PRIMARY education in India has the history of being an object of neglect by the Indian state through the 60 years of Independence. First, the state has never regarded the provision of education to children as a legal duty, as most modern nations have. In other words, the need for a compulsory education law that would universalise education was never seriously considered. India is one of the few modern nations that has not yet banned all forms of child labour. Secondly, while most modern nations have expanded their educational systems through significant public spending, public financing of education in India has always been inadequate. The share of expenditure on education has only rarely exceeded 3 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) in India, while the international average is close to 5 per cent. Thirdly, while in many modern nations educational expansion has gone hand in hand with substantive social transformation, large parts of India are yet to undergo such transformation. Class, caste and gender discriminations have persisted on a mass scale in Indian society, fostering corresponding differentials in educational achievements.
In 2003-04, according to official estimates, about 52 per cent of children were out of school at the elementary education level. The corresponding share was higher at about 59 per cent for Dalits and 70 per cent for Adivasis. Even among children who enrolled, dropout rates were large; in 2003-04, the average dropout rate at the elementary level was about 52 per cent. In the age group of 5-14 years, there were about 13 million child workers as per Census 2001.
The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government assumed power in 2004, riding on a historic verdict of the people against the neoliberal policies of its predecessor. While there were no illusions of any significant shift of policy, there was the hope that a sincere effort to address some of the concerns in education would begin under the UPA. The Common Minimum Programme of the UPA pledged to raise public spending in education to at least 6 per cent of the GDP. In part, this increase was to be financed through an education cess on Central taxes. A legislation that ensured right to education as a fundamental right was also promised. The midday meal scheme was to be made a national scheme for all primary and secondary schools.
The total public spending on education has been falling sharply as a share of GDP from 1999-2000 onwards (see chart). In 1999-2000, India spent 3.3 per cent of its GDP on education. When the UPA government took over in 2004, educational spending stood at 3 per cent of the GDP. After 2004, this share actually fell for the first three years and then rose to settle at 3 per cent in 2007-08 (the last year for which revised Budget figures are available). Tentative Budget estimates of expenditure and the GDP show a possible fall of public spending in 2009-10 to below 3 per cent. Clearly, in spite of introducing an educational cess, the UPA government was unable to prevent the fall in total public spending on education after 2004.
The increase in public expenditure on education was to be achieved in a phased manner. Economists C.P. Chandrasekhar and Jayati Ghosh have prepared a set of estimates on the annual increase in public educational spending that is required to gradually achieve the target of 6 per cent of the GDP by 2009-10 (Table 1). As per their estimates, the actual expenditure on education in 2007-08 should have been Rs. 2.2 lakh crore, equivalent to a public spending to GDP ratio of 5.5 per cent. As this amount was to be spent by the Centre and States together, a part of this amount should have been devolved to States in some tied fashion. However, for every year after 2004, the actual public spending on education was significantly lower than the required amount. In 2007-08, the total public spending on education in India was only Rs.1.4 lakh crore: a deficit of 36 per cent.
It may be argued that the Central governments spending on education has risen as a share of the GDP. While that may be true, the inability of the UPA government to ensure a rise in States spending on education cannot be sidestepped. In fact, in many ways, the UPA government has continued to tie the hands of States in the sphere of spending choices. One of the most important barriers to the States spending on the social sector is the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act. The Act mandates all States to reduce their revenue deficit to zero, and fiscal deficit to 3 per cent, by around 2010. In this situation, States have shied away from spending and have preferred to park surplus funds in the intermediate treasury bills of the Reserve Bank of India. As on March 6 2009, States had an investment outstanding of a whopping Rs.96,182 crore in these treasury bills. The complicity of the UPA government in engendering this situation cannot be missed. In some of the flagship schemes of the Central government, such as the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), there was an absolute fall in expenditure after 2007. The Budget outlay for the SSA, which was Rs.12,020 crore in 2007-08 (Revised Estimate), fell to Rs.11,940 crore in 2008-09 (Revised Estimate) and Rs.11,934 crore in 2009-10 (Budget Estimate). Further, the share of States contribution to the SSA has been raised, without corresponding increases in total devolution to States.
The 86th constitutional amendment had established the right to education in India as a fundamental right. The UPA government delayed the tabling of the law that operationalise this amendment in Parliament for about two years. A Draft Model Bill was circulated in 2006. There was strong criticism that the provisions of the Bill undermined the spirit of the constitutional amendment. The Bill placed the onus of ensuring the childs presence in school on the parents while absolving the state of any responsibility in either ensuring provision or enforcing the law. Also, while a 2005 draft of the Bill contained a provision to reserve 25 per cent of seats in private schools to poor children, the provision was deleted from the 2006 Model Bill. Given its present form, there is little chance of the Bill addressing the issues of enrolment and drop-out in any substantive manner.
Contrary to the claims of a section of civil society activists and non-governmental organisations, backwardness in education continues to be acute in India (Table 2). Data compiled by the National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA) show that the share of girls and Dalits enrolment in total primary enrolment has remained largely unchanged between 2002-03 and 2007-08. The state of educational infrastructure is poorly developed: in 2007-08, 27 per cent of schools did not have pucca buildings, 13 per cent did not have drinking water facility, and 50 per cent did not have a separate girls toilet. Studies show that even while these facilities are available, their quality remains poor.
In a development that undermines the right to free primary education, there has been a growth of private schools; the share of government schools among all schools providing elementary education declined from 86.3 per cent in 2003 to 81.2 in 2007. The neglect of the public school system and the encouragement of the private school system characterise the neoliberal ideological orientation of the UPAs educational policy.
Reflecting the squeeze on finances, the number of single-teacher schools has risen from 2 per cent in 2002-03 to 10 per cent in 2007-08. Another outcome of the financial squeeze is that almost all the new appointments in primary schools are of a short-term contract nature; these grossly underpaid teachers are known by different names: para-teachers, shiksha-mitras, contract teachers, and so on. The quality of teaching has been the casualty under this cost-cutting policy.
In sum, the task of universalisation of education remains as big a challenge in 2009 as it was in 2004. Experience shows that the success in completing this task is contingent on the degree to which the problem is progressively politicised. To be certain, the UPA government has proved to be a major failure in this regard.
R. Ramakumar is Assistant Professor, School of Social Sciences, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.