The Parliamentary Standing Committee for HRD’s report submitted to Rajya Sabha on April 23, 2015 and tabled in the Lok Sabha on the same day is nothing short of eye-popping. The Committee’s grave apprehension about the cuts in education funding and especially the ramifications of the 14th Finance Commission award are shared by those most concerned with children’s education and should be the subject of a larger public debate. Unfortunately they are not.
Just two paragraphs of this 60-page report, from the cross-party Committee chaired by the BJP’s Satyanarayan Jaitya, suffice to highlight the tone of the Report:
“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. Department [of School Education and Literacy, MHRD] also does not know anything about it. What will happen to these very important schemes is a big question. Department 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.” [p13-14]
“Further, in view of the replacement of the Planning Commission, which was an intermediary agency between the Centre and the States and also acted as monitoring agency, it is not clear what monitoring mechanism of the centrally sponsored or central sector schemes would be put in place. In the light of the above, the Committee shares the concern expressed by the Department about the future of important schemes like SSA [Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan], MDM [mid-day meals] etc and strongly recommends that the Ministry of Finance should earmark some funds for these schemes to that they do not come to a halt thereby resulting in humongous social cost”. [p.14]
Can States fill the gaps?
The report includes a table that shows the declining trend in budgetary allocations for education over the last few years. The especially drastic cut for the year 2015-16 is the proximate cause for the committee’s alarm, and the helplessness it notes in the Department of School Education and Literacy, MHRD.
Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) (Rs. in crores)
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“The Committee has been expressing its apprehensions through its reports that many States/UTs are not in position to make even 35 percent contributions towards the implementation of RTE/SSA. Now that there has been a drastic cut in the central funding for the programme it would be more difficult for the States to contribute enhanced share towards this initiative. In such a situation how the various activities under RTE/SSA would be carried out in the States/UTs is beyond the imagination of the Committee. [p23].Instead of a projected demand of Rs 50,000 crores, a paltry sum of Rs 24,380 crores has been allocated, reflecting a shortfall of more than 50%. The committee not only questions the assumption that states will make up for it through the greater devolution under the Finance Commission’s recommendations, but also questions the ability of some states to contribute their share of 35% as a matching grant for RTE/ Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, that has been the norm thus far.
It raises a critical question, that no one seems to be asking: Under the Right to Education, which the Supreme Court held flows from the right to life under Article 21, who is statutorily obligated to ensure that sufficient funds are made available for all schemes under RTE/SSA? Can the Centre pass the buck to the states?
Bogey of under-utilised funds
The oft-mentioned issue of “under-utilisation” of funds is also discussed at some length in the report [p.16-18]. What is significant is that the committee doesn’t share the common perspective that the problem in education is not about “shortage of funds”, but about the “capacity to spend”. Instead, it bemoans the fact that low fund allocation combined with low utilisation is having an impact on the provision of services, especially to children from socio-economically backwards regions and groups.
The binding constraint of “utilisation certificates” [UCs], which is cited as a primary reason for tardy fund flows, continues to figure in the explanation for low levels of utilisation. Unfortunately, there is still no clarity on how to resolve that particular problem. If field reports are anything to go by, since teachers, and now parents from SMCs – School Management Committees [where they are active] have been given the responsibility for getting civil works done and block officers for disbursing everything from books, uniforms, scholarships, salaries, pensions etc., it is no surprise that UCs are a long time coming. Especially, as there is an acknowledged shortage of teachers [also mentioned in this Report] and a huge unacknowledged shortage of capacities at the block offices.
Asking the Department of School Education and Literacy at MHRD to “speedily” solve this problem is unlikely to result in a solution, as not only do most of the financial norms and regulations originate elsewhere, allocations affecting shortages, are also determined in domains beyond its purview. We are thus stuck in a vicious cycle of low fund allocations and low utilisation, which requires much stronger political will to break out of. Sadly, despite the committee’s concern, political will seems to be the one necessary thing that is lacking.
In recent discussions on the state of school education, the issue of accountability has been repeatedly raised. Invariably the buck stops with the teachers who are held responsible for the poor “outcomes”, measured through test scores on a yearly basis. Problems of teacher absenteeism, lack of performance-based salaries, lack of punitive action, unionisation, political lobbies etc., are totted up as barriers to enforcing accountability within the education sector. Reading the committee’s report, one has to wonder, if we are not missing the woods for the trees. Where does real accountability lie?
Is the larger state apparatus not responsible for ensuring education to every child, especially now that it is a statutory obligation, under the RTE? Does the state not include the executive, including all departments responsible for providing what is finally delivered to a child? It is not just the MHRD, but also the legislators who pass the laws and the budgets who should be held accountable.
While the members of the parliamentary committee, must be congratulated for raising important concerns, including of monitoring government programmes, a lot more needs to be said and done if we are to avoid paying what it terms the “humongous social cost”, of neglecting school education. While a beginning has been made by the committee’s report, what is needed is a full-fledged discussion on the floor of Parliament, especially on the sections highlighted in the report, of which there are many. The Modi government also needs to listen to those who do not agree with it in forums wider than mygov.in consultations, in order to get a more complete picture of the harsh realities that will take more than a few schemes to fix.
Kiran Bhatty is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi and a Founder Member of the Forum for Deliberation on Education.