The extreme inequality of education

Tags: Education

Is the government preparing the ground for ‘user fees’ by regarding free education as a subsidy?

The one clear message of the Economic Survey 2015-2016 is that the quality of public pro­visioning of basic serv­ices, su­ch as health and education, is declining and people are opting for services provided by the private sector. Government schoo­ls’ enrol­me­nt in rural areas dipped from 72.9 per cent in 2007 to 63.1 per cent in 2014, (Annual Status of Education Report or ASER, 2014).

Correspondingly, enrolment increased in private schools from 20.2 per cent in 2007 to 30.7 per cent in 2014. Similarly, ‘out of poc­ket’ (OOP) health expenditure is nearly 70 per cent. Both in education and he­alth, the state has not succeeded in ensuring basic quality services. The reason, partly, is stagnant investment. Between 2008-09 and 2014-15, expenditure on education as a proportion of the gross domestic product (GDP) remained at around 3 per cent. Disaggregated data shows that per student expenditure can be as low as Rs 37 and Rs 40 in Rajasthan and Ma­dhya Pradesh, respectively. The survey states that “an increase in expenditure per se may not guarantee appropriate outcomes and ac­hievements” and efficiency of expenditure is equally important. However, without adequate investments, quality suffers. In rural government schools, the percentage of children who could do division in standard V halved from 41 per cent in 2007 to 20.7 per cent in 2014 (ASER 2014). In private schools also, the percentage of children who could do division in standard V declined from 49.4 per cent in 2007 to 39.3 per cent in 2014 in private schools. The survey admits that the ‘decline in enrolment in government scho­ols and shift to private sch­ools might be related to poor quality education in government schools’. Alarmingly, it surmises that the poor quality is because ‘it is free or offered for a nominal fee.’ Is the survey blaming the poor for availing of free education for the government providing bad quality education? Is it preparing the ground for ‘user fees’ by regarding free education as a ‘subsidy’? And so while declaring that greater investments are needed in education, is it really questioning the need for universal free education? The fact the private schools also reflect decline in educational quality should warn against this facile equation of fees with good quality.

Like education, the expenditure on health as a proportion of GDP has remained less than 2 per cent. Despite this, targeted public health programmes like Janani Suraksha Yojana (JSY) and Janani Shishu Suraksha Karyakram (JS­SK) have been effective. There has been a nearly two-fold jump in the institutional deliveries and over 60 per cent of all institutional deliveries are in the public sector. Under five, mortality has declined from 126 in 1990 to 49 in 2013. However, the survey concedes that primary care is limited to reproductive and child health services. NSSO (2015), reports that an average Rs 25,850 was spent for treatment per hospitalised case by people in private facilities as against Rs 120 in public health facilities. Th­ough the percentage of wo­men reporting institutional births has improved and is above 50 per cent in a majority of the states, an increasing proportion of bir­ths in private facility with Caesarean sections is an issue of public health with growing concern. Clearly, lack of regulation has spa­wned corruption and poor quality of care impoverishing patients.

The survey highlights the problems of anemia in pregnant mothers and that 42.2 per cent of pregnant Indian women are underweight. But its scepticism of public delivery systems and hints of conditional cash transfers betray a frivolous response to a grave crisis to avoid greater investments in strengthening Anganwadis, and the universal cash entitlement for pregnant wom­en under the National Food Security Act, 2013. The survey acknowledges that in the Universal Health Coverage (UHC) in­dex developed by the World Bank, India ranks 157th according to per capita gove­rnment spe­nding on health which is just about $44 PPP. However, it suggests mildly that ‘with limited resources and competing demands in the health sector, it is ess­ential that the gove­rnment pr­ioritise expendi­ture’. That me­ans one programme over another, while recognising the dependencies of various aspects of health.

The survey admits that India has the second highest number of undernourished people at 194.6 million persons (FAO, State of Food Insecurity in the World, 2015,). But ensuring food security is a challenge. From 2010-11, average yields of rice, wheat, pulses, oilseeds and cotton show declining trends. Improving agricultural productivity depends more on a good monsoon than confidence in better delivery of government schemes.

Poor health, education and nourishment inevitably lead to poor participation in the workforce and low incomes, mirrored in 27 per cent of the population living on less than Rs 37 a day. These multiple deprivations particularly impact women. India has the lowest female labour force participation (FLFP) rates among emerging economies, well below the global average of around 50 per cent. The survey cites that under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), 57 per cent person days generated were availed of by women. But the survey does not pursue the analysis to its logical conclusion — that statutory stipulations have an affirmative impact. MG­NREGA mandates 33 per cent participation by women, provides work within 5 km of residence and equal pay for men and women. The survey does not adequately dwell upon the fact that women constitute only 19 per cent of total non-agricultural em­p­loyment, tho­ugh it notes that financial inclusion of women in ter­ms of bank accounts remains low. This, despite the jan dh­an yojana.

Notwithstanding these dismal indicators of the well-being of the people, the survey limits the central government’s role to ‘policy making’, leaving the ‘gargantuan challenge’ of service delivery to the states. ‘Cooperative fe­de­ralism’ becomes ‘comp­eti­tive federalism’ where st­ates mobilise resources. Th­ose who do so efficiently get mo­re, others don’t. Classic perpetuation of the poverty trap!

The survey dodges the writing on the wall: not to be complacent about low expenditures in health and education, not to leave equity to markets, and that human development is not ‘social infrastructure’ as the survey describes it, but basic ‘human entitlements.’


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