Monday, August 23, 2004


Times of India, Aug 22, 2004

I met a dear old friend last week. She had gone abroad as a young girl, and there made a big success as an educator. Twenty years later she returned, full of idealism, and invested her life's savings to start a school. I later heard that her school had become truly outstanding. So, when we met I had expected the scent of success; instead, I saw a woman with a broken heart.She confessed she had needed 11 permissions to start her school, and each one required a bribe. Almost 10 per cent of her savings went to pay bribes when she began, and 5 per cent of her running budget goes into graft each year. She shivers each time she faces an official, and something dies inside her when she has to pay off.

This is why I was saddened by the Supreme Court's decision requiring Delhi's government to regulate private school fees, further increasing the bureaucrats' hold over schools. I am an unabashed admirer of our highest Court, which has courageously upheld our wonderful Constitution even in our darkest days. But honourable justices are also fallible and in this case they have made a terrible mistake in compromising the autonomy of schools by reversing the TMA Pai judgement. Ironically, industry won freedom from Licence Raj in 1991, but it flourishes in education. The Court is right, however, in pronouncing that schools that were given cheap land and had agreed to provide free seats to the poor must live up to that contract.

There are sharks in education as well, and we need sensible governance to catch the guilty without harassing the innocent. But price controls do not work - every country has learned the lesson the hard way. It is one of the reasons why socialism failed and communism collapsed. Only in the case of natural monopolies are price controls needed. For the rest, competition is the best price control. Private schools are not natural monopolies and parents do have a choice. Our objective should be to increase that choice. Since demand for good schools greatly exceeds their supply, fees will rise naturally. If 100 children want to study and there are only 80 seats in a school, lowering school fees will not achieve justice. You will always disappoint 20 students. But if another good school comes up, everyone will find a place and fees will not rise. The answer then is to increase the supply of good schools.

Why don't more good schools come up? It's not easy to start a school. The bureaucracy puts huge obstacles in the way. According to the Centre for Civil Society, it takes 14 licenses and permits to open a school in Delhi, and each approval comes with a price. This naturally discourages honest, idealistic, and philanthropic persons, who are often the ones who start schools. Although my friend did not give up, many do. And this is a great tragedy, for it is products of these very schools that have succeeded on the world stage and made us proud.

The quickest way to increase the supply of good schools is to reform our government schools. They are so rotten that even the poor are abandoning them. Some think that it is impossible to reform state schools. They should look at our excellent Central and Navodaya schools. So, instead of ruining private schools, our babus should do their own job and fix their own schools. Meanwhile, who will wipe away the tears of my dear friend and of the million Indians that daily fall victim to our callous and arrogant bureaucracy?


My Blog said...

The Court is right, however, in pronouncing that schools that were given cheap land and had agreed to provide free seats to the poor must live up to that contract.

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