Shortly after he ended his fast at Delhi’s Ramlila Grounds, Anna Hazare announced his future plans. He was going to demand electoral reforms — including the right to recall an elected representative and the right to reject all candidates. He was going to fight for farmers and industrial labour. Finally, he was going to push for changes in the education system. “Many people have commercialised education,” Hazare said, “they have opened shops. Children of poor people also should get education. This sector also needs reforms.”
The education sector in India indeed needs reforms. Yet its problem is not that it has been commercialised, but that it has not been commercialised enough. Education — whether a primary school in a big city or medical and engineering colleges anywhere — remains the final frontier of India’s shortage economy. If any reform is needed, it is in the unshackling of education as an enterprise and its liberation from a predatory, rent-seeking regulatory system.
True, some people have converted education into a profiteering business. Politicians in Karnataka and in Hazare’s own state of Maharashtra have exploited loopholes, land scarcity and governmental influence to set up private engineering and medical colleges of questionable quality. These charge fees that are often not commensurate with the services they offer.
Even so, they continue to attract students. The politicians who promote them ensure the supply-side bottleneck remains as it is, and that other and better colleges cannot easily be opened.
It would be a pity if Hazare were to universalise his experience of some politicians-cum-education entrepreneurs in Maharashtra and decide that he must superimpose his hostility to them upon the entire country. National policy cannot be decided in such a manner. Here like elsewhere, Hazare’s belief that the methods and mechanisms he used in his village community in Ralegan Siddhi can simply be scaled up to the rest of India is charming but unrealistic. In the final reckoning, this represents a serious shortcoming in his programme.
Many in Hazare’s inner circle have painted their anti-corruption crusade as a narrative of ‘liberalisation and its discontents’. Whether the urban middle class throngs that have rallied around Hazare — and shared his disgust with a series of high-profile corruption scandals in the UPA years as well been angered by his arrest on August 16 — actually buy into this narrative is questionable. Education is a contentious, dynamite-laden area where the practicability and sustainable appeal of the Hazare phenomenon will be tested.
Why is this so? Hazare has focused on a solution — perhaps a magic-bullet solution — to corruption and has pushed for stern and expeditious punishment for the corrupt. What about preventing corruption? While punishing the wrongdoer is necessary, true reform lies is creating conditions where he finds it difficult to commit that wrong.
Hazare says “children of poor people also should get education.” Nobody can disagree with that. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act of 2010 — better known as the Right to Education (RTE) Act — has just the same goal. The point is: how does this work in practice?
Take school education. In India, 93% of school-going children go to government or government-aided institutions. In Hazare’s state of Maharashtra 90% of the state’s 67,885 primary schools are run by zila parishads and municipal bodies and charge no fees (2005 figures).
How good are these schools? Who regulates teacher performance? Why is it that the moment they can, parents — even socially and economically underprivileged parents — withdraw their children from government schools and seek private schools, never mind if they have to pay?
In 2003, James Tooley, a professor from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, published the findings of a year-long survey of private schools for children of low-income families in Hyderabad. In Hyderabad district, he said, 61% of all pupils were enrolled in private, unaided schools. In a detailed study of 15 arbitrarily selected private schools in slum areas, Tooley found teacher attendance and responsiveness to parents’ concerns was better than in government schools.
If every Indian child deserves an education, Hazare and his civil society colleagues should set up local groups to monitor every government school in every neighbourhood in every district of India. Railing against a handful of privately-run schools will serve no purpose. In fact, to resort to criticism of private educational institutions will play into the hands of the bureaucracy. In state after state, education departments have used RTE provisions to frame rules that enhance government control over private schools. Some of these go well beyond existing draconian laws such as the Delhi School Education Act, 1973.
It is no better in higher education. A plethora of regulatory bodies and corrupt bureaucrats have made it impossible to set up modern and viable institutions of higher learning in India. It is telling that some of the better privately-run engineering and management schools have preferred to build new campuses abroad, in places such as Dubai, rather than explore the limitless market in India.
Far from shutting down what it has, India needs thousands more of such so-called education ‘shops’, of course with transparent regulation. Can Hazare and his friends run away from that reality?
Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator. The views expressed by the author are personal.