Social sector

Slogans as policy

Print edition : June 24, 2016

Prime Minister Narendra Modi launching the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan on October 2, 2014. Photo: AFP

A protest meeting demanding the release of Kanhaiya Kumar, president of Jawarlal Nehru University Students' Union, in New Delhi on February 16. Photo: Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters

People queuing up to open bank accounts under Jan Dhan Yojana in August 2014. According to government data, one-third of the accounts remain dormant. Photo: PTI

While the government has stumbled from one blunder to another in its efforts to reorient education ideologically, it has nothing to show beyond grand announcements and empty sloganeering in the social sector.

ONE of the more catchy slogans that have lingered in public memory over the last two years is “Swachh Bharat, Swastha Bharat”, meaning a clean India is a healthy India. It was as though all issues of health and well-being would be taken care of if Indians imbibed good hygiene and sanitation practices.

Issues of supply became secondary, and the debate over the adequacy of the health budget or what was happening in the health care sector was reduced to the framework of sanitation. Public health expenditure by both the States and the Centre has remained low, with the overall allocation being only 0.25 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP). Even the allocations under the National Health Mission, a flagship programme in the health sector, were lower than the Revised Estimates for 2015-16.

According to the Centre for Budgetary Governance and Accountability, the allocations for the Pradhan Mantri Swasthya Suraksha Yojana increased, but, as mentioned in a Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report, nearly 70 per cent of the funds under the head “Establishment of AIIMS type super speciality hospitals cum teaching institutions and upgrading of State government hospitals” remained unutilised in 2014-15.

Health infrastructure has been neglected and universal health care and access to health care remain a mere slogan. A national health policy that has been hanging fire since the tenure of the United Progressive Alliance government has not yet seen the light of day. The draft health policy prepared by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government had some progressive measures such as the proposal to have a National Health Rights Act making health a fundamental right. It acknowledged that to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, public expenditure on health had to be stepped up to 4 to 5 per cent of the GDP. However, it proposed raising it to 2.5 per cent of the GDP. The policy has remained on paper.

Therefore, the government’s measures in this direction have remained ad hoc and have been reduced to sanitation and toilets at best. According to the Citizens’ Report, allocations to the Jan Aushadhi scheme, introduced in 2008, were increased by a very small margin in 2016-17. But, despite an increase in the number of centres, availability of medicines remained a problem area. But Funds for child nutrition interventions were reduced for the second time in a row, despite data from the National Family Health Survey- 4 for 15 States showing that 37 per cent of children under the age of five were stunted; 22 per cent wasted, and 34 per cent underweight.

The 40-year-old Integrated Child Development Services scheme suffered massive cuts, stated the report. The share of the midday meal scheme in the Budget also came down from 0.74 per cent in 2014-15 to 0.49 per cent in the Budget Estimates of 2016-17.

The aggressive push towards private health insurance was also visible as the 2015-16 Budget openly encouraged giving tax relief to those who purchased private health insurance. The report further pointed out that the 93rd Report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health and Family Welfare had severely indicted the failure of the Twelfth Plan to sufficiently allocate funds in the Budget for health. Only 46.6 per cent of the original allocation was actually released. The report concluded that had the entire amount been utilised, it would have strengthened health systems, provided free drugs and diagnostics, facilitated the roll-out of the universal health coverage and effectively implemented the Indian Public Health Standards.

Swacch Bharat Mission

Given the hype around the programme, it was but inevitable that the government would be asked about its progress, especially as it had increasingly become synonymous with good health. The Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation brought out a Swachhta Status Report, based on a quick survey conducted by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) in May-June 2015. The survey of 3,788 villages (73,176 households in rural India and 41,538 in urban India) showed that 36.8 per cent of the wards in urban areas had a proper liquid waste disposal mechanism for community/public toilets. Some 44.4 per cent of villages had no drainage arrangement. Only 36.7 per cent of rural households had a pucci naali (cemented drain) while 19 per cent had a kutchi naali (makeshift drain). Only 56.4 per cent of the wards had some sewerage system for liquid waste disposal.

The survey found that 45.3 per cent of rural households had sanitary toilets, whereas the figure was much higher in urban areas at 88.8 per cent. In rural India, people in 95 per cent of households which had sanitary toilets were found using household or community toilets, thus debunking the myth that people preferred to defecate in the open. In urban India, the percentage was much higher. However, only 42.5 per cent of households in rural India had access to water in toilets, while the figure was 87.9 per cent in urban India. Therefore, the percentage of people going for open defecation in rural India was as high as 52.1 per cent, and in urban India, 7.5 per cent.

Only 64.2 per cent of the wards at the national level had a dumping place for solid waste and only in 48.2 per cent of these wards were these dumping grounds cleaned every day. The dumping of household garbage, too, was far from satisfactory. The survey clearly revealed that slogans alone cannot deliver. In Lakwa block in Sivasagar district of Assam, which was declared free of open defecation, villagers and panchayat representatives complained about release of funds. They also wondered if it was their responsibility to repair and maintain the toilets as there was no provision under Swachh Bharat for repair or maintenance. Virendra Mittal, Deputy Commissioner of Sivasagar district, told Frontline:“A mechanism needs to be developed wherein funds can be made readily available. Any time lag between the triggering and actual start-up of the project results in loss of interest, particularly in States where the project is being implemented by self- help groups/NGOs [non-governmental groups] which are not sound financially.”

Even cleanliness and hygiene need a holistic approach, going beyond behavioural changes, which the government-sponsored advertisements emphasise.



EDUCATION



A few days before the grand commemoration of two years of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre led by Narendra Modi, it was reported that the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) was coming out with a new education policy. The understanding was that the education policy, last formulated in 1986, was due for an overhaul and that it needed to be tailored to suit the government’s understanding of education.

However, some of the features of the new policy, as revealed in leaked reports, do not inspire confidence. Though aspects such as overhauling the University Grants Commission (UGC) or allowing foreign universities to set up campus in India were expected, others, such as the weakening of the autonomous character of universities or the restoration of detention of pupils beyond Class V, have come under justifiable criticism.

The undermining of the university structure has emerged as a primary concern over the last two years. There was an attempt to bypass university systems to target students holding different political views in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and the University of Hyderabad, where Union Ministers were accused of directly interfering in student protests. The row over the appointment of the chairperson of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune was another sore point.

The dust over the slapping of sedition charges against students in JNU has hardly settled when another controversy, involving the UGC’s directives on teaching hours and workload, erupted. The Academic Performance Indicator (API) scheme, which links the performance of professors to promotions, is being reintroduced in universities. It was phased out in 2002 because of opposition from teachers. Now, according to a new gazette notification from the UGC, the workload for Assistant Professors has been increased from 16 hours of direct teaching in a week (which included tutorials) to 18 hours, with an additional six hours for tutorials, taking the total to 24 hours. For Associate Professors, direct teaching hours have been increased from 14 to 22. Predictably, teachers in the University of Delhi, one of the largest Central universities in the country, are up in arms and have refused to evaluate undergraduate examination papers. Teachers point out that UGC regulations had already stipulated the maximum number of hours for teachers in order to maintain good teaching standards.

Interestingly, under the NDA government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a similar UGC directive was issued in 2002, and teachers, led by the Delhi University Teachers Association (DUTA), went on an indefinite hunger strike and got the directives quashed. The 2002 directive asked colleges to: a) fill only 80 per cent of vacant positions on a temporary basis for three months; b) completely freeze new recruitment; c) implement a 10 per cent cut in staff strength; d) stop creation of posts at all levels; and e) abolish all vacant posts older than one year.

Undermining higher education

The government has adopted a cafeteria approach which, academics feel, deals a severe blow to the objectives of higher education. They see the introduction of the Credit Based Choice System (CBCS) of courses not only as a dilution of the universities’ autonomy and right to frame syllabi but also as a deliberate ploy to make higher education irrelevant and meaningless. On November 14, the MHRD sent a letter to the Vice Chancellors, directing them to take “necessary action on priority for implementing the Choice Based Credit System in your Central university” and to send an “Action Taken Report” to the Ministry. The letter said that a detailed discussion of the national credit transfer framework was held during the “Retreat of Vice Chancellors of Central universities chaired by the Hon’ble MHRD at Chandigarh on 12th and 13th September, 2014.” The purpose of the CBCS was to “enhance efficiency and excellence in higher education system and to mitigate the problems of students on migration from one institution to the other”. The Vice Chancellors were informed that the system “is to be implemented from the academic year 2015-16”.

Sanjaya Bohidar, a commerce professor in the University of Delhi and former member of the Academic Council of the university, said teachers were shocked to learn that decisions of such grave import were taken at a “retreat”. In the normal course, university departments framed courses and syllabi and sent them to the Academic Council for approval. The “top down” approach did not go down well with the teaching community. It was later discovered that the UGC guidelines had drawn their inspiration from the practice of the government of Gujarat, which approved a similar system in 2011, when Narendra Modi was the Chief Minister.

University teachers say that the CBCS was not discussed at the level of any statutory body in the University of Delhi. It was on the agenda of an Academic Council meeting and deemed as adopted against dissents submitted by 15 of the 26 elected teacher representatives. Teachers resisted the forced introduction of the semester system too. Nearly 30 colleges wrote to the DUTA rejecting the CBCS. “The Central Universities Bill, 2013, makes the implementation of CBCS part of a common Act, leaving universities with no autonomy to deviate from it. Tomorrow if they want to remove a particular reading of history, they can do so,” said Bohidar. All these attempts are extreme forms of centralisation of higher education, negating the rights of the States as independent stakeholders. A representative of DUTA also pointed out that none of the reforms introduced in higher education, with the exception of introducing reservation for Other Backward Classes (OBCs), was concerned with raising the Gross Enrolment Ratio in public-funded universities, improving the student-teacher ratio or ensuring a socially equitable environment.

Budget cuts

Budgetary cuts are another area of concern. The budget for the UGC for the year 2016-17 has been reduced by almost 55 per cent, from Rs.9,315.45 crore for 2015-2016 to Rs.4,286.94 crore). Even with a nominal increase in the overall allocation for education, it remains far short of the 6 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) that has been demanded for long. Teacher associations view with suspicion the proposal to set up a Higher Education Financing Agency (HEFA) in the Budget. The budget estimates for school education too, according to a dossier prepared by the Wada Na Todo Abhiyaan (a national campaign to assess the performance of the government), showed a decrease of 28.5 per cent over 2014-15.

On the face of it, the focus of the present government, going by the statements of the Union Minister, is on governance.. But the government has also tried to smuggle in ideological reorientations in education. The introduction of Sanskrit as an elective course in institutions like the Indian Institutes of Technology, without consulting them, is an example of government overreach. There have been a few attempts to rewrite textbooks, especially in BJP-ruled States. One of the elements in the new education policy is the inculcation of nationalistic pride and values as well; whether it will be modelled on the lines of what happened in premier universities of the country remains to be seen.



SOCIAL SCHEMES



A lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. That sums up the much-trumpeted financial inclusion schemes of the NDA government, which were touted as a game changer by Modi. He would often make fun of the failure of the UPA government to make banking accessible to the common man, and would proudly say that he had made bankers open 15 crore accounts within 100 days of launching the Jan Dhan scheme in August 2014. There was similar bravado on show when he launched three social security schemes—the Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Bima Yojana, the Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojana and the Atal Pension Yojana—in June 2015. These schemes were linked to savings bank accounts with a provision to auto-debit a nominal premium. While the insurance schemes promise coverage in the case of death or disability, the pension scheme ensures assured pension in denominations of Rs.1,000, depending on the contribution made.

While these social security schemes are barely one year old and there is not much feedback yet about claims, the Jan Dhan Yojana, which is the bedrock of all these schemes, has turned out to be more hype than substance. According to records available with the Department of Financial Services, Ministry of Finance, 21.93 crore accounts have been opened under the Jan Dhan scheme as on May 25. The balance in these accounts, as on May 5, is Rs. 38,047.65 crores. But one third of all these accounts are dormant, without any transactions since the accounts were opened. Over 25 per cent of the accounts are zero-balance accounts. Over 96 per cent of these accounts have been opened in public sector banks and rural banks. Only 4 per cent have been opened in private sector banks.

What this actually means is that after the initial hype over the opening of the accounts, not much benefit has accrued either to the customers or to the banks. Besides, according to Micro Save, a financial inclusion consultancy firm which has been tracking the progress of Jan Dhan Yojana since its inception, cases of duplication and fraud are being reported. “At the time of opening these accounts, there was tremendous pressure on banks to reach a target. Hence, KYC [know your customer] norms were not followed strictly. This has given rise to issues like duplication and fraud now,” said D. Thomas Franco Rajendra Dev, a senior State Bank of India officer who is the general secretary of the SBI Officers’ Association (Chennai cricle) and vice president of the All India State Bank Officers’ Federation.

According to him, with Indian public sector banks already under stress owing to rising non-performing assets (NPAs), maintaining lakhs of dormant accounts, each costing Rs.10-12 to the bank, is proving to be an onerous task. As a result, banks are losing interest in opening more such accounts. Besides, with the government announcing the consolidation of public sector banks (mergers), the future of many branches has become uncertain. As a consequence, various schemes could also be affected. Bankers think that consolidation of public sector banks is only the first step towards their eventual privatisation. In such a scenario, the schemes may not remain operational for long. If the mergers result in the closure of branches, the future of many of these accounts will become uncertain. This is one of the reasons why many of these accounts have zero balance because people immediately withdraw any money which comes into these accounts by way of direct cash transfer.

“Moreover, unlike the social-sector schemes of the UPA government, like Right to Food, these schemes are not rights-based and can be wound up any time,” said Franco Rajendra Dev. Banks are indifferent towards these programmes because of this, he said.

Big drawback

The fallout is that the success of the insurance and pension schemes cannot be predicted, since these schemes have been linked with Jan Dhan accounts. If there is no balance in an account, premium for these schemes cannot be auto-debited and the scheme will become non-functional. It has been clearly mentioned in the rules that if there is insufficient balance in Jan Dhan accounts to pay the annual premiums, the benefits will cease.

The biggest drawback of these social security schemes, say experts, is that they are not social welfare measures and the onus is on the individual to safeguard his social security.

According to senior bank officers, since there was so much hype about the insurance and pension schemes, banks were under pressure to achieve specific targets and this at times led to banks opening the scheme for existing customers even without their knowledge or consent and without getting the required forms filled out. “In such cases, the customer or his nominees will not get the insured amount at the time of claims, since there is incomplete documentation,” said Franco Rajendra Dev.

“Just announcing schemes and making people open accounts is not enough. Bank accounts are of no use unless you ensure adequate credit access, which is not happening at the moment. The entire exercise has been reduced to a numbers game,” he said. Senior bankers say that though the schemes are laudable and unique, their implementation remains problematic.

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