In the Lateri Block of Vidisha district (Madhya Pradesh), block education officer Hajarilal Bheel leads ‘Bullawa Karyakarm’, a campaign engaging community members, including women, youth, parents, and teachers to bring girls who have dropped out back to school. Slowly, this becomes a movement that spreads across the Block, subtly building a connection between teachers and the community. Around 1,600 girls who had dropped out were enrolled in school again during the 2017-18 academic session.

Dharmendra Singh, sarpanch of Gothani panchayat in Sonbhadra district, Uttar Pradesh, has a change of heart. He says, “Poori zindagi hamne road aur puliya banaya hai, ab ham school bana rahe hain jo samaj banayega. (I’ve built roads and bridges my entire life. Now, I’m building schools, which will, in turn, transform society.)” With great pride, he shows people around the schools he has renovated; the entrance to the school has a map of the village displaying water bodies, habitation, and religious places. Sonbhadra’s transformation is palpable and has been enabled by the collaboration between the sarpanch and teachers, resulting in an improvement in district school enrolment by 7%.

Numerous such stories are coming out from aspirational districts across the length and breadth of the country, bearing testimony to the efforts of communities and volunteers who are engaged in constructive action for bringing about change in these areas. Hope is being created, and residents have begun to aspire for a good quality of life in districts that are home to India’s poorest citizens. NITI Aayog’s Aspirational Districts Programme is catalysing this change. An ambitious initiative of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, based on three key principles of collaboration, convergence, and competition, its underlying spirit of creating a mass movement or jan andolan, is enabling the programme to make significant strides in a relatively shorter time span and demonstrate visible change on the ground.

Many districts are leading this change. Dhubri district in Assam, for instance, which previously reported a drastic fall in enrolment, has subsequently witnessed communities taking ownership of their schools. Middle managers, having undergone a new kind of training, have developed leadership abilities and are deriving meaning, joy and pride from their work. These changes combined with good governance have increased Dhubri’s enrolment by 18%.

In 25 aspirational districts, 125,000 children who had dropped out have been enrolled again in school since June 2018; while 600,000 children have been enrolled in public schools since June 2018. Communities have sprung into action with 2.67 million people participating in rallies, school events, gram sabhas, and ratri chaupals since June 2018 across the aspirational districts in seven states.

People’s participation is undoubtedly the game changer in this programme. Nearly 10,000 volunteers have worked in mission mode across these 25 districts to complete the assessment of 600,000 children in 5,000 schools in just four weeks. In Dumari Paroda village of Begusarai, children and teachers went house to house, collecting money for the purchase of library books. Having raised ₹15,000, children, teachers, parents, and Panchayati Raj Institution (PRI) members felt a great sense of pride when their mukhiya, Sanjida Khatun, inaugurated the library in the middle of the school. The library provided a platform for the community and teachers to come together on a regular basis to listen to and empathise with one another. This, in turn, resulted in a large number of libraries (1,026) being built, a motivating factor for improved attendance. In Baran district of Rajasthan, over 300 pensioners from various departments voluntarily took on the responsibility of teaching in hundreds of schools in the area for a period of three months. Their efforts were met with considerable appreciation from the locals, who recognised their selfless service and made them feel like valued members of society once again.

These numbers are a testament to a large number of people who are taking action; not merely by contributing to improving education outcomes, but also by inspiring their peer groups to work for a cause they care for, as well as creating a momentum alongside the district administration, youth, education department, college administration, and development partners to solve a common problem, with a sense of urgency.

While change is visible in these districts, it is indisputable that school education needs a complete re-imagination to cater to the needs of the 21st century. There are some critical levers of transformation required in school education in order to make India a $5-trillion economy. Some of the most critical levers are constructive community engagement, assessment reform, institutional reform, re-imagination of goals for school education, and education leadership development. It is heartening to see how the power of community action is triggering a movement that is, in turn, setting in motion the other levers of transformation.

There was a time when the bond between teacher and community was strong, nurtured with care and love as if they were all part of one family. Teachers knew about the problems of a family better than even the family members themselves. This was three decades ago but the lessons are as relevant even today. The relationship between schools and communities needs to be reimagined in the 21st century. While technology and economic growth are driving us towards objectivity and productivity, the key challenge of the 21st century may well be to focus on human relationships, empathy, care, support, and collaborative problem-solving, to reduce the divide that exists today.

Views are personal.

Kumar, an IAS officer, is health and education advisor, NITI Aayog; Singh is director of Piramal School of Leadership, an organisation that strengthens public education system through re-engineering processes, incorporating technology and building capabilities of education officials.

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