The country's economic and political future largely depends on improving the quality of life and the productivity of kids in places like Bihar. With this
in mind, in 2009 the country passed a right to education law, which, for the first time, gave children from ages 6 to 14 the right to a "free and compulsory elementary education at a neighborhood school," meaning a school within
a couple of miles of their home. School buildings went up across the country, and the free lunch program became an important incentive for getting
impoverished children to show up.
Bihar is one of the main target areas for the reforms. The state is one of India's poorest and also one of its most populous. Indian census numbers show
Bihar's population is exploding, with a growth rate of 25 percent. There were 19 million children under the age of 6 in 2011, or 18 percent of the
population, and nearly all of them live in rural areas.
In addition to free lunch, girls in rural areas of the state are also given bicycles to further boost the
likelihood that they'll come to school. (The female literacy rate in Bihar was just 46 percent in 2011, according to the Indian census.)
The reforms are making a difference, local officials and education advocates say. In Bihar, "almost 50 percent of students drop out before fifth grade,"
said Singh. "But before, they didn't even enroll." The
2012 Annual Status of Education Report
(ASER), an Indian NGO, found that just 4 percent of the state's children were out of school. In 2005, it was nearly 14 percent.
There is still a long way to go before India reaches the fairly modest goals of the new law, though. As the poisonings and the flimsy school building in
Bihar show, the school system is still struggling to ensure basic safety, meaning quality often takes a back seat. ASER found that just 43 percent of rural schools
were meeting the law's requirements for student-pupil ratios--two trained teachers per 60 students. Even when schools have enough teachers, those teachers
. In Bihar, the report found that 16 percent of students in
the equivalent of third grade couldn't recognize letters. A third could read their letters, but couldn't read words. Eleven percent of these students
couldn't recognize the numbers one through nine, and a third couldn't recognize numbers higher than 10.
In addition to its goals for improving elementary and secondary education, India has ambitious plans for its higher education sector. Bihar is experiencing a building boom of new universities and colleges, including plans
a new international university meant to draw students and faculty from around the world
While I was in Bihar, visiting new state-of-the-art facilities and talking to optimistic administrators, I talked to others who wondered, "Who will go to
these schools?" Given the still dire situation in the elementary grades, it remains, two years later, a very good question.