Day 100: In the scheme of things

Around the end of August 2014, I along with a team of 2 evaluators went to conduct ASER survey in a village of Nagaland.  After completing mapping of the village, we were on my way to the government primary school to collect the school information. On our way, around 11 in the morning, students in uniform were loitering around. With several questions in our mind, we reached a nearly empty school. Considering the size of village which had more than 300 households, the number of students that we were witnessing didn’t seem to match. Also the village was not very far away from the commercial town of Dimapur.
At first glance the school looked well maintained, with 5 different blocks where two of them looked newly constructed, a well defined boundary and a big-levelled playground. As soon as we entered the campus, there were a few SUVs and some sort of commotion right behind these vehicles where people seemed busy struggling to fill up some papers. It was not very hard to sense the presence of local policy makers in their white pyjamas and kurtas.
As we were wondering whom to approach, we were greeted by the village headman and asked the reason of our visit. He certainly seemed uninterested the moment we mentioned learning and cutting the conversation short, he quickly took us to the staff room where the headmistress along with some of the teachers could be observed doing some paper work. After another round of introduction, we asked where the students were. We were then told that a holiday was declared for the day to accommodate the implementation of a new central scheme; only students who were practicing for the school annual day festival were retained. One could hear Shakira Shakira and girls’ giggling in equal measure from the next room. What fun it must be, impromptu holidays and uninterrupted dance practice class!
The headmistress showed us the enrollment registers and happily answered our queries. She was very passionate and shared information about the schemes/funds that the school receive, particularly the mid day meal (MDM) scheme, with reasons best known to her.

She told us that the scheme was going fine, until the state government abolished the posts of cooks. So MDM is served only twice each year, once at the beginning and once at the end of the academic year. Even on these days, cooked meals are not provided but biscuits and Tropicana fruit juice are provided, which I highly doubt and I have very good reasons for it. How can a school which possibly couldn’t manage to have drinking water facility for students, can even have the courage to go out and buy expensive canned fruit juices? Plastic water filters in the staff room which look like they haven’t been touched for years could easily be observed. No other facility could be observed! And interestingly, this unique 2 day a year MDM scheme was based on the 2005 enrollment figures. When we tried to enquire the reasons for the same, she said she was helpless in these matters. Currently the school had 300 students enrolled.

When we were leaving the school after completing all the survey, we noticed a banner of the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojna, in front of the empty grade 8 classroom. Bank of Baroda was the partnering bank for this centrally sponsored scheme whose aim was to ensure access to various basic financial services for the excluded sections i.e. weaker sections & low income groups. Later while testing children in the households we came across many households who had just opened new bank accounts under this scheme, in spite of having operational bank account(s) in their names, just in the hope of receiving benefits in the near future from the government. And some of them did not even qualify the low income & weaker section criteria, at all.
Government schemes start with all the good intentions but the implementation them has always been an issue at all levels of governance. Sustaining these schemes over a longer period of time doesn’t happen easily. And with several new schemes being implemented every month, popular schemes seem to hijack even the functioning of systems, just like what I had witnessed in this school. When can we possibly see a change? Hopefully soon…

Ashok Mutum, Assessment  Unit Head, ASER centre
All views expressed in this post are the author’s personal views 

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