Frontline Volume 20 - Issue 24, November 22 - December 05, 2003

Education for too few


At the `Education for All' conference held recently in Delhi, India appealed for additional foreign funds to educate all children. For a country that is reeling under the fallout of the IMF-World Bank-dictated structural adjustment programme, dependence on external agencies might undermine national sovereignty in framing educational policies.


WHILE inaugurating the meeting of the high-level group on Education For All (EFA) on November 10, Prime Minister expressed Atal Bihari Vajpayee deep concern about the lack of funds for elementary education in India. Making a strong bid for additional external aid, he reminded bilateral and multilateral aid agencies, including the World Bank, that in the year 2000 they had made a pledge in Dakar, Senegal, that "no country seriously committed to basic education will be thwarted in the achievement of this goal by lack of resources." He lamented that "the Fast Track Initiative started by the international funding agencies in 2002 has so far been neither fast nor adequate." He seemed to be saying that India will be willing to educate her children only if external aid agencies shell out additional funds. Does this not imply that the recent constitutional amendment, making elementary education a fundamental right, is at the mercy of aid agencies? What implications does this `dependency syndrome' have for national sovereignty?

These questions can be answered only by examining the logical basis of the hue and cry about fund crunch for a task that is crucial to nation building. The Government of India constituted the Tapas Majumdar Committee in 1999 to estimate the funds required to ensure that elementary education of eight years is provided to all children. (The Dakar Framework has diluted this goal to just five years of primary education.) The Committee estimated that an additional investment of Rs.1,37,600 crores would have to be made over a 10-year period to bring all out-of-school children into the school system (not parallel streams) and enable them to complete the elementary stage. This works out to an average investment of Rs.14,000 crores a year, which in 1999 amounted to a mere 0.78 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP); in other words, 78 paise out of every Rs.100 India then earned. In 2002-03, the same amount works out to a lesser proportion, that is, 0.63 per cent of the GDP. However, the Financial Memorandum to the Constitution (93rd) Amendment Bill, 2001 states that a sum of Rs.98,000 crores will be required over a 10-year period to implement the fundamental right to education for children in the age group of six to 14 years. It works out to Rs.9,800 crores a year on an average (0.44 per cent of the GDP in 2002-03), about 30 per cent less than that estimated by the Tapas Majumdar Committee.

Is the government saying that it cannot allocate an additional sum of merely 44 paise out of Rs.100 from the national income to ensure that every child in India exercises his/her fundamental right? Even the lowered estimate of 44 paise out of Rs. 100 of the GDP was eventually not allocated. Yet, at the EFA meeting, the Human Resource Development Ministry sought to establish India's claim to being `seriously committed' to the Dakar goals by citing repeatedly as evidence the constitutional amendment.

The lowered estimate of the fund requirement in the Constitutional Amendment Bill is a result of the dilution of many of the well-accepted norms relied upon by the Tapas Majumdar Committee. For instance, the teacher to pupil ratio of 1:30 was reduced to 1:40; the Operation Blackboard norm of three teachers and three classrooms for every primary school was reduced to two teachers and two classrooms; the cost of educating a disabled child in an inclusive classroom was reduced from Rs.3,000 for a child a year to Rs.1,200 a year. No pedagogic justification was provided for the dilution of such educationally sound norms but this has not stopped the Ministry from continuing its rhetoric on quality education at the EFA meeting.

The most critical dilution, however, was conceptual (and even moral and ethical), rather than quantitative. The government decided to replace the regular formal schools with low-quality, low-budget parallel streams of primary education for the educationally deprived children, two-thirds of whom are girls. This policy stance is apparently the result of the structural adjustment programme of the International Monetary Fund (IMF)-World Bank, which imposes drastic cuts in expenditures on education, health and other social welfare sectors as a condition for the grant of additional loans or aid.

The parallel streams included Alternative Schools, Education Guarantee Scheme (EGS) centres and Multi-Grade Teaching - the so-called `innovations' designed under the canvass of the World Bank-sponsored District Primary Education Programme (DPEP), during the 1990s. In violation of our National Policy on Education, 1986, upper primary education (Grades VI to VIII) was essentially forgotten, presumably to please external aid agencies committed to the Dakar Framework of primary education of only five years. Also, the regular teacher was replaced by a para-teacher who is an under-qualified, untrained and under-paid local youth appointed on the basis of a short-term contract.

The government was not perturbed that its policy stance was tantamount to institutionalising discrimination against the poor, a majority of whom would be Dalits, the tribal people and religious or cultural minorities, two-thirds of each segment being girls. Most of the disabled children will also fall in this category, earmarked for discrimination.

The policy was pushed forward ruthlessly in spite of wide public criticism and the principle of equality enshrined in the Constitution. The government's refrain of `something is better than nothing' seemed to justify, instead of questioning, the collapse of education policies during the past 56 years. The concept of a parallel stream was first institutionalised by the 1986 policy in the form of non-formal education for the poor, especially child workers.

This has been acknowledged as major policy fault line, as it was used by the policy-makers of the 1980s as a rationale for not focussing political attention on the transformation of the mainstream school system in favour of the poor, especially the girls and the disabled children. Although the policy was committed to establishing a common school system through the promotion of neighbourhood schools, as recommended by the Kothari Commission (1964-66), the parallel stream of non-formal education became the dominant policy imperative. This effectively marginaliesd the concept of common school system and the constitutional principle of equality. Quality education rapidly became the preserve of the privileged, making education a commodity.

The Prime Minister did well by expressing concern at the EFA meeting about the phenomenon of the market determining the quality of education. But one cannot ignore the fact that the policy was designed precisely to achieve this end.

The much-hyped adult literacy programme is an example of how attention has been diverted from the central issue of universalisation of elementary education (UEE). The literacy programme is akin to `mopping the floor while the tap is on' as it seems to be waiting for half of the children in the age group of six to 14 who are out-of-school to become adult illiterates in the 15-35 age group (the official group for literacy mission) so that the literacy programme can be thrust on them. With this policy, the literacy business will be on well beyond 2015.

There is plenty of evidence to show that this over-emphasis on literacy, making it almost synonymous with education, is part of the international literacy `conspiracy', conceived by the World Bank and the agencies of the United Nations. The Jomtien Declaration (1990), issued by the first World Conference on EFA and followed up in the Dakar Framework (2000), is evidence of market forces working over-time to push the literacy paradigm in the global education scenario. Literacy skill is all that the masses need, argue the market forces, so that they can read the product labels and advertisements. Its somewhat evolved form would be adequate for factory workers to read production instructions and to use even the Internet. Critical thinking, creativity, scientific temper, analytical abilities, sense of history or philosophy, aesthetic appreciation and other such educational attributes need to be reserved for the privileged few - this is the implication of the literacy paradigm and the market forces. The Ambani-Birla Report (2000), submitted to the Prime Minister's Council on Trade and Industry, was prepared to extend the market framework into Indian education.

THE current deterioration in the quality of schooling, including in the private school system, can be traced historically and pedagogically to this erroneous policy perception. If there was even a modicum of commitment to the UEE goal, the government would have analysed the causes of this policy collapse and drawn useful lessons for re-formulating the future policy framework.

Significantly, India's 1986 education policy had made a much clearer commitment on `education for women's equality' than the Jomtien-Dakar Framework. It states that "education will be used as an agent of basic change in the status of women" in order to "neutralise the accumulated distortions of the past". It promises that "there will be a well-conceived edge in favour of women" and that the education system will "play a positive, interventionist role" in their empowerment and "this will be an act of faith and social engineering". The credit for this clarity must go entirely to the women's movement in India.

However, the only programme that was designed to reflect this policy insight was the Mahila Samakhya. Its objective was to enhance the self-esteem and self-confidence of women; build their positive image by recognising their contribution to society, the polity and the economy; develop their ability to think critically; enable them to make informed choices in areas such as education, employment and health, especially reproductive health; and ensure equal participation in developmental processes. But the programme remained marginal throughout the 1990s. For every Rs.100 allocated for elementary education in the Union Budget, hardly 25 paise was given to it. In due course of time, even this miniscule programme lost its basic direction.

The Jomtien-Dakar Framework does not even refer to patriarchy as an issue and essentially reduces girls' education to their mere enrolment in school registers and to the provision of literacy skills. This is exactly what happened when the World Bank-sponsored DPEP adopted the Mahila Samakhya. The focus on collective reflection and socio-cultural action by organised women's groups was abandoned. It became a mere enrolment programme for the girl child. Critical issues such as the participation of girls in schools, gender sensitising of learning material and teacher education and other holistic educational aims were ignored.

Unfortunately, the notion of gender parity (ratio of enrolment of girls and boys) in the EFA Global Monitoring Report, 2003-04 released by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) reinforces this confusion. It is a different matter that the UNESCO report reveals that India will fail to achieve even this diluted objective by 2015. Also, the World Bank diluted the goal of women's education to just raising their literacy levels and productivity (rather than educating or empowering them) and turning them into mere transmitters of messages related to fertility control, health or nutrition. The Dakar Framework has now added the ambiguous notion of Life Skills that seems to be yet another mechanism for social manipulation and market control of the adolescent mindset, particularly girls. India unfortunately gave up its progressive policy on women's education in favour of the international framework that was guided more by the considerations of market than by women's socio-cultural and political rights.

Policy-level recommendations to attach Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) to every school have been rejected. Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), a poor substitute for ECCE, hardly covers 20 per cent of children in the age group of zero to six years. The situation is unlikely to change significantly since the 86th Constitutional Amendment, claiming to accord the status of fundamental right to education, has excluded 160 million children in the age group of zero to six years. Also, the amended Article 45 has withdrawn the previous constitutional obligation to provide free ECCE to all children below six years of age.

The amendment implies that the girls in the six-14 age group as well, especially those belonging to the deprived sections, will be denied their right to education as they will not be disengaged from sibling care. Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi made a shocking statement in Parliament on November 28, 2001, that amounted to transferring the government's obligation in the matter of ECCE to the NGOs and the corporate sector.

This policy stance is in consonance with the World Bank's policy of privatisation of social services.

Even children in the six to 14 age group have been granted the fundamental right to education with certain conditions. As per the new Article 21A, free and compulsory education shall be provided "in such manner as the state may, by law, determine". This conditionality was introduced to legitimise the system of low-quality, low-budget parallel streams of education. The discriminatory multiple-track education has become the backbone of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan in the Tenth Five-Year Plan. (`Back-to-school' camp is the latest addition to the multiple-track system.)

Soon, even the para-teacher will be replaced by a postman, as the government has decided to push correspondence courses for children in the six to 14 age group. This implies that the girl child will be denied the relatively more liberating atmosphere of the school rather than her home, which is still bound by patriarchal traditions. The introduction of correspondence courses for children in the six to14 age group was recommended by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) in its National Curriculum Framework for School Education, 2000. This was in violation of the 1986 policy, which provided for open schooling only from the secondary and senior secondary stages onwards. The NCERT has failed to provide even a shred of research evidence to justify a system of open schooling for this tender age group.


Worse is to come. Schedule A of `The Free and Compulsory Education for Children Bill, 2003', which is expected to be introduced in the winter session of Parliament, provides for EGS Centres and Alternative Schools with under-qualified and ill-trained para-teachers. Amazingly, the Schedule legitimises the so-called `open schooling' system where the postman (unlikely to be a postwoman) will presumably deliver learning material to girl children engaged in sibling care and domestic chores, reinforcing gender bias. The disabled children will be covered by the correspondence courses, making inclusive classrooms `unnecessary'. (Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan's rhetoric on inclusive classrooms for the disabled thus stands exposed.) The Bill thus aims to complete the process started by the 86th Constitutional Amendment to fulfil the dictates of the IMF-World Bank structural adjustment programme in elementary education.

As far as the issue of funding is concerned, it is a myth that external aid has been helpful. Apart from leading to serious policy dilutions and distortions, external aid has had an adverse impact in terms of the political will to re-prioritise the national economy to help mobilise public resources for UEE. Soon after the 1986 policy, there was an upswing in the national effort to mobilise state resources for elementary education.

By 1989-90, almost 4 per cent of the GDP was spent on education, with little less than half on elementary education. Ironically, with the influx of external aid into the primary education sector in the 1990s, the investment in education (including elementary education) declined steadily to reach as low as 3.49 per cent of the GDP in 1997-98, the same level as in 1985-86, just before the 1986 policy came into being . Clearly, the political will to mobilise resources for elementary education weakened with the entry of external aid.

It is only during the last two to three years that there has been some improvement, followed by a declining trend again in 2001-2002, though the level of external aid was twice as much in comparison to 1997-98.

Without a grassroots-based people's movement, it is unlikely that the government will even attempt to extricate itself from the trap of external conditionalities that dilute our constitutional and policy commitments. A genuine political movement should not be confused with noises made by NGOs, who are co-opted eventually (`A convenient consensus', Frontline, January 4, 2002). The gap in resources can be met by revising the priorities of the national economy and rectifying the multiple distortions that have crept into the education policy during the 1990s. UEE will be achieved only when national sovereignty is restored with respect to policy formulation.

Anil Sadgopal is Professor of Education, University of Delhi, and Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum & Library. An activist in the people's science movement, he has a special interest in elementary education.