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Short shrift to school education

Print edition : Mar 23, 2007 T+T-
At a government-run primary school in Howrah district of West Bengal.-ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY

At a government-run primary school in Howrah district of West Bengal.-ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY

It is clear from the Union Budget that the government continues to wash its hands of the financial commitment necessary to ensure universal school education.

IT is difficult to figure out what exactly the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government wants. On the one hand, from the declaration of the National Common Minimum Programme (NCMP) onwards, the government has declared that it will make education a major thrust area, that it will increase public spending on education to at least 6 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) and take measures to make India a "knowledge-based" society and economy.

On the other hand, both in the pattern of spending in the past two years and in the Budget allocations for the coming financial year, as well as in its remarkably derelict attitude to the Right to Education Bill, the government appears to suggest that educating all the young people is not a real concern.

Indeed, thus far everything suggests that despite all the lofty promises and grandiose claims, school education will continue to receive niggardly treatment from this government. What is worse, funds for flagship programmes such as the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) have not been increased but actually have been cut, despite the fact that the Constitution 86th Amendment to Article 21, which was passed in 2002, has mandated the public provision of universal schooling for eight years to every child in India.

It is a well-known fact that financial statements of governments are not always what they seem to be. Even so, the Finance Minister appears to have taken such sophistry to new heights, to the point that in many cases, when he declares greater focus on and attention to a certain area, it is effectively a code for less spending.

Take this statement from his Budget speech a few days ago in Parliament: "In allocating resources, school education must have primacy. Hence, I propose to increase the allocation for school education by about 35 per cent from Rs.17,133 crore in 2006-07 to Rs.23,142 crore in 2007-08... . Out of this amount, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan will be provided Rs.10,671 crore."

The casual listener would be forgiven for thinking that this is a welcome indication of the government finally taking its responsibility for universal schooling seriously, in terms of increasing allocations as a minimum necessary step towards this goal. However, a closer look at the actual numbers reveals that the allocation for the SSA is proposed to be brought down by more than Rs.385 crore (around 4 per cent decline) from the amount that was spent last year.

So how has this "35 per cent increase" come about? It turns out that the only significant expansion in elementary education is in the midday meal programme (formally known as "Nutritional Support to Primary Education"), for which the allocation has increased by 37 per cent to just under Rs.6,600 crore. This increase is simply because the Supreme Court has directed the Central government to provide funds to ensure that the midday meal programme is operationalised in all elementary schools in the country, but even this amount falls short of the estimated requirement.

The other increase in the school education budget has come about at least partly by sleight of hand. The departments within the Ministry of Human Resource Development have been reorganised, and so spending on secondary education has simply been moved from the Department of Higher Education to the Department of School Education and Literacy.

It is true that the allocation for secondary education has indeed increased by just under Rs.2,000 crore. But it is immediately evident that this is not even a small proportion of the requirement for meeting the growing demand given the population bulge and the need to ensure universal education up to Class VIII and increasing enrolment up to Class X. (Since elementary education covers only up to Class V, the resources for Classes VI to VIII have to be met from the secondary education budget.) So clearly the Central government continues to wash its hands of the financial commitment that will be necessary to ensure universal school education.

This is despite the fact that the goal of "sarva shiksha" is nowhere near being reached. While enrolment at the primary stages has improved (the current enrolment being around 93 per cent according to the recent survey by Pratham, a non-governmental organisation) the dropout rates remain very high, especially of girls. Even by the end of elementary school (Class V) the Pratham survey finds that at least 25 per cent of children in the relevant age group will not complete elementary education. And standards of learning are quite poor on average, even among those who do stay on.

Of course, this reflects major problems of quality, relevance and accountability in our government school system, but it is also a direct result of the poor quality of infrastructure. Indeed, given the shortage of classrooms, basic facilities such as electrical fittings, toilets and teaching aids, not to mention the shortage of teachers and the preponderance of multi-grade classrooms with single teachers, it is a wonder that enrolment does not drop further.

In fact, it speaks volumes for the significance that is increasingly placed upon education by parents from all income groups and all walks of life; so much so that children are asked to brave atrocious conditions and many obstacles in order to somehow get an education.

But then this should impart much more urgency to the government's programme to ensure good quality universal school education. This is not only because education is becoming a major demand of the people but because our society cannot hope to progress in any meaningful way without it.

Despite all these irrefutable arguments, it is now common to find among policymakers in Delhi the argument that school education being in the concurrent list, State governments should provide for it. The distortion of the promised Right to Education Bill, involving the proposal to suggest a model bill to be enacted by State governments in non-compulsory fashion and without any additional financial commitment by the Centre, is one example of this callous and cynical attitude. The reduction of the proposed outlay on elementary education in the coming years is another.

If all these numbers are correct, then how has this Budget been interpreted as a budget for education? It turns out that this is almost entirely owing to the expansion in outlays for higher education - to the tune of around Rs.4,000 crore additional allocation - which is almost all going to Central universities and other institutions allowing them to expand to meet the recommendations of the "Oversight Committee" (M. Veerappa Moily Committee) regarding reservation for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in higher education.

Of course, such expansion of existing institutions is to be welcomed, especially if it does not affect the quality of teaching, but it is certainly no substitute for increasing resources to other areas of education. Unfortunately, even for higher education, there has been hardly any provision in the Budget for expansion in the form of new public universities and other institutions, which the country desperately needs.

So it seems that in education as in so many other areas, the UPA government began well in terms of recognising the problems and identifying the crucial priorities in its NCMP , but is now gone almost completely off track. It has already been shown how damaging this can be to the ruling party politically - its remains to be seen whether the lesson will be learnt in time.