D. N. Bezboruah
Assam and a few other States of the Northeast, as well as some other less developed States of the mainland like Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, suffer greatly from major socio-economic problems arising from almost complete lack of industrial development and a very high level of unemployment. Assam has had just two industries—tea and oil—left at some point of development by the British. But both the industries have reached almost a level of saturation as far as employment opportunities are concerned. In the tea industry, the trouble arose mainly from the initial unwillingness of Assamese people to work in tea gardens. So the British indented workers from Bihar, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, whose progeny constitute the main work force of the tea gardens of Assam. The oil industry that needs fewer workers, has had a predomintly indigenous work force, with most of the engineers and senior officers also drawn from among the Assamese. However, both industries have reached a saturation level as far as the ability to create employment opportunities is concerned. The government has failed to ensure any further industrial employment opportunities for the youth by failing to plan for industrial development in advance keeping in mind at least the needs of the increasing population over the decades. The result has been a State with the highest rate of unemployment and almost a total lack of new industries during the last four decades.
The State’s unemployment problem has been exacerbated by another area of mismagement—our secondary education. In most industrial economies, a skilled worker is generally expected to be someone who has completed secondary education and is expected to evince the ability not only to learn new skills but also to receive and retain manual and written instructions related to the use of newly-acquired skills. I expect quite a few eyebrows to be raised at the level of education that would be expected for the abilities that I have referred to. Most people are likely to ask whether someone who has dropped out of school at Class VII or VIII could not be regarded as educated enough to be trained as a skilled worker. Unfortutely, the abilities required of a skilled worker in the 20th century are not considered adequate for the industrial needs of the 21st century. There are any number of major plants or factories being set up in the country to manufacture automobiles, motorcycles, air-conditioners, refrigerators, washing machines, computers, cell phones and a host of other consumer durables. But no such factory comes up in Assam mainly for three reasons: (a) lack of skilled workers, (b) lack of adequate power and (c) lack of the right attitude to sustained skilled work of a high standard year after year.
Much of what is happening to both manual and cerebral skills in Assam can be attributed to what we have maged to do to secondary education. A look at the overall performance of students at the High School Leaving Certificate (HSLC) examition over the last 30 years or so should give us a fairly good idea about what is happening with our secondary education. In all advanced countries, the end of school examition is a sort of confirmation that students have learned what they were expected to learn at school, but this is not entirely true even of advanced countries today. In any case, the golden rule about examitions—that one can test only what has been taught—is well reflected in the school fil examitions of most advanced countries. Hence the percentage of successful candidates is very high in such countries for all levels of achievement tests. A success percentage of 95 per cent would not be considered abnormal in most such countries. Unfortutely, our school leaving examitions are bedevilled by three factors: poor teaching, a huge number of dropouts and school fil examitions that are neither reliable nor valid. Let us look at the overall performance at the HSLC examitions at the Board of Secondary Education, Assam (SEBA) conducted in the years 1985, 1986, 1987, 1996 and 1997. The number of candidates that appeared at these examitions were 184,742, 192,253, 219,457, 207,381 and 213,659 respectively. The tally of candidates who passed in these five years were 53,569, 43,198, 52, 758, 73,710 and 61,839 respectively. The percentage of pass in those years were 29.00, 22.47, 24.04, 35.54 and 29.94 respectively. Obviously, this means that the percentage of failures in those five years was much higher. They were 71.00, 77.53, 75.96, 64.49 and 71.06 respectively—a scandalous performance for any civilized country. It took SEBA 12 years to suspect irregularities in the process of sending candidates for the HSLC and the High Madrassa examitions. So the Board introduced the policy of registration of students with effect from the year 1996, ignoring the needs of improving standards of teaching in schools and ensuring that examitions were more reliable and valid. Not surprisingly, the registration of students did not produce any significant results. If anything, there was a significant increase in the total number of unsuccessful candidates (dropouts in Classes IX and X taken together with the candidates who failed in the HSLC and High Madrassa examitions. This number swelled to around two lakh every year. Much later, SEBA adopted two result-oriented strategies. They were: (a) limiting the course content for the HSLC and AHM examitions to the areas prescribed for Class X alone as opposed to the total course content prescribed for Classes IX and X as in earlier years and (b) reservation of a certain percentage of marks for interl assessment. This initiative can be seen as tinkering with the system just to ensure better visible results, since there were no efforts to improve either teaching or testing. In any case, the percentage of successful candidates shot up to 69.69 per cent in 2010, 70.71 per cent in 2011, 61.42 per cent in 2012 and 62.20 per cent in 2013. This is the kind of apparent instant improvement in examition results that pleases education ministers and politicians because they do not realize that no one has a magic wand that can be waved to bring about instant and amazing improvement in educatiol standards or examition results. And while people gloat over such illusory achievements, there is the grim and sinister scerio of what is happening to about two lakh boys and girls who fail to cross the bar every year.
Every year, the huge number of students who fail in the HSLC examition or those who have dropped out at Class IX or X encounter closed doors. They cannot pursue higher education, they have no skills or abilities that will eble them to get any kind of jobs, and yet they have to make a living. All those decades of tall talk about vocatiol training have fallen by the wayside. There are already about 30 industrial training institutes (ITIs) in Assam that are supposed to train young people in useful skills. A few more are on the anvil. I have seen some of them. Barring about four of them, none of the others are really imparting skills. The instructors generally lecture to the trainees about skills. Most of them cannot impart skills because they do not have the skills that they are supposed to impart. Take, smithy, carpentry, masonry, tailoring or any other common skill. I would like to see trainees of the ITIs produce something that people will willingly buy. After all, that is the ultimate test of anyone’s skills.
We now have on hands the burgeoning and daunting problem of having about two lakh youths added every year to the list of unemployed youths to whom society has closed all doors. They are all expected to make honest livings without education and without skills. The Constitution has given them a right to life that no one can take away. Even if we did not have a constitution and even if no one spelt out their right to life, can anyone take it away? Survival is a basic human instinct and every human being does whatever is necessary in order to survive. The Constitution has also given them a right to education. But what is this education worth if the system through which they seek to assert that right fails to make them complete their secondary education? And since they must live and since society has abdicated all responsibility to this lot of youths, the only door open to them is the one of crime. So what is happening is that in the way society administers education and treats those who cannot pass examitions there is an urticulated message that they are welcome to take to the world of crime. Here is a society that leaves no options to those who fail examitions than the one of crime. Is this what we want our society to become? We have to find a way out of this mess. Since boards of education have no place for private candidates any more and since many schools are averse to readmitting failed students, perhaps we need a large number of open schools on the pattern of open universities that will let people learn at their own pace and make a few more attempts to pass their school fil examitions.