Centre's move places education at risk
Anil Sadgopal

Allocation for education as a percentage of the GDP has been steadily declining since the promulgation of the New Economic Policy.

PARLIAMENT'S LAST session saw three mass protests against the Centre's decision to wash its hands off the Right to Education Bill. This Bill had become the Centre's obligation under Article 21(A) four years ago with the 86th Constitutional Amendment. Two of these protests were held on the opening day of the monsoon session itself — one at Delhi's Jantar Mantar, under the banner of the People's Campaign for Common School System, and the other at Bangalore, under the leadership of U.R. Ananthamurthy, the renowned Kannada litterateur. The people demanded that the Centre bring a pro-people Bill in the Parliament rather than pass this off to the State governments, as it did in June by sending them a much-diluted Model Bill. The Centre's attempt to abdicate its obligation was seen as being unconstitutional in the light of the concurrent status of education.

The Delhi and Bangalore declarations alike asked the Centre to include in the Right to Education Bill the agenda of reconstructing the present multi-layered school system into a Common School System. Without this, a majority of India's children would continue to be denied their right to elementary education of equitable quality. The claim of India Inc. to turn India into the third largest knowledge economy and a "superpower" by 2020 would be a shambles, the government was warned. The Karnataka citizens contended that "only then India will be able to expand its knowledge base and harness the potential talent and merit of more than two-thirds of our people."

The third protest during the Parliament session by the All India Secondary Teachers Federation resolved to build a nationwide movement on the twin issues of Right to Education and Common School System.

The long-standing people's aspiration, "Nirdhan Ho Ya Dhanwan, Sab Ko Shiksha Ek Saman" (Poor or rich, all have a right to equitable education), acquired a new meaning with the 1986 policy resolve to take "effective measures ... in the direction of the Common School System." This alone can enable all children, irrespective of their social or economic status, to study together under a common roof in Neighbourhood Schools. The relationship between the Right to Education and the Kothari Commission's concept of a Common School System is a recent construction in public discourse.

The Central Advisory Board of Education constituted the Kapil Sibal Committee two years ago to draft the required legislation. Apart from suffering from several lacunae, the Committee's draft Bill attempted to promote the falsehood that provision of 25 per cent free seats in private unaided schools to poor children from the neighbourhood was equivalent to moving towards a Common School System. This was paraded by some of its members as a great progressive measure. This deliberate confusion helped divert the debate away from the issue of Fundamental Rights to that of the discomfort (and loss of profit) the "25 per cent idea" would cause to the powerful private school lobby and the global market forces.

What is worse is the Centre's cynical use of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) to twist arms. It says the States that adopt the Model Bill in toto "should continue to be provided funding under SSA on a 75:25 basis." But the States that decide to take a different path will "be entitled to funds under SSA on a 50:50 basis only." What would be the Centre's stance if a State government decides to dismantle the Model Bill's pro-privatisation, pro-laissez faire, and anti-poor fabric? It is not such an unlikely scenario. The Bihar government has already taken a decisive step in this direction by constituting a Common School System Commission that would require the private unaided schools to be its integral part and to fulfil their constitutional obligation flowing out of Article 21(A). Would this make Bihar ineligible for SSA funding on a 75:25 basis? Indeed, the Model Bill's attempt to equate the lofty notion of Fundamental Rights with a questionable scheme such as the SSA amounts to reductionism of the worst kind.

The Centre's stand is exposed by its own formulation in the Model Bill. Clause No. 5 (1) requires of the State government that "the first charge on its revenues, next only to law and order, shall be that of the matters related to free and compulsory elementary education." Applying this logic in reverse, for the Central government revenue too, elementary education must be the first charge next only to defence and internal security.

A delegation from the Delhi dharna was told by the PMO's mandarin in charge of education that the recent reservation debate had shifted the entire focus to provision of increased seats in professional institutions. This, according to the PMO, would lead to a two-fold increase in allocations for higher education. Where would these additional resources come from? Implicitly, by diverting them from elementary education and diluting or shelving the Right to Education. Would the "Youth for Equality," leading the anti-reservation stir, now take out a candlelight march to India Gate to halt this diversion of resources from India's poor?

The Central government's Tapas Majumdar Committee Report (November 2005) recommended that the allocation for education needed to be raised to 6 per cent of the GDP by the beginning of the 11th Plan and then continually raised to cross the level of 10 per cent of the GDP by 2014-15. Going beyond 6 per cent becomes necessary in order to fill up the cumulative gap that had been building up as a consequence of under-investment year after year since Independence.

Of the 6 per cent of the GDP allocated to education, 3 per cent should go to elementary education (i.e. for implementing the Right to Education Bill), 1.5 per cent to secondary education, 1 per cent to higher education, and 0.5 per cent to technical education. If this was done, the proposed increase in seats of professional institutions could be effected without diverting resources away from elementary education. Juxtaposing elementary education against secondary or higher education, as is the emerging policy perception, is detrimental to national interest since India needs a balanced development of all sectors of education.

Where are the resources? The Tapas Majumdar Committee provided at least a partial answer. It stated that the "government's resource base can be increased by improving the system of taxation ... Presently, the tax/GDP ratio is around 15 per cent (2003-04), almost same as in 1990-91 ... In many developed countries, the corresponding ratio ... is much higher: 24 per cent in Australia, 27 per cent in UK."

Also, the Centre cannot continue to feign as if the 86th Amendment has never taken place. With elevation of elementary education as a Fundamental Right, no expenditure can be incurred by the State, by superseding elementary education, on a cause that is not a Fundamental Right. The same government that claims lack of resources for the Right to Education has no qualms in liberally providing resources for staging the Commonwealth games in 2010 — the cost is estimated to cross Rs.80,000 crore. Further, according to the Non-Performing Assets Report of the Reserve Bank of India, the Centre wrote off bank loans worth tens of thousands of crores owed by corporate houses. Neither the Commonwealth Games nor writing off loans given to corporate houses constitutes a Fundamental Right of India Inc.

The real issue is not one of lack of public resources but of the relative priorities of the national economy. Yet, the allocation for education as a percentage of the GDP has been steadily declining since the promulgation of the New Economic Policy. This investment has continued to decline during the United Progressive Alliance rule as well in spite of the levy of the 2 per cent Education Cess and a substantial portion of the SSA funds coming from international agencies. The present level of investment is as low as the level achieved 20 years ago — 3.5 per cent of the GDP. The political will to mobilise adequate public resources for education has reached a low ebb and, with the push towards privatisation of everything under the sun, is likely to decline further. The Model Bill is designed to legitimise this decline, deny the Right to Education, and promote privatisation. All this flows from the market dogma of viewing education as a commodity, rather than as a Fundamental Right. The Eleventh Plan's Approach Paper extends this dogma by proposing a voucher system as a method of demolition of the government school system and the backdoor funding of private schools.

Yet, there are those who pretend that there is nothing like a "ruling elite," which dominates policy making. Denial of the conflict of class interests in education must be seen as a design to depoliticise the issue. This definitely places education and, therefore, the entire nation at great risk.

(The writer is Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.)

The  Hindu,Tuesday, Sep 26, 2006

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