Reporter Sees Contradictions in Her Native Land

By Vaishali Honawar — September 22, 2005 3 min read
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Bombay is a city of paradoxes.

It is a place where wealthy executives driving expensive sport-utility vehicles plod to work over potholed roads no faster than the poor and middle-class people crammed into open door trains that run up and down the length of the city. It is a city where skyscrapers and slums stand side-by-side; and where a visitor always feels the past mingling with the present.

Returning to the city where I was born and grew up is always an adventure. In the nearly nine years I have spent as a resident of the United States, India has been experiencing historic changes. Pricey cars on unpaved roads honk impatiently at pedestrians accustomed to a slower pace of life. The golden arches of McDonald’s with their Maharaja Macs have replaced traditional restaurants run by families of Persian descent that served cardamom-flavored cakes and hot, buttered buns for breakfast. And, of course, there are the technology whiz kids and computer call-center technicians talking on cell phones as they walk the same streets as 4-year-old children begging for money.

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India’s paradoxes are particularly noticeable in its education system. Ironically, the country that has been lauded by everyone from Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates to former President Bill Clinton for producing some of the world’s most impressive minds in science and mathematics also has one of the world’s highest illiteracy rates. According to India’s latest census, the illiteracy rate hovers around 65 percent, and the rate for women is just below 50 percent.

India lacks a strong public education system for its elementary and secondary grades, and schools run by the state governments and city municipalities are viewed as so badly run that only the poorest students attend them. Bathrooms at such schools are unheard of, solid walls and roofs are considered luxuries, and teacher absenteeism is rampant.

At the other extreme, the wealthiest people in India go to elite private schools nestled in exotic hill stations where they get an education modeled on British “public schools,” as top boarding schools such as Eton and Harrow are called. The Indian schools come complete with the English grade levels, and their students play rugby and learn Western etiquette.

New Ways of Thinking

That leaves the ubiquitous private schools of India, which educate most of India’s middle class at a price that is just barely affordable. Those schools receive substantial subsidies from both federal and state governments.

That was the type of school I attended in the 1970’s and 80’s in Bombay. Like most Indian private schools, my school had the primary and secondary sections under one roof and instruction was primarily in English, a British legacy that has helped India’s economic growth.

Back when I was in school, rote learning was not just popular, it was encouraged. Our teachers were predominantly women, usually young or early middle-aged, and they had no qualms about taking a wooden foot ruler to our hands. We crammed not just multiplication tables but whole math equations and scientific formulas into our heads, because you never knew when the teacher would call on you to solve a complicated problem. If you didn’t know the answer not only were your knuckles beaten raw, but you were eternally shamed before your class-mates.

But India’s growing economic status has sparked new ways of thinking about how children should be educated here. Over the next few weeks I will be observing those changes.

For instance, there is a new sense of hope in India as the country moves quickly on several initiatives to enroll all children, particularly girls, in school. It is a goal everyone here appears to be taking seriously, even the driver of the tiny, three-wheeled autorickshaw whose rickety vehicle was recently plodding through Bombay’s rain-drenched streets, in front of the one I was riding in. Painted on the back of his rickshaw, in Marathi, were these words: “When a girl learns, she teaches the world.”

Editor’s Note: Education Week staff writer Vaishali Honawar is on assignment in India to report on the country’s education system. During her visit, she is also filing occasional reports for


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