India's public policy failures and private solutions

June 10 2020

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Seventy years since it became a republic, India has come a long way. However, it is still failing on key counts: water, health, education, power, and law and order. Piped drinking water for all continues to be a pipe dream; homes and businesses are haunted by power outages; the lack of proper primary health care renders the poorest more vulnerable; millions of children coming out of schools lack rudimentary skills; and the protection of families and enterprises is a source of great anxiety.

Indians are seceding from dependence on the government for these most basic of services, to invest in the pay-and-plug economy. Citizens across income levels - having internalized the failure of the state to deliver public services - are opting for private service providers despite the costs. That this is happening even as governments spend more and more tax-payer money every year is the reflection of a harsh reality: there is too much government and too little governance. But can India sustain such private republics? What are the possible solutions to set right such failures in a landscape scarred by social and economic fault lines? Can government reinvent itself?

The Gated Republic by Shankkar Aiyar presents an interrogative view of the history and future of private India.

Here's an excerpt:

It takes a visiting dignitary to call a crisis by its name. Speaking at the 2016 Transforming India Lecture Series, then Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore Tharman Shanmugaratnam told a packed audience, which included Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, 'I have to say, and I would like to repeat, I say this as a friend. Schools are the biggest crisis in India today, and have been for a long time. Schools are the biggest gap between India and East Asia. And it is a situation that cannot be justified.'

It is true that India has succeeded in boosting enrolment and reducing the number of children out of school. But it's equally true that quantity is not accompanied by the quality of education. The very visible deterioration in the quality of education is threatening to convert what is envisaged as a demographic dividend into a disaster. The spectre is manifest in the numbers released by government reports - the data from non-governmental surveys.

The fundamental principle about public policy is that what gets measured gets done. In India, it doesn't quite play out. The Government of India collects data on school education. The District Information System of Education (DISE) provides this across 121 tables - data on 1.45 million primary and upper-primary schools and over 2.5 lakh secondary and higher-secondary schools. However, as the World Bank's World Development Report, 2018, commented, 'Of the 980 data points reported, none covers student learning,' and that this 'omission can make it difficult to track interventions to improve learning'.

The government's National Achievement Survey (NAS) 2015 - which covered 2.2 million students from Classes 3, 4 and 8 across 1.10 lakh schools - says this: 'Overall Class 5 students in thirty-four states/union territories were able to correctly answer 45 per cent of reading comprehension items, 46 per cent of mathematics items and 50 per cent environmental studies'. What doesn't get said is that more than half of the students could not spell.

The NAS, comprehensive as it may be in its width of coverage, does not convey the depth of failure. An annual dose of reality about India's state of education comes from Pratham's Annual Status of Education Report (ASER, which means 'impact' in Hindi), which focuses on the attainment of education of children of ages between five and sixteen. The 2016 survey included 5.6 lakh children from 3.5 lakh households across 17,473 villages in 589 districts. The findings of the survey are mind-numbing.

Nearly three quarters of students in Class III could not read Class II texts and just over 27 per cent could do a two-digit subtraction. Less than half the children in Class V could read Class II texts and fared far worse in arithmetic. Barely 21 per cent could do division, 23.3 could do subtraction but no division, 32 per cent knew numbers but couldn't do subtraction and a shocking 18.7 per cent knew numbers till nine but not till ninety-nine. What should send shock waves is the stark observation by Madhav Chavan in the 2014 Pratham report: 'A hundred million children have gone through the schools in the last decade without basic reading and math skills.'

The 2017 ASER report looked at the level of preparedness of those completing eight years of schooling and those aged between fourteen and eighteen in terms of activity, ability, awareness and aspirations. A fourth of them could not read basic text fluently in their own language and more than half struggled with the division of a three-digit number by a single digit. Of those surveyed, one in four could not count money, just over half could add weights correctly. While 83 per cent could tell the time in hours, only 60 per cent got the minutes right. When showed the map of India, while 79 per cent could say the name of their state, only 42 per cent could point it out on the map.

The 2018 ASER report looked at reading and math abilities of students over a ten-year period, between 2008 and 2018. It's as much about the inadequacy of teaching as it is about the learning. For instance, in 2008, the survey found that 38.8 per cent of Class III students could do subtraction. In 2018, only 28.1 per cent could. The decline is similar among higher age groups. Among Class V students, as against 37 per cent of students in 2008, only 27.8 per cent of them could do a simple exercise in division. The ability of Class VIII students to read Class II texts went from 84.8 per cent to 72.8 per cent.

The disparity in teaching and learning across states is, in itself, shocking. In Rajasthan, only 8.1 per cent of Class III students attending government schools could subtract compared with 44.7 per cent in Kerala. Barely 12.3 per cent of students in Class III in Uttar Pradesh could read Class II texts compared to 47.4 per cent in Himachal Pradesh. Similarly, 71 per cent of Class VIII students in Mizoram could do simple division compared to 28.7 in West Bengal. The difference between government and privately managed primary schools is also to be noted. Only one in five, or 20.9 per cent, of students in Class V could read Class 2 texts compared to 39.8 per cent in private schools. Similarly, 54.2 per cent of students in Class 8 in private schools could do division compared to 44.1 in government schools.

Government schools need not be bad, and Kendriya Vidyalayas prove the point (Disclosure: I have been a student of one). Kendriya Vidyalayas are the jewels in the troubled crown of government schools. Started in 1963 to enable children of central government employees and members of armed forces posted in remote locations to access education, the over 1,200 KVs, as they are known, are under the Central Board of Secondary Education. As government schools, they represent an idea of what could have been.

(SHANKKAR AIYAR is an internationally recognized political economy analyst and prominent Indian author-columnist. Harper Collins is the publisher.)

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