Rethinking Progress: ASER 2017 ‘Beyond Basics’ in Eastern Uttar Pradesh

By Shalini Tripathi 

As the year draws to a close, the ASER Centre, Delhi office usually bears a forlorn look. After a frenetic and intense pace of activity, the action shifts beyond; beyond the office walls, it spreads across the country – criss-crossing different states and districts, mapping villages, visiting households and finally undertaking the survey. As the survey unfolds, one gets to hear and read stories from different locations, enriching experiences of the central team members getting to explore the interiors of the country, the drive and enthusiasm of the volunteers, the challenges faced to reach a particular destination, local stories of inspiration and grit and of course, the gloomy state of learning levels that is laid bare year after year. 2017 is different though. It is not the usual ASER focusing on children in the age group of 6-14 years. It is Beyond Basics, with the spotlight on the youth in the age group of 14-18 years; a group that has been steadily swelling, their current figure in the country hovering around 10 million!

I got an opportunity to go to Varanasi, one of the two districts selected for ASER ‘Beyond Basics’ in Uttar Pradesh. With a strong ASER state team support, the training got off to a flying start. The Faculty of Education, BHU was our partner in this endeavour. The enthusiasm of the students and the faculty members was uplifting. After two days of rigorous training it was time for the pilot field visit.

The selected village was not too far from the reputed Benares Hindu University (BHU). The village name brought to mind an idyllic, beautiful setting and I was looking forward to my visit. The asphalt road, meandering through the many settlements in the block, gave way to a dusty, pot-holed kuccha road that finally led to our destination. Despite its proximity to the holy city of Varanasi, the village seemed stuck in a time warp, a place almost untouched by the changing times and progress.

The other settlements that we crossed on our way were marked by structures that pointed to some rudimentary development that had come about, but our village seemed bereft of any such signs except for a chai outlet and a small grocery store close by. It had no bank branch, no ATM kiosk, no telephone booth, no internet cafe, nor any skill development centre. A dilapidated health centre and a Panchayat Ghar that had caught fire a year back and had remained unused ever since, bore testimony to the state of general neglect. The residents of the village travelled to the neighbouring villages for most of their needs.

The village had about 250 families with a total population of not more than 2000 residents. The total number of voters added up to 1200. The village was divided into five distinct sections based along caste lines. The areas inhabited by the upper castes had a number of big concrete houses and a few new ones were under construction. Most of the land there was owned by the upper castes. Being in the very heart of the Gangetic belt, the land was fertile and farming was the main pursuit of the villagers. Most of them were engaged in farming as daily wagers. A few others worked as labourers in the city of Varanasi. The village had one government school till class 5. The only other school in the village was a private one till class 8. Recently the village was declared ‘open defecation free’, but not all the houses in the village had a toilet and the practice of defecating in the open was still prevalent. Despite the Swachh Bharat slogan visible at many places in the village, there was squalor all around.

Radhika was the first youth in the village I got to interact with. She was quiet initially and answered in monosyllables. It took a while for her to open up. She was 16 years old and a student of class XI. In the absence of any bus service connecting the village, she went to a private school in Varanasi on her bicycle. It took her a little more than an hour, one way, to reach. On being asked about her aspiration, Radhika turned silent and looked up to her mother. Further probing revealed that she wanted to study and become a doctor but had no idea about how to go about achieving her dream. As for her parents, they were letting her study till they found her a suitable groom.

As I walked through the village, I came across some more youth – boys and girls. Ankita, 14 was a student of class 6. Like Radhika, she aspired to be a doctor. However she did not want to study beyond inter (plus-two). She had never used a laptop or a smart phone. Her parents had not had formal education and she being the eldest in the family, had no one to ask or seek guidance as regards her future goal. On being asked about the preparation required to become a doctor, Ankita appeared clueless.

Perturbed, I turned towards the boys, Varun and Himanshu, both 15 and classmates. Their favourite pastime was playing volleyball and cricket. They wanted to study further. Varun wanted to work in a bank like his father, while Himanshu aspired for a government job. However, talking to them further revealed that they both had not given this serious thought. While they realised that going to school was important to becoming something in life, they were not sure about what needed to be done to achieve their dream. Like the many other 14-18 years old in the village, they had never used a laptop or a smart phone. They knew that to earn a living they would have to move away from their village. “This place has nothing to offer and it is so dirty” is what they felt for their village. In fact, a common question to almost all the youth of the village posed by me brought forth a similar response. On being asked about that one thing they would like to change in their village, the answer invariably was to make it clean.

Talking to Govind made me feel a little better. Unlike the others, he had heard of ITI and knew where the nearest centre was. After completing his “Plus Two”, he wanted to train as an electrician and become independent. There was poverty in the village and not much work. When he would grow up he would move to the city, he mused.

With no skill centre or any other avenue for extra-curricular activity, the youth spent most of their free time either playing or whiling it away. Girls usually stayed away from sports and preferred to help their mothers with household chores. Once they get free, they spend it in front of the TV or chatting with friends.

Interactions with the youth made it clear that all those who could afford, were attending school. Financial constraint was one of the main reasons why some had to drop out – they were now either engaged in farming or in assisting their families with other means of sustenance. The few who belonged to the affluent section of the village were enrolled in private, English medium schools in Varanasi. They did not have to undertake the daily drudgery of cycling or walking but were dropped off to school/college in personal vehicles. Affluence had brought exposure, and the youth from such families knew that they had to attain a minimum of a Bachelor’s degree to be able to be something in life. There was not much intermingling between the rich and not so well off in the village.

I was looking forward to some positive and inspiring cases of hard work and aspiration, but a few hours in the village revealed a sense of loss and at times verging on despair. Having completed primary schooling, the village youth were trying hard to acquire further education. What was disheartening was that though they had dreams, except for one the others that I interacted with did not have a clear idea of how to go about achieving that dream. Not just that, the drive to do something and rise above the ordinary was missing. They more or less seemed resigned to their fates. With not much guidance from home and not many from the village to inspire or motivate them, they seemed rudderless. ASER 2017 Beyond Basics is an endeavour to create awareness about this grim ground reality with the hope of a better and brighter tomorrow!

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