Sunday, 23 October 2011


A Calcutta Theater Group, Nandikar, is presently staging a drama named ‘Mulya Ferat’. This is a Bengali adaptation of the original play ‘Refund’ (1938) by Hungarian  author, playwright, poet, journalist, and translator Fritz Karinthy (also known for his Six Degrees of Separation concept). The main protagonist of the play, Janardan in the Bengali play (Wasserkopf in the original play) is a disgruntled middle aged man who realizes that his education has not taught him anything worthwhile to make a living and he comes back to his school to demand refund of his tuition fees. His seemingly absurd yet justified demand comes to the fore as a self searching question about our education systems in a hilarious mix of the trepidations on the part of the teachers and the protagonist’s strife ends with a cunning scheme by a mathematics teacher who shows that the protagonist has after all attained a skill since he correctly calculated his refund.

Nandikar, in Calcutta deserves special thanks for presenting the play, which appears rather timely and appropriate in Indian context. When I left the theater after watching the play, I was wondering if the disturbing question it puts before us will really be appreciated or lost in claps and encores of a volatile middle class audience of India’s once cultural capital.
Does education equip us with skills to make a living in India? Or more broadly, does it succeed towards that anywhere in the world? In retrospect, a far more subtle question cannot be denied too. Is education really meant for making us have skills to earn a living primarily? Or does it have much larger perspective?
Notwithstanding the questions, if sold by fees, it’s an economic activity with promised value addition to life and in case it turns out that it failed to do so – a question of refund is unavoidable. In the 7th decade as a free nation, India seems to be struggling with the dogma – is education a right to people or a service sold at a fee? With the initial question hanging unanswered, the failure of education as a system to empower people for jobs and livelihood is a fool’s debate.
In 1951, when India conducted its first census after independence, the country had a literacy rate of 16%, that is, a little more than 1 in 7 of India’s 320 million people could even sign their names. India’s first Prime Minister J.L. Nehru decided to put country’s meager resources heavily on attaining an Industrial status globally along with creating centers of excellence for higher education (in the form of Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Medical Science) but skeptical voices were always there questioning the rationale of not allocating equal budgetary funds for elementary education for a country where 84% people were illiterate. India created an elitist education system where a technical or medical degree came to be associated with personal excellence and it is amply reflected in Government jobs, where doctors and engineers make a better living without their skills being really tested against competition. Interestingly, as a nation India lost heavily towards making world class professionals who migrated to advanced countries (brain drain) and it lost heavily again with its under nourished elementary education system since this basic education is more towards empowering poor and marginalized people to fight exploitation and social inequity.
It never had been an easy question for the planners though. We are talking about a country with approximately a third of its population at or below poverty line – people for whom sending the kids to school is of a lower priority. We are also talking about a country where a meal is an enticer for a kid to come to school. But elementary education in India was summarily neglected which is apparent in the fact that there are as many as three government syllabi for school level education, two by the central government and one by the state. Add religious schools like Madrasas (schools run by Islamic principles of teaching) and Missionary schools. You have Government schools (fully financed by public money), Government aided schools (schools partially funded by public money) and Private schools – all too loosely administered by almost unenforceable policies, teacher’s salaries, minimum infrastructure and facilities. It is a wonder India continues to produce finest of scholars through this mess – or maybe it’s a statistical advantage of a huge population denominator.
Perhaps the most critical question is the quality of primary or elementary education in India or the lack of it. There is astounding poverty of ideas and ideals in our elementary education system in knowledge imparting techniques, assessments of developments of students and the relevance of curricula in preparing young minds to current social, ethical and economic realities. I keep on asking the teachers of my school going son about what is their assessment of, not how he will fare in the exams but, what is his natural innate talent. He is 16 and yet it is undiscovered by his teachers.
In the end, we are forced to remain satisfied that somehow our young children at least learn to protect themselves from being hoodwinked in a mannerJanardan or Wasserkopf was done by the system.

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