Towards Inclusivity- Rethinking barriers to education in Rural India

Updated: Aug 24

Authors: Shivangi Kanaujia, Project Statecraft and Harsidak Chawla, Project uP


One of the major consequences of the rapid rise of the population of rural areas and lack of opportunities are the disadvantages that rural youth are currently facing. The urban-rural divide is striking in the quality of education that the youth receives, along with limited access to education programs that are directed towards them. Gendered access to education also plays a crucial role in the stratification of the rural society. There are also economic constraints that play a significant role in this process. Overall, the paper focuses on explaining the difficulties that the rural youth face and the long-drawn factors that have contributed to the current state of affairs. Furthermore, the paper presents a critical review of the proposed Draft National Education Policy, 2019, and other related policies, both at the Union and State levels that have played a major role in how the current situation of rural education is being managed.


ASER Annual Status of Education Report

CAG Comptroller and Auditor General

CBI Central Bureau of Investigation

CRY Child Rights and You

DISE District Information System for Education

DPEP District Primary Education Programme

ECCE Early Childhood Children Education

GAR Gross Attendance Rate

GDP Gross domestic product

HEI Higher Educational Institutions

MPCE Monthly Per Capita Income

NAR Net Attendance Rate

NCERT National Council of Educational Research and Training

NEP National Education Policy

NFE Non-Formal Education

NPE National Policy on Education

NSSO National Sample Survey Office

RTE Right to Education

SMCs School Management Committees

SSRA State School Regulatory Authority

URGs Under-represented Groups

1.0 Introduction

The term 'rurality' doesn't carry one consistent definition and it is perceived as a social construction and based on more abstract characteristics, such as feelings of community and traditionalism, or more concrete features, such as landscape or occupational structures. Statistically speaking, this term carries connotations based on different demographic, geographic, and socio-economic factors such as population density, distance, or economic development. At the same time, rural areas often present great diversity in terms of topography and social, cultural, and economic characteristics as their society is often seen to be traditionally stratified with fixed societal status allotted to each section. Likewise, educational institutions and set up in such areas face unique contextual barriers. However, this doesn't undermine the fact that in many cases educational processes and outcomes move beyond an "urban-rural" dichotomy. (Halfacree, 1993)

Nevertheless, the past few decades have been characterized by a massive worldwide educational expansion, especially in developing countries. Increasingly complex economies demand a better-educated workforce and in a globalized world like ours, nation-states are increasingly prioritizing education as one of their primary agendas under holistic development. However, research on educational stratification suggests that inequality in education within social strata continues and sometimes even widens despite educational growth. One such difference can be perceived between the rural and urban educational setups where a huge attainment gap is being created between rural and city-dwelling children at various levels, undermining the importance of inclusivity in educational discourse.

Historically speaking, education was – and in many ways still is – a selective exercise for the elite few. However, in the 21st century, there has been an emergence of contemporary discourse that seeks to forge a new path away from 'special' or segregated education and call for a radical re-thinking of educational values, outcomes, and processes. (Schuelka, Braun, & Johnstone, 2020)We are in an era where educational participation is viewed nearly as a right for every citizen worldwide. Although, the process of rethinking and implementation, remains a challenge especially for developing nations like India and its rural population in terms of participation of students traditionally marginalized in education.

2.0 Issues shaping the learning experience of rural students

Rural education has been often termed as inferior when compared with urban education. The factors that have majorly compared to this situation are-

· The widespread illiteracy, especially in rural areas.

· Unemployment among educated youth.

· Crisis of ideology.

· Lack of proper guidance.

· Lack of access to organizations and services meant for youth.

· The brain drain of educated rural youth to urban areas

· The dowry system, especially affecting young girls in rural areas.

· The type of education imparted in schools, colleges, and universities does not equip the youth for getting appropriate jobs.

· The level of education affects the earnings by the analogy: the higher the level of education, the higher the proportion of attaining a higher income level.

Though poverty is encountered by much of the rural youth it encompasses numerous developmental challenges and substantially increases the chances of educational problems, the context of school-level education is central to promoting and constraining their development. Poverty is more prevalent in rural areas, and it is long-lasting, intergenerational, and disproportionate. Youth growing up in impoverished rural communities face numerous developmental challenges that can adversely impact their development and adaptation to early adulthood. Like their urban peers, they encounter adversity with regards to family economic hardship, but also added difficulties related to geographical isolation, limited community resources, and conflicting values related to post-secondary educational and vocational attainment. (Irvin et al., 2011, p. 1229)

2.1 The Gender Factor

In a deeply stratified society of India, disparities in education often surface in the form of various factors such as caste, religion, and gender, among others. However, even within such disadvantaged communities, a consistent feature of gender disparity in realizing educational goals remains in existence, especially in rural areas. (Bandyopadhyay and Subharmaniam, 2008) In case of scheduled caste and scheduled tribe girls, the gender gap in education is almost 30 percent at the primary level and 26 percent at the upper primary stage and in India's most depressed regions, the probability of girls getting primary education is about 42 percent lower than boys, and it remains so even when other variables, such as religion and caste, are kept constant. (Desai, 2007)

The healthcare of girls in low-income countries - which eventually is linked to their share in the educational sector—has drawn the attention of researchers in a variety of fields. Empirical evidence has shown that girls in low-income countries often have worse health outcomes than their male counterparts. For example, excessive female mortality at young ages has been well documented in low-income countries such as India, China, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. When countries become richer, however, this gender gap seems to close. The literature shows that in developed countries, health, nutrition, and educational outcomes of girls are typically better than or equal to those of boys. (Zhou, 2016)

Between the ages of 15 and 24 years, rural youth are deciding whether to continue studying, to leave school, to leave their natal households, to work, to become engaged in their communities, to form unions, and to have children – and these experiences differ vastly for young men and young women. Many doors open to boys as they become men. Though in many societies, windows of opportunities begin to close for girls. As boys and girls enter adolescence, they bring with them the "investment" made in them since childhood. These may include investment in their human capital – education, health, and nutritional status – and in their social capital – the networks that facilitate opportunities for learning, employment, and status attainment. Opportunities to accumulate both social and human capital are highly gendered and thus male and female youth have often accumulated vastly different amounts of these resources. Although they may not yet be owners or holders of physical assets, they may expect to inherit them or may work to acquire them as they grow older. Young women may stop schooling earlier or leave the labor force to form a union (whether marriage or informal); some begin childbearing. Geographically, this practice is more commonly practiced in states like Punjab and Haryana, as well as in socio-economically backward states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, while this disparity is found marginally lower in Eastern India, and substantially lower in South India. (Husain, 2011)

Education is the key to take advantage of many opportunities available to rural youth, but in many contexts, girls remain disadvantaged in this area, although gender gaps in education are closing most parts of rural India. Parental aspirations may favour boys concerning schooling, while gender priming in terms of expectations may worsen educational outcomes for girls, but the effect of aspirations is context-specific. Expectations about girls' contributions to household work may also limit their schooling. (Doss, Heckert, Myers, Pereira, Quisumbing, 2019)

2.2 Economic impediments- Poverty and low Income

The interlinkage of poverty and education remains one of the most important factors in analysing the challenges faced by youth in the education sector. To quote Probe Report 1999 "education is often considered as the investment." Especially in the rural context, under conditions of economic and other deprivations, costs and benefits of this 'invested' are rationally analysed broadly in terms of two aspects-

1. Economic and non-economic expectations of benefit

2. Ability to sustain direct and indirect schooling costs

The absence of any of these could lead to a situation of educational deprivation, often embodied in terms of non-enrolment, irregular attendance, and dropouts. Thus, in order to understand the exact role played by economic factors in determining access to schooling for rural children, it is imperative to detangle the multidisciplinary concept of poverty.

Poverty is both a cause and an effect of insufficient access to and completion of education, especially in the context of rural India (Azim Premji Foundation, 2004) Further, the varying levels of education within different income categories emerge as a pivotal factor in determining their economic opportunities, income, and quality of life. This vicious circle of poverty and low levels of literacy rate can only be broken through the provisioning of quality education.

In itself, poverty is a complex issue that is not only limited to income deprivation but is the physical embodiment of various factors such as- lack of empowerment, lack of opportunity, etc. For any individual or community, this limitation in resources puts them under the threat of exclusion from the right to a dignified life which in turn gets transferred from one generation to the other unless appropriate actions are taken to make them active participants in the education and skill development sector. The 75th round of NSSO reports hints to this kind of relationship where it mentions that the level of education of people is closely associated with monthly per capita expenditure of population.

To further extend this linkage between poverty and education, researchers and data have shown that children affected by low income and poverty are more likely to perform poorly, repeat their grades and eventually drop out of school earlier than children belonging to affluent classes of society ( Ministry of Human Resource Development, 2018). Despite the considerable improvement in basic education indicators like Gross Attendance Rate (GAR), Net Attendance Rate (NAR) and others, the NSSO report still shows that the proportion of non-literates is highest in the bottom MPCE (Monthly Per Capita Income) classes and decreases gradually as the MPCE increases (Bandyopadhyay, 2014) (Ministry of Human Resource Development, 2017).

Another reason why children from poorer households find it difficult to access school or continue to learn for a sustained period of time is because of their engagement in domestic or productive work in a household or family farm, thereby contributing economically. In rural India, this economic contribution is essentially linked to the nature of agriculture which is the main livelihood of people and is often subsistence-based, and being rain-dependent it is often characterised by uncertainty. In certain cases, there is also the absence or inadequate livestock holdings leading to a high dependence on wage work. (Chandra, 2019) Developing this point, studies have linked poverty and deprivation in poor households to such instability, uncertainty, indebtedness, food insecurity, etc. leading to higher dropout rates and illiteracy in the family. According to the data available on the CRY website ("Child labour in India", 2015), more than 10 million children in India start working at a very younger age (5-14 years) as per official estimates and 80 percent of them come from a rural background. It further points out that about 75 percent of child labour is engaged in agricultural sector and large numbers of them work solely to help their families because the adults do not have appropriate employment and income thus forfeiting schooling and opportunities to play and rest.

Thus, cost remains a pervasive barrier, not only in the rural context but globally for sections of societies with low household income and even when state and other stakeholders absorb most of the direct cost; some indirect cost and economic impediments remain in the power play when coupled with child labour.

2.3 A long road to be covered: Geographic divide between rural and urban areas

While delivery of education in rural and remote areas may have come a long way, especially after the increased emphasis on transportation infrastructure and connecting every nook and corner of the country via land mainly, some of the challenges and opportunities particular to rural education have not changed drastically, while new ones have emerged. One of the several ways of defining 'rurality' has been based on demographic and geographic factors. These areas tend to be located at a significant distance from other populated areas such as advanced in terms of infrastructure (Sreekanthachari and Nagaraja, 2013). This remoteness and accessibility shape, among other things, the capability of residents to communicate and move beyond local services which are further manifested in their decisions regarding higher education and professional career (Anand, 2014). The geographical divide, other than economic costs, leads to certain social and emotional costs of moving from intimate rural communities to considerably unfamiliar urban places, especially for marginalised communities.

2.4 Infrastructural Loopholes

The term infrastructure implies basic systems and services, which are necessary for a country, region, or organisation. In other words, it defines a set of the social, economic, and institutional framework of facilities, without which no economic activity can be undertaken. In order for an institution or system to fulfill its goal of effective implementation and thus producing desired results, it is imperative for them to be infrastructurally sound in the first place. Right from a lack of quality teachers and limited educational offerings to teaching and learning environments, schools in rural India face a variety of resource-based problems that eventually affect the overall quality of education. To put it in the words of Amartya Sen, "Primary education in India suffers not only from inadequate allocation of resources but often enough also from terrible management and organisation". To him, 'organisation and governance of primary schools' has remained a neglected subject in much of India (Kumar, Koppar and Balasubhramaniam, 2003).

Teaching and learning environment

Among the most frequently cited and debated loopholes in the quality of rural education, the small size of schools and classrooms, underpaid teaching staff, and low student-teacher ratios are most common and logically the most important ones. Adding to this, the competencies of the teaching staff are below par—according to DISE (District Information System for Education) data, 18% of teachers in India, in 2016-17, had no professional qualification in teaching. Even when there are teachers allotted to rural schools, high rates of absenteeism has been recorded among them. This is further asserted in the World Bank study (Ramachandran, Linden, Goyal, & Chatterjee, 2018) which found that one in four teachers are absent at a typical government-run primary school.

The learning environment in rural schools is often compromised when teachers are given various auxiliary tasks such as looking into maintenance of school infrastructure, ensuring the implementation of government schemes like Mid-day Meal, distribution of school supplies, etc (Singh, 2018). This approach takes a toll on the quality of education being delivered as teaching time is being replaced by the time taken to carry out above mentioned tasks. Disillusioned parents and an unmotivated student population add another layer to a deprived learning environment in schools of rural India.

Financial resources

Despite the increase in the number of schools demographically, supply-side factors related to well-equipped classrooms and the presence of other essential facilities leave much room for improvement. Data by the District Information System for Education (DISE) shows only 53% of total government schools, which form the majority of schools in rural India, have electricity connections. Following the norms laid down by the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act 2009, many schools in rural areas are yet to provide science-specific resources and playgrounds for sports to their students (Campus Varta, 2020).

Moreover, access to sanitation facilities in school premises poses major impediments in the form of school drop-outs, especially in the case of girls. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2017 data found that only 68% of toilets in government schools are usable. Despite a considerable increase in the number of toilets across schools under the Swachh Bharat Swachh Vidyalaya campaign, the usability of these structures remains questionable. Adding to this, lack of water, lack of lighting and electricity, poor drainage systems, and paucity of funds for maintenance and cleanliness raise serious barriers in uplifting rural education rates. The small size of rural communities also makes the provision of education much more expensive per capita than in urban spaces and implies high fixed costs to maintain small schools with low student-teacher ratios (Alcott et al., 2020). Especially single teacher schools with few students per teacher and building can be significantly more expensive on a per-student basis which in turn hampers the realisation of a sustained and long term quality education goal.

Lack of specialised support and extracurricular activities

Students in rural schools may also have fewer options when it comes to choosing a wide range of education courses and programmes, particularly in secondary education, which may affect their achievement and options for further study. Schools in rural areas struggle to provide additional support and supplementary services, including for particular groups of students. For instance, rural schools may face particular challenges to create inclusive learning environments for students with special needs; especially when it comes to trained specialised staff.

Along with academic knowledge, schools and educational institutions need to provide certain social and emotional skills that students need to lead a happy and fulfilling life. Alarmingly, very negligible efforts are being taken in rural schools towards the mental health of students and even in terms of assisting students for higher studies through counseling. This might be the potential result of limited access to school-based and community-based resources (e.g. counselors, psychologists, social workers), little knowledge of innovative models (e.g. evidence-based practices and data-based decision-making), and a lack of awareness and support in the local community (e.g. social stigma towards seeking help). (Jahan and Selvarani, 2015)

Digital divide

As per the District Information System for Education (DISE) data, only 28% of schools (18% government schools) have a computer and 9% total schools (4% government schools) an internet connection in rural India. This puts forth a clear picture of the urban-rural divide in the age of digital revolution, due to insufficient infrastructure. Some researchers see this wave of digitalisation as an asset that has opened up significant opportunities for improving the delivery of rural education, by linking students and teachers who are separated geographically. There is, however, still a lot to be done to digitally equip rural schools, especially in remote parts of the country. Although the purchase costs of smartphones and other technical instruments are declining, maintenance costs may be high, and devices may need to be replaced frequently which adds one more complexity in the vicious circle of poverty and education in the rural context.

Teacher preparation and support

Even when the teacher-student ratio is improved, there may be the case that teachers are unprepared to impart education and learning in rural contexts. For instance, in rural schools, multigrade classes are not uncommon and in that case, it becomes imperative for teachers to decide in what ways students can be grouped effectively based on their abilities. The teachers also have to manage the multidisciplinary demands of an individual present in the class. Similarly, they might have to take up various subjects at a time which may or may not come under the ambit of their expertise. This might occasionally leave them unprepared to adapt lessons to the needs, knowledge, and interests of rural students, for example by giving a rural "flavour" to the curriculum while preparing them for a globalised world and economy at the same time.

Rural teachers and leaders also need to have an understanding of how to work with underrepresented or marginalised groups in rural areas, such as students from disadvantaged backgrounds or indigenous and ethnic minorities. For students belonging to a background of conservative values and beliefs, the school can be a challenging place, and thus school staff needs to be aware of how to support them in such cases, which can be observed as lacking in the present system of education in rural India.

3.0 Education policies in India- A critical analysis in the context of barriers to Rural Education

3.1 Draft National Education Policy, 2019

The National Education Policy (NEP), formulated by the Government of India, is devised and implemented to promote education amongst India's people, covering education from elementary to colleges in both rural and urban India. The first NEP was formulated and announced under the leadership of Indira Gandhi for a "radical restructuring" and equalised educational opportunities in order to achieve national integration and greater cultural and economic development. (National Informatics Centre, 1968) This policy is proposed to be revised and enhanced as per the Draft National Education Policy, 2019, and to bring fundamental changes in the education system, especially with regard to autonomy, governance, and quality of learning experience. Some of the salient features of the policy include:

· Universalising pre-primary education by 2025 and providing foundational literacy/numeracy for all by 2025.

· Instead of 10+2 Curriculum structure, the policy proposes 5+3+3+4 structure in an effort to optimise learning for students based on the cognitive development of children of the 3-18 years age group.

· Promoting multilingualism by implementing a three-language formula in schools with special emphasis on regional languages.

· A new independent State School Regulatory Authority (SSRA) to be created

· Establishing three types of Higher Educational Institutions (HEIs): Research Universities, Teaching Universities and Autonomous degree-granting colleges

· Proposes to increase the class of compulsory education up to grade 12 (age-18). (Ministry of Human Resource Development, Draft National Education Policy, 2019)

Many policymakers are weighing the draft on a positive scale for its proposal of covering children of 3-18 years, instead of the present 6-14 years under the RTE (Right to Education) Act as well as its focus on inculcating culture-centric knowledge. On the other hand, researchers have also subjected the document to strict scrutiny against the backdrop of systemic inequalities in the educational sector and diverse stratification of Indian society.