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Of the many criticisms that India's World Bank funded District Education Programme (DPEP) has endured what sticks is poor encouragement of community effort. Started in 1994, the first phase of DPEP covered 42 districts in seven states but has spread to 163 districts in 14 of India's 16 major states in its current third phase.

Recommendations following a joint-review last year under the bank's Ward Heneveld, and representatives of UNICEF and the British and Netherlands governments emphasised continuance of efforts to develop community participation.

According to K Venkatasubramanian, educationist and member of the country's Planning Commission, universal public education (UPE) should ideally be a people's initiative rather than a government programme.

``The government may provide the leadership and perhaps the money but the initiative should come from the public and become a mass movement,'' Venkatasubramian said.

A DPEP workshop on community participation held last year in Bangalore, itself brought forth a round of opinions which confirmed the need for better community mobilisation.

``There is a general tendency in all development sectors to treat people as beneficiaries-masses to whom certain welfare oriented benefits are to be given by those know better, control economic resources and have access to information,'' said Anita Kaul, DPEP project director in Karnataka.

She said the mobilisation process needed to place confidence in the people so that they could define and access the kind of education they needed.Other officials such as Mrinal Gohain and Bhupen Das from Assam complained that the traditional relationship between schools and communities had actually weakened as a result of government programmes.

``Community participation in DPEP is a new experience for primary education in the country and the process has been a slow and complex one,'' admitted Sujaya Krishnan, under secretary in the central Human Resources Development Ministry.

Krishan said the ministry's response has been to foster creation of village education committees (VECs), which have been delegated some powers, functions and resources in the districts where DPEP is operational.

But according to the Public Report on Basic education (PROBE) in India, brought out last year by Delhi University's Centre for Development Economics, most VECs were ineffective because they were formed in a ``top-down manner based on government directives rather than any felt need of the community.''

Independent educational experts such as Vinod Raina believe that it is virtually impossible for large, centralised and externally-funded programmes such as the DPEP to foster true community participation. ``In many of the districts where the programme is functional, the DPEP culture is completely alien and actually negates the spirit of volunteerism or even the modest use of resources,'' Raina said.

Raina pins blame on DPEP's heavy reliance on a private consultant called the Educational Consultants India Limited (edCil), which pays its consultants high salaries that government institutions cannot afford. ``These consultants, many of them without even a nodding acquaintance of rural-based school education or pedagogy and child development, crisis-cross the country to provide resource support to state education departments,'' Raina said.According to Raina, with the government embarking on a policy of borrowing massive external funds for primary education rather than mobilise its own resources, the problem was bound to grow.

What, in fact, happened was that a whole new bureau was created in the central ministry which has resulted in the fracturing of primary education into two blocks-one based on internal and the other on external funding.Worse, the DPEP which envisaged ``decentralised grassroots micro-level planning'' crowded out well-established community-based efforts towards UPE such as the well-known Lok Jumbish programme in western Rajasthan and Eklavya in central Madhya Pradesh.

The results were sometimes ludicrous. In Madhya Pradesh, districts were told to have uniform expenditure for the seven year project-about $ 10 million each although Indian districts differ greatly in size and features.And that when DPEP, as the name itself implies, calls for close district-level planning with local staff identifying local needs and approaches and preparing its own plan rather than one foisted from above.

According to Raina, a major failure of DPEP is that it has not promoted alternative mechanisms and decentralised process for quality improvement but actually follows the structure of the discredited National Council of Education Research and Training (NCERT).

``Educational expertise is sought to be concentrated and allowed to trickle into the field and participatory functioning becomes a mere token under an overarching attitude,'' he said.

The result has been the abysmal achievement nationwide in levels of learning by children who had access to schools as confirmed by surveys done for DPEP by the NCERT.

Even in Kerala, which has achieved near universal access and retention, achievement levels were low and there was massive wastage in attempting to create literacy among children.

The PROBE report says that the general tendency is for communities to accept conditions in government schools but records several dramatic examples of community resistance to inertia.

For example, early last year, the children of a remote region of western Maharashtra state trekked 66 kms over hilly terrain to the town of Nasik to complain to authorities of a head-teacher who came in only on weekends, and the lack of drinking water.

-- IPS

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