Modi government is playing clever politics at the cost of India’s school children

A parliamentary committee has warned that the budgetary cuts in school education and child development programs could come at a 'humongous social cost'.

Anjali Mody 

The majority of children attending school in India are enrolled in government schools. Most of them are from the poorest and most socially marginalised groups. Getting children into school has been a national priority of the last 70 years. Today, the numbers have begun to look good, partly because the Right to Education is law, but mostly because programs like the mid-day meal scheme and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, financed by the Central government and implemented by the states, have created some incentives for parents to send children to school.

Just as the focus of the education policy community has, at long last, started to shift from numbers (shaky, but good) to teaching and learning outcomes (desperately in need of improvement), the National Democratic Alliance government has all but pulled the plug on the programmes that keep the poorest children in school.

In this year's budget, the Centre has drastically cut budgetary support for social development programmes linked to childhood development and school education. Yet senior government ministers and Bharatiya Janata Party leaders have bandied about the words “growth and development” in the last few weeks while giving an account of their year in government. They were echoing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rousing words on winning the election last year, which he described as a victory for “the development agenda.”

Flawed idea of development

The Central government clearly believes that social development – basic education, affordable health care and other essentials for fully participating in the life of a democratic nation – is not part of  “the development agenda” and is someone else’s problem to fix. It cites the 14th Finance Commission award which gives states a higher share of tax revenues than earlier as a justification.

In response to opposition queries about budgetary cuts, Smriti Irani, the minister of Human Resources Development, has issued pro forma responses, stating, “The budget estimates for this Ministry for 2015-16 have been drawn up in the context of the 14th Finance Commission wherein a higher tax devolution to the States has been recommended.”

Even if we accept the argument that the cuts will be made good through the Finance Commission award (although it is not true for many states) and state governments will make the same allocations to these programmes as before, the changes needed to keep these centrally funded and monitored programmes running will take time. Bureaucratic processes, particularly in poorer states, are not designed for quick responses to sudden changes. The consequences are that the programs and their final beneficiaries – poor school children – will take a hit, as Scrollhas already reported from one state.

Committee expresses concern

While the minister appears sanguine about the changed circumstances, the cross-party parliamentary standing committee on Human Resources Development, chaired by her party colleague Satyanarayan Jatiya, has expressed alarm. In a report to the parliament tabled on 22 April, the committee notes that “in the year 2015-'16, the plan allocation has been reduced by a whopping 24.68 per cent” and calls into question the commitment of governments to the “universalisation of quality elementary education for all.”

The report states that “the Committee, in the new scenario, feels worried about the pace as well as scale of the on-going schemes. Picture about the time and amount as well as manner in which gaps are to be filled by the States is not clear. They might take quite a while before they are able to finalise/priorities their activities.”

Commenting on the mood of the civil servants in the ministry, the report said, “What will happen to these very important schemes is a big question. Department [MHRD] sounded helpless and did not know what to do in this situation. It, of course, pleaded with the Committee to recommend for releasing at least some funds to sustain its schemes till things are in place.” The Committee in its report makes just this recommendation to the Finance Ministry saying that if the programs come to a halt there will be a “humongous social cost”.

The question is, why is the Union government not concerned about this “humongous social cost”?

The answer perhaps lies in what Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said a couple of days ago about good governance. He said: “good governance always has to be blended with clever politics”. In the case of social development, the Modi government, it appears, wants to leave good governance to the states, and hold on to clever politics.

The political gains of social development programs accrue to state governments, never mind who funds them. By pulling the plug on them, the centre loses nothing. State governments that cannot fill the funding gaps will face the political heat, while the Central government creates the space for itself to do deals with individual states, through special grants. This is clever politics, at the expense of the country’s poorest.