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Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

Opinion | Our education policy may falter on ‘executive overload’

Lofty Indian goals are often left unfulfilled because of weak executional capacity at the ground level

As a well-known columnist recently remarked, “One of the besetting sins of policymaking has always been an excess of ambition. Policy is only rarely written for the actual constraints of implementation in Indian context." I have for long argued that our public policy ecosystem suffers from a chronic “implementation curse".

This ailment, right since independence, has been caused by an interplay of many factors: a shortage of allocated public resources, the poor monitoring and analytical capacity of implementation processes, differing political motives across governance systems, delays in the disbursement of funds, and a “bureaucratic overload".

The last term is a concept explained recently in a paper by Aditya Dasgupta and Devesh Kapur. They argue, at least in the context to rural India, that most government programmes fail on the ground because of poor implementation by bureaucrats. Bureaucratic overload takes place when “local bureaucrats remain heavily under-resourced relative to their responsibilities".

This may be caused by a shortage or misallocation of public resources, and is empirically shown to have two key sub-features: a) officials with fewer resources are worse off in implementing rural development schemes; b) fewer resources are provided to administrative units where the political responsibility for implementation is less clear. As a result, policy outcomes get influenced by weak state capacity and a disastrous implementation of what the State envisaged.

In the context of the recently approved National Education Policy (NEP), which has received praise for envisioning a holistic, multi-layered system of learning, adopting a localized linguistic approach, and making an overarching attempt to overhaul the broken education system, what’s missing is this underlying reality of India’s ruptured implementation and state-executive capacity.

It isn’t as if there is a behavioural problem of weak executive intent. Rather, it’s the fragmentation of State authority, poor accountability, and an under-allocation of desired financial resources that weaken the State’s executive capacity. This might hold true for the NEP too. Apart from bureaucrats, other stakeholders, say the teachers, administrators and students need to work under a better incentive system, one which makes the implementation process a “win-win" for both the executive and intended beneficiaries.

For better implementation, the politics of “ambition" in designing public policy should be aligned with a progressive implementation roadmap embedded in the design, like a GPS navigation map, for executive agencies to follow, and a feedback system in place for better compliance. Else, any policy will exist just as “ink on paper", as Kaushik Basu puts it.

What we often see is a “political" blame game among parties and Union, state and local governments, combined with a relative subjugation of the agency and financial priorities for implementers and other stakeholders that are rarely made part of the policy-designing process.

The NEP offers a promising landscape to address the ills of our education system. Adopting multidisciplinary, flexible learning with “easier" evaluation systems and providing a more diverse linguistic exposure are welcome in a country of such ethno-linguistic diversity and social fragmentation.

But what remains to be seen is the government’s effort in achieving these goals. Its track record over the last six years doesn’t inspire much confidence. While projecting a vision of easier educational rules, it seems to have acted contrarily. The setting up of a national higher education body makes one wonder if the NEP’s new measures would become tools for the exercise of greater political control over universities. The National Research Fund could also become a tool for ideological impositions on educational institutions.

The NEP’s call for 6% of gross domestic product equivalent of annual expenditure on (higher) education sounds a bit too ambitious, as nothing in the past six years of fiscal mapping indicates that the government wished to increase public spending on it. In fact, its priority has seemed the opposite, of rampant privatization of education and fund reduction for public institutions such as Jawaharlal Nehru University, even as concerns remain of unequal access to quality education, given India’s sharp socio-economic disparities, which have been worsened by the covid pandemic.

The new policy also needs close scrutiny with respect to its implications for “marginalized" and socially-excluded groups. As Professor Kumkum Roy recently noted with respect to “reservation" in academic institutions, “Reservation, necessary but not sufficient, is the bare minimum required in terms of affirmative action in the highly differentiated socio-economic milieu in which we exist. And the silence of the document on this issue is troubling, to say the least…"

While immediate excitement over and praise for the government’s plan to overhaul India’s education system may be welcomed, the underlying ability of the state to actually implement what it wishes to do and demonstrate effective executive capacity warrants circumspection. It might be a good idea to have independent policy assessments every year to understand the specific ailments afflicting the executive’s policy implementation at the ground level.

Else, a belated recognition of an “executive overload", among other chronic ailments, may be inevitable.

Deepanshu Mohan is associate professor of economics at OP Jindal Global University

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