The people of Goa can be justifiably proud of the progress achieved over the last five decades in core sectors such as education. The literacy rate in Goa was about 30 percent at the time of Liberation. It is now hundred percent if we exclude some persons above the age of 50 years. In 1961, in my own village there was just one primary school with about hundred students. The village has now been subdivided into three panchayats and has several primary schools and high schools with thousands of students in their rolls. This is mainly due to non-government and private institutions. Government schools themselves are in an appalling condition. Attendance at several Government primary schools, which I visited over the last few years, was almost total but in the circumstances in which most of them function, there is not much learning to be done. Four classes are often taught simultaneously in one classroom and in some cases eight classes in two languages. There are no black boards or they are not repaired, rice bags (for the mid-day meal), discarded furniture, school records etc. are all bundled together in the same classroom along with the children. The teachers in Government schools are as hardworking and the students as bright and intelligent as their counterparts in private schools. What is lacking is the minimum infrastructure. As a result, all those who can afford enrol their children in private schools. The children in Government primary schools come from the poorer sections of society and their parents are often illiterate. These students require special attention but on the contrary they get no attention at all. Government primary schools suffer from what might be called a “social attention deficit”, a sheer lack of attention and concern by the community at large including policymakers at all levels.
UNESCO and leading educationists across the world agree that the use of native languages for education in early childhood enhances self-confidence and academic performance. The Supreme Court of India maintains that “experts are unanimous in their view that the basic knowledge can easily be acquired by a child through his mother tongue”. In the 17th century, the colonial government felt necessary to suppress the languages of Goa in order to preserve its rule. In 1684, a decree (alvara) of the Viceroy directed that within three years, Goans should abandon the use of local languages and take to the use of Portuguese. A royal decree, dated March 16, 1687, affirmed: “For reasons of political expediency including the preservation of Portuguese India, the decree (of the Viceroy) is approved.” Portuguese orientalist Cunha Rivara, and other historians agree that the ban on the local languages was recommended by the religious orders and that they benefited from it. Pope John Paul II at the Millennium Mass at the Vatican issued a comprehensive apology for “2000 years of blunders by functionaries of the Roman Catholic Church including contempt for the cultures and religious traditions of different ethnic groups”. He pleaded for a future that would not repeat those mistakes. “Never again,” he asserted.
The Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences (FABC) is the most influential body of the Asian Church where 28 countries including India are represented. An FABC statement made in 1978 expresses their insight: “The decisive new phenomenon for Christianity in Asia will be the emergence of genuine Christian communities - Asian in their way of thinking, praying and living”.
At the Asian Synod of 1998, the Asian Bishops called for “divesting the Western image of the Church in the liturgy, style of life, celebrations and trying to overcome the present image of a powerful, affluent and domineering institution”.
The Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) at its general meeting in Kolkata in 1974 solemnly declared: “The Church in India must realize her genuine Indian identity and rid herself of the slur of being foreign which clings to her because of leaning too heavily on foreign support and the style adopted by some of the Christian communities”. Regrettably, some dioceses appear to disregard these pronouncements of the Catholic Church.
Cultural identity contributes to people’s sense of belonging and overall well-being. Language is central to culture. It is through language that culture expresses itself and develops. People and nations who have flourished have always promoted their own language. Fr. Jaime Couto, former Professor of the Rachol Seminary, writes ‘The sacred duty of the State is to develop the local language, the mother tongue and the local culture as it is done all over the world. Nowhere in the world are grants given to promote an alien language and culture’.
In Goa, the medium of instruction at primary level ought to be either Konkani or Marathi. Konkani is the official language of Goa known to all Goans and Marathi is and has always been the literary language of a large segment of our population. An essential prerequisite in this regard is that schools should maintain proper academic standards, be equipped with qualified teachers and text books should be revised to make elementary education a rewarding and enjoyable experience for the children. It is necessary to have Konkani teachers’ training programmes and there should also be projects to sensitise parents as to the need for their children to learn in their mother tongue. The State Government and the schools ought to collaborate with the West Zone Cultural Centre under the Union Ministry of Culture to conduct programmes for the children so that they appreciate their national heritage and culture. There are also private organisations such as SPIC MACAY and INTACH that conduct similar courses for children.
It is incorrect to say that studying at the primary level in a local language impairs academic performance. During the colonial rule some children would study in Marathi primary schools and then enrol themselves in the Portuguese Lyceum. They performed as well, and sometimes better, than their counterparts who did their primary education through the Portuguese medium. Some of them went on to become ministers in the Portuguese Government, senior advocates and judges at the Supreme Court of Lisbon and distinguished themselves as University professors and in other fields of activity in Portugal and elsewhere in the world.
Konkani ought to be taught in schools through the Devanagari script. Devanagari is important for access to Indian culture and other Indian languages. The importance of national languages and assertion of national cultural identity is growing everywhere in the world. India is not and should not be an exception. In emerging India it will be necessary to be fluent in at least two Indian languages, the local language and Hindi for success in mainstream economy and society. English is at present the main international language. In this globalised world the importance of English is inescapable and English may be taught as a subject from the 3rd standard.
Parents have the right to decide on the medium of instruction for their children. However, under Article 21 A of the Constitution, it is for the State to determine the medium of instruction in schools to which it will provide grants for free education.
The emergence of the “knowledge society” where knowledge is the primary asset rather than capital or labour makes universal literacy and quality education a must. Government should formulate with a sense of urgency a comprehensive strategy and allot sufficient resources to improve drastically the quality of education in Goa.
(The writer is a former Union Minister)