‘I say to you today my, friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream’, said the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr on 28th August 1963 in a historic speech delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. King’s speech and his non-violent methods of resistance helped galvanize mass support and action against racial inequality in America making him one of the best known figures in the history of the African-American Civil Rights Movement.
King’s words are of great significance today. At a time when the world has been laid siege by unrest and fundamentalism of all hues – political, economic and religious, it is indeed crucial to believe in the power of dreaming. And it is only important that our schools and colleges help nurture the dreams of young people. However, sad as it is, a number of factors hinder the growth and development of young people from achieving their full potential.
Access to equal opportunities become difficult for girls, transgender individuals, children with disabilities and those from socially disadvantaged castes, communities and ethnic groups. For students in rural areas, the challenges are often manifold. Thus, we have a significant number of students dropping out of schools at a tender age. Figures based on the provisional data of the Unified District Information System for Education (U-DISE 2014-2015) reveal that the average annual dropout rate for India in 2012-2013 is 4.67 percent at the Primary level and 3.13 percent at the Upper Primary level.
The Case in Meghalaya
The Annual Report of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), Meghalaya for 2014-2015 reveals that the average school dropout rate for the State is 10.34 percent at the Primary level and 6.82 percent at the Upper Primary level. A gender-wise analysis of the data shows that the average dropout rate is higher for boys at the Primary level (11.30 percent as against the total average of 10.34 percent), whereas the average dropout rate is higher for girls at the Upper Primary level (7.29 percent as against the total average of 6.82 percent).
The Ri Bhoi district in Khasi Hills is, however, an exception with a 4.3 percent higher dropout rate for boys over girls at the Upper Primary level. Lack of basic infrastructure such as toilets and stereotypical gender roles pertaining to women as caregivers remain the key factors behind female students dropping out of schools after a certain age. Issues of health, finance, and child labour and gender disparity form a complex web leading to a higher school dropout rate.
In Meghalaya, the SSA Annual Report identifies easy money from coal mines, low intelligence, repeated failures, lack of access due to small habitations, and migration as some of the factors leading to school dropouts. Even today, many of the primary schools in rural areas are taught by unqualified and untrained teachers. As a result, students from lower income groups have to struggle for a basic school education.
A study titled ‘School Dropouts: Examining the Space of Reasons’ by Arun N R Kishore and K S Shaji observes that ‘a significant number of them (students dropping out of schools) go on to become unemployed, live in poverty, receive public assistance, wind up in prison, develop unhealthy habits, get divorced, and become single parents of children who are likely to repeat the cycle for themselves.
My aunt, who is an Anganwadi worker and couldn’t afford to send her daughter to a private English-medium school, ensured that my cousin qualified the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya Selection Test (JNVST) for entry to Class VI. All thanks to my cousin, I recently visited the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya at Mahendraganj. Located in the plain belt of West Garo Hills, the school has a significant number of students from the marginalized communities in the plains. Mishra Ji, the current warden of the Nilgiri House, one of the boys’ dormitories at JNV, was kind enough to take me around the school, and I got the opportunity to interact with some of the students. Brimming with passion, energy and immense hope was a group of teenagers who dared to dream. One of the students told me he wanted to become a District Commissioner someday, another told me about his plans to study aeronautics, while yet another expressed his interest in music and performing arts.
Childlike as this may seem, yet, there is something profound about their wishes. In a region marred by poor indicators of public health, education, employment statistics and roads, this is a reminder of little children ‘acing against odds’ (if I am allowed to borrow that phrase from Sania Mirza). The Meghalaya government should pay heed to the deplorable condition of Primary and Upper Primary schools in the State. Now is the time!
By Rafiul Alom Rahman
Rafiul Alom Rahman is a research scholar at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at [email protected]