On scooters and gambling: how NGOs can aid in India’s educational sector

[Photo courtesy of Poorvi Chitalkar.]

“There is a crisis of quality in India in school education, and what is missing from the government’s Public-Private Partnership policy is recognition of the NGO sector and what it has to offer.” – Poorvi Chitalkar

A new policy in India has introduced Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) into the school system. The policy, according to IDRC intern Poorvi Chitalkar, can be compared to a coronary bypass as it aims to improve education despite obstacles to change.

Chitalkar specialized in institutional bypasses at the University of Toronto (UoT), where she was awarded her Master of Law degree in 2008. The concept of institutional bypasses was one she developed with UoT Professor Mariana Prado, and which tied in with Chitalkar’s earlier studies in judicial activism. The term is used to describe attempts to sidestep organizational barriers and speed up internal reform when formal channels are blocked.

“The ideas of equality and social justice in the Indian Constitution appealed to me given all the inequality and deprivation in Indian society and I chose Law as an instrument of social change,” says Chitalkar.

Funds from an IDRC Internship Award allowed Chitalkar to carry out field research in Northern India in the fall of 2010. She studied how India’s large non-governmental organization (NGO) sector fits into the policy.

In addition to her legal interests, her motivation to study education in India stems from the fact that she was born and educated in the country. “I have actually been a part of this system,” she says.

Her research took her back to states such as Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra which include her former hometowns of Ujjain and Pune.

A crisis of quality

“Even the most basic things we take for granted in Canada, in terms of school infrastructure, are missing in Indian schools,” Chitalkar says.

Recent studies show that 89% of Indian schools have no toilets; 59% have no water, and 47% of Grade Five students cannot read Grade Two texts.

State governments are responsible for education but a new national scheme is banking on PPPs to address the crisis in school infrastructure and educational quality by bypassing the state governments’ budget constraints. A 2010 plan outlined how private actors, such as NGOs, could run schools that would be partially funded by public monies.

Involving NGOs

Chitalkar focused her research on four PPPs in Northern India: NGO-run schools that existed before the introduction of the 2010 plan. The IDRC intern interviewed government officials, NGO staff, policy experts, and teachers, and observed classes in the four schools.

She found that NGOs brought innovation into the classroom: activity-based learning, supplementary texts, enhanced teacher training, and multiple levels of learning in each grade.

At Eklavya, a school in Madhya Pradesh state, Chitalkar observed other innovative methods: assessments that tested problem-solving abilities in addition to the simple regurgitation of facts, and revised textbooks. Gambling, for example, was used in a new textbook to teach probability.

“This was something that the children could relate to, as there was a gambling problem in some families,” Chitalkar explains. “The idea was to also show that — scientifically —gambling was not beneficial…that your chances of winning the lottery are actually fairly small.”

At Samavesh, another school in Madhya Pradesh state, cooperating with the local community was beneficial. Some parents were reluctant to send their children to a school that did not teach practical, employable skills.

The school subsequently bought a scooter so that the students could be instructed by a mechanic each week on how to repair it.

As a result, the school reports, enrolment and attendance rates increased.

The need for further government-NGO cooperation

Despite their positive impact in the educational sector, many of the NGOs Chitalkar monitored feel the government needs to offer more support for this bypass to function successfully.

“What is missing from the policy discourse is recognition of the NGO sector and what it has to offer,” Chitalkar says.

The four NGOs stated that the government does not treat the PPP program as a cooperative partnership and must provide more funding to smaller NGOs that have the expertise but lack the money to run these schools long term.

Chitalkar also stresses that the federal and state governments in India must shed their ‘landlord-tenant’ attitude towards NGOs.

“The government can no longer think of these partnerships as providing some space, as a landlord, for NGOs to run their programs,” says Chitalkar.

The NGOs told Chitalkar that no one holds a monopoly over education, and that it is not the sole property of the government.

The way forward

Chitalkar will be returning to India in January 2011 to present her findings in a series of workshops that she has organized in conjunction with the local IDRC office in New Delhi.  She will be presenting to research participants and to representatives of the Ministry of Human Resource Development.

Chitalkar hopes that the Ministry will review her findings and that they will trigger further analysis of how innovative NGO practices can help to revitalize the educational system.