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Pradhanji and Me: The Soft Underbelly of Data

Family members and neighbours watch as a child is trying to read in a village in Jehanabad district, Bihar, India. ©Rukmini Banerji

It is hard to visualize how numbers come to be. It is hard to connect the dots, to move from individual anecdotes to aggregates. Even a village can be a big place.

We were in a village in Sultanpur district in Uttar Pradesh. Our aim was multifold: to understand if children were going to school, whether they could read and do basic arithmetic, while also involving people in the village to think about these issues and do something if needed. The process we used was straightforward. We started with a simple, one-page assessment tool which had letters, words, sentences and paragraphs, numbers and basic mathematical operations. To start, we picked a hamlet and moved slowly from one house to another, from one family to the next and asked each child to do the reading tasks, and to count and to calculate. Once everyone saw what was being done, more and more people joined in to help.

As was customary, before embarking on this village report card exercise, we went to the village leader, the Pradhan, as he is called in the region. This Pradhan-ji, like many others, was a very busy man. He had a dairy business and on the day we met him he was milking his cows. When I tried to explain what we were about to do, he cut me short. “Survey? You are doing a survey?” he asked. Under his breath he muttered, “survey, survey, survey.” Seeing that he was busy and sensing his lack of interest, we went ahead. We continued our movement from hamlet to hamlet, talking to children, explaining to their families, chatting with the grandmothers, with neighbours, with shopkeepers, asking children to participate in the simple tasks. Soon, curious onlookers became participants. They too began to interact with boys and girls of school-going age.

As always, children were very excited to get one-on-one attention and to be “asked” to do a task. As each tried to read and to do simple calculations, parents and neighbours watched. They were proud when a child could do the task. But at times, they were shocked to see that their child could not do these simple assignments even though he or she had been in school for several years. This activity usually led to heated discussions — analysing the source of the problem, debating what could be done about solutions. For many parents, who had not had much education, this was often their first exposure and engagement and perhaps the first set of exchanges in how to think about their children’s schooling and learning.

In a few days we were done. Every child and every family in every hamlet had been involved. We went back to share the report card with the village leader. This time too, Pradhanji was busy. Despite our introductory remarks, he hardly looked up at us or at the report. “Where do I have to sign,” he asked curtly. “Where do I have to sign before you send this to your higher-ups.” Feeling slightly irritated, I replied, “There is nowhere to sign. The report does not go anywhere.” With a cursory glance at me, Pradhanji suggested, “Go ask your superiors. Figures always go up. Surveys are for you people who don’t know. We already know.”

I took another crack at getting his attention. “Shall I tell you what the report says?” I asked hopefully. “It says that almost all children are in school, but more than half cannot read as yet or do basic sums.” Pradhanji looked up at me sharply. “That is false,” he declared confidently. “I know how surveys are done. You go to a few houses and then you get tired. Off to the tea shop you go and then you sit and just fill in numbers into your sheets. That’s how surveys are done.” Now there were low murmurs from the crowd that had gathered. Not only had many people seen how the exercise was done, but many had also participated. This survey was not like all those other surveys.

Pradhanji put down the bucket of milk he had been holding. He refused to believe the data: “It cannot be,” he said. (While I could see his disbelief, it was interesting to me how “false” and “not true” seemed to be different categories for him.) “How could it be that so many children cannot read when they had been going to school?” he pondered.

There was only one way to settle the matter. Pradhanji decided to find out for himself. Armed with the single page reading test, he marched through the village and called out to nearby children to come and read. After watching the first six or seven children with astonishment, his alarm grew. He could see that the village report card was accurate. Pradhanji was now convinced. He had seen the problem with his own eyes. He declared that this was a crisis — a ‘matter of honour’ that had to be rectified. The “discovery” of the problem through the simple exercise of asking children to read led him immediately to call a big village meeting and to mobilize time and resources to help the children who were getting left behind.

Even though we’ve been facilitating the Annual Status of Education Report for more than a decade, each year we hear similar stories.

At times, just having data is not enough. If there is no question in your mind, no curiosity, then you are not looking for answers. Engaging is the first step. But if the process is complicated or time-consuming, then you hesitate to get involved. From engagement comes the next step — the desire to know more, to probe, to compare, to contrast, to analyse, to look for patterns or trends. Doing is learning and learning is doing. In a context where there is not much of a culture of measurement, assumptions and opinions, stories and events, hold more sway. First-hand experience is essential. Only that experience seems to change minds.

It is hard to visualize how numbers come to be. It is hard to connect the dots, to move from individual anecdotes to aggregates. Even a village can be a big place. But in our experience of pulling together village report cards, we could see that in the hamlet or in the immediate neighbourhood, where everyone knows everyone and where the process of collecting data was visible and participatory, it was relatively easy to see how individuals’ information, when brought together, became an aggregate figure. People participated not only in assessing, but also in a constant flow of conversation with those around them — what was the problem, what is to be done, who will do it, when, and so on. This is how evidence led to action.

This guest post was written by Dr. Rukmini Banerji, CEO of Pratham Education Foundation. IDinsight has been proud to partner with Pratham on supporting some of their work in education in India.