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The ‘Trickle Down’ Trick

The Prime Minister’s promise of “6000 high quality schools” is clearly designed to divert attention from the issue of long-pending structural transformation in the school system, says Prof. Anil Sadgopal

On the sixtieth Independence Day, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh referred to an India “that is not divided by caste, creed or gender”; where the “creativity and enterprise of every citizen can find its full and free expression”, and where “no person or region is left out of the journey of development and progress”. For a moment, it appeared that he was talking of Bharat of the masses, rather than of ‘shining’ India that belongs to India Inc. and its upwardly mobile west-bound middle class.

But these hopes were soon to be belied when he claimed, “we are undoubtedly moving forward in the right direction.” The PM had apparently forgotten the report of the commission on the unorganized sector, released only a few days earlier, showing that a substantial proportion of Indians survived on less than Rs. 20 per day. The social function of the 9% plus growth rate that neither generates much employment nor leads to redistribution of resources or social justice, never made sense. He also did not care to recall the growing resistance of the farmers in several states to alienation of their farmlands in the name of industrialisation and corporate-controlled SEZs. At least the PM could have mentioned the suicides by thousands of peasants across the country that have put a question mark on the ‘trickle down theory’ being advanced since independence. Despite being discredited, this theory continues to guide the development model so steadfastly held by the ruling elite and backed by the neo-liberal policy framework.

When the PM started talking of education, one expected him to tell the nation of how the successive governments, including his own, have failed to fulfill the Constitutional directive regarding children up to 14 years of age, who should have received “free and compulsory education” by 1960, as enshrined in the original Article 45. Instead, he claimed that his government had shown its commitment to education by “tripling public spending on education in the last three years.” None other than economist like Dr. Singh would know better that increases in budget allocations merely in absolute terms are meaningless, unless they are normalised for inflation rates and are expressed in meaningful relative terms, such as national income.

The truth should have been told that, as percentage of GDP, the expenditure on education, including elementary education, has been declining since the New Economic Policy was adopted in 1991 as the mahamantra of Indian development. From almost 4 percent of GDP in 1990-91, it declined to less than 3.5 percent of GDP in 2005-06. This happened despite about Rs. 5,000 crores collected by the UPA government from the public by levying 2 percent education cess and at least one-third of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) funds coming from World Bank and other international financing agencies. Clearly, the Central government has been using the cess and international loans/grants as a substitute for its Constitutional obligation, rather than as an additional resource.

Emulating the NDA government, the UPA government too has abdicated its obligation under the Constitution of enacting a law as required under Article 21A to provide elementary education as a Fundamental Right, following the Constitutional amendment in December 2002. The PM tried to obscure the Centre’s widely criticized decision in June 2006 of not going ahead with the required law and instead passing the buck to the state governments. All this means that, five years down the road, the Fundamental Right to elementary education is in limbo. Instead of indulging in rhetoric of “no nation can progress unless its people are educated”, he would have done well by announcing that the Centre will present the required law in the next session of the Parliament.

The PM patted himself by recalling that Right to Information had been given for making the government “more accountable and more transparent.” Yet, he chose not to tell the nation that half of our children are denied even eight years of elementary education, almost two-thirds are deprived of high school education and only one in ten complete the senior secondary stage. The situation with regard to the backward sections of society is much worse. Denial of senior secondary education implies that only a tiny minority among the SCs, STs and other backward sections become eligible for taking advantage of reservations.

What prescription did our PM have for remedying this collapse of education policy? He declared that the government would open “6,000 new high quality schools - one in every block of the country.” India today has about 11.5 lakh schools, most of them lacking in infrastructure, teachers, proper curriculum and supportive ambience for providing quality education. The PM did not announce a programme for transforming the quality of these 11.5 lakh schools as a concrete measure of providing education of equitable quality. Nor did he announce that the number of schools, classrooms, and teachers would be increased two-fold so that more than half of the children outside the schools could have equitable access. He thinks that 6,000 high quality schools will do the trick!

This proposal is akin to the high profile Navodaya Vidyalaya and Kendriya Vidyalaya programme of the Centre and ‘smart’ or ‘talented’ schools of state governments. Any student of education policy knows that this ‘schools of excellence’ model (also misconceived as the ‘pace-setting’ model in 1986 policy) has not made even a dent in the problem. It amounts to merely adding one more layer in the already highly disparate multi-layered school system.

What was, one may ask, PM’s real agenda in making this irrational announcement? Macaulay in 1835 designed a policy whose objective was to produce just the adequate number and categories of educated people to run the exploitative industrial and trading empire of British Raj. In the same vein, the ruling Indian elite today has decided that it needed just so many educated people to run the Indian economy and to ‘supply’ the global market. Evidently, this is not education but ‘human resource development’ wherein education is viewed as a commodity and human beings carry a price tag. The required ‘human resource’ apparently can be ‘supplied’ by the “6,000 new high quality schools”, Navodaya and Kendriya Vidyalayas and elite private schools. Those who do not have access to quality education would be encouraged to “drop out” either before or after inferior quality 8-year elementary education (the World Bank would rather reduce it to five years of primary education) and be given vocational skills instead.

Three reasons can be cited why the ruling elite is disinclined to provide universal education of equitable quality. First, it never accepted the Constitutional vision of building a democratic, egalitarian and secular society for which universal access to education of equitable quality is a pre-condition. Second, a policy to provide such access will raise the political consciousness of the masses who will then start aspiring for their just place in society. This obviously can’t be allowed, as it will be contingent upon redistribution of the economic cake. How can the ruling class permit this? Third, a policy of providing quality education to all implies that the backward sections of society – dalits, tribals, Muslims, extremely backwards among OBCs and particularly girls in each of these sections – will start entering the portals of higher education in large numbers on their own merit. They will also begin to demand employment based on modern knowledge and technological expertise with equitable emoluments, instead of being destined to do menial jobs. They will not be satisfied anymore with the lollipop of 100 days of employment per year on minimum wages, which is what the much-hyped National Rural Employment Guarantee Act promises.

Justifying SEZs, the PM told the nation that “there is no developed country today anywhere in the world, that is not an industrial economy.” But what he did not tell the nation that no developed country in the world – including the powerful G-8 nations - has become developed without a fully pubic-funded neighbourhood school system that ensured universal education of equitable quality. This is precisely what the Kothari Education Commission recommended in 1966 - a Common School System functioning through neighbourhood schools. The Common School System is required not just to move towards an egalitarian society but also to forge a sense of common citizenship and nationhood. The PM’s agenda of 6,000 quality schools is clearly designed to divert political attention once again from the key issue of long-pending structural transformation in the school system – like it happened with the literacy agenda in 1990s. This will further ensure that only the privileged sections of society benefit from IITs, IIMs and IIITs and thus continue to maintain their hegemony over India’s resources, knowledge and policies. While India Inc. pursues this market-driven development model, Bharat struggles to redefine development.

Sep 29, 2007

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