Hindustan Times, Nov 11th 2003

Goal posts shifted

Anil Sadgopal

At the meeting of the high-level Group on Education For All in progress in Delhi, the government is making a strong bid to impress the external aid agencies to shell out additional aid for universalisation of elementary education (UEE).

According to India’s ‘Education For All: National Plan of Action’, the Planning Commission has promised Rs 212,710 million — only 53.5 per cent of the Centre’s share (Rs 397,598 million) of the Tenth Plan requirement for UEE. This leaves a gap of at least Rs 184,888 million — the gap in the State’s share notwithstanding. Recent reports, however, indicate that the Planning Commission has reduced its allocation to Rs 170,000 million, thereby increasing the gap. This allocation amounts to merely 15 paise per year out of every Rs 100 of India’s GDP.

The total Tenth Plan requirement for UEE (including external aid) is 0.47 per cent of the GDP. This is based on the requirement given in a financial memorandum to the Constitutional Amendment Bill for implementing the fundamental right to education by 2010. Apart from serious flaws in the constitutional amendment itself — especially its anti-girl child implications — this widening gap in resource allocation showcases a lack of political commitment to re-prioritise the economy in favour of the estimated 47 million out-of-school children, two-thirds of them being girls. This estimate is a gross underestimate. It is based on the National Sample Survey 2000 estimate of 24 per cent of children of the 6-14 age group not attending school.

The definition of ‘attendance’ is rather ambiguous. A child who has attended school even for one day in a year is likely to be included in the category of ‘children attending school’. The meaninglessness of mere enrolment on school registers and the persistence of high drop-out rates suggest that out-of-school children may constitute almost half of India’s child population in the 6-14 age group. Also, a child in the 11-14 year age group is supposed to be in the upper primary school (Grade VI-VIII) and not in the primary school (Grade I-V). Even according to government statistics, the gross enrolment ratio at the upper primary stage was only 58.6 per cent in 2001 (the net enrolment ratio being at least 20 per cent lower).

The HRD secretary has falsely claimed that the number of out-of-school children has ‘come down from 35 million in 2000 to 23 million this year’. A clue to how the government arrived at this falsehood is provided by the recently released UNESCO’s EFA Global Monitoring Report 2003-04. The report points out that this lowered estimate is a “consequence of a change in the duration of primary schooling”. The government has apparently fudged statistics by reducing the “official length of the primary span” by one year, thereby reducing the “number of children counted as being out-of-school”.

Fudged statistics, rather than effective policy, is now the chief weapon to substantiate India’s capacity to meet the Dakar Goal of universal primary education by 2015. The Dakar Goal is a dilution of India’s policy commitment to elementary education of eight years. Interestingly, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan boasts of universalising primary education by 2007 and upper primary education by 2010. However, last year’s Unesco report had placed India in a category that is at “serious risk of not achieving any of the three Dakar Goals” even by 2015. These goals included universal primary education, adult literacy and gender parity at the primary stage. The only other two South Asian countries in this embarrassing category with India are Nepal and Pakistan. Even Bangladesh and Bhutan are ahead of us.

Now comes another jolt. The latest Unesco report points out that India is among the 12 countries which are ‘at risk’ of not achieving gender parity even by 2015. Two points need to be made in this regard. First, gender parity is merely a ratio of the enrolment of girls and boys. It indicates neither participation in school nor any learning achievement. Second, the report deserves credit for distinguishing between gender parity and gender equality and attempting to define gender equality in terms of equal opportunities for education at all stages as well as for job opportunities and earnings thereafter.

For India, this is a signal not to dilute our own policy commitments under international pressure. The 1986 policy had made a clearer and stronger statement on ‘education for women’s equality’ than either the Jomtien Declaration (1990) or the Dakar Framework of Action (2000), both being promoted by the World Bank and UN agencies. By accepting these, we allowed the steady dilution of our policy during the Nineties on several fronts, including girls’ education. This was both to please aid agencies and fulfil the dictates of the IMF-World Bank’s structural adjustment programme.

On women’s education, the 1986 policy stated that “education will be used as an agent of basic change in the status of women [to] neutralise the accumulated distortions of the past”. This policy insight was reflected in the designing of the Mahila Samakhya programme, the only government programme that undertook to radically change the status of women through their collective action. Yet, this received only marginal attention.

Under the World Bank-sponsored District Primary Education Programme, the Mahila Samakhya was reduced to a programme of merely increasing enrolment of girl children on school registers. The World Bank also diluted the objective of women’s education to just raising their literacy levels and productivity — rather than educating or empowering them — and turning them into mere transmitters of fertility control, health or nutritional messages. India, unfortunately, gave up its progressive policy on women’s education in favour of the international framework that was guided more by the considerations of the market than by women’s socio-cultural and political rights. The government will hopefully extricate itself from the trap of external conditionalities that dilute our constitutional and policy commitments.

The writer is Professor of Education, University of Delhi, and Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum & Library
© Hindustan Times Ltd. 2003.