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Why not spend the money to educate poor children?

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September 02, 2005 21:26 IST

The sun rises in the west. Fish swim in the clouds. India's politicians always come together for the greater good of the nation.

Which of these statements do you think is the most ludicrous?

I have a simple rule of thumb: when political parties across the spectrum stage a debate to discuss a Bill and then pass it unanimously, ordinary citizens should have their guard up.

That has already happened in the case of the Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, and may well happen any month now with regard to government quotas in privately-funded educational institutions.

'No rift between Parliament and judiciary'

As for the first, I will simply restate the Rajiv Gandhi Principle -- the former Congress prime minister admitted that only 15 paise of every rupee aimed at development actually reaches the intended target.

The United Progressive Alliance ministry may have pushed the scheme through Parliament, but has it put the machinery in place to administer it honestly and efficiently? I fear not. With the plan set to cost Rs 150,000 crore in the first year alone, it looks like we are set for the mother of all scams. I pray I am wrong!

I have mixed feelings about the question of reserving seats per se, whether in government-funded or unaided colleges. Why is India so bent upon focusing on colleges when the really glaring need is to deal with primary education?

Politicians love to tout the argument that the Constitution mandates social equality, and it is thus not acceptable to leave universities at the mercy of market forces. This is a red herring drawn across the trail to confuse the issues.

The Constitution specifically directs governments to provide primary education. What is the point of ordering private colleges to reserve seats for a particular caste or creed if there are not enough qualified candidates from that social group? All that happens -- and you can find all the evidence if you look around -- is that the seats go to the sons and daughters of the well to do within that community, the so-called 'creamy layer'. How on earth does that help the masses?

Primary education is another matter altogether. I think schools should be asked to make some effort to teach children from less privileged sections. Several of the better-known 'public' schools in Delhi -- which are, of course, private institutions -- were given large chunks of land because of the promises they made to teach poor children. These schools at any rate should be forced to live up to their end of the bargain. If not, treat them as corporate entities and tax them like the money-minting machines they have become.

There are valid arguments that it will be difficult to do so all at once, but is there any reason why they should not start setting aside some seats from kindergarten up right now?

The other side of the coin is that parents/guardians should be forced to send their children/wards to school between the ages of, say, four and fourteen. This is simply not happening today. Walk around Delhi or Mumbai, and you see thousands of children working in dhabas and garages, selling everything from flowers to batteries, or just begging.

Why aren't governments rounding them up and packing them off to school? Isn't it obscene to find people selling newspapers and magazines which they themselves cannot read?

The situation is far worse in rural areas, and more so among women. (How much better is the female literacy rate in rural Bengal than in Bihar?) There are, of course, some schools (and colleges) which are genuinely private, meaning that they have never taken any aid from the government, even in the form of land at below-market rates. So how about this, arrange a voucher system for them? Every family should be given coupons depending on the number of children they have, and these coupons can be used only, repeat only, in schools.

The schools in turn can redeem them for money from the Government of India. If the school fees are higher than the voucher amount then the parents always have the option of topping it up with their own money.

Perhaps schools can be asked to set aside some seats for children from their immediate vicinity. (The definition of 'neighbourhood' will, of course, vary depending on whether they are in urban or rural areas.) I have seen schools in Delhi sitting cheek-to-jowl with slums. If the children from those slums can afford to pay with the help of those vouchers, what is the problem?

This may sound like a variant of the Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, but it is not. I am not talking about money which can be spent anywhere but of vouchers useful only in paying school fees, and which can be redeemed only by the schools from the public treasury. I am sure there are flaws to be worked out but it could be a start.

The Government of India proposes to spend Rs 150,000 on the Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. It actually works out to giving a family Rs 5,000 every year. (Not one man, but a family!) That won't make a dent in poverty. Why not spend the money to educate poor children? And to give teachers salaries decent enough to attract better people to the profession!

History says the best way to lift people out of poverty is to educate them. To quote a Chinese adage, 'Give a man a fish and you can feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and he will feed himself for life.'

However, reservation in colleges (and elsewhere) is seen as such a vote-winning tactic that our leaders will never focus on something as sensible as primary education. If so, I propose a slight twist: set aside 50 per cent of the seats in colleges -- but insist that every one of those seats be filled only by women students!

T V R Shenoy