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Since 1st March, 1999
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- II: Right to education and the three tasks

Around 1997, I got an interesting opportunity to work in an expert group appointed by the ministry of human resource development. We were asked to calculate the additional amount of government spending that would be needed if universalization of elementary education had to be accomplished within ten years from the start. By then, of course, the brave 1992 promise to parliament of providing good-quality elementary education to all by the end of the century had been shelved. When we ended our work and reported the findings in 1999, the cost calculated stood at the staggering figure of Rs 1,370 thousand million over the ten-year period. It certainly looked forbidding until one saw that it meant only an average of 0.7 per cent of India’s gross domestic product per year over ten years.

That was comforting enough, at least to most of our members who were education secretaries and other officials. The reason: everybody from the prime minister down to the HRD minister had, for years, been reiterating the promise to increase public spending on education to the level of six percent of GDP per year. Fortunately, the total annual allotment in the Central and state budgets had never reached even four per cent all these years. So we had managed to keep our number within the government’s known commitment.

The academic members were happy for another reason. The pundits had been claiming over the years that money was the problem for the needs of the education sector; and all this fuss about increasing the budget for elementary education drastically would soon cut into the urgent demands of higher education and research. We had finally nailed the two fictions at least at the level of macro-economics.

We had also underlined the points that along with cultivating the practice of thrift in handling the much bigger budgets (in plain language, avoiding scams), improving the tax revenue-to-GDP ratio to at least the best south Asian standards (which feat, I remember, we almost achieved one year in the past) and keeping the economy’s annual growth rate to at least five per cent (which now looks like child’s play), we should have no macro-problem of finding the monetary resources for education. Now, thankfully, this is becoming a hackneyed statement.

I feel elated when my old students, whose opinions always carry weight with me, speak in praise of our report. But when one called to tell me, “Now I am beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel”, I could only reply, “There are other tunnels.” I did not elaborate further. I did not want to spoil the party by saying that I, or even he, may not be able to see the light at the end of some of the tunnels in our lifetime. But forget tunnels, we have tasks to do. Today I am going to pick three tasks which I clearly see that we have on our hands.

The first task is to set in harmony the Centre and the states in the follow-up action on the Constitution (86th Amendment) Act, 2002, that received presidential assent on December 12, 2002. It allowed the insertion of a new article after Article 21 of the Constitution under the heading “Right to Education: 21A” — “The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of six to fourteen years in such manner as the State may, by law, determine.”

Now the State had to, by law, determine how the new fundamental right would operate. At first it seemed a simple enough proposition. Of course, everyone knew that education was a concurrent subject and so enactment by the “State” meant enactment by both Parliament and all the state legislatures. But such was the apparent consensus built around the new fundamental right that a simple approach seemed sensible. The Central Advisory Board of Education, the highest advisory body on education in India, had been reactivated recently and on it sat all the state education ministers with the Union HRD minister himself in the chair.

CABE constituted a committee, under the chairmanship of Kapil Sibal, to prepare the draft of a model Right to Education Act that could be placed before both parliament and the state legislatures. Since all these legislative bodies had concurrent rights in the subject of education, the respective authorities could have their own acts by passing suitable individual amendments to the Central act within their state jurisdictions, and then the Fundamental Right to Education, albeit in a truncated way, would be in business all over India.

But, to cut a long story short, nothing like this happened or was allowed to happen. In the event the CABE committee report that I thought, with all its shortcomings, was a starting point, was made to come apart completely at the main CABE meeting. The chairman, Arjun Singh, took it back and I understand the state governments are now being advised to fend for themselves and try bring out their own Right to Education Acts, moving under their own steam. This means that the situation with the 86th amendment for all India is what the GIs said about American preparations when they joined World War II: SNAFU (Situation Normal, All Fouled Up)! After so much effort and care, only the tunnel was reached.

The second task is to remove the horrific lapses in professional discipline in the work of teachers and administrators in the entire system of education. Much can be done by promoting professional discipline by teachers and administrators by themselves, and that would be the most satisfactory way. But if it cannot be done that way, we cannot wait further for people’s habits to change by themselves.

One example of where we stand: in the Journal of Economic Perspective, Winter 2006, you will find a devastating paper, “Missing in Action: Teacher and Health Worker Absence in Developing Countries”, by Nazmul Chaudhury and others. The percentage of teacher absence in Indian primary schools is given from a study as 25, second only to Uganda’s 27. For contrast, an example of presence, not absence, that does not please. A friend went back to his old school in Calcutta out of sheer nostalgia. He found eight or ten teachers, only two students. I do not blame the teachers, but I do blame the system of inspection or the absence of it that allowed this to happen even if for a short period. This too is a tunnel at the end of which I frantically look for the light, but cannot see it.

The last task is to promote high-quality education in institutions where we do not find it today. Many think that a much larger student population would be detrimental to the advancement of learning. In my way of thinking, an increasing number of students is not necessarily a deterrent to high quality. A larger population of students, normally distributed, will have a higher probability of having a small but sufficient number of highly talented students who can give us breakthroughs. If you start with small numbers you will depend on only the results of earlier examinations or sheer luck. Let me put it this way: The strength in numbers helps in searching for and then promoting excellence by spreading out in diverse directions. There is a probability game here. But we have not learnt to play it; perhaps China has. I wait for signs of our mastering the technique of that game. This may be the longest wait.

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