Last month, the Kannada Development Authority, a government body, asked bank employees in the state to learn Kannada within six months or risk losing their job. In July, Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah voiced a similar statement and said, “We will not tolerate any attack on our language, land and water. Protecting Kannada land and Kannada people is our responsibility.” This ‘protection of Kannada’ has most recently manifested as the removal of Hindi sign boards from Bengaluru’s metro stations.
Karnataka has had a storied history when it comes to linguistic pride in Kannada, with the debate going all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1989 and 1994, the Government of Karnataka issued orders making ‘the mother tongue’ the medium of instruction from the first standard to the fourth standard. These orders were challenged in court, and a full bench of the Karnataka High Court upheld the orders’ validity in 2008.
An appeal against the High Court’s judgement led to it being overturned by a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court. In the final ruling, the Court observed, “the imposition of mother tongue affects the fundamental rights under Articles 19, 29 and 30 of the Constitution.”
In May this year the Karnataka government passed another order stating, “Kannada language shall be taught as a compulsory language in all classes (1-10), in all schools in the state, either as a first language or as a second language in a phased manner.” This includes CBSE, ICSE, and linguistic minority schools.
Kannada medium schools facing extinction
But how much of the political posturing and electoral rhetoric translate to meaningful allocation of resources and commitment of political will when it comes to promoting Kannada? With our ear to the ground, we visited over two dozen schools in the Udupi district to see if the lofty political commitments had resulted in Kannada medium schools being granted sufficient funds. We visited English and Kannada medium schools in Udupi, Parkala, Brahmavara and Manipal. These included private, government-run and government-aided institutions. What we saw suggested that the focus on Kannada proficiency “downstream”; that is, in public spaces and government offices, is futile if Kannada schools “upstream” are left wanting for attention and resources.
While most schools fulfilled 98 percent of the Right To Education (RTE) indicators in terms of school infrastructure, poor pupil-teacher ratios and dismal teaching quality plague most Kannada medium schools. “No school in India teaches English in the right manner. English medium schools, in that sense, provide a slight edge over Kannada medium schools and hence parents opt for it thinking that it would result in better jobs,” says Dr Mahabaleswar Rao, Principal, TMA Pai College of Education, Udupi. “When new batches arrive in teacher training colleges, the issues related to English language learning and teaching persist since no one has tried to teach it better. Ideally, a child has to have ample access to her mother-tongue before we introduce L2. But, in this Information Technology and Business scenario, every English medium school is promising an early introduction to English thereby leading to its obvious preference,” he adds.
At one of the oldest Kannada medium schools located in Udupi, the shadow of closure looms large as the students flit in and out of classrooms. “They might insist on speaking in Kannada and promoting Kannada medium schools but the politicians can never implement it since they owe their allegiance to English medium schools where they might even be board members.” says a headmaster. “In ten years, this school will close down owing to lack of adequate enrolments”, he adds.
In the district of Dakshina Kannada, in addition to Tulu and Kannada, languages such as Urdu, Konkani and Beary Bashe are spoken across the coastal belt. As a language spoken by an estimated 35 million people across the world, Kannada does not face any immediate endangerment. Then why this insistence on making Kannada compulsory? “The issue that we have at hand is not mere protection of the language. We need to talk about preserving Kannada as a medium of instruction in schools.” says Dr Rao.
Numbers paint a grim picture
As per 2011-12 DISE data, the total number of Kannada medium schools across the state is 60,817 as compared to the 9,874 English medium schools. However, in 2016 alone, the number of government primary schools, the majority being Kannada medium, that were closed across the state was a staggering 2,168. In the district of Udupi, in spite of a slight increase in the number of Kannada medium government primary schools (1998-2013), the enrolment of students has gone down from 91,298 to 55,520. Contrast this with the increase in the number of unaided English medium schools in the district from 52 in 1998 to 125 in 2013 and the increase in the enrolment of students from 10,946 students in 1998 to 44,719 students in 2013. In 2016-17, the number of unaided English medium upper primary schools in Udupi stood at 113, as compared to the 191 Kannada medium upper primary schools. This includes some Kannada medium schools that face the threat of closure because they have fewer than twenty students in a class.
In 2016, the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) issued an order directing students attending schools with fewer than ten enrolments to go to other schools within a 1 km radius or be transferred to a school close by. As a result, nearly 2000-odd Kannada medium schools had to be ‘merged’ across 27 educational districts which also led to the closure of a significant number of Kannada medium schools across the state.
While the move was an initiative taken to conserve financial resources, the suggestion, again, only works to plug the gap within the system. For any child coming from a weak socio-economic background, a merger or the closure of a school would translate to walking an extra mile and coming home an hour later, only to be inundated with household or farm related chores. Not only would this defeat the purpose of ‘providing quality education’, it would also lead to the violation of the RTE norm that stipulates that a primary or secondary school should be established within walking distance (1 km for primary schools and 3 km for secondary schools).
“Some of the Kannada medium schools in Udupi bring children from northern districts of Karnataka such as Raichur, Bijapur just to keep the schools running,” says Devika Rani, a doctoral scholar at Manipal University whose research focuses on language and education. Most of the northern districts of Karnataka are at a disadvantage with respect to their Human Development Indicators (HDI). Health and literacy are low as compared to the southern districts of Karnataka. “Most children hailing from northern districts of Karnataka are children of illiterate or semi-literate migrant labourers. They usually come in search of jobs to places like Udupi only to be absorbed by various industries,” she adds.
In the wake of the recent order from the State government, the demand for Kannada language teachers has gone up. But will the demand translate to the betterment of Kannada medium schools and in turn, promote the language? Not really. The scramble for language teachers at such short notice will now result in the appointment of candidates who aren’t suitably qualified.
The problem of untrained teachers isn’t unique to Karnataka. Just last month, the Union Human Resources Development Ministry launched a massive effort to train 1.1 million class 1-8 teachers under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan by 2019. Under the Right to Education (RTE) Act, these teachers should have completed a bachelor’s or diploma programme in elementary education by 2015, but that has not happened. With states and the centre struggling to meet basic eligibility criteria for qualified teachers, the additional requirement of Kannada competency is sure to make things worse for Karnataka.
The writers are research associates at the CLIL@India project
For in-depth, objective and more importantly balanced journalism, Click here to subscribe to Outlook Magazine