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Sense and SolidarityJholawala Economics for Everyone$

Jean Drèze

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780198833468

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2019

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198833468.001.0001

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Child Development and Elementary Education

Child Development and Elementary Education

(p.114) 5 Child Development and Elementary Education
Sense and Solidarity

Jean Drèze

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focusses on early child care and school education. Two essays discuss India's schooling system, drawing on the seminal Public Report on Basic Education (known as PROBE report) as well as on a re‐study of the PROBE villages ten years later, in 2006. This re‐study found evidence of rapid improvement in schooling facilities as well as in school participation, especially among underprivileged groups. However, there was no improvement in classroom activity: in both surveys, half of the sample schools were idle at the time of the investigators’ visit. The other essays in this chapter discuss the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), India's only national programme for children under the six, in a rights perspective. In the mid‐2000s, far‐reaching Supreme Court orders gave a new lease of life to ICDS. Further improvement in this programme, it is argued, could make a big difference to the well‐being and future of Indian children.

Keywords:   Elementary education, Education in India, Early child care, PROBE report, Pre‐school education, Right to education, Social inequality

IF THERE IS ONE THING we have learnt from development economics in the last twenty years, it is the importance of elementary education for development. To state the obvious, education is of great help in many of the activities that make life worthwhile, and the process of learning has intrinsic value. Education also contributes to a variety of social goals, including economic progress, demographic change, social equity, and democratic practice. Seen in this light, the low priority attached to universal elementary education in twentieth-century India was a monumental blunder.

The victims were often blamed for their predicament. As recently as 1997, privileged Indians often claimed that “illiterate and semi-literate parents see no reason to send their children to school” (Times of India, 15 August 1997) or that literacy is not seen as a basic need among “the vast majority of adult illiterates belonging to the poor economic stratum” (Indian Express, same day). This view is one of the myths that were questioned in the Public Report on Basic Education in India, also known as the PROBE report (The PROBE Team, 1999), and firmly disproved soon after that as Indian children flocked to school at accelerating rates. The first essay in this section is a brief overview of the PROBE survey findings. It is included here as a reminder of how grim the schooling situation was in India just twenty years ago.

(p.115) The PROBE report is based on a 1996 survey of primary schools in about 200 villages spread over the large Hindi-speaking states of North India (undivided Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh). Ten years later, some members of the PROBE team conducted a re-survey in the same areas. Impressive progress was found in some aspects of the schooling system, including the schooling infrastructure, school participation rates, and the inclusion of disadvantaged groups. However, there was no improvement in classroom activity levels: in 2006, as in 1996, there was no teaching activity at all in half the schools sampled when the investigators arrived. As mentioned below in “Struggling to Learn”, simple tests of children’s learning achievements gave alarming results: barely half the pupils in Classes 4 and 5, for instance, could do single-digit multiplication in 2006.

It is important, of course, to remember that the PROBE survey (and the follow-up survey in 2006) happened in states that lag behind the rest of India in matters of social development, including elementary education. Companion surveys in Himachal Pradesh found that the schooling situation there was enormously better than in the PROBE states, and the same would also apply, say, in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. In fact, according to the first India Human Development Survey, pupil achievements in government schools in these states are higher than the corresponding all-India averages for children enrolled in private schools (who tend to have a relatively privileged background and good home support).1 Other states tend to be somewhere between these topper states and the lagging states of North India. But there is certainly a massive problem of inadequate quality of school education across the country.

What is truly extraordinary is that this state of affairs is not a political issue in India. Yet the situation is unlikely to improve in the absence of a high-profile national initiative to enhance the quality of (p.116) schooling, especially in government schools. The schooling system has already shown its ability to bring about positive change in many fields, including school participation, infrastructural development, and the effective provision of school incentives (from midday meals to free bicycles). Similar energy needs to be brought to bear on the quality of education – India’s schooling system will stand or fall on this challenge.

Other essays in this section are concerned mainly with children below the age of six years (“children under six” for short). The PROBE report inspired a similar study of anganwadis (child care centres), known as the Focus on Children Under Six (FOCUS) report. The anganwadi survey happened in 2004, when the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) were only beginning to receive serious attention in public policy. As it happens, just before the FOCUS report went to press in 13 December 2006, the supreme court issued a far-reaching order on the ICDS, declaring inter alia that all children under six were entitled to all ICDS services. Along with other efforts to rouse the government from slumber, led, inter alia, by India’s right to food campaign, this gave a new lease of life to the programme. “Universalisation with quality”, one of the main themes of the FOCUS report, became a widely accepted goal of the ICDS. Progress towards this goal was examined ten years later in a follow-up report called Progress of Children Under Six. Two essays in this section discuss child development in the light of these reports.

(p.117) Class Struggle* (with the PROBE Team)

The directive principles of the Indian constitution urge the state to provide “free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of fourteen years” within a period of ten years. Fifty years after this bold resolution, however, educational deprivation remains endemic, even in the younger age groups. According to the 1991 census, for instance, nearly half of all girls in the age group of 15–19 years are illiterate. The spread of elementary education is so slow that the absolute number of illiterate persons in India is still rising decade after decade. In 1991, it had reached nearly half a billion – more than the total population of the country thirty years earlier.

The Public Report on Basic Education (PROBE) attempts to shed light on the roots of this failure. This report is based on a detailed survey of the schooling system in North India. The survey was conducted in late 1996 in 188 randomly selected villages of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. These four states account for over half of India’s out-of-school children. Aside from making unannounced visits to all the primary schools (more precisely, all schools with a primary section) in the villages sampled, the survey teams interviewed 1221 randomly selected households.

Two Myths

The PROBE survey debunks two myths that have clouded clear thinking about the causes of educational deprivation in rural India. (p.118) One resilient myth is that Indian parents have little interest in education. Contrary to this belief, the PROBE survey suggests that an overwhelming majority of parents, even among deprived sections of the population, attach great importance to the education of their children. For instance, a resounding 98 per cent of respondents felt that it was important for boys to go to school. For girls, the corresponding proportion was lower, but still very high: 89 per cent. Similarly, 98 per cent of all parents wanted their sons to receive at least eight years of education, and even for girls a large majority (63 per cent) had the same aspiration. Further, 80 per cent of parents felt that primary education should be made compulsory for all children. This is not to deny that pockets of indifference remain, especially when it comes to female education. Some parents bluntly said it was pointless for a girl to study since she would later be doing domestic work. It would be quite misleading, however, to regard the lack of parental motivation as the main obstacle to the universalisation of elementary education.

Another myth is that economic dependence on child labour is the main reason why poor families are unable to send their children to school. Contrary to this assumption, PROBE data on the time utilisation of children show that out-of-school children perform just two hours of extra work per day on average, compared with schoolgoing children. Further, the direction of causation does not necessarily run from child labour to non-attendance. In many cases, it is the other way around: dropouts take up productive work (of their own choice or through parental pressure) as a “default occupation”. Eight-year-old Manoj in Karanjia village of Bihar, for instance, dropped out of school after being bullied by other children, and now spends his time grazing cattle. Even among children whose income-earning activities are essential for the family, the time spent in these activities often leaves much room for other occupations. Bearing in mind that school hours are short (at most six hours a day for 150–200 days in the year), the proportion of children whose work priorities are incompatible with schooling is likely to be small.

(p.119) The Discouragement Effect

If parents are interested in education, and if child labour is not a major obstacle in most cases, why are so many children out of school? To understand this, the first point to note is that regular school attendance requires a great deal of effort on the part of parents as well as children. To begin with, schooling is expensive, in spite of free education being a constitutional right. The PROBE survey suggests that North Indian parents spend more than Rs 300 per year (on books, slates, clothes, etc.) to send a child to a government primary school. This may sound like a small amount, but it is a major financial burden for poor families, especially those with several children of schoolgoing age. To illustrate, an agricultural labourer in Bihar with two children would have to work for about forty days in the year just to send them to primary school.

In addition to the financial burden, much parental effort is required on a day-to-day basis to motivate children to go to school, ensure they make good progress, and free them from domestic chores. Effort is also needed from the children themselves, especially when the school environment is hostile or boring. The willingness of parents and children to make this effort depends a great deal on what they can expect in return, in terms of the quality of schooling. This basic problem is often compounded by other factors, such as the seasonal dependence on child labour and the gender bias in educational aspirations. These aggravating factors, however, should not divert attention from the fundamental mismatch between the quality of school education and the effort required to acquire it.

Dilapidated and Idle Classrooms

There are many aspects to the poor quality of schooling in rural India. First, the physical infrastructure is inadequate. In some villages, there is no infrastructure worth the name. In Vidya (Mandla district, Madhya Pradesh), for example, there is no school building. (p.120) Children are huddled in a dark, tiny storeroom and an adjacent open space where the owner keeps domestic animals. In some villages, the building is used by teachers for residential purposes. Elsewhere, the school premises are used as a store (Sawarna in Ujjain district, Madhya Pradesh), police camp (Baruhi in Bhojpur, Bihar), cattle shed (Belri Salehpur in Hardwar, Uttar Pradesh), public latrine (Vangaon in Saharsa, Bihar), or to dry cowdung cakes in (Mujahipur in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh). These are extreme cases but even an average school boasts little more than two classrooms, a leaky roof, and some dilapidated furniture. The PROBE survey found that 82 per cent of the schools sampled needed major repair. Two-thirds had leaking roofs, making it difficult to hold classes when it rains.

Second, schools are short of teachers. The primary schools in the PROBE sample had about fifty children enrolled for each teacher, on average. Further, the distribution of teachers between schools is highly uneven, so that the pupil–teacher ratio is much higher than fifty in many schools, and even shoots up to three-digit figures in some cases.

Another aspect of teacher shortage is the continued existence of single-teacher schools (officially abolished under Operation Blackboard). In the sampled villages, 12 per cent of all primary schools had a single teacher. Another 21 per cent had a single teacher present on the day of the survey because the other teachers were absent. Thus, one-third of all schools had, effectively, only a single teacher.

Third, classroom activity is very low. Even among relatively conscientious teachers, coming late and leaving early is accepted practice. Others are worse, as Tejulal of Tigariya Sancha in Madhya Pradesh explained: “Padhate nahi, turant chutti kar dete hain” (They don’t teach, they send us off at the earliest). In some villages, schools had been closed for a week at a time as the teachers had taken French leave.

Even when the teachers are present, there is little activity in the classroom. Controlling children is the priority. In half the schools sampled, there was no teaching activity at all when the investigators arrived.

(p.121) Fourth, teaching methods are stultifying. The preferred method is copying – from the board or from textbooks. Even that is hardly monitored. In Golwa village (Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh), the PROBE team found that children’s notebooks were filled with meaningless scribbles, page after page.

Teaching aids are seldom available, let alone used. Some schools have received new teaching aids (such as globes) under Operation Blackboard, but these are usually locked up and kept away from the children. In the classroom, the stick remains the most common teaching aid. “Padhate kam, marte zyada” (instead of teaching, they beat us) said one boy as he explained why he had dropped out.

Teachers, for their part, feel their work conditions are not conducive to better teaching methods. Three out of four were compelled to do multi-grade teaching. Some teachers deal with this by concentrating their efforts on the higher grades, leaving the younger children to their own devices.

In these circumstances, it is no wonder that pupil achievements are abysmal. The PROBE survey even found numbers of children who were unable to read or write after several years at school. Mohabai of Diwara village in Sawai Madhopur (Rajasthan) is one example. She is one of the few girls in Diwara who managed to reach Class 5. Alas, she is still unable to read or write.


While the PROBE survey paints a grim picture of the schooling situation in North India, there is a sense in which these findings are good news. Had child labour or parental motivation been the main obstacles to universal elementary education, the government might have good reason to feel somewhat powerless. On the other hand, much can be done without delay to reduce the costs of schooling (e.g. by providing school meals), and to improve its quality (e.g. by raising teacher–pupil ratios). The main challenge seems to be to build the political commitment required for a radical improvement of the schooling system.

(p.122) This has already happened in other states, and not just faraway Kerala. In Himachal Pradesh, for instance, elementary education became a top priority of public policy as soon as the state became independent in 1971. In a survey of forty-eight randomly selected villages in Himachal, conducted on the sidelines of the PROBE survey in late 1996, we found that 97 per cent of children in the age group of 6 to 12 years were going to school. Further, primary schools were doing much better in Himachal than in the PROBE states in terms of a range of quality indicators such as teacher–pupil ratios, levels of classroom activity, and parent–teacher co-operation. Universal elementary education had become a widely accepted norm, with 97 per cent of parents sampled wanting at least ten years of education for their daughters. This is all the more telling as Himachal had some of India’s lowest literacy rates in the early 1950s. The speed of change was so impressive that we decided to include a chapter on “the schooling revolution in Himachal Pradesh” in the PROBE report. Let us hope similar revolutions happen in other states too.

(p.123) The Welfare State in Tamil Nadu*

Sometimes a little bit of fieldwork is worth years of academic study. So I felt last month after returning from a brief reconnaissance of rural Tamil Nadu with a former student. It was a revelation.

Our main object was to visit schools, health centres, and related facilities. I have done this off and on for some years in North India, and it is almost always a depressing experience. Millions of children waste their time and abilities in dysfunctional schools. Health centres, where they exist at all, provide virtually no services other than female sterilisation. Ration shops are closed most of the time. And other public amenities, from roads and electricity to drinking water, also tend to be in a pathetic state.

The situation seems radically different in Tamil Nadu. Though we visited only three districts (Kancheepuram, Nagapattinam, and Dharmapuri), the basic patterns were much the same everywhere and are likely to reflect the general situation in the state. For instance, each of the nine schools we visited enjoyed facilities that would be quite unusual in North India: a tidy building, basic furniture, teaching aids, drinking water, a midday meal, free textbooks, and regular health checkups. More importantly, the teachers were teaching, and most of them were even using the blackboard, a rare sight in North Indian schools. There was, of course, much scope for improvement, but at least children were learning in a fairly decent and stimulating environment.

(p.124) It was a joy to observe the midday meal programme in government schools. Everywhere, the meals were served on time according to a well-rehearsed routine. The children obviously enjoyed the experience, and the teachers felt very positive about it. Nowhere did we find any sign of the alleged drawbacks of midday meals, such as stomach upsets or disruptions of classroom activity. Seeing this first-hand, one wakes up to the fact that midday meals should really be seen as an essential feature of any decent primary school, like a blackboard.

We were also impressed with the health centres. They were clean, lively, and well-staffed. Plenty of medicines were available for free, and there were regular inspections. The walls were plastered with charts and posters giving details of the daily routine, facilities available, progress of various programmes, and related information. Patients streamed in and out, evidently at ease with the system. What a contrast with the bare, deserted, gloomy, hostile premises that pass for health centres in North India!

Another pleasant surprise was to find functional anganwadis (child care centres) in most villages. In North India, anganwadis are few and far between, and those that exist have little to offer, when they are open at all. Sometimes the local residents are not even aware of the fact that their village has an anganwadi. In Tamil Nadu, however, a functional anganwadi seems to be regarded as a normal feature of the village environment. Anganwadis have separate buildings, two or three helpers, cooked lunches, teaching aids, health checkups, and regular inspections. The helpers we met were well trained and gave us credible accounts of their daily routine.

The public distribution system (PDS) provides yet another example of the striking contrast between Tamil Nadu and North India as far as social services are concerned. In North India, collecting wheat or rice from the local ration shop is like extracting a tooth. The cardholders are sitting ducks for corrupt dealers, especially in remote areas where the latter have overwhelming power over their customers. Quite often, people have no idea of their entitlements and are unable to take action when cheated. But in Tamil Nadu we found that even uneducated (p.125) Dalit women were quite clear about their entitlements and knew how to enforce them. This pattern is consistent with secondary data: the National Sample Survey indicates that households in Tamil Nadu get the bulk of their PDS entitlements, in contrast with North India, where massive quantities of PDS grain end up in the open market.

I am not suggesting that social services in Tamil Nadu are flawless or even adequate. Even there, civic amenities fall short of the norms prescribed, say, by the directive principles of the constitution. Also, there are significant social inequalities in the provision of public services. But at least the rudiments of a credible welfare state are in place, and Tamil Nadu’s experience (like Kerala’s) points to far-reaching possibilities in this domain.

An obvious question arises as to why social services function so much better in Tamil Nadu or Kerala than in the bulk of North India. The question is beyond the scope of this brief article, but I venture to suggest that the contrast relates in part to the role of women in society. For one thing, women’s votes in Tamil Nadu matter a great deal, because women are relatively well informed and vote with their own mind. This forces political leaders to pay attention to women’s aspirations, including those relating to health and education. For another, women are the prime movers of social services in Tamil Nadu. All the facilities I have mentioned (with the exception of ration shops) are staffed mainly by women. And everywhere we went, there were signs of their special competence in these matters. It may not be an accident that the only North Indian state whose achievements in the field of social development are comparable to those of Tamil Nadu, namely Himachal Pradesh, also happens to have much in common with Tamil Nadu in terms of the role of women of society.

(p.126) Children Under Six: Out of Focus*

The draft Approach Paper to the 11th Plan, prepared by the Planning Commission, has been discussed and criticised from various perspectives. However, little attention has been paid to its worst blind spot: the state of Indian children, particularly those below the age of six.

The facts are well known. About half of all Indian children are undernourished, more than half suffer from anaemia, and a similar proportion escapes full immunisation. This humanitarian catastrophe is not just a loss for the children concerned and their families, and a violation of their fundamental rights, but also a tragedy for the nation as a whole. A decent society cannot be built on the ruins of hunger, malnutrition, and ill health.

Yet one is at a loss to find any serious discussion of these issues in the Approach Paper. Patient search uncovers a little “box”, tucked away in the section on Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, where children under six are finally mentioned. The box (two paragraphs) begins with the grand statement that “development of children is at the center of the 11th Plan”, but does not give any inkling of what this actually implies. Instead, it essentially confines itself to the startling suggestion that anganwadis should “concentrate on inculcating good health and hygienic practices among the children”.

The anganwadi scheme, officially known as the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), is the only major national scheme that addresses the needs of children under six. As things stand, less (p.127) than half these children are registered under the ICDS. The Common Minimum Programme (CMP) clearly states that the UPA government will “universalize ICDS to provide a functional anganwadi in every settlement and ensure full coverage for all children”. This step is also required for compliance with recent supreme court orders (PUCL vs Union of India and Others, Civil Writ Petition 196 of 2001). It would be natural, therefore, to expect the universalisation of ICDS to be one of the top priorities of the 11th Plan. None of this, however, finds mention in the Approach Paper.

The main argument for universalising the ICDS is that it is an essential means of safeguarding the rights of children under six – including their right to nutrition, health, and pre-school education. These rights are expressed in Article 39(f) of the Indian constitution, which directs the state to ensure that “children are given opportunities and facilities to develop in a healthy manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity”. If we take children’s rights seriously, an institutional medium is required to provide these “opportunities and facilities”. That is the main role of the ICDS centre or anganwadi.

Apathy towards the ICDS in official circles appears to be linked with a perception that this programme is ineffective, if not useless. It is easy to provide superficial support to this claim by citing horror stories of idle anganwadis or food poisoning. These horror stories, however, are not a fair reflection of the general condition of the ICDS. Indeed, recent evidence suggests that the ICDS is actually performing crucial functions in many states, and that there is much scope for consolidating these achievements.

A recent survey of the ICDS, initiated by the Centre for Equity Studies, sheds some light on these issues. The survey, called Focus on Children Under Six (FOCUS), was conducted in May–June 2004 in six states: Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, and Uttar Pradesh. It involved unannounced visits in a random sample of about 200 anganwadis, detailed interviews with local anganwadi workers and helpers, and further interviews with (p.128) about 500 women (randomly selected among those who had at least one child below the age of six years, enrolled at the local anganwadi).

Among mothers with a child enrolled at the local anganwadi, more than 90 per cent said that the anganwadi opened “regularly”. This is consistent with direct observation: nearly 80 per cent of the sample anganwadis were open at the time of the investigators’ unannounced visit. Similarly, 94 per cent of the sample mothers stated that supplementary nutrition was being provided at the anganwadi. Even pre-school education, the weakest component of the ICDS, was happening in about half the anganwadis sampled. More than 70 per cent of mothers felt that the ICDS was “important” for their child’s welfare.

This is not to deny that the quality of ICDS services needs urgent improvement in many states. But recognising the need for quality improvements is not the same as dismissing the ICDS as a non-functional programme. The FOCUS survey does not provide any justification for this defeatist outlook.

In fact, the survey findings highlight the enormous potential of the ICDS. This potential is well demonstrated in Tamil Nadu, where child nutrition has been a political priority for many years. Every anganwadi sampled in Tamil Nadu had an effective feeding programme, and almost all the mothers sampled were satisfied with the quality as well as the quantity of the food. Other basic ICDS services were also in good shape. For instance, 97 per cent of the mothers sampled in Tamil Nadu reported that children were being “weighed regularly”, and 86 per cent said that useful educational activities were taking place at the anganwadi. Every single child in the Tamil Nadu sample had been immunised, fully so in a large majority of cases. Perhaps the best sign of real achievement in Tamil Nadu is the fact that 96 per cent of the mothers sampled considered the ICDS to be “important” for their child’s well-being, and half of them considered it to be “very important”.

While Tamil Nadu is an exemplary case of effective action in this field success stories are not confined to this particular state. (p.129) Maharashtra, for instance, seems to be rapidly catching up with Tamil Nadu. To illustrate, the proportion of sampled mothers who stated that the local anganwadi opened regularly, or that their child was regularly weighed, or that immunisation services were available at the anganwadi, was above 90 per cent in each case. Much as in Tamil Nadu, 93 per cent of the mothers sampled in Maharashtra considered the ICDS to be important for their child’s well-being. A large majority (60 per cent) also viewed the anganwadi worker as “a person who can help them in the event of health or nutrition problems in the family”. While there were also areas of concern, notably the pre-school education programme, Maharashtra’s experience clearly shows that Tamil Nadu’s achievements can be emulated elsewhere.

In the northern states, the condition of the ICDS varied a great deal, from fairly encouraging in Himachal Pradesh to very poor in Uttar Pradesh (the usual “basket case” as far as public services are concerned). Even in the lagging states, however, the strong potential of the ICDS clearly emerged in villages with an active anganwadi. It is also important to note that these states have largely reaped as they sowed. Consider for instance the “supplementary nutrition programme” under the ICDS. There is much evidence that the best approach here is to combine nutritious, cooked food for children aged 3–6 years with well-designed “take-home rations” (together with nutrition counselling) for younger children. Yet many states are not even trying to take these simple steps to improve the nutrition component of the ICDS. For instance, in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, children aged 3–6 years get the same bland “ready-to-eat” food (panjiri or murmura) day after day, and younger children get nothing at all. It is no wonder that the mothers sampled in these states were often dissatisfied with the programme.

Similar remarks apply to other hurdles that have plagued the ICDS in the northern states – lack of funds, understaffing, poor infrastructure, erratic supervision, inadequate training, and centralised management, among others. These shortcomings are curable, and their persistence essentially reflects a lack of political interest in the (p.130) well-being and rights of children. In sharp contrast to Tamil Nadu, where child health and nutrition are lively political issues, the ICDS is at the rock bottom of policy concerns in the northern states.

It is against this background of political indifference to children under six that the CMP commitment “to provide a functional anganwadi in every settlement” was so important. In pursuit of this commitment, the National Advisory Council formulated detailed recommendations on the ICDS in November 2004, along with cost estimates and a proposed time frame for universalisation. These recommendations have been amplified and improved in a number of recent documents, such as the reports of the commissioners of the supreme court and the concluding statement of a convention on “children’s right to food” held in Hyderabad in April 2006. Unfortunately, this wave of creative advice appears to be falling on deaf ears. It is certainly not reflected in the draft Approach Paper to the 11th Plan. An opportunity is being missed to rectify the catastrophic neglect of children under six in public policy and economic planning.

(p.131) Struggling to Learn* (with Anuradha De, Meera Samson, and A.K. Shiva Kumar)

How would you feel if half of the buses and trains that are supposed to be running on a particular day were cancelled at random every day of the year? Quite upset, surely (unless you can afford to fly). Yet, a similar disruption in the daily lives of children has been quietly happening for years on end, without any fuss: in rural North India, on an average day, there is no teaching activity in about half the primary schools.

Positive Changes

In late 1996, the PROBE team surveyed primary schools in about 200 villages of undivided Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh – also known as the BIMARU states at that time. In 2006, we revisited the same areas to find out whether and how the schooling situation had changed over ten years. There were many signs of positive change.

First, school enrolment rates have risen sharply, e.g. from 80 to 95 per cent in the age group of 6–12 years. For the first time, the goal of universal school participation is within reach.

Second, social disparities in school enrolment have considerably narrowed. For instance, the gap between boys and girls has virtually disappeared (at the primary level). Enrolment rates among Scheduled (p.132) Caste and Muslim children are very close to the sample average – about 95 per cent in each case. Enrolment among Scheduled Tribe children, however, is lower at 89 per cent.

Third, the schooling infrastructure has improved. For instance, the proportion of schools with at least two pacca (brick) rooms went up from 26 to 84 per cent between 1996 and 2006. Nearly three-fourths of all primary schools now have drinking water facilities. Toilets have been constructed in over 60 per cent of all schools.

Fourth, school incentives are reaching many more. To illustrate, free uniforms were provided in barely 10 per cent of primary schools in 1996, but this went up to more than half in 2006. Similarly, the proportion of schools where free textbooks were distributed was less than half in 1996, but close to 100 per cent in 2006.

Fifth, cooked midday meals have been introduced in primary schools – they were in place in 84 per cent of the sample schools in 2006. The bulk of the gap was in Bihar, where midday meals were still in the process of being initiated at the time of the survey.

Economic growth, rising parental literacy, and the rapid expansion of rural infrastructure and connectivity have certainly facilitated these achievements. But public initiatives such as Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, supreme court orders on midday meals, and active campaigns for the right to education have also made a major contribution to this new momentum for the universalisation of elementary education.

Inside the Classroom

Having said this, the quality of education remains abysmal for a vast majority of Indian children. To start with, school enrolment does not mean regular attendance. Almost everywhere, children’s attendance as noted in the school register was far below enrolment. And actual attendance, as observed by field investigators, was even lower.

Classroom activity levels, too, are very low. One reason for this is the shortage of teachers. Despite a major increase in the number of teachers appointed, the pupil–teacher ratio in the survey areas (p.133) has shown little improvement over the years. The proportion of schools with only one teacher appointed has remained much the same – about 12 per cent. In 2006, an additional 21 per cent of schools were functioning as single-teacher schools on the day of the survey, on account of teacher absenteeism. Aggravating the situation is the fact that teachers often come late and leave early. Even when they are present, they are not necessarily teaching. In half the sample schools, there was no teaching activity at all when the investigators arrived – in 1996 as well as in 2006.

Even in the active classrooms, pupil achievements were very poor. Teaching methods are dominated by mindless copying and rote learning, e.g. chanting endless mathematical tables or reciting without comprehension. It is, thus, not surprising that children learn little in most schools. For instance, we found that barely half of the children in Classes 4 and 5 could do single-digit multiplication, or a simple division by five.

No Quick Fix

Some quick fixes have been tried, but with limited results. One of them is the appointment of “contract teachers”, often seen by state governments as a means of expanding teacher cadres at relatively low cost. In the government primary schools surveyed, contract teachers account for nearly 40 per cent of all teachers. Due to the contractual nature of their appointment, and the fact that they are local residents selected by the gram panchayat, these contract teachers were expected to be more accountable than permanent teachers. This has not happened. The inadequate training and low salaries of contract teachers affect the quality of their work. In some schools, they were certainly more active than the permanent staff; in others, however, their connections with influential people in the village enabled them to take it easy.

Another way of improving school performance, related to the first, is to promote community involvement and decentralised (p.134) school management. Most of the schools in our sample had a Village Education Committee (VEC) or some other committee of this sort. In many cases, these committees have helped to improve the school infrastructure, select contract teachers, and supervise midday meals. However, they have been much less effective in improving the levels of teaching activity. Power in most committees rests with the president (generally the sarpanch) and the secretary (generally the head-teacher), who need to be held accountable in the first place. With the exception of Parent – Teacher Associations (PTAs), the representation of parents in these committees tends to be nominal, and their active involvement is rare. The survey found numerous instances where committee members did not even know that their name had been included in the committee.

This does not detract from the importance of community participation in reviving classroom activity. But active and informed community participation requires much more than token committees, especially in India’s divided and unequal social context.

A third quick fix is greater reliance on private schools. The proliferation of private schools in both urban and rural areas often creates an impression that this is the solution. A closer look at the evidence, however, does not support these expectations. The quality of private schools varies a great deal, and the cheaper ones (those that are accessible to poor families) are not very different from government schools. Their success in attracting children is not always a reflection of better teaching standards; some of them also take advantage of the ignorance of parents, e.g. with misleading claims of being “English medium”. Further, a privatised schooling system, where education opportunities depend on one’s ability to pay, is inherently inequitable. It also puts girls at a disadvantage: boys accounted for 74 per cent of all children enrolled in private schools in the 2006 survey (compared with 51 per cent of children enrolled in government schools). Private schooling therefore defeats one of the main purposes of universal elementary education – breaking the old barriers of class, caste, and gender in Indian society.

(p.135) Despite the recent mushrooming of private schools, about 80 per cent of schoolgoing children in the households sampled were enrolled in government schools in 2006 – the same as in 1996. This situation makes it imperative to do something about classroom activity levels in government schools, instead of “giving up” on them.

Like the 1996 baseline, the follow-up study in 2006 included a separate survey in Himachal Pradesh, where we found that the schooling situation was much better. For instance, 99 per cent of all children in the age group of 6–12 years were enrolled, and 92 per cent of those enrolled were at school on the day of the survey, compared with just 66 per cent in the other states. Schools in Himachal also had higher levels of teaching activity. Further, VECs and PTAs were generally functional. Interestingly, this success is not based on any quick fix, but on responsible management of a traditional schooling system, based on government schools and regular teachers, with a little help from a relatively egalitarian social context.

The Future

The title of the last chapter of the PROBE Report, published in 1999, was “Change is Possible”. In many ways, this assertion has come true. Much has indeed changed – for the better – in the schooling system during the last ten years or so. The need of the hour is to consolidate the momentum of positive change and extend it to new areas – particularly those of classroom activity and quality education. The forthcoming Right to Education Act may help. But the first step is to stop tolerating the gross injustice that is being done to Indian children by wasting their time day after day in idle classrooms.

(p.136) Progress of Children Under Six*

No social programme in India is more exciting, more critical, or more promising than the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS). A colourful and lively anganwadi, where young children get a taste not only of nutritious food but also of the joy of learning, is a ray of hope for the entire village. The future of Indian children, and indeed of the country, is being shaped in these modest premises managed by local women.

Having said this, the ICDS is also one of India’s most neglected schemes. That was one of the key messages of Focus on Children Under Six (FOCUS) report, discussed earlier. A few days before the FOCUS report was released, on 13 December 2006, the supreme court issued far-reaching orders on the ICDS. All children below the age of six years were declared to be entitled to all ICDS services. The Government of India was directed to increase the number of anganwadis from about 7 lakh to 14 lakh (roughly, one per habitation). Settlements with at least forty children below six years but no anganwadi were entitled to being provided with an anganwadi on demand.

These orders were of great help in creating a new momentum for the ICDS. Anganwadis, like schools, came to be regarded as an essential facility for every village. Public expenditure on the ICDS shot up, and the programme also started receiving greater attention in public debates and democratic politics. Repeated attempts by (p.137) commercial interests to invade the programme met with spirited resistance. There were also lively discussions about the “restructuring of ICDS”, eventually leading to major improvements in the guidelines.

Against this background, the findings of the recent Progress of Children Under Six (POCUS) report are relatively encouraging. This report is based on a resurvey of the FOCUS districts ten years on (in 2014), and suggests significant quality improvements. Two of the formerly dormant states (Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan) had a much more active ICDS programme by 2014 – Uttar Pradesh, alas, was still far behind. Taking the six FOCUS states together, significant improvements are evident in the quantity and quality of food supplements, the regularity of child attendance, the maintenance of growth charts, and related matters. Consider for instance the proportion of mothers sampled who stated that their child attends the anganwadi regularly, or that immunisation services are provided there, or that pre-school activities under the ICDS benefit their child. In each case, the proportion was 80 per cent or more in 2014, compared with 40 to 50 per cent in 2004. Similarly, the proportion of mothers sampled who felt that the ICDS is “important for their child’s welfare” increased from 48 per cent in 2004 to 84 per cent in 2014. The fact that quality improvements took place during a phase of rapid quantitative expansion is good news. As quantitative expansion becomes less urgent, there will hopefully be greater scope for qualitative improvements in the near future.

Further evidence of slow but steady progress in the performance of the ICDS has recently emerged from the Rapid Survey on Children 2013–14 (RSOC). Good practices such as the provision of nutritious food, the maintenance of growth charts, and pre-school education activities at the anganwadi are becoming the norm in large parts of the country. To illustrate, one way of spotting a well-managed anganwadi is to check whether children’s growth charts are being maintained. According to the RSOC, this was the case in a large majority of anganwadis in twelve out of twenty major states, including Chhattisgarh, Odisha, and West Bengal aside from the usual suspects. (p.138) Of course, the shortfalls remain huge, especially in states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Even in the lagging states, however, there are signs of improvement in ICDS-related indicators. As mentioned earlier, for instance, Bihar achieved the largest improvements in child immunisation and coverage of antenatal care between 2005–6 and 2013–14, starting of course from a very low base.

Another experience of much interest is that of Odisha, one of India’s poorest states, not known for exemplary governance. In a recent survey of about 50 randomly selected anganwadis in four districts of Odisha, we found that anganwadis opened regularly and provided most of the prescribed services. Supplementary nutrition is part of the daily routine, with an improved menu, including eggs twice or thrice a week. Pre-school education is taking root: at more than three-quarters of anganwadis, children were able to recite a poem when asked. Health services such as growth monitoring, immunisation, and ante-natal care were also provided regularly, in collaboration with the local Auxiliary Nurse Midwife (ANM) and Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA). Further, Odisha has developed an effective model of decentralised production of take-home rations for children below the age of three years, involving women’s self-help groups. Take-home rations in Odisha include eggs, not only for young children but also for pregnant and lactating women. This is an important innovation: children below three are the most critical age group, yet ICDS has tended to be more focused, so far, on children in the age group of three to six years.

It is also worth noting that significant evidence has emerged, in recent years, of the impact (or potential impact) of the ICDS on the well-being of Indian children. For instance, there is some econometric evidence of positive effects of the ICDS on child nutrition, child education, and related outcomes from recent studies by Gautam Hazarika, Monica Jain, Eeshani Kandpal, Nitya Mittal, Arindam Nandi, and their respective colleagues. Recent findings from the second Indian Human Development Survey (2011–12) and the RSOC also point to a marked acceleration in the progress of child (p.139) development indicators after 2005–6 (the reference year for the third National Family Health Survey). It is quite plausible that the ICDS has contributed to this, along with related initiatives such as the National Rural Health Mission.

Alas, the Government of India seems to be returning to the days of vacillation on the ICDS that preceded the supreme court orders of December 2006. In the union budget 2015–16, ICDS funds were slashed by a staggering 50 per cent or so, though the cuts were partly reversed later in the year due to public criticism (including dissent from the government’s very own minister of women and child development, Maneka Gandhi). The cuts were sought to be justified on the grounds that the share of state governments in the divisible pool of taxes had been raised from 32 to 42 per cent, in line with the recommendations of the Fourteenth Finance Commission. But this does not explain why the axe should have fallen most heavily on children’s programmes (not only the ICDS but also school meals). This move sent a disastrous signal about the social priorities of the central government – a signal that could cause much damage down the line. Some state governments, notably the Government of Odisha, have already complained in strong terms about the devastating consequences of the central budget cuts.

These setbacks make it more important than ever before to stand up for children’s rights, including their right to the full spectrum of ICDS services – nutrition, health care, and pre-school education. The silver lining is that, despite this slackening of central support, progress appears to continue at the state level. For instance, many states are now serving eggs in anganwadis: Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, West Bengal, and even Bihar. Growing attention is being given to pre-school education as a core activity of the ICDS. Uttar Pradesh has finally moved away from panjiri to cooked meals for children in the age group of three to six years. All these are small steps forward, and the overarching pattern of gross neglect of children under six (the most important age group for lifelong health and well-being) continues. But the last ten years or (p.140) so have at least demonstrated the possibility of accelerated progress in this field. Even the central government’s indifference towards the ICDS is not irreversible.


Class Struggle

This essay is based on the PROBE report (The PROBE Team, 1999). An earlier, longer version with the same title was published in India Today as an illustrated cover story, on 13 October 1997. The literacy figures are from India’s decennial census.

The Welfare State in Tamil Nadu

For further discussion of the welfare state in Tamil Nadu, see Drèze and Sen 2013, Vivek S. 2015, and earlier studies cited there.

Children Under Six: Out of Focus

This essay is based on early tabulations of the FOCUS survey data. For a more detailed discussion of the ICDS and the FOCUS survey, see Citizens’ Initiative for the Rights of Children Under Six 2006, and Drèze 2006.

Struggling to Learn

This essay is based on De, et al. 2011, a follow-up to the PROBE report. A longer version was published in Frontline on 14 March 2009, under the title “Education: Report Card”. More detailed information on pupil achievements in India is available from the India Human Development Surveys, PRATHAM’s Annual Status of Education Reports, and the NCERT’s National Achievement Surveys.

Progress of Children Under Six

This essay is based on the Progress of Children Under Six report (Centre for Equity Studies 2016) and the RSOC 2013–14 fact-sheets. The Odisha survey is discussed in Khera 2015. Maneka Gandhi’s criticisms of the ICDS budget cuts (including her statement that the cuts had made it “a month-to-month suspense on whether we can meet wages”) were reported (p.141) by Reuters, and widely discussed in the Indian media. For further details of recent econometric studies of the ICDS, see Drèze and Khera 2017. On the progress of child development indicators between 2005–6 and 2013–14, see Sinha 2015, and also section 4 of this book.


(1) See Drèze and Sen 2013, Table 5.3, based on IHDS data for 2004–5. The statement applies to children in the age group of eight to eleven years.

(*) January 2000.

(*) May 2003.

(*) October 2006.

(*) February 2009.

(*) September 2016.