THE MOVING FINGER WRITES
By M.V. Kamath
“India’s Education Budget has more than doubled in the last five years, increasing from Rs 152,847 crore in FY 2004-05 to Rs 372,813 crore in FY 2009-10. An estimated 45 per cent of India’s education expenditure are now dedicated to elementary education. However, close scrutiny of India’s educational system reveals a sobering truth – that the large investment has been spent poorly”. Thus states the most recent Annual Status of Education Report (ASER 2010).
According to ASER “increased investments have failed to improve education outcomes” and “despite significant financial investments, India’s education system is, in fact …. in a ‘Big Stuck’.” How comes? How come the system has got stuck? And who is responsible for it? As the ASER sees it, the links between allocation, plans and expenditure are seriously damaged. This, according to the report, is evidenced in three ways: One, states that have seen the highest increases in investment in redent years are also the poorest spenders. Two, Funds flows are extremely slow, breaking the link between planning and expenditures and three, there is no clear co-relation between school needs and increased expenditure. These are scandalous findings, and call not only for correction, but logical explanation and, where explanations are unsatisfactory, adequate punishment of bureaucrats.
The Government of India’s agent for delivering elementary education is the Sarva Shikshan Abhiyan (SSA) which has been in operation since 2001. The ASER asserts that the SSA budget has increased significantly in the last five years from Rs 7,156 crore in 2005-06 to Rs 15,000 crore in 2010-11. The point is made – and it is quite understandable – that the distribution of the funds indicates “a clear link between resource allocation and perceived needs”. After all, if a state is educationally backward and financially poor, increased central help is most needed to correct the situation. Thus, Government of India’s SSA share for Bihar, generally considered a backward state, has nearly doubled in the last four years from Rs 2,414 crore in FY 2006-07 to Rs 4,295 crore in 2007-10. But has it helped? Here comes some painful revelation. Though it has received the largest increase in SSA allocation, it is also the poorest spender. In FY 2009-10 it apparently spent only one half (51 per cent) of its allocated funds. West Bengal and Rajasthan seem to have been better organised, but not Uttarakhand and Chhatisgarh which have reportedly performed poorly, though West Bengal with its record of spending 74 per cent of allocated funds has a better record while Rajasthan has done just as well with a percentage of 89. Explanations for poor performance are not wanting. One explanation is that fund flows do not arrive on time. Another explanation is that most of the funds are spent on hiring teachers. Bihar hired an astounding 2.5 lakh teachers since 2007. But that doesn’t mean a thing.
According to a report in The New Sunday Express (4 December 2011), most of the teachers recruited “cannot spell”! The paper reported an academician, Prof RN Sharma as saying “with the appointment of sub-standard teachers, the quality of primary teaching has deteriorated drastically”. How deteriorated is the quality is shown by the ASER report which states in general that 39 per cent of Standard V school children in rural India is incapable of even solving a “two digit subtraction problem which 52 per cent cannot read a Standard II level text”. The charge is made that teachers are largely appointed on a caste basis and not on the basis of talent. The approach is one of providing jobs to the unemployed rather than providing good education for children. Worse, students – such as those who attend classes – are automatically promoted from Standard I to higher Standards and no thought is given to whether they deserve promotion, on the principle that if a child is not promoted, it will psychologically be disturbed.
As the ASER says, “The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009 provides that all children will automatically progress from Grade I through to Grade VIII without detention for any cause. In light of the fact that the existing system is unable to guarantee learning by children, this provision is likely to exacerbate the situation. We need to urgently focus on ensuring adequate infrastructure, teachers, accountability and learning, if the next generation is not to be lost”. In most rural primary schools, ‘adequate infra-structure’ is sadly lacking. Few have toilets or access to drinking water. There is often not enough classroom space; this makes for students from different standards occupying the same classroom. Children who attend government primary schools usually hail from the poorer sections of society.
According to The New Indian Express 75 per cent of people live below the poverty line (BPL). Bihar has 1.5 crore BPL families. While the doors to primary schools may be open, those who enter in are a minority. As the ASER notes, “in states where the system is less efficient, attendance seems to be dropping by the year”. The truth, if it is to be told, is that there is no leadership either among politicians or among bureaucrats to get things done. Corruption prevails. Money can be siphoned off. Attendance may have dropped, but enrolment in schools has contrariwise increased. Many attribute it to the midday meal schemes of the Central Government. If one remembers that a rural Bihari lives on an average of Rs 26 a day – the lowest in India – for a child to get a free midday meal through enrolment at school becomes a stern necessity. But it is unfair to dismiss the entire system against the Bihar background.
Things are much better, apparently, in Punjab where official motivation has helped and “a remarkable officer known for his effectiveness in various departments” was placed at the helm of SSA. Which only shows that where there is a Will, there is a Way. The SSA report put it just right when it noted that (a) A strong and consistent leadership is needed to bring about change and (b) there is a need for an evident sense of urgency”. Then everything automatically falls in place.