. Increasingly, families are removing their children from government schools that offer local-language medium of instruction and admitting them to private English medium schools, though the latter are of questionable quality.

There is an increasing clamour for evolving educational policies that permit introduction of English earlier and teaching more of content in English. A recent example of this is the launch of the school chalo abhiyan in Uttar Pradesh under which 5,000 government-run primary schools got the English medium tag in April. There was hardly any preparation and thought before bringing in such a radical change. Due to delay in printing and distribution of text books in English, students were found reading lessons from old books in Hindi. The teachers for these English medium schools were selected from the existing government schools through a written test and proficiency in spoken English. However, given the experience and studies on many English medium schools that show questionable quality of English teaching due to the competency of the teachers, the inadequate focus on teacher preparation did not help matters.

This shift towards English medium in many states is contrary to the recommendations of the national policies on education of 1968, 1986 and 1992 and the National Curriculum Framework 2005 which have consistently emphasised on promoting learning in schools in children's language (mother tongue). In fact, by making English as the medium of instruction, it is likely that the rate of drop-outs and non-learners is going to increase. Despite this, the low income families are spending significant portion of their income on private schools at the cost of better government schools.

Clearly, English and English medium schools are proliferating, not only making learning difficult for most Indian students but also creating a separate class of citizens out of them. This despite many studies confirming that children learn best in their mother tongue or home language. The longer students learn in their mother tongue, the greater the chances of improving their academic performance. This is because it is best to develop thinking skills in the mother tongue. Of course, there is a strong case for teaching English or other non-native languages as a subject from an early stage. Children do not find learning multiple languages a problem. Research shows that children in multilingual societies learn several languages simultaneously in informal ways since their focus is not on the language but the meaning contained in it.

I was witness myself to the decline of a Kannada medium school from close quarters a few decades back. This was an elementary school located in Balepete (literally, a market place that largely sold bangles) an old locality situated very close to the city railway station, at the heart of Bengaluru. It catered mainly to children of a multi-lingual community that spoke Telugu, Tamil, Marathi, Hindi, Urdu, besides Kannada. This area was surrounded by other petes that were associated with various trades of the populace in the locality and derived their names from those corresponding trades pursued in such markets like grains, textiles, oil, flowers, etc. As such, the parents of children of the school formed the working class, working either in the area's shops or engaged in small trades or jobs.

The school had the nursery and primary sections and later got upgraded into upper primary school. The school had to be operated from two small old rented buildings, situated on congested residential bylanes due to constraints of space. Infrastructure was in poor shape, with teachers and students having to manage with small partitioned classrooms that had minimal facilities for teaching and learning. Acquiring amenities such as playgrounds, auditorium, staff room for teachers and head teachers was very arduous. The neighbouring park doubled up as the playground and the annual day celebrations held by hiring a public hall. Many a valiant attempt was made to raise funds from donors and the community to augment the school infrastructure and other improvements. Very little came in and it was a case of expenses being in excess of income all along.

Though the school had in excess of 100 students most times, enrolment did not increase substantially. At one point in time, the school management had approached the education department to start English medium section (and a high school for girls) but failed to get the official nod. Contrary to many other schools which started English medium sections despite not getting the explicit approval by the government, the school followed the law in letter and spirit. Eventually, in late 1990's the school came under the government's grant-in-aid provision and the teachers were deputed to other aided schools in the city based on their seniority. The school had to wind up after being in existence for nearly five decades, not being able to sustain itself further in the face of competition from other private English medium schools.

This school for the have nots was run by my father for over three decades from late 1960's, having taken over from my grandmother who had founded it just after the country's independence. The situation of such exclusively Kannada medium schools has not changed to this day. Despite them being managed well by people who are aligned to the aims of education and striving to provide quality learning opportunities for children from diverse backgrounds, they face the constant threat of extinction.

JP Naik, the great socialist educationist had prophetically remarked four decades back: "For a long time …, the most prized thing in education was the command over English language which became synonymous with 'quality' in education...While one need not underrate the utility and value of English which provides direct access to the world's ever growing knowledge, it is not proper to over emphasise its place in Indian education nor to equate quality with command over English as a language".

We need to look at some of the advanced countries in the world such as Finland and China. They have their own local language as medium of instruction in schools for rich and poor and teach English only as a second language. Their children perform consistently well in international tests.

Ironically, while the fight to save the desi products and economy is on, it is hoped that our policy makers recognise and adopt an appropriate language and inclusion policy in our education system.