A government that does not see the right to education as a basic national priority to be addressed urgently does not deserve to govern.
WHEN the balance sheet of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government is eventually drawn up, the failure to ensure universal school education will be a very large entry on the debit side. There is really no excuse for this failure.
Ever since the constitutional amendment to Article 21A was unanimously passed in Parliament in December 2002, it has been incumbent upon the Central government to introduce legislation to ensure the right to education of every child between 6 and 14 years of age.
The National Democratic Alliance government, which introduced this amendment, did not make a push to enact a law in this regard in the remaining one and a half years of its term. It was then expected that the UPA government would not only introduce the necessary legislation but also put in place resources and mechanisms to ensure universal and quality schooling at least at the elementary level.
Indeed, this was among the promises made by the UPA in its National Common Minimum Programme, which states: The UPA government pledges to raise public spending in education to least 6 per cent of GDP [gross domestic product] with at least half this amount being spent on primary and secondary sectors. The UPA government will introduce a cess on all central taxes to finance the commitment to universalise access to quality basic education. A National Commission on Education will be set up to allocate resources and monitor programmes.
Yet, more than four years on, these promises have not been met. And even the basic constitutional responsibility of introducing legislation for the right to education has not been fulfilled. The Central governments spending on education as a share of the GDP has barely increased in the past four Budgets despite tall claims to the contrary, and public spending on school education is nowhere near the promised 6 per cent.
What is worse, two measures of the UPA government actually indicated that it was downgrading the emphasis on school education. The first was the reduction in Central funding to the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA, or education for all) programme from 50 per cent to 35 per cent and to a proposed 25 per cent in the future. This measure was imposed even though it was strongly opposed by all State governments (including those led by the Congress party). It is likely to lead to reduced capacity to achieve universal schooling, especially in the poorer and more backward States. And the resulting shortage of resources in States will also adversely affect the quality of school education in the government system.
The second move was even more cynical an attempt to evade the constitutional responsibility of the Central government to ensure the right to education by passing the onus on to the States. Even though Article 21A explicitly mandates the Centre, the convenient ruse of federalism, given that school education is a concurrent subject in the Constitution, was used to argue that such Bills should really be passed by individual States. Accordingly, a model Bill (which contained much that was objectionable in itself) was circulated to State governments with the incentive of renewing the 50 per cent Central funding for the SSA if the State concerned passed a similar law.
This obviously made a mockery of the right to education as a right of all children of India. It also effectively ensured that universal schooling would not happen because the resources to fund it would simply not be made available by the Centre. After many protests and almost universal condemnation, the model Bill sent to the States was withdrawn. But the all-important Central legislation for the right to education has still not been tabled in Parliament, and the UPA government is clearly unwilling to take on the financial responsibility that must be a part of it.
Meanwhile, the relatively small cess that was proclaimed as the source of new funds for school education provides only about enough to pay for the provision of midday meals in schools something that the Central government was forced to do under the direction of the Supreme Court in response to a public interest litigation.
So it is now clear that despite its rhetoric and promises, the UPA government is really not concerned about school education and does not see it as a priority. This is more than a simple failure of policy it is also a huge social, political and economic tragedy for the people of the country. The lack of adequate public spending on school education will have major adverse effects in the future, by affecting the quality of our society, the productivity of our workers and the health of our democracy.
Two important recent books dealing with elementary education bring out all these points and more: Indias Tryst with Elementary Education in the Time of Reforms: Policy Constraints and Institutional Gaps by Praveen Jha and Pooja Parvati; Books for Change, 2008, and Public Provisioning for Elementary Education in India by Praveen Jha, Subrat Das, Siba Sankar Mohanty and Nandan Kumar Jha; Sage Publications, 2008.
One of the signs of the lack of public attention to education is the poor quality of data on schooling. Even the actual public expenditure on elementary education is hard to calculate, especially as it is done by a multiplicity of departments and by the Centre and the States. Jha et al make a brave and extremely useful attempt to quantify the total actual spending on elementary education by the Central government in four States (Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat and Rajasthan) and in two districts (Alwar in Rajasthan and Gaya in Bihar). Their results are startling.
Expenditure on education as a proportion of the total budget expenditure declined quite sharply at the Centre and in all these States, from 19.1 per cent in 1995-96 to 13.3 per cent in 2004-05. And it has been dominated by non-Plan spending, with salaries alone accounting for more than 90 per cent in the four States.
The news thereafter is not so good either: while the UPA government had promised to increase its education spending substantially, it has still not increased this spending as a proportion of the GDP. Both books highlight one very critical point: that quality in schooling is closely related to resources and that minimum quality standards cannot be attained without minimum public expenditure. They further show that actual levels of public spending per child have consistently been well below the levels required to achieve such minimum quality and that per student spending in real terms has not increased.
The recent expansion in schooling has been based on a suppression of the minimum norms for schools and teachers, that is, by hiring less qualified para teachers at a fraction of the salaries that would be paid to regular teachers, by providing little or no basic infrastructure for schools, and by generally underproviding resources. And even with this blatant disregard for minimum standards, universal enrolment has not been achieved and retention is poor.
But doing things on the cheap is rarely effective, and this is evident in the results of such miserliness. A telling quotation from more than four decades ago captures the problem: Our Constitution fathers did not intend when they enacted Article 45 that we just set up hovels or any sort of structure, put students there, give them untrained teachers, give them bad textbooks, no playgrounds, and say we have complied with Article 45 and primary education is expanding. The compliance that was intended, as I said, by our Constitution fathers was a substantial compliance. They meant that real education should be given to our children between the ages of 6 to 14 (M.C. Chagla, then Education Minister, to the Central Advisory Board of Education in 1964).
It is appalling to think that the same situation persists today, six decades after the Constitution was framed and six years after a constitutional amendment to ensure the right to education. A government that still does not see this as a basic national priority to be addressed urgently does not deserve to govern.