In a letter to Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, Mahatma Gandhi wrote, “I am convinced that if India is to attain true freedom, and through India, the world also, then sooner or later it must be recognized that people will have to live in villages, not towns; in huts, not palaces.” The concept of “the village”—romantic, agrarian, simple, complete—has captured the imagination of the Indian government ever since independence. This is a controversial concept, as in many ways, the village life has reinforced poverty and caste distinctions—Bhimrao Ambedkar, a Dalit (“Untouchable”) who first gave India’s lower castes an opportunity for freedom and mobility, said, “The love of the intellectual Indian for the village community is of course infinite, if not pathetic…What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow mindedness, and communalism?” The village is both.
The government has put in billions of dollars over the years supporting village life. Even those who have moved to the city talk with great longing of their “native place”—the village. (When you are an American traveling in India, people do not ask you where you are from, they ask you what your “native place” is.) So I visited the villages yesterday, naturally, to see what the schools were like.
Rural India is set up in a kind of satellite structure: there is a mundal—a district—that has a town as the head of it. But outside the town are dozens of villages. Each village has its own school, its own post office, and its own unique culture—but for work, often, people go to the town. We went to the town of Ibrahimputnam, at the center of the district, and first visited a women’s college. “College”, in India, is similar to what Americans would know as grades 11-12. (Traditional “government schools” go from Levels 1-10, and after “College” comes University). This college was a women’s college in the town, and very few of the women were from the town originally. Most of them lived in the surrounding villages, and took the bus as much as 30 miles twice a day to come to the college. At the college there were aspiring doctors, engineers, and teachers—a lot of teachers—but most of the women wanted to return to their villages after graduating. (And, I was reminded, the concept of “choice” is not the same in India as in America—most women will live where their husbands say they will). I asked the women in each classroom a litany of questions, such as what they wanted to be when they grew up and what their favorite subjects were, and I did, in attempting to investigate this project, ask them whether they had gone to private school or government school before attending university. A few women raised their hand for private school (and many more shyly raised half-a-hand, not wanting to stick out in a classroom of 75), but almost everyone went to government school.
“There are no private schools in the villages,” the headmaster of the college abruptly told me. A nearby official confirmed this. “Every village has a government school. You will almost never find a private school in the villages.” This came as a surprise to me, given the number of budget schools I saw in the city of Hyderabad, but I took them at their word. We left the college, and began to drive from village-to-village. If there were no private schools, I wanted to, at least, see what the government schools were like.
In our first ten minutes after leaving the village, we drove past a school that read on the side, in bright yellow letters on a red sign: “NAGARJUNA HIGH SCHOOL, NURSERY-LEVEL X, ENGLISH MEDIUM, ACCEPTING APPLICATIONS NOW.” A private school. And given the location—in a shoddy storefront—and the location—villagers are not rich—I guess that this is a budget school. I take a picture, and we keep driving. (I am a guest of another foundation, so sadly I don’t have the opportunity to go in and interview them.) We drive through several villages, and I see another budget school at a crossroads, 5 km from any town. This one is nursery-4th, but contains the same signs: “ENGLISH MEDIUM, ACCEPTING APPLICATIONS NOW.”
We then reach a village, and I go to check out the local government school. Compared to government schools I visited in the city, the village schools were much better conditions. The school only had five teachers (and one had not shown up that day). Compared to the government school that had 7 teachers for 800 students, 5 teachers for 80 students seemed to be more manageable. The class sizes were between 10 and 12, and of the 80 students in this primary school, 50 would go on to 8th grade, 20 would go on to college, and between 5 and 10 would eventually reach university. The school had a “kitchen” with rice and eggs for lunch (the students did receive their mid-day meal). On the plus side, the class sizes were small and the teachers I met were very nice, and very sharp, too. (All of them cited “job security” as the primary reason they became a teacher). On the minus side, 30% of the students were absent and the teachers (half of whom lived in Hyderabad, and sometimes didn’t make the hour-and-a-half journey to school) were not always reliable. When I asked the teachers about English classes, they said, unprompted, “Many parents send their students to private schools. We teach in Telugu medium. They want English medium so they send their students to private schools to learn English.”
After singing songs with the kids and hearing nursery rhymes, we went on to meet an education officer for the sector, Dr. Reddy. His primary role was to inspect the government schools to ensure they were complying with the mid-day meal program. He said that almost all the schools were, though with high absenteeism rates, the number of students to whom the school could provide meals was manageable. Then I asked him about private schools. He gave a different answer than I heard in the town.
He said that in his district (encompassing about two dozen villages), there were 11 high schools, 10 Upper Primary schools, 29 Primary schools, and 5 private high schools. All of the private high schools, he said, had tuition of between 150-300 rupees/month (about $4-$7.50). These private schools, he said, were popular because of the English-medium instruction. “Parents, even if they are illiterate, know that English has better job opportunities,” he said. The new airport in Hyderabad was roughly 45 minutes away from this village, which he said still affected land value. “People are selling their land so that the children can go to private school.” And it’s a feedback loop, he said. Communication between villages, even, is hard to come by. People know to send their children to private school because they hear about other children going, and watch the children speaking better English. “The more children going to private school, the more that start enrolling.” These private schools ranged from local operators to a “Concept School” run by a foundation that works with budget schools that we’ve been in touch with in Hyderabad.
If parents wanted their children to speak English, then why did the government teach in Telugu, I asked? He responded that in the larger district, there were roughly 1200 schools. In response to the rise of budget schools, the Andhra Pradesh government had introduced pilot English-medium schools. In a district of 1200, 60 schools had been scheduled to start English-medium that year. He said that the schools were mostly still Telugu, though, because of teachers’ unions. Teachers who had been in the system for years did not, understandably, want to start teaching in English. The government did, but could not legislate how the teachers were teaching in the classroom. So the English-medium schools were English-medium in name only.
The government schools, to be sure, he said, had better teachers. It is difficult to qualify as a teacher. But because of the high job security and high restrictions of the government schools, the government school teachers were less motivated. As a result, the private school teachers, though they were not as well-educated, in many cases gave the students better attention.
After leaving the education official’s office, we went to another village for lunch. The woman hosting us had toned down the spiciness of her normal cooking for my sake—which I appreciated. We toured the village—an amazing ecosystem of subsistence farming and development projects (including a gas grill that ran on cow dung)—but the biggest revelation came from when I was talking with the women in the village. Several of the women were involved in microfinance as loan officers or heads of women’s groups or the foundational work as community representatives. And every single woman who had some connection to life outside the village that I talked to sent their kids to a budget school—and cited the English medium as their primary reason for doing so. At around 4:30 PM, a big yellow bus pulled into town, and the kids of these women bounded off. It was the local budget school delivering its students from village to village. The village life in India, in many ways, is the agrarian ideal of Gandhi. But there are many infrastructural, social, and economic barriers that keep those growing up in the village from having opportunity. The bus bouncing from village to village, delivering poor children to local budget schools, is one tangible link of the potential of this movement to the future of the Indian village.