Where Knowledge is Poor
The role of education in reducing poverty is widely recognised but our planners are yet to realise how the impoverished struggle with a learning process that is unresponsive to their needs
In a society where poverty is far more common than prosperity, one would expect the implications of poverty for education to be widely recognised. What we find, instead, is that poverty is seldom mentioned directly in policy documents on education. Policymakers feel more comfortable using euphemisms like “economically weaker sections,” the “marginalised” or the “deprived” to refer to the poor. No wonder the impact of poverty on children’s life at school and learning is understood rather vaguely not just by educational planners, but teachers too.
The reason poverty must be treated as a factor of education arises from a basic incompatibility between the two. Education necessarily demands long-term horizons. Poverty, on the contrary, compels people to remain embedded in immediate or short-term concerns. India has now recognised eight years of compulsory education as a right of every child, but endemic poverty and social inequality are posing tough constraints in making this law a reality. Elementary education by itself means little; it can only serve as a foundation for further education over many years. The informal economy on which the poor survive forces them to live from day to day. They want to — but usually fail to — plan for the distant future in which their progeny might reap the fruits of education. The children belonging to poor families find it difficult to cope with the regularity that schools demand. This is because hunger, illness and insecurity interrupt their life at home all the time. Their parents have to use most of their energies in order to deal with everyday emergencies.
Life under poverty is unpredictable and prone to sudden losses and traumas. For the poor, there is no such thing as normalcy. Anything can happen anytime, and all you can do is to cope as you suffer. In big cities, municipal authorities can suddenly clear a street of food vendors or bulldoze an unauthorised colony. Next morning, when a child fails to be at school or looks subdued, the teacher shows no curiosity to find out what might have happened to the child’s father or mother the previous afternoon. In rural areas, flood waters can drown hundreds of houses; yet the school is supposed to function and cover the prescribed syllabus! Dams or factories can mean displacement of whole villages. What will happen to children is the least important concern for those in charge of such operations. I once met children in Manibeli, a village that now lies at the bottom of the Sardar Sarovar dam. They had gone through the trauma of seeing their own school vanish under water.
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