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Budget 2015 and Education – Outlays versus Outcomes

A retired bureaucrat and a good friend of mine had a wonderful annecdote to narrate. Having been served a notice from the Deputy Commissioner Income Tax, my friend – at that time a Secretary to an unimportant department of the Government of India – sent his personal secretary with all details [most of which were innocous] on the appointed date to meet the Income Tax authority. The personal secretary was surprised to see that his boss was not the only person who had received notice from the said Deputy Commisoner as quite a few personal secretaties representing their respective bosses were also present there. Made to wait for a few hours, the personal secretary complained to his boss who even as a Secretary, Government of India, could not do much at that point in time.

But as luck would have it, the very next week, my friend was appointed as the Revenue Secretary, Government of India. Naturally, all hell broke loose. The Chairman of Central Board of Direct Taxes was summoned by my friend who expressed as a “Revenue Secretary” his displeasure in the conduct of the Deputy Commissioner “to a honest taxpayer” in no unertain terms. The chairperson in turn summoned the Chief Commissioner who transferred his ire on the entire hierarchy till it finally “message” reached the Deputy Commissioner.

Triumphantly my friend concluded this conversation by saying, “I really put the Deputy Commissioner firmly in his place.” That raises some pertinent question. If a secretary of Government of India could be subjected to such harassment what about ordinary tax payers? Importantly, my friend even as a secretary of Government was oblivious of the harassment by IT Authorities [or for that matter every revenue department] till he had a personal taste of the same.

That in my considered view is the crux of the issue. The disconnect between the governed and those who are in charge of governance is phenomenal in India; a bane of India. Most in our bureaucracy never have first hand understanding or knowledge of the issues at the ground level. Yet, they are mandated by our Constitution to provide a diagnosis, work out a solution and effectuate the same at the ground level! Outlandish isn’t it?

Complete Disconnect
Standing outside the gate of a private school where my children study, I often noticed with great dismay the number of Government vehicles that came to drop children of Government officers. While it was blatant misuse of vehicles, I wonder why should children of top Governmnet officers study in this private school. Isn’t it appropriate that those children study in Government schools only? While it is indeed a fact that the private school in question was one of the well known schools in Chennai, the answer to this question is obvious. Needless to emphasise, this private school offers better quality of education than Government schools. That explains this clamour for private schools even by Government officers.

But what about Government schools? Who would send their children to such school knowing pretty well that the quality of education available in such public school is abysmal? The answer to this question is not far to seek. Public schools essentially are for those who are unable to pay for education in private schools. Yet it is this class that is desperate for quality education. Naturally, this clamour for private schools by children of Government officers unnecessarily raises demand for private schools. Elementary economics would tell us that excessive demand leads to increases in prices. And that is what is happening in India on account of this skew in demand for private schools, especially at the elementary level raises fees and thereby making such quality education out of reach of most ordinary Indians.

In fact, India must be one of the few countries where cost of educating a child at a primary level is several times more than educating him at the higher levels. This needs to change where quality education [especially at the primary level] must not only be available to a select few but must be affordable to all Indians. Whatever stated above is not something new. Neither is the establishment unaware of this paradigm. In fact, we as a nation are conscious of the challenges faced by having vast swaths of our population illiterate. Yet, successive Government have been unable to come up with a comprehensive solution to tackle this issue.

The UPA Government true to its ideology saw the problem as one of lack of Governmental intervention, budgetary allocation and funding. Apart from raising budgetary allocations to the education sector, the previous Government also deemed it fit to levy a surchage of three per cent on all taxes. But what about outcome? Crucially, what is the result a decade later after identifying the problem and even effectuating a solution through increased allocations? The answer once again is obvious.

Reform the Delivery Process
A reference to an RTI application made by my friend in Chennai at this point would be in order. The question on how many children study in the same Government school in Tamil Nadu where their parents are employed as teachers revealed startling results. In some of the schools in certain districts not many children [in some places not even one student was enrolled] studied in public schools where their parents were employed as teachers.

No wonder the quality of education in such schools is abysmal. Now spending billions of rupees on such schools is naturally not transforming these public schools. Where is the question of quality when my son or daughter is not studying in the school where I am employed as a teacher? Who would address this disconnect and how? More importantly, the infrastructure of these schools are seen to be believed. Children especially girls are loath to go to such public schools simply in the absence of clean toilets. But in New Delhi, we have conference after conference on improving literacy for girl children without addressing this fundamental issue of toilet for girl child in schools and its effect on women illeteracy.

Arthur Lewit the author of a seminal work Freakonomics calls this the power of small ideas that ultimately usher in big changes over a period of time. But how could we bring in this change? One way out to address this situation is to mandate that every employee of the Government, both State and Central, [including Ministers] drawing salary from the consolidated fund of India must necessarily send their children ONLY to Government schools till 10th standard.

But I am sure that this simple idea would transform the education, especially primary education, in India. A girl child of an education secretary studying in public school is all that would take to solve the lack of toilets there. But this will necessarily upset the Nehruvian consensus of our elites. How can a daughter of an office of the Government of India go to the same school where the son of an ordinary auto-driver goes?

Yet, our elites would lecture us on equality!

What should enthuse the Finance Minister is that this idea may not require any Budgetary Allocation. All that is required is a fiat followed by a determination to implement it. Another area of such “reforms” is in public health. Mandate that public servants [or their kin] must necessarily get treated in public hospitals. I am sure all our 600-odd districts would some how contrive to get AIIMS like institutes within the next five years. Else not even land will be identified in this time period for such hospitals.

The core point that I am seeking to emphasise is that the there is a complete disconnect between our bureacracy and the services they provide. This is why services provided by the Government are inefficient and poor in quality. Tragically, it is our poor who are the direct victims of such sloppy services provided by the Government. And whenever the services are poor or inefficient [telecommunications for instance] the Government has taken a privatisation route. Education, public health and public transport in India are incapable being completely privatised. On the contrary, there is crying need for the Goverment to intervene and deliver effectively.

Obviously, it is here we need quick, efficient and incisive reforms. Sadly, successive Government, probably because of vested interests, have ducked the issue. Unfortunately, little do we realise that an ineffective delivery mechanism makes such grandiose budgetary allocations irrelevant. After all anything multiplied by zero is zero.

Naturally, given the deep freeze in reforms in services provided by the Government, the only way out is to redefine the reforms process itself. Like charity, reforms must begin at home. It must compel the bureaucracy to taste its own medicine. How about education and public health for starters? Will the Finance Minister mandate that children of Government servants should necessarily send their children to Public schools from academic year 2015-2016?

Will it mandate that the Government servant must necessaily seek medical help only from Government hospitals? Will the reforms process be in effect reformed?

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