Why the provision of a good school education is the key first step.
The twin goals of Indian economic planning have been rapid all-round economic growth and equitable sharing of the fruits of development. The country has made significant progress in realising the first objective. But the second goal has remained elusive. After six decades of planned economic development, the disparities have widened and some three-quarters of the population are mired in poverty. The world financial crisis offers an opportunity to make a course correction and advance towards inclusive growth.
It is generally agreed that the Keynesian prescription of stepping up public spending for the management of aggregate demand is the most potent weapon to fight a recession. The Indian government has already initiated action on the right lines by enhancing outlay on infrastructure, particularly on highways, power and other public works, the NREGA, supply of foodgrains to the poor at subsidised rates and so on. But more needs to be done. Here are some specific suggestions to help the disadvantaged by giving them access to quality school education.
The main reasons for India’s failure to achieve inclusive growth and distributive justice are the failure of land reform, the wrecking of the well-designed community development programme that aimed at the all-round development of the village, the lack of success in providing adequate employment opportunities at living wages to a rising population, the neglect of school education and the absence of special measures designed to help children of the poor to get a good school education.
Crux of the problem
The significant weakness of the Indian economy is the continued dependence of some 60 per cent of the workforce on low-productivity agriculture and allied occupations for employment and living. The efforts made since Independence have led to only a small decline in the percentage of the population dependent on agriculture. In that period, the share of agriculture in the gross domestic product declined by more than one half, resulting in great distress. Even if we achieve an annual growth of 10 per cent or 12 per cent in industry, there will be no substantial decrease in the dependence on agriculture.
Furthermore, it is high time we took note of the tectonic shift that has taken place in the nature of industrial employment. In the early stages of industrialisation, rural workers could migrate to the cities and seek employment in the textile mills of Bombay, Ahmedabad or Coimbatore, or the Tata Iron and Steel mill at Jamshedpur, for instance. That is no longer possible. The doors of modern industry will open only to those with good schooling and the relevant skills. This is equally true of the service sector which has grown fast in recent years. With the onset of the IT revolution it has become obligatory for new entrants to acquire even higher levels of skills. Hence it is a matter of urgency to provide adequate facilities for quality school education and impart relevant skills to the disadvantaged.
The policymakers who introduced reservation for the disadvantaged in institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management without ever bothering to give them access to high-quality school education put the cart before the horse. What the politicians really did was to invite the disadvantaged to a veritable Barmicide’s feast! Only the so-called creamy layer benefit from reservation. The most effective affirmative action in the field of education would have been to provide adequate facilities for quality school education to children of the weaker sections.
In any purposeful programme to achieve inclusive growth, the pride of place should go to education, particularly quality school education. In this context, the Prime Minister’s announcement about opening 6,000 Navodaya-type schools is welcome. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi took a laudable initiative by opening the Navodaya schools. Unfortunately those schools ended up catering to the elite. What is now needed is to reserve 50 per cent seats in existing and future Navodaya schools for children of the disadvantaged. This simple, inexpensive step will be a boon to the poor.
Expand and modernise facilities
Apart from opening schools, the working of existing government schools should be improved as a matter of priority. Some six decades ago, government schools were among the best institutions in the country. But today most of them are in bad shape. While there are numerous expensive private schools to cater to the needs of the affluent, the poor mostly depend on government schools.
Hence the need to improve the functioning of government schools without losing more time. There is also a need to expand and modernise teacher-training facilities. In order to attract better talent, it is necessary to improve the emoluments of teachers. A society that compensates clerks in government offices and banks more liberally than teachers cannot expect the talented to opt for teaching.
Opening of schools and improving the functioning of government schools will not automatically confer great benefits on the poor. Special steps are needed to enable students to make use of the facilities. The greatest handicap that poor children face is that at home they do not have an ambience conducive to the pursuit of studies. This drawback can be overcome to a large extent if they are lodged in hostels equipped with good tutors to guide them.
A new initiative
The establishment of schools and the improvement of government schools will take time. The provision of quality school education to children of the poor is crucial and we cannot afford to wait. A practical solution is to reserve seats in existing good schools and provide hostel accommodation and special tuition. It should be possible to reserve at least 10 per cent of seats in each class in all Central schools, Sainik schools and good government schools. Additionally, good private schools, including those run by Christian missionaries and others, should be persuaded to join the endeavour. The government should, of course, give the institution ample grants to cover capital and recurring expenditure. Each student should be given a scholarship sufficient to meet all legitimate expenses. Public schools such as the Doon School, the Rishi Valley School and so on, good missionary schools like St. Columba’s and Jesus and Mary in Delhi, and others like the Delhi Public School, should become a part of this.
There should be a caveat added here. Great care should be taken in selecting the schools. There is the danger of unsuitable institutions trying to gatecrash to avail themselves of the generous financial assistance. Recent years have witnessed a mushrooming of so-called English medium schools of poor quality started for commercial reasons. Such schools should be left out. In each State, a small committee consisting of knowledgeable persons of integrity should be set up to select the schools. If serious efforts are made it should be possible to admit at least one lakh poor students in good schools over the next few years. If successfully implemented, this may turn out to be the most effective affirmative action attempted so far.
Though we have succeeded in modernising the economy and the country has registered remarkable industrial and agricultural growth, we have failed to ensure that a fair share of the growth accrues to the poor. The present recession is an opportunity to reverse the trend and implement programmes aimed to achieve inclusive growth. Investment in school education should be stepped up in order to help the poor get quality schooling. The other areas that cry out for attention and enhanced allocations are an enlarged and revamped NREGA, public health and medical care, a reorganised public distribution system targeting the poor and augmented housing facilities for the poor, both urban and rural. There is also a dire need to revamp the delivery mechanism, making it more efficient and accountable.
All these measures will necessitate a substantial additional outlay pushing the fiscal deficit a little above the projected 6.8 per cent. Considering that these steps are needed to make a course correction and ensure inclusive growth, the risk is a justified one to take. A polity that incurs colossal wasteful expenditure on a bloated government machinery, some avoidable subsidies, the supply of free electricity to prosperous farmers, distribution of free colour television sets, the installation of statues of megalomaniac politicians and so on should not grudge a large outlay on projects targeted to benefit the weaker sections. If an amendment to the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act 2003 becomes necessary, the Government of India should amend it without hesitation.
(P.S. Appu is a former Central Land Reforms Commissioner and a former Chief Secretary of Bihar. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)