The pictures this month of young men clinging like leeches to the wall of an examination centre in Bihar, feeding answers to examinees, symbolised a dilemma of Indian governance — the problem of matching plans and policies with ground realities. All was well on paper. The carefully planned schedule of exams took place, but the reality was that they were a fiasco.
At the primary level of education the NDA government introduced the ambitious Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the plan to provide universal education in a time-bound manner — a meaningless commitment because governments run on Indian Shifting Time rather than Indian Standard Time. This campaign was officially reinforced by the UPA’s Right to Education Act, and, yes, enrolment in primary schools has improved considerably. But what about the teaching in those schools? In its latest Annual State of Education Report, NGO Pratham says, “Looking at trends over time in many states the reading status of children is largely unchanged.”
In their book Poor Economics Abhijit V Banerjee and Esther Duflo have found a fault in the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, a fault caused by the government’s ignorance of the ground realities in rural India. The planners hoped that villagers would form education committees to make sure that teaching was effective. But they ignored past failures in bringing about social cohesion in villages. So this important element in their plan failed. Banerjee and Dufflo said the committees were “designed in ignorance of what people want and how the village works.”
All too often it is the staff responsible for implementing the programmes — the teachers, health centre staff, police, forest guards, panchayat members — who are blamed for unrealistic plans failing. Of course I am not arguing that lower-level government staff bear no blame. But I am suggesting that heaping all blame on them has meant the causes of their poor performance have been ignored. Take nurses. Banerjee and Dufflo describe a failed scheme to get nurses in Udaipur district to come to work more often. With the help of the NGO Seva Mandir they discovered that the nurses’ superiors had set them such a demanding work schedule that the nurses did not see any point in trying to do their prescribed duties and the villagers did not expect them to do so, either.
The police are perhaps the most vilified public servants. But do we or does the government ever think that the conditions in which they work and live could be a significant reason for their poor performance? In his book Government in India, former cabinet secretary TSR Subramanian wrote about the police, “The urgent need for reforms has to be sensitively understood; we cannot merely salve our consciences by throwing large amounts of money in modernization without correspondingly improving the conditions in which the police perform, and upgrading their morale.”
Sometimes policies and plans are thoughtlessly dismissed as failures when they have achieved worthwhile successes. The reservation for women sarpanches is usually cavalierly written off on the assumption that the women elected are inevitably just fronts for their husbands. I once made a film about a formidable woman sarpanch in a Rajasthan village who was anything but a write-off. Among the practices she had instituted in the village was shaving the head of any man who got drunk.
When those who implement policies bear the blame for their failure, those responsible for the policies often take disciplinary measures against them, which only make the situation worse. I was recently talking to the former head of education of an English city who told me how the government had unjustly blamed teachers for the failure of its policies and introduced orders to discipline them, including setting the number of hours they had to work. The teachers reacted by sticking strictly to those hours and stopping the many out-of-class activities.
So if education and the delivery of health and other essential services are to improve, governments should go to the grassroots to understand their failures rather than blaming them on teachers, health workers and others.
(The views expressed by the author are personal.)