Lots of input automatically means lots of output. That was the assumption India’s policymakers made while enacting ambitious economic plans during the Jawaharlal Nehru years, without caring for the process between input and output. If Monday’s passage of the Right to Education Bill in the Rajya Sabha is any guide, policymakers are still making the same assumption.
The aim to achieve free and compulsory education isn’t new. The Constitution has listed the right to education as a directive principle of state policy since 1950. The 86th Amendment takes this a step further. But are India’s children learning?
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
To be fair, the Bill is part of a movement that shows the government has at least begun to take primary education seriously. For instance, though it’s far from the school voucher system liberals would like to see, the Bill allows private schools to be reimbursed for reserving 25% seats for disadvantaged children. And outlays for Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA)—the programme to universalize elementary education—have increased since it began in 2001.
But good intentions don’t necessarily make for good results. The Comptroller and Auditor General noted that as of March 2005—four years after SSA began—40% children remained out of school. The Planning Commission has worried in the 11th Plan that while enrolment may be increasing, retention remains a major problem.
So while there is a Rs13,100 crore allocation this year for SSA, the process of learning remains in disrepair. Licence-raj still exists for private entrepreneurs, while standards for government schools are relaxed compared with those for private schools. Monday’s Bill perpetuates this attitude: Strict teacher-pupil ratios are delineated, but there’s no mention of the government’s own minimum levels of learning. The government is more worried about schools, the input, than actual schooling, the output.
That raises a broader point: Even if some public goods and services are declared to be a right by law, changing reality is altogether different.
A half-century ago, the Oxford political theorist Isaiah Berlin drew a sharp distinction between “negative” and “positive” liberties. The former are individual rights that require the state to back off. Whether or not that’s easy, such a concept is simple to enforce.
Positive rights, however, require the state to actively intervene to provide services. But this proves trickier: Just expenditure isn’t enough. If India still thinks that just spending money will enable learning, we’ve hardly reformed since 1991.
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