WHEN the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rolled out its manifesto for the 2014 general election, revitalising India’s education sector was one of its core commitments. It promised to make India a “knowledge superpower” and announced the redrafting of the National Education Policy (NEP) with emphasis on quality, innovation, outcome and industry linkage. However, there has been no forward movement in terms of delivering on these promises. The committee entrusted with drafting the new NEP missed its fourth deadline, and overhauling the education sector, battered by a shortage of trained staff and missing infrastructure, remains a distant dream. If anything, the Narendra Modi government will go down in history as one that systematically and consistently reduced funds for education and that too at a time when India’s international ranking in the education indices continued to plummet. As per the Legatum Prosperity Index, India’s rank in education dipped from 92 in 2015 to 104 in 2018 amongst 140 plus countries.
Experts see this deterioration in India’s performance as an inevitable consequence of reduced spending. In its first year, 2014-15, the Modi government reduced the allocation for education, from 4.77 per cent to 4.61 per cent of the Budget. This downward trend continued in the next three years, when the spending on education was further squeezed to 3.89 per cent, 3.66 per cent and 3.17 per cent, respectively.
To understand how this cut in spending impacted the overall quality of education, two things need to be considered. One, the glaring lack of trained manpower, infrastructure and other facilities in the education sector, and, two, how the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Delhi attempted to overcome these shortcomings by increasing the allotment of funds.
When the AAP ascended to power in Delhi in 2015 and presented its first Budget, it allocated Rs.9,836 crore for education, an increase of 106 per cent over the previous government’s Budget. Manish Sisodia, Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister, who also holds the Education portfolio, pointed out at that time that “the money spent on education and health is not an expense but an investment in the well-being of coming generations”.
Even in the current fiscal year, 26 per cent of Delhi’s Budget was allocated for education. The changes were visible. The Delhi government was not only successful in constructing over 8,000 classrooms in government schools and kick-starting construction of 12,000 more, but also in upgrading existing classrooms with modern amenities such as projectors, besides setting up laboratories and conference halls for extracurricular activities. In Delhi, more than 280 government schools have been running in double shifts because of high enrolment of students, and the AAP took note of it and constructed additional classrooms to address the adverse student-classroom ratio. This was made possible by the availability of funds.
The Centre, however, is indifferent to the crying need for infrastructure and recruitment of staff in government schools across India. Minister of State for Human Resource Development Satya Pal Singh said in a statement in the Lok Sabha on January 1, 2019, that 92,275 government schools were run with only one teacher for all the subjects. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2018 survey revealed that one in every four schools in rural India did not have an electricity connection. Notwithstanding this, the Centre has continued to reduce budgetary allocation for education; it fell from 0.64 per cent of the gross domestic product in 2014-15 to 0.45 per cent in 2019-20.
The Centre is now scaling down funding for infrastructural development and encouraging the practice of generating loans through the Higher Education Financing Agency (HEFA). The government has made it clear that it will only commit itself to clearing the interest on loans accrued under HEFA. The principal loan will have to be repaid by the educational institutions through internal accruals. This may lead to major fee hikes. Contrary to this, the AAP government focussed on saving students and their parents from being exploited by private players. In May 2018, it directed 575 private schools in Delhi to refund excess fees along with a 9 per cent interest on it.
Efforts were also on to ensure qualitative improvement in imparting of education in government schools. In a first-of-its-kind exercise, the Delhi government sent a group of 200 teachers to train at the National Institute of Education in Singapore, and they were thereafter accorded the status of “mentor teachers”. The objective was to leverage their newly gained expertise and upgrade the pedagogic abilities of Delhi’s 45,000 plus community of government schoolteachers.
A total of 25 new schools were set up; 31 more are under construction. The Delhi government asserts that it is working towards making government schools on a par with private and public schools so that more and more students are willing to enrol in government schools and secure quality education that is also affordable. According to media reports, in 2017, Sarvodaya Co-Ed Secondary School in Delhi’s Rohini locality saw some 900 students from private schools joining it.
On the other hand, the Modi government has continuously received flak for attempting to privatise the education sector. The government announced autonomy for 60 higher educational institutions. The beneficiaries include five Central universities, 21 State universities and 24 deemed universities. Autonomy empowers these universities to launch new education centres and offer new courses and off-campus branches of existing institutions. There is apprehension that since the government has not committed itself to any separate funding for these prospective new institutions, the fees will increase exponentially, and private players may take control of their management.
Reforming the University Grants Commission (UGC) and transforming it into a higher education commission too remains a distant dream. Political and economic observers have dismissed the much-talked-about Institutions of Eminence scheme launched by the Centre. They argue that the Rs.1,000 crore allocations envisaged under it may not be enough to equip institutions with world-class facilities and elevate India’s position in the global education map. In July 2018, the Institution of Eminence status was granted to the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, the Indian Institutes of Technology in Mumbai and Delhi, Manipal University, BITS Pilani and the yet-to-be-started Jio Institute linked to the Ambani group. The selection of an Ambani-associated institution and the ignoring of institutions critical of the government led to a public uproar amid questions on the very efficacy and objective of the scheme.
Compared with this, the AAP has been successful with most of the flagship programmes it launched. Its array of innovative programmes in government schools, more notably Chunauti 2018 that supports the last child in the class to learn, Kala Utsav to promote artistic talent, online capacity building programmes for teachers, and a happiness curriculum to stimulate good mental health and resilience, have delivered results. The testimony to that came last year, when the results of the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) examination for Class 12 were declared. The pass percentage of Delhi government schools increased from 88.36 per cent in the previous year to 90.68 per cent. The overall performance of Delhi government schools was the second best in the country, after Thiruvananthapuram (Kerala).
The Centre, on the other hand, has failed to address even core issues such as the dismal teacher-student ratio in schools. According to the government’s own admission in July 2018, over 10 lakh teachers’ posts in schools are lying vacant. It was not surprising that ASER found that the proportion of Class 8 students who could not even read a Class 2 level text was 25.3 per cent in 2014. This increased to 27 per cent in 2018. The Centre’s focus has remained on promoting itself rather than on delivering tangible results. This was evident from the fact that 56 per cent of the funds allotted for the flagship Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao programme were spent in advertisement of the scheme.
The Centre cuts a sorry figure for the fact that instead of prioritising education, it has attempted to create roadblocks for the Delhi government. It was brazenly evident when the appointment of Atishi Marlena, who worked as adviser to Education Minister Sisodia at a salary of Rs.1 a month and was at the forefront of conceptualising and implementing key schemes, was cancelled along with that of eight other advisers on the grounds that the Delhi government had not taken the Centre’s assent for the same. Sisodia, in a tweet dated April 17, 2018, said: “Modi Govt’s order to remove Delhi govt advisers is a conspiracy to derail education revolution in Delhi. Real intention of the order is to paralyse our govt work, since no BJP govt has been able to deliver anything on education & health.”