Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Missing in Action

Times of India, September 25, 2005

A couple of weeks ago I reported that one out of four teachers in our government primary schools is absent and of those present one out of two is not teaching. Not surprisingly, many readers were deeply upset by this devastating data, and one offered the desperate suggestion of dispatching teachers missing in action to hell. I looked for Dante’s Inferno, but in the end opted for a home grown variety, a vision of hell provided helpfully by Svargarohana Parvan near the Mahabharat’s end.

Meanwhile, there is more bad news. We have now learned that if 25 percent are absent from government primary schools, the figure for absentee doctors is an appalling 40 percent in primary health centres. It varies from 67% in Bihar to 30% in Gujarat, but the all India average of 40% is the worst in a five-nation U.N. study–worse than Bangladesh, Uganda, Peru and Indonesia. In my last column I had celebrated the triumph of the human spirit that delivered cheap private schools in slums to make up for the state’s failure. But we cannot just abandon government schools and health centres. So, what is to be done? The problem is with our incentive system. If you get a regular salary and are not supervised; if you cannot be fired, or your pay isn’t cut for being absent; if your
social status is higher and you have more political clout than parents or patients; and if there is
lucrative work outside, what
would you do? So perhaps, teachers and doctors do behave rationally (albeit disgracefully) when they don’t show up.

Ragav Pandey, the former chief secretary of Nagaland, realised this and changed the incentive system in 2002. In successful economies, he realised, sellers chase buyers, doctors chase patients, and schools chase students because ordinary people control money. It would be ideal to give parents and patients control over money (through vouchers or health insurance). But since he couldn’t do that, he did the next best thing. Through a ‘communitisation program’ based on ‘no work no pay’ Nagaland transferred salaries of teachers, doctors, and nurses to elected village education and health committees. You can imagine what happened! Teacher and doctor absenteeism declined dramatically, student attendance and patient satisfaction rose spectacularly. So, the answer is for primary schools and health centres to be accountable locally. Critics claim that they would then be subject to capture by the local elite, but we now have a mitigating safeguard in the Right to Information Act.

Digvijay Singh tried something similar in Madhya Pradesh. As a part of gram swaraj, he gave authority to shiksha samitis of the panchayats to deduct wages of absent teachers both in the new informal schools and in the formal ones. They did it only in a few cases, but the threat was enough to improve teachers’ behaviour. The story does not end there. A few months ago, Digvijay Singh told me that he lost his election partly because the powerful teachers union, upset with his reforms, gave a call to defeat him. Voting machines make cheating easier now, and teachers, who were invigilators at the election, merely had to press a button-- no need to stuff ballots anymore.

Plato wrote more than two thousand years ago that the reform of our schools is everyone’s work—the work of every man, woman and child. We cannot give up on our government schools, but until we can get teachers to show up and to teach, let us not waste resources. Let’s not raise government spending on education till then.

Childhood Trials, Sept. 11, 2005

A recent study by respected members of Harvard University and others has shocked us. It shows that one out of four teachers in our government primary schools is absent and one out of two teachers who are present are not teaching. We had suspected this rotten state of affairs when the Probe team surveyed North Indian states ten years ago, but we thought this problem was confined to the Bimaru states. Then Pratichi Trust’s study confirmed this unhappy situation in 2002 in Bengal—it found that less than ten percent of 5th graders could write their name in Bangla.

Now this larger study proves that we have a national problem. Jharkhand (42%), Bihar (38%) and Punjab (34%) have the worst absence rates, while Maharashtra (15%), Gujarat (17%) and Madhya Pradesh (17%) are the best. But India’s aggregate teacher absence rate is worse than all Third World countries, except Uganda (27%) in an eight-country comparison for which comparable data is available. Bangladesh (16%), Indonesia (19%), Zambia 17% and Peru (11%) rank better than India. (The full study is available at

How are poor Indian parents coping with this tragic state of affairs? With typical Indian ingenuity it seems, according to another study by Prof James Tooley of the University of Newcastle. They are pulling their kids out of government schools and enrolling them into cheap private schools that are mushrooming in slums and villages across India. Of 262,075 children in 918 schools in the slums of Hyderabad’s old city, only 24% of the children were in government schools, 11.4% were in private aided schools and 65% were in private unaided schools (half of which were unrecognised). Although teacher salaries were a third in private schools, parents (many of them rickshawallas) preferred to spend Rs 70 to Rs 103 in fees because they found children learned more in private schools.

Mean scores in mathematics were 22% points higher in unrecognised private schools than in government schools. Teacher-pupil ratio was double in private schools, and roughly half the pupils were girls. Toilets, drinking water, blackboards, desks, and fans were in better condition in unrecognised privates schools than in government schools. Against the common assumption that private schools are run by fly-by-night operators, those in Hyderabad had been in operation between 8-18 years. Moreover, 20% of the children in these private schools were on scholarships. Amazing, the poor are subsidising the poorest to get educated!

Official data assembled by NIEPA confirms that two-thirds of the children in urban Maharashtra, U.P. and Tami Nadu are now in private schools. Hence, Jean Dreze predicts that government schools in Indian cities will soon be history. All this contradicts the Left establishment view (expressed in the Oxfam Education Report and UNDP’s Human Development Report 2003) which trashes these ‘mushrooming private schools’ without any data. It would close them down, and destroy any little hope for the poor. The lower bureaucracy takes advantage of this prejudice and extracts bribes, which average 5% of the school’s running cost. So, it is we who must change our elitist mindset. The parents may be poor but they are not stupid--they will certainly not spend their hard earned money unless they get results.

If insolent teachers in government schools leave one depressed, the revolution in private slum schools is something to celebrate. It represents the triumph of the human spirit when the state makes it so difficult to survive. It also explains why India is succeeding against all odds. If China’s success is induced by the state, India’s is despite the state. Hence, it may well be more durable.

Manmohan's tragic Dilemma, August 28, 2005

I wouldn’t want to be in Manmohan Singh’s shoes these days. His heart says, ‘yes’; his head says, ‘no’. His political boss has pushed through parliament a national employment guarantee act, which feels good to his heart–after all, what could be nicer than to know that all Indians are employed! But his conscience tells him that this will be the biggest ‘loot for work’ program in India’s history. Thus, he is in a tragic dilemma, a dharma sankat.

A Chinese expert on India who lives in Beijing sent me an email saying that the Chinese would never contemplate such a job-creating scheme. ‘It would bankrupt us’, he said. ‘We create jobs by building roads, for example. A road creates opportunities for productive, permanent jobs as villagers begin to move between villages and towns. We have learned that job-creating schemes don’t create roads even when they are supposed to. This is because they are not accountable for road quality but only for creating jobs–the road is washed away in the next rain.’

Manmohan Singh knows that the Chinese expert is right–the only way to prosperity is not by giving a man a fish but by teaching him to fish. Only by giving people skills, creating infrastructure, and encouraging private investment are productive jobs born. Manmohan is a fine economist and knows that another one percent of GDP borrowed from the banks to finance this program will crowd out private investment, push up interest rates, lower the economy’s growth rate–and saddest of all, will actually reduce jobs! It troubles him that this act will pay Rs 60 a day when economists have demonstrated that paying the minimum wage diverts people from productive to unproductive jobs. The answer to more jobs is to reform our labour laws so that employers are not scared to hire workers.

The entire political class, meanwhile, smells the opportunity for a big corruption feast. This is why no one spoke out in the Lok Sabha, but only proposed amendments that would make corruption easier. Even if Rajiv Gandhi was wrong in thinking that only 15 percent of the funds reach beneficiaries, studies over 25 years in the EPW show that the poor never received more than 30 percent. Jean Dreze, author of this bill and someone I deeply admire, confesses that muster rolls were either absent or fudged in five out of six states studied under the current food-for-work program. ‘Loot for work’ are his words! Ask Manisha Varma, Solapur’s collector, how it’s done–she has just uncovered a Rs 9.1 crore EGS fraud in her district. All this puts a man of conscience like Manmohan in a dilemma–how to support a bill when you know that perhaps Rs 28,000 out of Rs 40,000 of the hard earned savings of the Indian people will be stolen. The states know it too and are thus unwilling to contribute even 10 percent of its cost.

One day I fear I shall meet Manmohan Singh weeping in a corner of India’s history–a knowing accomplice in the worst robbery in free India since the Fifth Pay Commission Award. He’ll be thinking how did this statist virus affect us just when things were going so well for India? I shall sympathize with him and hope that one day we too will become a middle class nation, and then the politics of India will also change. We will elect different sort of leaders, who will encourage us to depend on ourselves, and who will invest in infrastructure and in better schools rather than in populist giveaways.