English lessons separate the haves and have-nots
The have-nots, in a state with traditionally high unemployment, are discovering that in a competitive market-place, degrees and paper qualifications are not enough. Skills such as English proficiency decide who gets the best jobs.
In 1981 the Marxist government decreed that for nationalistic reasons English would not be taught in government primary schools. It believed this would also increase the chances of village students staying on, although in many government schools the medium of instruction was already Bengali.
Magad Sengupta, 22, with a degree in accounting, is one of the first generation of students to go through the system. He firmly believes his failure to find a job is linked to the government's decision.
"I have good exam results but I am not confident. I cannot speak or write English well. So many candidates are better than me. I feel very depressed that I am so inadequate," Magad said.
School and college-leavers find they are unable to catch up in proficiency with those who have had five years or more of instruction at primary school. Even the brightest West Bengal graduates find themselves performing poorly in the highly-competitive civil service exams. Compulsory English papers expect essay-type answers which they cannot deal with.
Sought-after higher degrees in management, computing, sciences and engineering are difficult to get into because they require English proficiency. Job mobility between Bengal and other Indian states is slowing down. "No one will hire a West Bengal graduate without English. What use would he be to a company that has projects all over India?" says engineering graduate Amit Chakraborty.
The provincial government reacted to such criticism by abolishing the compulsory English paper in entrance exams to the state's medical, engineering and technology colleges in 1995. But students say this merely postpones the pain until they are actually in the job market.
Educationists warn of a "lost generation" roaming the streets of Bengal.
Many parents send their children to ubiquitous English crammers, or make major sacrifices to send their children to private schools. According to one estimate, some 250 government and government-aided primary schools have shut down in Bengal in the past decade, shunned by parents who feel only a private education can equip their children for the future.
The number of admissions to government schools dropped from 2.5 million to 2.4 million in that period despite a 2.3 per cent population growth rate.
"It's a frightful situation and mostly linked to the ban on English at primary levels," says Kartick Saha of the Save Education Committee. A few years ago the committee collected more than 11 million signatures in less than a month in a campaign for the reintroduction of primary English.
The government insists the experiment has worked well and does not plan to reverse the decision. Irate parents note that government ministers, including chief minister Jyoti Basu, send their children and grandchildren to English-medium private schools and to universities abroad.