In late July, when I visited the Government High School in the Khunde Halal village of Punjab’s Sri Muktsar Sahib district, students of the eight standard were sitting cross-legged in a corridor. Their bags were strewn on floormats inside an empty classroom which did not have any benches. The school’s records showed that 361 students were enrolled between standards one to 10. Of these, 350—almost 97 percent—are from the Scheduled Caste community.
The number of students enrolled in the primary classes of the school, between standards one to five, dropped from 168 in 2015 to 140 students in the ongoing academic session. Of the 140 students, 138 are Scheduled Castes. Referring to the lack of students from the general category in the school, the primary wing’s headmaster Jaswinder Singh said, “These schools, as you see for yourself, have remained for the poor only.”
The primary wing seems to illustrate the situation in all of Punjab’s government schools, according to data of the state’s school-education department. In the past decade, the enrolment of students in Punjab’s government schools has dropped by more than 1.2 lakhs—from 24,52,203 students in the 2009–2010 academic session to 23,29,622 in 2018–2019. Moreover, the number of Scheduled Caste students in the schools has increased by almost 1.2 lakh in the same time frame—from 14,18,790 students in 2009 to 15,37,759 students in the ongoing academic session, as of 25 July 2019. The schools had 57.8-percent Scheduled Caste students in 2009 and the percentage increased to 63.59, as of 25 July this year. The data suggests that more Scheduled Caste students than before seem to be suffering due to the poor quality of education in government schools.
Bharat Bhushan Wadhawa, the headmaster of a dilapidated government school in the Lakhewali village in the Sri Muktsar Sahib district, told me that the school was facing a dearth of funds. It procured 120 desks last year, he said, before which students sat on the floor in the school. “We shell out money from our pockets for black boards, chalks and the required stationery,” he said. The educationist Pyara Lal Garg, who is a former registrar of the Punjab’s Baba Farid University of Health Sciences, said the problem went beyond infrastructure.
According to the 2018 Annual Status of Education Report by Pratham, a non-profit organisation in the education sector, 59.5 percent of third-standard students in rural Punjab’s government schools could not do subtraction in mathematics, while 63.6 percent of them could not read the text meant for students of the second standard. More starkly, 41.6 percent of students in the eighth-standard could not do division. According to Garg, the teachers in government schools also “socially alienated students who predominantly hail from poor families.”