Ground Zero from Muzaffarpur: Voters, Swachh Bihar and Education
Most people here seem to have abandoned the toilets and gone back to open ground. High School teachers cannot point at Delhi on a map; graduates vote to elect a MLC but have no idea of the Council
As I drove on National Highway 77, which connects Patna to Sonbarsa on the Nepal border, Sitamarhi District welcomes visitors with an overhead gantry signboard to the first ODF (open defaecation free) district of Bihar. But signboards, I discovered, are easier to put up than making the place Open Defecation Free. Mounds of human excreta dotted the paddy fields, orchards and embankments of waterbodies.
Three years ago, at the peak of a ‘Swacch Bharat’ blitz, accompanied by daily reminders through the media, village level teams of minders, police and administrative machinery were galvanised to instill the healthy habit and invoke a sense of dignity about the use of toilets. Toilets were constructed at a scorching pace. The state looked ready for a makeover.
As the guard was lowered following Lok Sabha elections, the pandemic induced lockdown and now the assembly election,open defecation, I was informed, resurfaced. Absence of running water was cited as an alibi. Other reasons cited included claustrophobia and men sharing the same toilet with womenfolk.
Way back in the 1930s, a project was launched, villagers recalled, with similar intentions under the aegis of the Rockefeller Foundation. It failed for the same reasons that seem to have been the undoing of the Swacch Bharat mission- Education or rather the lack of it. It has famously been said that ‘Education is the best contraception’. It holds true for defecation as well.
In the 1930s Bihar had a literacy rate of less than 10%. With nearly a century of sincere effort, it is close to 70 %. But the numbers do not tell the whole story. Given that social changes emanate directly from women, the literacy figure among women remains abysmal. For Dalit women in some districts, it is less than 40%.
Not surprisingly, as per the data released by Niti Ayog in October, 2019, Bihar ranked 19th out of 20(Jharkhand being the 20th)in school education quality index (SEQI).
My village has a government school. It dates back to 1928 when it was a lower primary school. It gradually rose to upper primary, middle and now a secondary school. Pallavi (name changed), a teacher in the school, points out that there are 10 classes but just five teachers. One is designated the Headmaster and does not engage classes; another is engaged almost full time in arranging the midday meal, leaving just three teachers for ten classes.
‘How do you manage then’, I ask. ‘That is actually not a problem’, she deadpans, adding, ‘hardly any student comes to the school’. I am at my wit’s end. She purses her lips and gives a condescending, knowing smile.
There is also a privately run English medium school in the village for the last five years. None of the teachers can speak, read or write in English though. I also discover that all the students of this private school are also enrolled in the Govt School for benefits ranging from midday meal to uniforms. For everyone’s convenience, the private school has the ‘weekly off’ on Mondaysas well–the day the Govt School records the weekly attendance. The other day a girl turned up to registerfor the class X Board Examination next year. The examinees are required to fill up forms 10 months or a year in advance. But she candidly confessed that she did not know how to write or even sign. She would rather put her thumb impression on the form. Her mother, who had accompanied her, argued that if she could withdraw money from a bank with a thumb impression, she saw no earthly reason why her daughter couldn’t sail through the Board exam. The baffled but resigned teacher allowed her to practice copying her name, Geeta Kumari (name changed) before she replicated the exercise on the form.
Most of the graduate teachers, I was informed, had acquired the degree without attending a single class in the college. Not many of them, I was assured, would be able to identify, spot or mark Delhi on a map of India.
It is election time in Bihar. At every chaupal, tea shop and toddy shop there are groups of people engaged in animated political discussions that bear testimony to their understanding, intelligence or cunning. They discuss caste dynamics, religion of candidates and the monetary benefits the election might offer. It is disappointing to the city-bred and formally educated and fashionably progressive minds.
But the Bihari mindset is hardwired. Re-circuiting a hardwired mind needs earnestness of purpose. A New Education Policy is unlikely to change the mindset.
In my lifetime I wonder if I would see my folks learn to defecate and vote the way they should.