The education budget brings hope in rural stranded communities, as a significant increase in Eklavya Residential schools' budget and the establishment of national digital library along with promotion of physical libraries will facilitate progress of education for rural children to bridge the gap with their counterparts studying in urban schools with better access to facilities, infrastructure, and learning environment.
In many ways, this budget has an indication towards improving the quality of education in the rural community as there is almost no cut in Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) allocation. In fact, an overall increase of 8.3% in education allocation shows a balanced vision of the government.
However, the good intent should meet with the reality on the ground.
Only about 11% of rural and 40% of the urban population above 14 years of age can operate a computer as well as use the internet. Moreover, girls have limited access to devices and network connections.
According to the Internet and Mobile Association of India report “The digital divide in India's education,” only 33% of women have internet access compared to men (67%), with rural areas experiencing more disparity (28-72) compared to urban areas (38-62). Other than internet connectivity and access to digital devices, education in tribal areas is severely affected due to poor infrastructure.
The Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti (BGVS), Jharkhand (2022) report highlights the neglect of school regulation norms prescribed in the RTE act in the surveyed 138 primary schools in 16 districts, mostly tribal. Similarly, in Madhya Pradesh, a coalition of civil society organisations evidenced that 72% of schools have ruptured water supply and a lack of other facilities and 36% of schools have a shortage of at least one teacher.
Thus, students from low-income households and rural backgrounds have suffered due to lack of basic facilities and support in schools, resulting in increased dropouts.
Building a Dignified School Life Through Skills, Capacity, and Knowledge
In the above context, a budgetary increase in Eklavya Model Schools raises hope for millions, as it will ensure proper infrastructure, sufficient space for every child with 15 acres of land for playgrounds, hostels, residential quarters etc.
Clean and properly ventilated rooms, classrooms with equipment, reading material with professional teaching staff. and facilities will provide a good space for tribal children to learn better and prosper.
Additionally, it will also help children to create a good memory of school and instill pride for their academic institution. More so in Higher Secondary level at class XI & XII, provisions for science, commerce and humanities, lab facilities, reading facilities and an enabling environment will help children to enter a more diverse work force, thus facilitating positive changes in the rural economy, improved rural living standards, and improved individual life.
National Digital Library a Link for Easy & Equal Access to Resources
Access to quality content with easy and equitable measures has been the focus of all library programmes across India. All schools have provisions of school libraries and internet connections, but only 47.5% of schools have computers and 33.9% schools have internet connection (UDISE+2021-224).
Various hurdles in library programmes, like library management, expensive and unequal access to resources, rapidly changing information base etc. need an accessible network of a resource pool.
The focus on digital libraries with digitalised content in the regional context and regional languages will not only create easy access to quality content to all students, but also increase the motivation of children and adults to access good literature easily and develop reading and researching skills and culture.
Apart from quality in teaching and learning, it will also improve literacy and academic culture by facilitating the availability of quality books across geographies, languages, genres and levels and device-agnostic accessibility.
Physical Libraries at the Local Level
The education budget emphasised on setting up physical libraries at the pancyahat and ward level, which can become the foundation stone for creating a library culture in the country.
As highlighted in Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman's speech, these physical libraries will not only play a key role in accessing resources from the national digital library but also create scope for developing resources in regional languages and generating a pool of references/resources in various distinct cultures and ethnic groups made centrally available through these digital library platforms.
Secondly, it will create a space for linking ad-tech agencies working with community-based education organisations for developing content in regional languages, bringing context in the curriculum, and taking tech links to the community.
Further, digital libraries are important in the way that they provide easy and equal access of quality content to children as well as teachers. However, without much preparation, just launching a scheme will not make much difference given the huge urban-rural digital divide in the country.
Thirdly, apart from creating these platforms, there should be adequate support to build teachers' capacities, especially around accessing digital platforms, content knowledge and skills to use digital infrastructure in classrooms. This is important, especially when students and teachers are still trying to recover the learning losses incurred during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic gave way to CSO-government collaborative models that brought schools into homes, thus helping children to remain in the learning loop. The large web of CSO-government partnerships has immense potential to achieve the desired goals in the Budget and must be considered while bringing in new perspectives, to strengthen the existing systems.
This budget also raises a few concerns as nothing is indicated in already existing provisions such as KGBV, Navodaya Vidyalaya, and other amendments proposed in NEP 2020.
Incorporation of anganwadis in schools, education in mother tongue, and all-round development of children may not be realised unless extra provisions are made for creating content in local dialects, building teachers' capacities as per the new structure, building capacities of ASHA workers and anganwadi workers to support nurseries and Balwadis in schools, and aligning school infrastructure and functions as per the needs of children.
Similarly, education governance, digital infrastructure like web connectivity, teachers' capacity around ICT should be at par to translate the purpose of emerging new India. Finally, it is important to make a clear guideline on how the resources will be utilised and aligned with the true purpose to achieve time bound-results.
Overall, it seems like good intent on the part of the government to provide access and quality to last mile children, but one shouldn’t forget the ground reality while making these provisions available to them.
(Javed Siddiqui is a senior manager at Transforming Rural India Foundation. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)