Wednesday, March 28, 2007

A tale of two numbers March 11, 2007

Our ruling Congress Party led coalition genuinely wanted to use this year’s budget to shrink the rich-poor divide. But it failed, of course. Hidden in the budget were two items that almost escaped notice. One was the provision to hire 200,000 teachers and the other was to give 100,000 scholarships to schoolchildren. In the differing stories of these two numbers lies the answer to the question why every Indian government keeps failing to help the poor.

Although India’s booming economy is doing its bit in raising the poor, the poor also need good schools and health clinics to enjoy the benefits of high growth. It is not the lack of money that prevents them from having the most basic public goods. India spends a respectable 4 percent of GDP on education and even in this 2007 budget, spending on education (and health and rural employment schemes) has increased 35%. The failure is the result of deeper disease. Surveys show that one out of four school teachers is absent in state primary schools, and of those present one out of two is not teaching. Similarly, two out of five doctors and one in three nurses is absent from government primary health centers. There are over a million primary school teachers in India’s state system, and going by surveys, it means that 670,000 teachers may not be doing their job. So, when Mr Chidambaram proposes an additional 200,000 teachers, how can one feel cheerful?

What do parents do when teachers don’t show up? As with so much about India's success story, they find their own solutions. They enroll their kids in cheap private schools which charge only Rs 70-100 a month in fees and which are spreading rapidly in slums and villages. Even though private schools pay one third the salary of the unionized government teachers, they deliver better results. Hence, 53% of urban Indian children (and 18% of rural children) are now in private schools. This is very high by world standards. Even Chile, which privatized education in 1981, has achieved only 46.5% share of private enrollment after 25 years.

For this reason, the second number—the promised 100,000 scholarships--in this year’s budget is excellent news. It will empower parents to choose schools based on merit and give state schools an incentive to improve. Merit testing will also help to assess the quality of government schools. It might even improve the “anti-merit” image of this UPA government. I wish we could give a crore instead of a lakh scholarships!
How does one explain the discrepancy between the government’s desire to spend more on elementary education and health with the reality that more and more Indians are embracing private solutions? Let’s face the fact that our politicians have captured the bureaucracy and use the system to create jobs and revenue for friends and supporters. In many states politicians sell teaching jobs for a handsome price. Teachers, who are thus appointed for life, believe they don’t need to teach. As a result, the state is so riddled with perverse incentives that accountability is gone.

But none of the solutions being debated will bring accountability unless we recognize that the government’s job is to govern rather than run everything. The state may have to finance primary services such as health and education, but the providers could be NGOs, teachers, ‘edu-preneurs’, and they would be accountable to parents and not to a bureaucratic hierarchy. This tale of two numbers teaches that the hope for decent services for the poor may lie in such public-private partnerships.



Pramod Biligiri said...

If the State finances without implementation, then you'd have something like the Voucher system being talked about recently right? where the Govt. gives coupons to children/parents to utilise at schools. Alternatively, it can fund privately run schools, which is unlikely.

In the Voucher case, one way of leakage is unscrupulous businessmen setting up low quality schools in return of giving a "cut" of the voucher-encashed money back to the parents. I mean, how do you ensure that parents indeed spend this coupon money only on education?

If you are doling vouchers, why not just give the cash to poor parents and let them use it for whatever they feel best? Interested parents will use it for education, the rest can do whatever they want.

Alternatively, don't even take the money from parents in the first place - remove the Education Cess.

Kerda said...

Well written article.