It is high time the public discourse on education in Assam gets to be centred on students, rather than teachers — so says Education minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. Professing to champion the cause of 55 lakh students in the State, he has chosen different well-publicised occasions to do some plain speaking. But rather than calling a spade a spade, he is more wont to call it a bloody shovel, which unsurprisingly sections of the media have lapped up to create unseemly controversies. The latest instance is the public dressing down handed under full media glare to principals and headmasters of schools that performed poorly in this year’s HSLC examition. This was supposed to be a review meeting, but the occasion more resembled a lowbrow TV show in which the weakest performers first get humiliated by the judges and then summarily ejected. It was painful to see 31 principals of schools with not a single HSLC-passed student, followed by 93 school principals with single digit pass percentages — stammering and shuffling about like truant schoolkids as they bore the brunt of the minister’s tongue lashing. To be fair, some principals did not do justice to their position, like the one who seemed plain inebriated. But what was the need for the minister to ask on microphone whether he starts imbibing from morning itself, rather than evening? The stupefied principal was then asked to furnish his wife’s number to an official, ostensibly so that she could be told officially about his conduct. Some other principals also cast themselves in poor light by shifting the blame on students for being dull or getting married, or their parents for not providing suitable environment at home. The low point of this bizarre meet came when the minister asked those principals to raise hands “who felt ashamed” after hearing out their successful counterparts from schools with 100 percent pass record. “Those who are not ashamed, of course, need not raise hands,” Dr Sarma added, twisting the knife further by asking what salaries they are drawing.
It is the Education minister’s prerogative to pull up errant school principals and magements, and hold them strictly to account for poor performance. It is also a fact that principals and teachers of many government schools in the State neglect classes, often remain absent without leave, come to school in drunken stupor, and feel no compunction in selling off the foodstuff meant for students’ mid-day meals clandestinely in the market. There have been televised instances of principals and teachers giving impromptu holidays, and then locking the school from inside to entertain inspecting officials with liquor and lavish food. Head teachers in this State have been accused of murdering colleagues to cover up misappropriation of government funds meant for school uplift, or of crimes like outraging the modesty of girl students. The very fact that a school principal can show up in drunken stupor in a review meet with the Education minister and his officials and counterparts from other schools — shows the extent to which the rot has set in. And this degradation has been years, if not decades, in the making. The appointment of teachers has been vitiated since the Nineties under successive governments, with norms and aptitude blatantly ignored. Political favouritism, nepotism and bribery ruled the roost. Insult was added to injury as many such unfit ‘teachers’ rushed to equip themselves with fake degrees, often with the connivance of Education officials at Kahilipara. The present Education minister, in his exasperation, may have felt the need ‘to expose’ such teachers before the public, after dealing with them in sundry departmental meets that went nowhere. He has also rightly raised the point that quite a few venture schools fudged student numbers so as to get provincialized. But Dr Sarma needs to introspect whether Monday’s ‘shock and awe’ meet at the SEBA head office yielded any fruit in terms of shaming principals and teachers of laggard schools.
Surely, a situation like 6 teachers of a Kamrup school failing to help 3 class X students clear the board fils are ucceptable. But then, can people in this State accept a situation like over 4,000 schools running with a lone teacher, out of around 12,000 schools assessed in Gunotsav phase I this year? Is it not a fact that most schools are headed by principals only in temporary or acting capacity? Government teachers are also drafted for extraneous work like preparing electoral rolls, while their students waste valuable months waiting for textbooks. Dr Sarma has been in charge of Education department earlier in the Congress regime, and surely a part of the blame for this pitiable state of affairs should be laid at his door, as for all dispensations that have held the reins at Dispur. The need of the hour is sober introspection on how to clean up this mess in education, with full involvement of hitherto voiceless parents and students as stakeholders this time. Ours is after all a State where the public service recruiter itself is undergoing an overhaul. If the State government can aim to clean up APSC after the lid was blown off its squalid cash-for-job scam, why not the cesspool at Kahilipara Education offices? Holding government school principals and teachers to account for poor scholastic performance is a must. But making a public spectacle of their humiliation collectively lowers the dignity of everyone else involved, the Education minister, his officials, and all stakeholders.