zeroIn moments of exasperation when talking about India and what we call the system, people often blurt out, “but why isn’t the government doing something about it?”

Take the case of education. As the document titled Some Inputs for Draft National Education Policy of 2016 released by the ministry of human resources development some time back  points out: “The concern for the improvement of education had been at the top of India’s development agenda since independence.”

Despite this concern, India still has the most illiterates in the world. As the Draft National Education Policy document further points out: “The relatively slow progress in reducing the number of non-literates continues be a concern. India currently has the largest non-literate population in the world with the absolute number of non-literates among population aged 7 and above being 282.6 million in 2011.”

This basically means that around in one in four Indians continue to be illiterate. This is nearly seventy years after independence. Over and above this, India also has the maximum number of youth and adult illiterates in the world. The youth literacy rate (15-24 years) is at 86.1 per cent whereas the adult literacy rate (15 years and above) is at 69 per cent.

Further being literate doesn’t mean that the learning outcomes (the ability to read, write and do some basic maths) are in place. Madhav Chavan, the CEO-President of the Pratham Education Foundation estimates that in the period of ten years up to 2015, 10 crore children completed primary school without the ability to do some basic reading as well as mathematics.

So why can’t the government do something about it?

It is widely believed that one reason for this is that the government doesn’t spend enough on education. The various National Education Policies have recommended that the government should be spending 6 per cent of the GDP on education. But over the years, the spending has hovered around 3.5 per cent of the GDP.

Nevertheless, this does not mean enough money is not being spent. As Geeta Kingdon pointed out in a recent editorial in The Times of India, in 2014-2015, the total teacher salary bill for the country stood at Rs 41,630 crore. This amounted to a teacher salary expense of Rs 40,800 per year per child. This is huge.

The trouble is that just spending money on a problem is not a solution. But that is precisely what the various central governments over the years have tended to do. If there is a problem, they launch a new scheme on the basis of a new policy to tackle it and make some budgetary allocation to it.

The trouble is that there are way too many government schemes going around. As Devesh Kapur writes in an essay titled The Political Economy of the State: “Few states have the administrative capacity to access grants from 200 plus schemes, spend money as per each of its conditions, maintain separate accounts, and submit individual reports. This administrative capacity is even more limited in those states where the need is the most. Monitoring is rendered difficult not just because of limitation in the monitors themselves, but the sheer number and dispersion of the schemes across communities and locations.”
And this inability to monitor inevitably leads to corruption with money which has been allocated for a certain cause, getting siphoned off. There is a key lesson here that the central government needs to learn here.

As Kapur writes: “While each centrally sponsored scheme has the resources of a particular central ministry to call upon to aid its design, stipulate conditionalities for disbursement, and so on, the delivery is necessarily by local administration.”

And there is only so much a local administration can do to implement a scheme.

The larger point here is that the central government by trying to achieve too many things by running too many schemes ends up making a mess of the most important things and this includes education, health, agriculture etc.

Hence, if India has to get rid of its most basic problems, the government will have to start concentrating on fewer things. As the old saying goes, perfect is the enemy of the good. And that is well worth remembering.

The column originally appeared in the Bangalore Mirror on September 14, 2016

Wake up UPA. Central planning didn’t work for Soviet Union, it won’t work for you either

upaVivek Kaul 

In the last ten years that the Congress led United Progressive Alliance(UPA) government has run this country, its solution for almost every socio-economic problem facing this country, has been bigger government. This was a practice followed by the erstwhile Communist countries all over the world, particularly the Soviet Union. And there was a basic reason behind why the system did not work.
Diane Coyle explains this point in her new book
GDP – A Brief But Affectionate History. As she writes “The communist countries had centrally planned economies, not market economies. Ministries in Moscow set the figures for the total number of all items to be produced in the economy and cascaded that down to specific production quotas for different industries and individual factories. With the benefit of hindsight we can see that the idea bureaucrats could possibly known enough about a large, complex economy to plan it from the center successfully is ludicrous.”
Coyle further explains why central planning did not work. “Individual factories were set output targets by the planning ministry. These were expressed in terms of volume—number of TV sets or pairs of shoes—or even weight. Targets of this kind are easy to meet. It doesn’t matter what the shoes are like, whether they are durable, comfortable, in the right sizes for the majority of wearers, or stylish. It doesn’t matter whether the TV sets work after six months or if the panel at the back constantly falls off.”
While India is no longer centrally planned to this extent, but our love for central planning has persisted. Take the case of the Right to Education which was introduced in 2009. At the heart of the Act is a noble idea of ensuring that education is a human right that should be free and compulsory for all children between the ages of 6 and 14.
But like is the case with all big bang centrally planned initiatives the Act tries to achieve too many things at once. It ordered schools to have infrastructure like playgrounds and toilets. Again noble ideas which easy to mandate by law, but difficult to implement immediately.
Many “bottom of the pyramid” kind of private schools have been providing education at a rock bottom fee. If they are asked to suddenly create adequate infrastructure which meets the criteria set under Right to Education, their cost of operation goes up. Their only option is to pass on this cost and increase the fee that they charge.
The trouble is that even though most parents want to educate their children, they may not be in a position to pay the higher fees.
A recent article on www.bbc.com deals with precisely this issue. It quotes Gitanjali Krishnan, a teacher in a school in Panchsheel Enclave in New Delhi as saying that the school would have to triple student fees to meet the criteria set under the Right to Education. And this is something that parents of the children studying in the school won’t be able to afford. “Our parents are the poorest of the poor, labourers and migrant workers, they won’t be able to afford it,” she said.
This has led to a scenario where schools are simply shutting down. “Baladevan Rangaraju, director of think tank India Institute, who has been monitoring media reports, has counted 2,692 schools shut and 17,871 at risk,” the BBC article said.
State governments are also shutting down schools which don’t meet the criteria set under Right to Education. The thinking among bureaucrats seems to be that in private schools the quality of teaching is not guaranteed. This is a rather stupid argument given that if the teaching in government schools was good, then the government employees and bureaucrats would be sending their sons and daughters to these schools, which is not the case.
Also, shutting down schools is not a solution. Even if the education offered by private schools is not upto the mark, isn’t some education better than no education?
As Parth J Shah, founder president of the Centre for Civil Society writes in a blog “Actually many government schools themselves would not be able to meet the rigid input norms((like playground, classroom size and teacher-student ratio) that the Right to Education has mandated.”
Further, what the Right to Education does like all centrally sponsored scheme is to set a target. And the target is to complete the syllabus. Economist Abhijit Banerjee talked about this sometime back. He conducted a small experiment in Bihar and the results were astonishing. “We did one experiment in Bihar which was with government school teachers. This was in summer around two years ago. The teachers were asked that instead of teaching like you usually teach, your job for the next six weeks is to get the children to learn some basic skills. If they can’t read, teach them to read. If they can’t do math, teach them to do math. At the end of six weeks, these teachers were given a small stipend. They had also been given a couple of days of training. At the end of six weeks, the children had closed half the gap between the best performing children and the worst performing children. They had really improved enormously,” said Banerjee.
So what was happening here? The teachers did not have to complete the syllabus in this case. They had to teach students what the students did not know. As Banerjee put it “The reason was they were asked to do a job that actually made sense. They were asked to teach the children what they don’t know. The usual jobs teachers are asked to do is teach the syllabus – which is very different. Under the Right to Education Act, every year you are supposed to cover the syllabus,” said Banerjee.
Central planning essentially tries to implement what should be the best outcome. But that is easier mandated by the law than implemented in reality. As Banerjee put it “One thing that we forget is that the perfect is the enemy of the good. We are trying to have an education system that is perfect and that every child should come out with wisdom at the end of it and as a result they learn nothing.”
Moving beyond the Right to Education, let’s take the case of the food security scheme, which aims at providing subsidised rice and wheat to nearly 82 crore Indians or 67% of the total population. Again, a big Act which tries to achieve the impossible.
Government data over the years has clearly shown that the percentage of hungry people is very low.
An article in the Mint points out “A February[2013] report of the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) shows the proportion of people not getting two square meals a day dropped to about 1% in rural India and 0.4% in urban India in 2009-10. Interestingly, the average cereal consumption of families who reported that they went hungry in some months of the year (in the month preceding the survey) was roughly equal to the average cereal consumption of those who reported receiving adequate meals throughout the year.”
Hence, what people need is not subsidised rice and wheat, but food that is more nutritious. Howarth Bouis, director of HarvestPlus, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), made a very interesting point 
in an interview to the Mint in 2013. “If you look at all the other food groups such as fruits, vegetables, lentils, and animal products other than milk, you will find a steady increase in prices over the past 40 years. So it has become more difficult for the poor to afford food that is dense in minerals and vitamins,” he said.
No steps have been taken to tackle this problem. Over and above this other factors also need to be taken into account. As a research paper titled National Food Security Bill: Challenges and Options authored by economists belonging to the belonging to the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP), which is a part of the Ministry of Agriculture points out “Women’s education, access to clean drinking water, availability of hygienic sanitation facilities are the prime prerequisites for improved nutrition. It needs to be recognised that malnutrition is a multi-dimensional problem and needs a multi-pronged strategy.”
This means taking many small steps in the right direction, which necessarily don’t involve big government and more central planning.
To conclude, the Congress led UPA government is spending its last six weeks in power. And if there is one lesson it can draw from its last ten years in power is that Soviet style central planning doesn’t really work any more and perhaps it never did.
The article originally appeared on www.FirstBiz.com on March 27, 2014

 (Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

Why Amartya Sen is right about India's education system

Vivek Kaul 
It has become fashionable these days to criticise Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen. This writer has also been guilty of doing the same on at least one occasion. But there is nothing wrong with the points that Sen makes on the Indian education system and its weaknesses, in his new book An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions, which he has co-authored with his long time collaborator Jean Drèze.
Several surveys conducted over the years have clearly shown the low level of learning among a wide number of students that prevails across the length and breadth of India. Drèze and Sen cite a few such surveys in their book. The ASER Survey 2011, which was an all India representative survey of school children in rural areas found that only 58% of children enrolled in classes 3 to 5 could read Class – I text. Less than half (47%) were able to do simple two digit subtraction. And only half of the children in classes 5 to 8 could use a calendar. These were not difficult tasks by any stretch of imagination.
Several such surveys with dismal levels of learning among children in rural areas keep coming out. But surprisingly even urban areas don’t seem to be doing any better.
The WIPRO-EI Quality Education Study 2011, surveyed more than 20,000 students in 83 ‘top schools’ in five metro cities (Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai). And the results were surprising. “For example, only third of these ‘top school’ students in Class 4 knew who was the alive person in a list of four: Mahatma Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi ( a small number thought, interestingly enough, that it was Mahatma Gandhi who was still alive). About two-thirds of the students in Class 4 could not master the measurement of the length of the pencil with a ruler,” write Drèze and Sen.
When compared to other countries, India comes in right at the bottom. In the PISA Plus survey conducted in 2009, the Indian performance in a list of 74 countries or economies that were a part of the survey was very bad. “And this is the case even though the two Indian states that participated in PISA Plus happened to be two of the better-schooled states, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh. In a comparison of overall reading ability of 15-year-old students in these 74 countries or economies, both Indian states figure among the bottom three (in company of Kyrgyzstan),” write the authors.
The bureaucrats and politicians like to point to the fact that India has more schools now than ever before. 
The 8th All India Education Survey which was released earlier this year found that the number of schools in the country increased by 27% between 2002 and 2009. Shashi Tharoor, minister of state of Human Resource Development writes in a column in The Indian Express today “Take education, the subject of my own ministry. Literacy rates have risen to 74 per cent; more than 75,000 schools were opened and nearly a million teachers appointed in just the last three years.”
But Tharoor doesn’t tell us anything about the learning process. Opening, more schools doesn’t really mean anything on its own. Despite this increase in the number of schools there seems to be a lot that is wrong with the way things are being taught in Indian schools. One reason often offered for the poor state of India’s education system is that the teachers are not paid enough and hence they lack the motivation to teach properly.
Drèze and Sen prove this to be wrong. “Consider primary-school teacher salaries as a ratio of per capita GDP. In 2001 this ratio of teacher salary to the GDP per head was estimated to be around one in China, somewhere between one and two in most OECD countries, and a little higher in developing countries, but not higher than three for any of the countries (except India) for which data is available. More recent data suggest similar ratios of teacher salaries to GDP in 2005 and 2009. For instance, the OECD average hovered around 1.2 between 2002 and 2009. In India, however, it seems that the corresponding ratio was already around three before the Sixth Pay Commission scales came into effect (in 2009, with retrospective effect from 2006), and shot to around 5 or 6 after that,” write the authors.
What it means that Indian teachers get paid five to six times the amount of money that an average Indian makes. In fact the ratio is higher in a few states when we compare the average teacher salary in that state with the average income in that state. In Uttar Pradesh, the ratio is at 15.4. In Bihar, it is even higher at 17.5. For the nine major states of India the ratio in 2012, stood at 4.9. This leads Drèze and Sen to conclude that “whatever may be the source of the problem of low teaching efficiency, the blame cannot be placed on any alleged lowness of salary of school teachers.”
These high salaries have forced state governments to stop recruiting regular teachers and move onto contract teachers. As Drèze and Sen point out “Faced with the cost of escalation involved in these salary hikes, many states have stopped recruiting regular teachers and have increasingly come to rely on hiring ‘contract teachers’ to do the teaching. The salaries of contract teachers are typically a fraction (as low as one fifth or so, in many cases) of what the regular teachers earn.”
A large proportion of these teachers are untrained or are trained through what the authors call en masse correspondence courses.
In fact the irony is that the contract teachers despite their lack of training do no worse than regular teachers when it comes to teaching. This has led to a dualistic system where trained permanent teachers work side by side with teachers on contract who have been hired at a fraction of the former’s salary. A good system would have been something in between. As Drèze and Sen write “It would have been nice to see some sort of a middle path emerging from this dualism: new terms and conditions for the teaching profession, with decent salaries, good qualifications and some security of employment, but not unconditional, permanent plum jobs that undermine work incentives and ruin the integrity of the profession.” The system as it has evolved is neither here nor there. A good education system cannot be built on the back of teachers whose contracts are always running out.
The Right to Education Act which came into force as on April 1, 2010, prescribes a pupil teacher ratio of not more than 30:1. This has become very difficult for state governments to fulfil given that following the Sixth Pay Commission pay scales is a very expensive proposition for a large number of states. “On the other hand, meeting them (i.e. the conditions under Right to Education) by hiring untrained contract teachers would become, strictly speaking, illegal,” write the authors.
Also, the bigger trouble is that the Right to Education allows automatic promotion from one class to the next. Board examinations are not allowed till Class 8. Imagine the consequences of a student who is not picking up things in a certain class being promoted to the next class. As Drèze and Sen put it “If a large proportion of children learn virtually nothing for years on end in a particular school, it is important to know it,well before they are sent for slaughter in the Board Examination (if indeed they reach the end of Class 8 without dropping out).”
Economist Abhijit Banerjee, who is also the co-author of Poor Economics, explained this scenario 
very well while speaking at a literature festival in Mumbai late last year. He said “Think of all the class IV children who cant read. They are learning social studies and all kinds of other wonderful things except they can’t read. They are learning nothing. They are sitting in a class watching some movie in some foreign language without subtitles…The dropout rates are high. And I am always shocked that why does anybody comes to school at all? You are sitting there in class and you can’t read, you can’t write, why are you even there? What is going on?” Now imagine what will happen to students who will keep getting promoted without any exams.
The only people who gain through no exams are the teachers, especially in a system where learning is so low and there is very little supervision of what is really going on. As Banerjee put it “
The public education education is a system for the teachers, by the teachers and in the interest of the teachers. This is a system which essentially does not want any metric of performance. The excuse they give is that we don’t want children to be tested because children feel bad if they don’t do well. Its true that children feel bad if you tell them in public that they have done badly. But there is no reason that testing means public declaration of results. In Massachusetts(in the United States) where I live, test scores are only revealed at the grade level. So, for example, all fourth graders may have done badly at some school, but I don’t have to know if someone did well or badly.”
The Right to Education is thus creating more problems. The trouble is that like all such big Acts which try to address everything, it has ended up addressing nothing. The basic thing that any Act on education should be addressing is the lack of learning among students in schools. But that is clearly not happening.
Small experiments have been carried out around this problem. And they seem to suggest that addressing the lack of learning is neither very difficult nor very expensive. As Banerjee put it late last year “
We did one experiment in Bihar which was with government school teachers. This was in summer around two years ago. The teachers were asked that instead of teaching like you usually teach, your job for the next six weeks is to get the children to learn some basic skills. If they can’t read, teach them to read. If they can’t do math, teach them to do math. At the end of six weeks, these teachers were given a small stipend. They had also been given a couple of days of training. At the end of six weeks, the children had closed half the gap between the best performing children and the worst performing children. They had really improved enormously.”
What changed suddenly? W
hy did the government school teachers do so much better? “The reason was they were asked to do a job that actually made sense. They were asked to teach the children what they don’t know. The usual jobs teachers are asked to do is teach the syllabus – which is very different. Under the Right to Education Act, every year you are supposed to cover the syllabus,” said Banerjee.
The solution to the problem is very simple. For the first few years of school the children need to be taught the basics like being able to read, write and do simple Math. Such a system is likely to lead to better results. As Banerjee put it “One thing that we forget is that the perfect is the enemy of the good. We are trying to have an education system that is perfect and that every child should come out with wisdom at the end of it and as a result they learn nothing.” 

The trouble is that small simple solutions do not seem to have enough vote grabbing potential.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on July 23, 2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)