While in the coal sector, mining was underground and mafias operated above it, in the ‘minefield’ of school education it was the other way around. All the mafias existed underground, and they were all masked, masquerading as ‘noble giants’.
From darkness to light. Or so I thought when I heard about my shifting from the darkness of coal mines, as Coal Secretary, to the bright lights of school education, as Secretary, School Education and Literacy in 2016.
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However, I was soon to discover that while in the coal sector, mining was underground and mafias operated above it, in the ‘minefield’ of school education it was the other way around. All the mafias existed underground, and they were all masked, masquerading as ‘noble giants’.
Having taken on some of the mafias of the coal sector and having partly succeeded in bringing the coal sector to order, the task was now to handle these ‘noble giants’. It was made more complicated as there was no public outrage against the invisible scams in education as was in the case of coal.
Everything seemed to be apparently in order. To make matters worse, I was the fifth person to hold the charge of Secretary in the past two and a half years. Most of my predecessors had impeccable credentials in the education sector but either they did not continue or were not allowed to continue.
The Government apparently found in me the most ‘educated’ person to handle this sector. Truth be told, I had never worked in this sector except for a brief tenure of 3 months in adult education in the government of Uttar Pradesh (UP)!
It would be an understatement to say that the education sector was in bad shape. Yes, all the investments made by the Government, especially those under the mid-day meal, had resulted in children coming to school. But as my Minister, Prakash Javadekar, often said, it merely resulted in ‘Aana-Khaana-Jaana’ (coming–eating-going) with very little education being imparted.
There has been a decline in enrolment in government schools from 72.9 percent in 2007 to 63.1 percent in 2014. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 did little to stem the rot.
Ironically, the budgetary allocation for school education has seen a decline over the past few years even in nominal terms. The budgetary allocation for school education was Rs 55,115 crore during 2014-15.
As a percentage of GDP, it was 0.52 percent and 3.07 percent of the entire budget. This amount got reduced during subsequent years. Even for 2016-17, the amount of Rs 43,554 crore was less than the allocation made for 2014-15.
As a percentage of GDP, it came down to 0.36 percent and 2.16 percent of the budget. Not always politically correct in my statements, I had the ‘temerity’ to mention this in a meeting at the PMO.
On the human resource front too, the situation was alarming. The Department had five Secretaries between 2014 and 2016. A number of Joint Secretaries were also changed during this period. It was like musical chairs reminiscent of my days in UP where it was rumoured that the only industry flourishing was the ‘transfer industry’.
There was an enormous crisis. Apart from the aforementioned human resource and budget-related issues, the mafias were having a field day and were eating into the essentials of society like termites.
Fortunately, like all mafias, those in the education sector too were not in a majority but played a dominant role in decision making. They were extremely well connected and deeply entrenched. There were a host of mafias dominating various sectors, but the prominent ones were as follows:
There were around 16,000 B.Ed and D.El.Ed colleges in the country. A large number of these existed only on paper. If you paid them well, you could get a degree without an effort. It was rumoured that if you pay them more, they could even arrange for a ‘Sarkari Naukri’ (Government Job). Santosh Mathews, an IAS officer who attempted to clear this mess finally had to resign.
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In a few northern states of the country, a number of examination centres were given on ‘theka’ (contract) for copying. These Centres demanded a massive premium as these facilitated mass copying. In 2018, the then Chief Minister of UP, Yogi Adityanath, came down heavily on this mafia. This was last done by Kalyan Singh in 1991. Thereafter no Chief Minister had dared to do that.
Consequent to this step, more than 1 million students chose not to appear for their final exams! This was a clear reflection of their addiction to and malaise of mass copying.
Publishing as a business has always thrived in the education sector. There have been deeply entrenched vested interests of those who want the status quo to continue. It happened at two levels. As respective governments provided free books to students, there were various ways in which money was being made. The mandatory ‘cuts’ in getting the books printed centrally constituted a substantial portion of the same.
The other ploy for money-making was adhered to by a handful of private publishers who enter into what might be politely called an arrangement with the private schools in the name of quality and compelled the students to buy books that are were almost four to five times more expensive than the NCERT books.
If all the students of around 20,000 CBSE affiliated schools were to source NCERT books, there would be an estimated annual expenditure of around Rs 650 crore. As compared to this, if they sourced these books from private publishers, it would have cost them around Rs 3000 crore per annum. The difference was huge in order to justify the ‘quality’ argument.
Most of the private schools have been contributing enormously towards imparting quality education. However, some of these were also bringing a bad name to this august segment.
There were some extremely powerful individuals who have been able to get away with blue murder. They violated various norms, legal and ethical, with impunity because, having been part of the official machinery at some point in time, they knew the tricks of the trade.
Irrational hiking of fees, charging huge sums of money to lend their brand, harassing the brand assignees, were some of the many tricks they had been practising. Rajesh Chaturvedi, an outstanding officer, Chairperson of CBSE, who chose to take them on was not only shown the door but was harmed subsequently by the influential lobby.
The National Education Policy (NEP), 2020 attempts to address some of the issues that beset school education in the country. The good news is there is stability in tenure amongst officers. However, whether the NEP will be translated into action is a million-dollar question.
The Policy talks about allocating 6 percent of GDP to the education sector. The ground reality is that in the budget allocated for the education sector by the Central Government for 21-22, it is not even half of what has been recommended under the policy.
Ironically, the actual allocation for school education for 21-22 is less than 20-21 even in nominal terms. How then will the NEP be implemented?
—Anil Swarup is former Secretary, Government of India and author of the book 'Not Just A Civil Servant'. The views expressed are personal. Click to read his other columns
(Edited by : Yashi Gupta)