Imperialist Penetration and the State of India's Elementary Education

C.N. Subramaniam

After nearly half a century of independent rule, as is clear from this sketch, the bulk of the children of the poor receive little or no education in their formative years. This is a standing indictment of those who have directed education policy after 1947. Clearly the stranglehold of the survivals of feudalism in the rural sector remains intact. From the late 1980s the involvement of international agency funding has increased and the Indian Government has ended its earlier opposition to this activity. The onward march of external funding in primary education has to be resisted by the democratic movement as a whole and the Indian Government must be pressurised into discharging its minimal responsibilities as guaranteed under the constitution. In those sectors where external funding has already secured a foothold there must be democratic resistance to the imperialist endeavours to determine the content of the courses and the methods of teaching.

During the eighth plan period (1992-97) several international agencies are expected to pour in funds for the improvement of primary school education in about 200 districts in India. The origin of this trend goes back to 1983, with the implementation of the Andhra Pradesh Primary Education Project. The project receives funds from the Overseas Development Administration. There have been smaller externally funded projects to address specific concerns like teacher training, material development, nonformal education, etc. It is well known that the Government of India has been resisting pressures from international agencies to allow them to fund primary education in India. However, the scenario changed sometime around 1988 when the Bihar Education Project was being formulated. The project envisaged comprehensive Intervention in primary education in 20 districts and has an outlay of Rs. 3540 million. About half of it is expected to come from international agencies. Since then the Swedish International Development Authority began funding similar projects in Rajasthan (Lok Jumbish - 25 development blocks - and Shiksha Karmi - 70 blocks projects). The World Bank got into the act with the Uttar Pradesh Basic Education Project envisaging similar intervention in 10 districts with a total outlay of Rs. 7280 million for 1993-2000. The World Bank has sanctioned a soft loan of US $163.1 million for this. The most extensive intervention of them all has come in the form of the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP) the primary education component of the Social Safety Net Adjustment Credit financed by the IDA. This "safety net" seeks to cover the risks which the client governments are expected to run into during the initial years of 'structural adjustment' due to the withdrawal of expenditure from the social sector. Under this another 110 districts are to be covered. Needless to say all these are supposed to be the most 'backward' districts of the country.

It is not that the imperialist powers were not in favour of investing in Indian education earlier, but rather that the Indian Government did not agree to allow them a hand in so important a sphere as primary education. It was the adverse foreign exchange situation, the acceptance of the structural adjustment programme and the collapse of the USSR which must account for the capitulation in the early 1990s. While earlier the Indian Government formulated its policy and plan and outlined its financial requirements and then approached the international agencies for funds, in the case of the various district primary education programmes the international agencies participated in drafting the policies, plans etc. from the outset.

Some of the salient features of these district plans are of interest. The most significant feature of these programmes is the insistence of the funding agencies that separate autonomous bodies be set up to receive the funds and run the programmes. These bodies continue to be under the control of the various state governments with the Chief Minister of the state being the chairperson, and ministers and various bureaucrats ex officio members but are significantly exempt from the rules governing the expenditure of government funds. The autonomous bodies set up at the state level go down to the block level. As of now they are composed of government officials and their nominees and some elected members of local bodies (panchayats). These bodies include representatives from various departments, from elected bodies (MLAs, MPs, Panchayat members, non governmental agencies etc.). The idea is to short circuit usual governmental procedures where interdepartmental coordination is so difficult.

On the face of it this seems a rather innocuous attempt at rationalizing and streamlining the governmental organization. However, the potential ties it opens for future intervention by the funding agencies is enormous. Even now the bodies set up under the programmes have been wielding enormous powers vis a vis normal government departments not only in allocation of funds for the districts in question but also in determining the content of education in all the districts. When we view this in conjunction with the fact that the funding agencies have set up stringent procedures for evaluation and monitoring of the programmes (the monitoring teams though ostensibly set up by the Government of India, include nominees of the funding agencies and needless to say these experts enjoy much greater clout than their Indian counterparts) it is clear that a pathway has been cleared for the international agencies to intervene right down to the block level in all matters including the content and process of teaching.

These projects seek to ensure that all habitats have access to school facilities, all schools have a minimum number of teachers and a minimum of educational materials, teachers are appropriately trained and the quality and standards of text-books and other teaching materials improved.

For those who visualise imperialism as an evil force with an evil face, allying with the most reactionary forces in the country, the plan outlined for the country's education may come as a surprise. The emphasis has been on the following unexceptionable principles: 1. Ensuring quality education for the most depressed sections of the society, the SCs STs, and women. 2. Involving the local community in defining its educational requirements and control of the public educational institutions - and within the local community mobilizing the most deprived sections. 3. Incorporation of liberal and democratic methods and contents into the teaching materials and methods.

This incorporation of a democratic agenda within an imperialist sponsored programme requires serious study and analysis. More so because these projects seek to harness the liberal intelligentsia, the left of centre voluntary groups, in short the democratic petty bourgeoisie. It is not a rarity to hear what used to be songs of revolutionary movements in the previous decades being sung in teacher training camps and perhaps even in the schools under these projects. Material prepared under these projects seek to treat social and economic issues in a critical light - agrarian relations, caste and gender issues and a critical evaluation of the development of the last 40 years is no longer a taboo.

This poses what may be called the 'Bengali Babu Syndrome'. The Bengali intelligentsia and middle class of the early nineteenth century found itself with the limited option of supporting either the decadent Mughal ruling class or the British who seemed to be ushering in a liberal, rational, scientific and democratic era and most of them willy nilly chose to support the British. Almost a century and a half later a similar situation seems to be in the offing and democratic and revolutionary trends need to study this phenomenon carefully and outline their policies. It may therefore be worthwhile to review the state of education in India and the various social forces at work in it.


One need not begin with the truism that the state of education in the country is rather dismal. We will be using some of the government data here and it is important to remember that the reliability of these data is rather poor. A personal anecdote may indicate the degree of rot. The present writer happened to visit schools in a tribal block.. I hoped to gather figures of the rate of dropouts and the figures relating to daily attendance of children. Assuming that the school's attendance register should give one the most authentic data I examined them. There were two striking features in the register - about 9/10ths of the children dropping out seemed to be doing so in their third year, and almost all children enrolled seemed to be attending school daily. Intrigued by the problem I sought an explanation from the teacher - he simply told me that the names of those children was struck off in their third year and that it did not mean that they actually dropped out in the third year, they could have dropped on the first day itself as indeed many of them did. I pointed out that they were all shown attending classes daily in the attendance register. "Oh! that is for the officials for if we show the children as being absent and of having dropped out we will lose our increment or the school will lose a teacher." Little can be said of the reliability of the official data when even the attendance register is fudged.

The official data tell us that out of every 100 children of school going age only 90 get enrolled in schools. Of these 90 about 45 drop out before reaching class V and we are left with about 32 children in class VIII. How many of them eventually complete 12 years schooling is anybody's guess. (For the convenience of readers I am quoting most of my figures from Education For All - The Indian Scene, published by the Department of Education, Ministry of Human Resources Development. Government of India, 1993.)

It is quite another question as to who these 32 fortunate children are and who the other 68 children happen to be. We cannot expect the official sources to provide us with an analysis of the class composition of the 32 and the 68. They would rather operate with social categories like SC/ST/ girls/boys. However it does not require much imagination to figure out which social classes these children are likely to belong to.

Several studies of the achievement levels of children who complete class V have been done - they add to the dismal picture. Of the 45 attending the class only about 15 manage to read and write and even less to do simple arithmetic operations.

In other words we are managing to provide rudimentary education to only 10% of our children! Once again who these 10% are or will develop into is anybody's guess.

This failure of 'Independent' India's attempt at universalization of elementary education has other surprising aspects. An NSS survey went into the reasons for non enrolment and drop out from school. The results are revealing: 10% did not enrol because there were no proper schools nearby. About 34% did not enrol in school because they had to augment family income or the family could not afford to educate their children. Significantly 30% did not find the school education interesting. (The figures for drop outs is somewhat similar and hence have not been repeated here.)

Experts have been reading these figures differently, sometimes to argue that poverty is not a reason for non enrolment or drop out but rather the dreariness of class room transactions, and sometimes to argue that economic reasons do play an important role in the problem. "Lack of interest" is a vague term and can imply both dreariness of class room transaction and non-relevance of the content to the child's life requirement - a different way of saying that they cannot afford the luxury of such an education.

The fact remains that educating their own children comes rather low in the list of priorities of the mass of the people. We can propose two hypotheses to explain this apparently strange phenomenon. Firstly, formal education does not seem to help in the productive activities of the mass of people. Designed mainly to produce a bureaucratic middle class with enormous emphasis on memorizing tomes of useless information such education cannot be of much use for any real life situation unless of course one is trying to join the ranks of the ossified bureaucracy. On the other hand given the use of traditional technology in the economy as whole with the notable exception of a few sectors the production process also does not yet seem to demand much from the formal education system. Thus the mass of the working population can do without any formal education. Secondly, to most people formal education is not essential to do their normal work better, but a means of upward social mobility, into higher social strata. And this costs a lot and little wonder few people opt for it.

While formal education is low on the agenda of the mass of the people, educating the mass of the people is increasingly becoming a matter of concern for the imperialists, their Indian partners, the middle classes, etc. Why this should be so is a matter of interest. Once again we can proffer only some hypotheses. Imperialist powers have seriously been concerned by the fact that the population of the underdeveloped world, the weak links in the chain of world imperialism, is far larger than that of the imperialist countries, and continue to grow at a rather fast rate. They seem to fear that this trend will be potentially dangerous in the long run. Hence the serious attention being given to population control measures. Statistics seem to demonstrate that there is a strong correlation between literacy rate/ educational levels of the population (particularly the female component of it) and the rate of population growth. Educating the people therefore seems to be a cheaper and a more peaceful way of controlling the growth of population in the potentially dangerous regions of the world.

This angle in universalizing education is seldom concealed, and in fact no opportunity is lost to highlight it. Likewise the curriculum in formal education is expected to contain material which locates the reason for poverty and deprivation of the masses in the uncontrolled growth of population. Expanding such education serves both strategic and ideological functions of controlling the population growth and convincing the masses that they themselves are the cause of their poverty.

Secondly, though it is somewhat old fashioned, one may remember Marx and Engels's prophecy that capitalism will bulldoze all bastions of pre-capitalist relations and modes of productions and establish the sway of capitalism. With the collapse of the remnants of the USSR and the seeming annihilation of a socialist alternative imperialism seems to have entered a new phase of expansion and attack on the pre-capitalist survivals. Formal education is likely to spread capitalist ethos, build a manpower equipped to handle the new technology, and shape up a receptive market for its products.

The social strata which is expected to collaborate in the new capitalist/ imperialist educational effort is the middle class. The last few decades have seen the growing presumption of the middle classes in India. They have appropriated for themselves the nationalist cause (read the anti-Pakistani cause), the religious cause (read the anti-minority cause) and now the cause of educating and bringing light to the dark world of the working people. One only needs to peruse through the literature produced by the literacy movement to gauge the contempt and scorn and self-righteousness with which the middle class views the language, culture and the wisdom of the working people. These mass education ventures give employment to this middle class which by heaping insult and scorn on the working people at the same time tries to establish its social leadership over them.

Little wonder then that the reluctant mass of people are being engulfed with propaganda persuading them to get educated and educate their children.

A major conflict within these initiatives springs from the attempt of the urban middle class to impose its norms and pace of learning upon all children through the so-called "Minimum Levels Of Learning". Such an imposition will ensure the leading position of the middle class and to a large extent force the children of lower rungs of the society to drop out being unable to cope with the demands being placed upon them. (An alternative line has been to recognise multiplicity of learning paces and requirements so that children with different backgrounds may feel comfortable.)


As pointed out above given the complexity of the issues involved, the democratic forces are faced with a serious dilemma: imperialist intervention in education is a foregone conclusion by now; this intervention for the sake of efficiency and also to neutralise opposition seeks the cooperation of those very same democratic forces.

What should be the attitude of the democratic forces to this imperialist sponsored venture? There can be no doubt that it is imperative that those who stand by democracy must needs fight the further penetration of imperialism in all spheres of education. The democratic forces must compel the government to fulfil the directives of the Indian constitution which required the state to provide by 1960 'free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of of fourteen years' ('The Constitution of India', Government of India, New Delhi, 1977, p. 25). In those areas of elementary education where international funding has secured a dominant position resistance has to take different forms. The role assumed by the 'specialists' appointed by the international agencies in determining the educational needs of the Indian people must be fought tooth and nail. This has to be done by a careful monitoring of the content and methods of education, timely criticism and posing of alternatives. To cite two examples, the increasing pressure to incorporate in the school curriculum imperialist wisdom on the relation between population and poverty needs to be squarely opposed. Similarly, the pressure to revise the curriculum to suit the requirements of the middle class elite to the detriment of the first generation learners needs to be opposed. The Indian government has to be pressurised to continue to provide funds once the international agencies withdraw support. In the meantime it would appear that these imperialist-backed projects will lead to specific changes. The reach of school education will expand in terms of more school buildings and teachers, the children of the poorest of parents will receive increased access to education, feudal opposition to the education of the poor will be weakened, a different climate will emerge to up-date curriculum and teaching methods to make them more child-centred.

For those who have worked in the sphere of education the dichotomy between producing a few 'brilliant' scholars and educating the mass of the children is a well-known issue. Education of the mass of children requires enormous flexibility, acceptance of different paces of learning, adoption of a variety of methods rather than one uniform method, placing greater emphasis on skills and processes of the production of knowledge than on information memorising and processing, which would enable children to build upon their own experience, reflect upon it and articulate their experiences and visions. In contrast to this philistine pedagogy heaps the dead weight of accumulated knowledge in the form of information upon the primary education of children and thus deadens their ability to produce and articulate knowledge.

The situation calls for both a careful study and monitoring of the developments in the sphere of education but also educating the labouring people of the potential dangers in such projects and opposing their retrogressive aspects. It is here that the absence of interest in education matters among Marxist-Leninists poses a serious problem. It is time serious attention is paid to educational questions as they go a long way to shaping the thinking of the people.

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