The UPA's record of achievement is a case of two steps forward and a giant step backward.
THE scramble for admissions into almost every kind of school indicates that most Indians have become pretty savvy about education's potential to enhance life. Six decades of subsistence education doled out by the publicly funded school system have failed to discourage them from trying their damnedest to get their children through the best schooling possible. There is a choice of sorts: it depends on one's pocket. That most of them still fail in this objective is owing to the fact that successive governments have retreated steadily since the 1970s from the constitutional objective of free and compulsory universal elementary education, and that, thanks to poor funding of government schools, the country now has a firmly entrenched multi-track education system. High dropout (or properly, push-out) rates suggest that children have to grapple with the negative messages generated by the system. Despite rhetoric, successive governments have shrunk from lighting any educational fires under a caste and class-ridden society. Subtle ambiguities are evident not just in the implementation of reforms, but in the very process of framing them.
Soon after the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) came to power in June 2004, educationists hailed evidence of the government's commitment to long-awaited reforms in education. The initial momentum came from the need for a damage-control exercise: the pluralist and secular underpinnings of the national school curriculum had suffered serious distortions during National Democratic Alliance rule, and the UPA plunged gleefully into this politically correct and strategically rewarding effort.
To help the new Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) frame policy, the UPA revived the Central Advisory Board of Education(CABE) in August 2004 after a gap of almost 10 years. From pre-Independence days this apex consultative body has been convened from time to time to examine the entire educational system and make recommendations to Parliament. `Operation Blackboard' initiatives have remained largely unimplemented even by Congress governments (except for the Navodaya rural schools in some places), and they were eclipsed by low-cost post-liberalisation programmes, culminating in the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) launched by the NDA.
The CABE quickly set up seven committees covering all issues: free and compulsory education, girls' education, a common school system, universalisation of secondary education, culture education in the school curriculum, textbooks and their regulation, and financing of higher and technical education. Rich sources of information and pedagogical perspectives were made available to the CABE by a 100-member Public Study Group (PSG) through the Internet, meetings, and conferences in several parts of the country. Guided by several experienced teaching academics serving on CABE committees, the PSG responded to policy initiatives, suggested changes, and cautioned the government against the dilution of the reform agenda. The linchpin of their argument was that education is not only a human rights issue of vital national importance under the Constitution, but also a tried and tested catalyst of economic development and sustained growth.
The response to the PSG's initiative was tremendous. A lively and productive debate began. To many people, the idea of actually being asked by `experts' what they think anganwadis, schools, colleges and universities in the country should be like - and the impression that their suggestions were to be seriously considered - seemed almost too good to be true. Opinions came forth from parents who had feared that speaking out about indifferent teaching, heavy homework, harsh treatment, poor facilities, and the lack of toilets would elicit the answer: "That's all we can do here. If you don't like it, you can take your child out, or go to some other school." The hope arose that a sensitised CABE would help shake off the stranglehold of vested interests in education, and emerge as a democratic forum for informed opinion. Some even thought that the CABE might be made a statutory body to give greater weight to its recommendations.
When Finance Minister P. Chidambaram announced an education cess of 2 per cent in the UPA's first Budget in 2004, it seemed another happy augury. But while funding for education was seen as vitally important, reformers believed that it could be ensured only through a Right to Education Bill. The 86th Amendment (Article 21A) passed in 2002, which declared free and compulsory universal education a fundamental right for children between six and 14 years of age, needed a law to bring it into effect. At every session of Parliament it was expected that the MHRD would introduce a Bill that would spell out the Centre's proactive role and its financial and administrative commitment to building a common school system.
On December 20, 2004, came the first hint of the end of the UPA's honeymoon with educational reforms. An advertisement by the Parliamentary Committee of the MHRD for university and higher education in national newspapers called for memoranda from the public, with the following warning: "Memoranda submitted would form part of its records and would be treated as strictly confidential till the report on the subject is presented to Parliament. Any violation in this regard may attract breach of privilege of the Committee."
The secrecy clause, whatever its constitutional legality, was a dead give-away. Any recommendations made by individuals and corporates entering the lucrative higher education market could now escape exposure to full and free debate. Profit-oriented perspectives in a climate of deregulation were not likely to add to the quality of Indian education.
CABE or no CABE, it was business as usual under a regime for which `liberalisation' means laissez-faire in the education market, and not the opening up of educational opportunity to all Indian children. The PSG immediately saw this as the thin edge of a wedge being driven into publicly funded education as a whole.
After declaring the 2 per cent educational cess and announcing a funding increase for the SSA, it appeared that the MHRD had decided to reserve its energy for the issue of reservation. Hence the dithering during the many CABE discussions over the Right to Education Bill, and the squirming and hedging on the commitments already made on bringing about a Common School System in the country. When Minister for Science and Technology Kapil Sibal declared government regulation of private schools "neither feasible nor desirable [since] they do not take any money from Government", the disproportionate clout wielded by the private school lobby became obvious. (Privately financed schools, although they make up only 6 per cent of the total number of primary schools in the country, enjoy substantial concessions, including on land and taxes.)
The CABE submitted its recommendations earlier this year. With the door closed on further deliberations, the state has once again backtracked. In a letter sent on June 16, the MHRD directed States to pass a Right to Education law in their legislatures, based on a Model Bill. The Bill is the last of several drafts considered but not decided upon by the relevant CABE committee, which appears to have been sidelined entirely. "Education," the States are told, "is to be the first charge on revenues, next only to law and order." Failure to pass a law based on the Model Bill will result in the current pattern of 75 per cent Central funding for SSA being slashed to 50 per cent. This `Education for All' scheme, with small initial grants from international agencies including the World Bank, has not only been criticised as conceptually flawed, but has drawn an adverse report from the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG). After four years of SSA, 40 per cent of Indian children are out of school, and in at least 14 States the scheme is plagued by unauthorised diversion of funds, and other financial irregularities.
The content and tone of the MHRD's letter to the States and the Model Bill itself are in striking contrast to the UPA's June 2004 pledge to raise the whole country's expenditure on education to 6 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). This has been a long established but unattained goal, first set down by the Kothari Commission in the 1960s.
This expenditure raise never happened: according to the Economic Survey of the Ministry of Finance, expenditure on education by both Union and State Ministries and Departments of Education, as a percentage of GDP, has been falling steadily and is now at 2.81 per cent - the lowest in the past six years. If one includes other Ministries and Departments, the expenditure on all sectors of education comes to 3.5 per cent of GDP, also the lowest in six years. Significantly, according to the MHRD's own analysis (Analysis of Budgeted Expenditure on Education, 2002-03 to 2004-05, MHRD, GOI, 2005) the Centre spends just Rs.19,141.43, that is just under 20 per cent of the total budgeted expenditure of Rs.99,937.18 crores by the Education departments of the Union, States, and Union Territories put together. Elementary education comes to half this amount, and early childhood care and education do not figure at all, with ominous implications for women in the workforce. That education from age 0 to 14 is a fundamental right, as well as a concurrent subject under the Constitution does not seem to have motivated the Union Government to put its money where its mouth is.
What about the 2 per cent cess for education? It has made possible more Central funding for the noon meal scheme and the SSA, with its smattering of `alternate', `non-formal' and `bridging programmes' for child workers, girls, and other youngsters clutching vainly at the fringes of the formal system. But the 2005-2006 budget outlays for elementary and adult education amount to just Rs.4,594 crores, which is substantially less than the total revenues of Rs.7,036 crores generated by the education cess.
Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh headed the same Ministry in the early 1990s. True, he has been at the helm of the decommunalisation agenda, and has steered the issue of reservation out of long stagnant waters. But during his earlier tenure little progress was made in any major educational area, from universalisation of elementary education to running universities. It is not that the only thing wrong with Indian education is that it acquired a saffron colour during the past regime. Or that reserved admission into an institute of higher education will make up for all the wasted years which a socially and economically disadvantaged young person has endured in a miserably deficient nursery, elementary, and high school system.
The UPA seems to have frittered away its mandate to bring into existence good schools for all Indian children. It has now closed its purse with a decisive snap, and passed the buck to the States.