New Delhi: As the Union government considers increasing funding for social programmes in the budget, education advocates are left wondering why it has not been able to spend the money earmarked to send every Indian child to school—a hallmark campaign of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan (SSA), a universal education programme for children between 6 and 14 years, relies on a mandatory 2% cess levied on every taxpaying Indian.
Since 2004, the surcharge has been imposed on total income tax, not on total income. A person earning Rs7 lakhs a year, for example, pays Rs3,200 annually.
This has resulted in a fund lush with money — but almost two-thirds of it remains unspent in the first eight months of the current fiscal.
“You do not have to go far,” says Magsaysay award winner Shantha Sinha, head of a child advocacy organisation. “Even 40 minutes from Hyderabad, you have schools where you have children but no teacher.”
According to data from the ministry of human resource development (HRD), which oversees education programmes, the Centre and state governments released 55% of funds for SSA in 2005-06. In data available for this fiscal year until November, it had only released 39%.
Under the SSA programme, for every Rs75 given by the Central government, states must spend Rs25 of their own. Yet poorer states, such as Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, and Union territories as the Andaman & Nicobar Islands have trouble garnering their own funds for education and actually make requests for less money because they cannot afford to match the Centre’s contribution.
“Their low spending means that SSA funds go unutilised, and are carried over the next year,” says a government official who did not want to be named.
Ironically, these poor states tend to have the highest number of out-of-school children and are the very ones that SSA intended to help.
The money raised from the 2% tax is divided between the educational programme and the mid-day meal programme, a school program offering lunch to poor students.
Government officials say the education cess is likely to remain in the next budget and that funding for social programs, from jobs to education, is expected to increase.
Like SSA, a lot of those programmes face hurdles, right from the Centre’s conception to implementation on the ground.
For its part, the central government blames states for not being able to effectively dole out the money.
And government sources say they expect that in the coming years, states will have to pick up even more of the funding burden for the universal education programme.
“In states like Bihar, red tape is a problem,” says M. A. A. Fatmi, minister of state for HRD.
Another government source, who did not wish to be identified, said even states operating in a surplus can be loath to pay for education initiatives.
“Education is a low-visibility, long-gestation period investment,” says the source, working to keep the Centre’s share of SSA funding at 75%.
Most education advocates still laud the SSA programme and say increased support of social sectors is desperately needed across India.
In 2005, a joint study by independent research agency, Indian Market Research Bureau (IMRB), and the government put the count of uneducated Indian children at 13.4 million, a figure that caused grave concern.
To be sure, SSA’s effect on some regions has been transformative. Sinha recalls volunteers slept on guns in a dacoit-infested area as they opened a school with SSA funds.
“The school was the first sign of governance reaching these people”, says Sinha, who has worked on moving child labourers in several states from work to school.
Others say the programme has created a huge demand for education among India’s poor, helping families realize they have a right to school their children.
“The SSA has been very successful in increasing the reach of the education system. Some very good underpinnings have been laid,” says Samphe D. Lhalungpa, chief of education of United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in India, which has partnered with the governent to help introduce SSA in several poor districts in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. UNICEF plays no funding role in the programme.
Observers say the lack of funding for government schools has forced children to remain uneducated, or resort to low-quality private schools.
A recent study by Pratham, an NGO tracking rural education, showed a shift towards private education across the country.
While 16.3% of rural children were in private schools in 2005, the number increased to 18.8% in 2006.
“Because of government inaction, privatised but sub-standard schools are coming-up,” said Delhi high court lawyer Ashok Agarwal,a long-time advocate for various social causes.
He has repeatedly filed lawsuits against the government on behalf of needy students.