Picture this. A hot summer afternoon. The sun beating down mercilessly. Two respectably-dressed middle-aged women, walking down your street. Rather, dragging their feet. The pallus of their sarees wrapped round their heads. Handbags slung across shoulders. A pad, with sheets of paper fixed on them, in one hand, and a pen in the other. They enter a house on your street. Or rather go upto the gate, and stop, daunted by the "Beware of Dog" board hanging from the gate.
They rattle the gate, calling "Excuse me?"
A dog starts barking somewhere from inside.
A voice calls out from within. "We don't want any of your products, please leave!"
"Census!" call out the two ladies.
The voice answers back, "We don't want to give any survey, please go away!" Followed by a mumble, "Irritating people, have to disturb me right when I want to take a nap".
The ladies are insistent. "Please ma'am, this is the CPE Census, and we are teachers."
Reluctant opening of the door, a mumbling of replies to the questions, and then a decisive slam of the door. The two teachers wearily move on to the next house.
Not a movie. Not a story. If you are at home the next 3-4 days, you will see this scene enacted out right in front of you. It's time for the annual Compulsory Primary Education (CPE) Census. Those three days in a year where thousands of teachers go on a wild goose chase on the hot dusty roads of the state.
Every year, the Education Board conducts a census. The primary aim of the census is to collect data on the number of children younger than 14 years of age, and to find out whether they go to school. But why doesn't the census work? Here are a few reasons.
1) The Education Board announces three days of holidays to all schools, to enable the hapless teachers to go and conduct the census. Seizing this opportunity, enthusiastic parents go off on a holiday with the children, leaving the houses locked. The information has to be collected from obliging neighbours.
2) More and more ladies are working nowadays. The mothers leave the children elsewhere on these holidays, and the house remains locked. Again, the information has to be collected from neighbours. This too, might not work, considering how little neighbours know about each other in big cities these days.
3) In the places from where they really do need to collect data - the low-income areas, slums and settlements, everybody, including the children, will have gone out to work. Yes, even children less than 14 years of age, will be away, working as maids, or helpers, or waiters at hotels.... the very section of society the Census aims to help, is involved in the very activity it supposedly seeks to abolish. And there is nobody to tell that to the people conducting the census.
And this is just the urban scenario. I do not have the means to find out how it is in rural areas.
So that makes the census data fallacious, at its best. What about the state of the teachers who are forced to do this work?
1) All primary school teachers, of government schools, government-aided schools, and private institutions, are pushed into this work, irrespective of their age, state of health, and inclination.
2) But what hold does the Board have on private institutions? Can't the school refuse to send it's teachers for the Census? It can. A few schools have actually held out, and the Board has accepted. But when the time comes for that school to approach the Board for something, for example, for permission to start a new section in each class, then the Board plays a high hand. "You refuse to lend your teachers for the Board's work, and now you come running to us for favours", is the refrain.
3) When on the rounds, the teachers are insulted by all and sundry, like the example I have given in the beginning. Once they finish taking data from one house, the teachers are required to mark it by inscribing "CPE" and the Census year, on the wall of the house. As soon as they leave, the occupants of the house wipe out the mark, on the pretext that it is disfiguring their beautiful house. Then, if the officials come around to check if the Census is being conducted or not, they don't see the marks, and they accuse the teacher allocated to that street, of fabricating data.
4) Most of the teachers are ladies. Not only do they have to walk long distances in the sun, but also have to make their way through seedy localities, knock on the doors of lonely houses and fend off advances from lecherous men.
And all this, to probably help line the pockets of some officials in the Board. I have no idea how much money is released for this entire drama, but I know for sure, what amount is paid to the teachers for this.
A measly Rs.25 per day.
Is it possible to conduct the Census meaningfully? Here are a few ways..
1) Make the entire process transparent. The Board should let us know what is happening, where the money is coming from, and where it is going, and what exactly is being done with the data. From the outside, it looks like the data just vanishes into thin air, and this is just a money-making venture.
2) Recruit unemployed educated youth to do the Census work and pay them reasonably.
3) Conduct the survey in the evenings or on weekdays, when there is a higher probability of people being at home to answer questions.
4) Streamline the entire process, make it systematic.
There should be more solutions, but this is what I could come up with. I am sure that informed people can come up with better ideas.
Meanwhile, what can you do about it? The least you can do is this. If someone comes to your doorstep to collect data for the CPE Census, please be polite, and make an offer of a chair and a cool drink. Remember, they are our teachers.