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Address at 10th Anniversary of Akshara Foundation

Education | Dec 9, 2010

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s speech on equitable quality education for all children, organised as a part of Akshara’s 10th Anniversary celebrations. Rohini spoke about the breadth and depth available today in the field of education, and pledged for social inclusion, for an equitable dispensation for marginalised and underprivileged children.


One decade in a country seems like such a short time, but when it comes to the education sector, so much has happened in 10 years that I feel very privileged to be a part of this sector. In this decade, we have seen the demand for education clearly and  fundamentally established. There are many reasons for that, the first being the government. Over the last few decades, the government has made significant strides. Never before has so much money been put into the education sector by the government, and we are seeing the rollout and the benefit of that. NGOs have stepped up activities in the education sector tremendously, and also deserve credit. The liberalisation of the economy has had an impact on education as well. Our population explosion has meant that people have been pushed out of old livelihoods and farms, and have had to look at new choices. Parents have begun to finally see the end of the education tunnel and what it actually means. And the education sector has opened up to market forces as never before.

In addition to this, we are seeing an explosion of demand, with private sector players asking for their own space in the public sector. The focus has shifted from enrollment to increasing the quality of education. As money flows from the public sector, a lot of opportunities and bipartisan support for the education agenda has cropped up all across the country. All of this has happened in one short decade. In a way, Akshara Foundation’s journey has echoed this, from simple things like enrolling, building the quality of the demand, getting parents to understand, getting children into schools and learning centers, to now doing supplementary work in the education sector, and working inside the system to make systemic improvements. They are also working with the private sector where the schools for the poor are concerned, and looking at technologies and ways to adapt to the changes of this decade.

But as always, in India, every time you say something positive, there’s a flip side to the coin. The fact remains that sometimes, the more things change, the more they remain the same in terms of our problems. This trickle down effect has affected the middle class, but there are still so many people to reach. The other day, I was reminded of this when I met Ganesh, a little boy from Gulbarga whose parents were construction workers. He was an intelligent child who deserved to go to the fifth standard, but the government school did not take him in because of a missing transfer certificate. This is in spite of notifications by the government that no child should be left out of our school system. The reality is that Ganesh is not in a government school or in a private school, but in a learning center in the Akshara compound. Despite all the progress we have seen, Ganesh’s story is repeated across the country every single day. We have 150 million migrants — India is now a mobile republic. But what happens to the children of migrants and their education? 

We have the Right to Education act, but normative structures and questions of quality don’t sit quite so comfortably with questions of social inclusion. There is a real opportunity here for the voluntary sector, and we must use this as a focal point to re-group our energies. We all know that the primary responsibility of education belongs to the state, and there is no dilution of that. Nowhere in the world has it been possible to progress in this sector without the government. We know that the markets have a role to play in this space as well. Today, the dominant paradigm seems to be bringing in the market to complement the state’s effort. There are some things the state can and must do. There are some things the market can do well. But there is a space below that where markets cannot go and where the state unfortunately is extremely ineffective. That is the space where civil society institutions like Akshara and philanthropists have to come together to bridge that gap, that last mile where neither states nor markets are effective.

Today, that space is growing. In the case of the migrant workers, we need to renew our efforts to work with those children who are left out in spite of everything that we have talked about. In the last 100 years, we have seen that most progressive movements have started by voices from civil society demanding and defining human rights. Now, even with the child’s right to education, there are still families who are left out. We need to introspect and push for change. It’s an opportunity for creative people to apply new ideas and explore possibilities. There are people who are interested in education for girls and want to set up hostels so they can stay and learn. Others want to step up sports infrastructure, technological innovations, nutrition, and better uniforms. An entrepreneur came to me saying we are underestimating the problem of what footwear our children wear, why it’s so toxic, and how we can create a low-cost shoe for children. So many people are engaging with questions beyond the curriculum, asking what are the values we want our children to learn and what will anchor them in our society? 

For me, this is extremely exciting because it means that the question of how to engage our young people is occupying a wider set of people. We need to welcome these ideas, whether we’re going to do incremental change or whether we’re trying to achieve disruption, because the societal mission before us, of every child learning well in school, is not yet over. We have some ways to go. We have understood the urgency of what is called the demographic dividend. In 15 years, a population begins to age, so what we do in these next 15 years with our young people, 50% of our population, matters a great deal. What have we equipped them with, in terms of education and values, is going to determine how India looks in 2025. A school is the miniature look into a nation’s future. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a whole nation to educate the last child. 100 million children are waiting, but we are all ready to get to work. 


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