India puts on class act for minister

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The Independent Online
WITH A floppy raffia hat to ward off the broiling sun and a jacket a rich shade of green that went nicely with the endless round of yellow garlands, Clare Short strode out to inspect the new primary schools of Andhra Pradesh in south India, built with her department's money.

She would, said an aide, much rather have gone alone, unobtrusively. To go incognito would have been best of all. But that was never a possibility.

Instead there was the convoy of cars, the police four-wheel-drive with flashing red light and wailing siren, the ministerial Discovery with Union flag, the crack plainclothes posse armed with automatic rifles to guard against attack by ultra-leftists. It was all very pseudo-Raj, and not Clare Short's style at all.

At each stop the whole village turned out to welcome her. At a tribal village the women danced for her, weighed down with silver jewellery, in gaudy robes covered with tiny mirrors. Elsewhere there were drums and wheezing old trumpets. She passed under the arch and was greeted with auspicious smears of red between the eyes, and with garlands, garlands, garlands.

Everywhere it was a big tamasha, a big song and dance, and chances of seeing the new cement, whitewashed primary schools as they function on a normal day were nil. But the minister learnt what she could about the schools, put up in pockets of the state with desperate illiteracy.

Like a slightly daunting headmistress, she stood beaming in front of small classes of tiny girls - "Good morning, children!" - and then the teachers did their stuff. At the school in the tribal village, where these children up to the age of eight are the only halfway literate people in the community, the teacher had the children come up to the front, pick up a vegetable from a pile and tell him its name. Then the teacher wrote the name on the board.

Ms Short was not impressed. "They'd know the names of vegetables anyway," she grumbled to her neighbour in a stage whisper. "And why doesn't he get the children to write on the board?"

But overall the impression was good. The Department for International Development has committed pounds 45m to aiding the Indian central government's initiative to put new primary schools in places where they are desperately needed. The schools the minister was shown were small and rudimentary, one or two rooms in bald, plain buildings. But there were blackboards and chalk, colourful workbooks, aids for what the Indians call "joyful learning" - charts and pictures and polystyrene models - and old-fashioned slates (paper is dear) for pupils to practise their letters on.

Above all there were children and teachers - though not yet enough of either. While 82 per cent of children in Andhra Pradesh enrol in primary school, 45 per cent later drop out before finishing - to work in the fields, to look after siblings, or because the schools are no good. In many rural parts of India, including this state, teacher absenteeism is an equally chronic problem. Now "village education committees" are being set up to try to tackle it.

The minister's tour underlines the new face of British development aid. In the old days, aid was to coal, to the railways, to giant infrastructure projects, attempting to haul India into the modern age with heavy industry. Or it was to the poorest of the poor, to alleviate poverty.

Today the strategy is to go for the most basic problem of all, mass illiteracy, and to concentrate the effort in a few states that have proved they are genuinely committed to reforms of every sort. We help those who help themselves. And the goal is no longer to alleviate poverty but, in the longish term, to eliminate it.

Andhra Pradesh is the champion progressive state in India. Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu's face broods down above the traffic jams in the state capital, Hyderabad, beside the motto "Dare to dream, care to achieve". Britain and international bodies including the World Bank have decided that a leader such as Naidu offers India's only hope of transformation, and have backed the hunch with hundreds of millions of pounds.

Ms Short said to the villagers gathered under a canopy: "In our country 150 years ago many babies died and many mothers died in childbirth. Then we started to make some changes. The most important was getting all children, including girls, into schools. Now we don't have many babies who die or mothers who die in childbirth. The secret was education for all."