Parents win fight for English

8th January 1999 at 00:00
INDIA. After nearly two decades English is back in Calcutta classrooms - a New Year gift from the Marxist government of West Bengal.

It had banned English in state-run elementary schools in the early 1980s to get over the "colonial hangover". The belief was that a child's best bet in formative years was his or her mother tongue - Bengali.

The return of English has been cheered, especially as it coincided with the visit to Calcutta of its prodigal son, the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, a beneficiary of English and modern education who has been urging the Indian education establishment to broaden its horizons.

Re-introduction of English was recommended by a committee which the state government had set up following parents' complaints.

The committee said there was a "widespread desire for English in almost all stations of life, and in all classes and categories of people who just want their children given an opportunity to learn English - the earlier the better".

The committee had been told that the class divide had sharpened as children from English-medium schools had greater social acceptability and better career prospects.

The communist regime was accused of inadvertently helping the English-speaking elite by denying the benefit of English education to the poor.

It was also said that the communist leaders "preached" the virtues of mother tongue while sending their own children to English-medium schools.

Employers started complaining that university graduates who came to them for jobs lacked communication skills in English, creating problems in dealing with foreign investors.

In the summer, a group of industrialists, academics and technocrats launched a "Bengal initiative" to pressure the government to change its policy. The ruling Left Front also discovered its anti-English rhetoric lost it the votes of urban young people in recent elections.

But the pro-English campaigners have won only half the battle. To begin with English will be taught only from third-year primary classes instead of first-year as they had demanded.

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