Saturday, February 04, 2006

Amartya Sen on 'friendly fire' in primary education

Some excerpts from Chapter 10 titled 'Class in India' in the book Argumentative Indian by Amartya. This essay is based on the Nehru Lecture he gave in New Delhi on 13 November 2001. I am unable to get a link to this lecture itself.

I wrote the post about the Annual Survey of Education Report yesterday, and these excerpts provide some perspectives on other issues (not covered by ASER) related to primary education: teachers, their unions, their power, and how this power is misdirected.

While he discusses several different things related to class (and how it interacts with inequality due to gender, caste, region, community and so on), he uses the concept of 'friendly fire' to tie the different threads. First, let's look at his definition of friendly fire:

Many of the distributional institutions that exist in India and elsewhere are designed to defend the interests of groups with some deprivation (or some vulnerability) but who are not by any means the absolute underdogs of society. There is an understandable rationale for seeing them as 'friendly' institutions in the battle against class divisions. Yet if they also have the effect of worsening the deal that the real underdogs get, at the bottom layers of society, the overall impact may be to strengthen class divisions rather than weaken them. This is the sense in which their effects can be seen as 'friendly fire'.

He gives two examples of how friendly fire has had counterintuitive and counterproductive effects. The first one is in the realm of 'hunger in India', and I excerpted this part earlier; this part of the essay has also appeared in an online essay.

Let's now turn to what he has to say about primary education. Amartya Sen created the Pratichi Trust with the Nobel Prize money (one each in India and Bangladesh). This trust did a fairly detailed study of primary education. Here's how he summarizes the study and its findings:

We investigated the working of a number of elementary schools from three districts in West Bengal initially (but later the study was extended to six districts in West Bengal and one from the neighbouring state of Jharkhand). The overall picture that emerges from these investigations is very depressing. A significant proportion of teachers were absent from school on the days we visited them unannounced. Teacher absenteeism was very much greater in schools where the bulk of the pupils come from Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe families; indeed, 75 percent of those schools in our list had serious problems of teacher absenteeism -- much higher than in schools in which the pupils come from less disadvantaged families. A very large proportion of the children rely on private tuition as a supplement to what they get from their schools, and those who do not are evidently prevented from doing so because of penury, rather than because of being satisfied with the teaching the children get in the school. Indeed, of the pupils in class 3 and 4 we could test, the vast majority of those who did not get private tuition could not even sign their names.

What follows is his diagnosis of the problem.

Effective elementary education has in practice ceased to be free in substantial parts of the country, which of course is a violation of a basic right. All this seems to be reinforced by a sharp class division between teachers and poor families. Yet the teachers' unions -- related to the respective parties -- sometimes vie with each other in championing the immunity of teachers from discipline. The parents from disadvantaged families have little voice in the running of schools, and the official inspectors seem too scared to discipline the delinquent teachers, especially when the parents come from the bottom layer of society.

Where, then, is the 'friendly fire'?

The teachers' unions have, of course, had quite a positive role in the past defending the interests of teachers when they used to be paid very little and were thoroughly exploited. The teachers' unions then served as an important part of the institutional support in favour of more justice. Now, however, these institutions of justice seem to work largely against justice through their inaction -- or worse -- when faced with teacher absenteeism and other irresponsibilities. [...]


The salary of teachers in regular schools has gone up dramatically over recent years, even in real terms, that is, after correcting for price changes. This an obvious cause for celebration at one level (indeed, I remember being personally involved, as a student at Presidency College fifty years ago, in agitations to raise the desperately low prevailing salaries of school teachers). But the situation is now very different. The big salary increases in recent years have not only made school education vastly more expensive (making it much harder to offer school education to those who are still excluded from it), but have also tended to draw the school teachers as a group away from the families of children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. There is considerable evidence that the class barrier that deeply impairs the delivery of school education to the worse-off members of society is now further reinforced by the increase in economic and social distance between the teachers and the poor (and less privileged) children.