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JANUARY 14, 2007
 Letter From
 Message From
The Prime Minister
 Editor's Letter
 The Great Indian
M iddle Class
 India'S Poor
 The Next 15 Years

Flying High
The Indian aviation industry is growing at a rapid pace, thanks to air transport deregulation, emergence of new operators, lower fares and large untapped demand for air travel. The numbers tell an interesting story: India will require an estimated 1,100 aircraft. The average annual passenger traffic growth in India through 2025 is estimated at 7.7 per cent, well above the world average of 4.8 per cent and China's 7.2 per cent.

Bars Of Gold
The global gold industry is flourishing, largely fuelled by Asian demand and a weak US dollar. The boom is probably only halfway through since prices bottomed out in 2000. Since 1800, the boom and bust cycles have averaged about 10 years. While production is down, the value of gold purchased today is up 47 per cent from a year ago. The super-cycle of high metal prices is seen to be spurred largely by demand from China and India. An analysis.
More Net Specials
Business Today,  December 31, 2006

The Social Sector Scam:
Schooling For Failure


Class sizes are indeed a problem in parts of India-one hears of classes of over a hundred in parts of up

Every passing hour brings the solar system forty-three thousand miles closer to the Global Cluster M13 in Hercules-and still there are some misfits who insist that there is no such thing as progress", begins Kurt Vonnegut's early, magnificent, 'science fiction' novel, The Sirens of Titan.

India, these days, is full of such misfits. Moreover, as the BJP learnt to its cost, they vote. And, 8 to 9 per cent growth notwithstanding, they are stubbornly unwilling to eat national pride. This is, no doubt, why every politician in India insists that growth needs to be shared.

The problem is, shared how? The conventional answer is through investment in the social sector. That sounds wonderful until you start thinking about what it entails.

Take education, something that more or less everybody in India agrees, is a worthy target of public investment. Most people in India today have reasonable physical access to a public primary school. According to the 2001 census, 94 per cent of all villages have a primary school within one kilometre, which is not bad since one kilometre is not particularly far even for a six-year-old. It is true that there are still places that are nowhere near a school, and to make matters worse, many of these deprived villages are in tribal areas, compounding the many other disadvantages that they have to live with. But for the much of the country, the crucial first step has been taken.

These schools are not lying empty: Based on the first Annual Survey of Education Report (ASER) carried out last year by that remarkable educational NGO, Pratham, 93.4 per cent of the children in the appropriate age group in India are enrolled in a school. This starts to look a little less impressive when you stop to think that the figure still leaves more than 10 million children out of school, but it is clear that most parents have accepted the principle that their sons and even their daughters need to go to school.

Given that the schools are largely there and the children are in school, the next challenge, at least at the primary school level, is to teach them something useful. This is, however, where the good news ends. As a part of ASER, a nationally representative sample of six to fourteen year olds was given a simple test in reading and mathematics. It turned out that only 43 per cent of children in class five could do simple (one-digit) subtractions and divisions, and only 60 per cent could read at a second-grade level.

Given that teachers are more or less required to teach a set curriculum, this is telling us that more than half of all children in India, that is over a hundred million children just among those who are in school today, mostly from poor families, are condemned to endure several years of patient bewilderment in the classroom, before they finally drop out. No wonder, the average child comes to school only about 70 per cent of the time.

The challenge is to make teachers take teaching seriously. One cannot do that without upsetting large numbers of teachers

I am not sure that anyone in government has really thought about the consequences of bringing up hundreds of millions of what are, in effect, fraud victims-victims of an elaborate scam called schooling. What happens when the children discover how little they got for their time in school? Will they blame themselves, at further cost to their self-confidence and self-esteem? Or are we bringing up a whole generation of the maladjusted, who will blame society for giving them hope and then taking it away?

Don't get me wrong. I do believe that we have to find ways of giving everyone a reasonable chance of getting a useable education. But to offer an education that is not an education, may well be worse than doing nothing.

How can the quality of education in the schools where the children of the poor are educated be improved? There are the usual answers-hire more teachers, better teacher training, better textbooks-but they have all been tried. DPEP, the flagship education reform programme from the 1990s, was all about teacher training and better textbooks and, therefore, given the rather dismal results we see today, it seems clear that whatever it did was not nearly enough.

Class sizes are indeed a problem in parts of India-one hears of classes of over a hundred in parts of up-but, once again according to ASER, the average class has between 30 and 40 students, which is not bad for a country as poor as India. Moreover, it does not seem to be the case that the entire educational deficit is in states like up, which cannot afford to hire enough teachers. Once again based on ASER, no more than 40 per cent of the children in class five in rich and/or fast-growing states like Gujarat, Karnataka and Maharashtra can do one-digit subtractions and divisions. Finally, a study that we did in the wealthy city of Vadodara with children from the municipal school system found that only 19.5 per cent of third grade children pass the grade one math competencies (number recognition, counting and one-digit addition and subtraction) while 20.9 per cent pass the grade one reading competencies in Vadodara (reading a single word, choosing the right spelling among different possible spellings for a word). Moreover, reducing the class by 20 children for half the school-day had no effect on the performance of the children who stayed behind in the reduced classroom.

What all of this, but especially the last fact, points to is that the teachers in these schools are not trying very hard. This is probably why, faced with a class that is only two-thirds as big on average, they could not find a way to make the children learn more.

Evidence of teacher indifference is everywhere: When a group of scholars from Harvard University and the World Bank sent observers unannounced to 3,700 public and private schools in India on three separate occasions, they found that 25 per cent of teachers were absent on any given day. Moreover, only 45 per cent of the teachers present were actually teaching when the observers arrived. The rest were drinking tea, or talking to other teachers, or reading the newspaper.

If this is because the teachers are demoralised, they are not demoralised because they are underpaid. A recent study by Lant Prichett and Rinku Murgai from the World Bank office in Delhi that uses recent National Sample Survey data, concluded that teachers are paid about 80 per cent more than people in the private sector (not just teachers) with the same qualifications.

The mission statement for the newly launched national rural health mission makes no mention of challenges of regulating private healthcare

Sarva Shikhsa Abhiyan (SSA), the education reform programme for the new millennium, explicitly recognises that schools are not doing enough with the expensive resources that they are given. It comes with a new mantra-decentralisation. A Village Education Committee (VEC) has been set up in every village, with representation from parents, with the mandate of monitoring what the schools are doing.

Yet in a large survey we did in rural East up, a startling 92 per cent of parents of children in the government school responded that they did not know of any such committee. Of those who claimed to know that such a committee existed, only 2 per cent could name any of its members. Even more remarkably, among the parent members of a committee, about one in four does not know that he is on the committee. And of those who do know that they are a part of the committee, roughly two-thirds are unaware of the SSA, despite the fact that it comes with a substantial amount of money for the school.

None of this is surprising once one realises that, in all likelihood, none of these parents has ever seen a government official punished for malfeasance, and certainly not based on complaints of someone like them. Teachers are often powerful-the political parties cultivate them, as an articulate and visible presence in the village-and one crosses them at one's peril. Moreover, given that most of them cannot read, they cannot really presume to judge the quality of their teaching (though they presumably can monitor absence). As for the VEC members, it is obviously not in the interest of the rest of the VEC (the headmaster, and the village pradhan, for example) to encourage them to participate more actively, especially since there is money around.

The real puzzle is why the ministry chose to believe that this would do very much to solve the problem, especially since I find it hard to believe that no one there foresaw that this is what would happen. My strong suspicion is that this is in fact what they wanted-the appearance of doing something without actually doing much. The challenge in reforming education is to make teachers take teaching seriously, and one cannot do that without upsetting large numbers of teachers. Using the VECs has the appropriate symbolism (who could be against empowering parents?) without the political fall-out, precisely because none of the insiders really expected the VECs to be effective.

Unfortunately, everything that is wrong with India's education policy is also a problem in health, only more so. Nurses in village sub-centres come to work only 60 per cent of the time, compared to 75 per cent for teachers. The fraction of children in rural Udaipur district in Rajasthan (where we went into a lot of trouble to measure it carefully) who have been fully immunised is of the order of 6 per cent. And while the national average is a lot higher, there is a strong suspicion that the data may be unreliable.

And while most children still go to public schools, the government health clinics, despite being both closer and cheaper, are not used. In rural Udaipur, even the poorest (who live on less than Rs 250 a month, per head), are more than twice as likely to go to a private allopathic practitioner as a public clinic, never mind that many of these private "doctors" are not actually qualified to practice medicine. And one important reason why they go to these doctors, apart from the fact that they can actually find them when they need them, is that they will happily shoot you up with antibiotics and steroids, and throw in a glucose drip if you so desire.

What does the government propose to do to deal with this crisis? The mission statement for the newly launched National Rural Health Mission makes no mention of challenges of regulating private healthcare, and for accountability, it promises to follow the SSA model!

In the end, the relevant ministries need to recognise that even for the purpose of being re-elected, they need to do something that has a real impact: Words like empowerment and decentralisation might warm the hearts of policy makers in Delhi or Washington, but they cut no ice with rural voters, unless they actually deliver. Till that happens, I remain pessimistic about the social sector.




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