Strong on slogans – Frontline

“WHERE is the SSA office?” I enquired of one of the attenders in the Directorate of Public Instruction office in Chennai.

“Oh, the World Bank place?’ he said at once, and pointed to a building at the rear. A board displayed a picture of a long pencil with two cute children riding on it, bearing the words Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan: Education for All. Waiting for the SSA Director, I asked his secretary what the staff strength of the office was, and where the funding for the SSA establishment came from. She didn’t know the answer to the first question, but the second produced the bright and cheery response: “The World Bank!”

Not only the general public, but even those working on the SSA premises believe this programme is paid for by the World Bank. At first, the revelation of this perception of the World Bank’s largesse seemed to catch Tamil Nadu’s SSA Director on the wrong foot. Asked for details about the funding structure, he clarified that SSA received only 30 per cent of its funding from three international agencies put together: the World Bank, the Department For International Development (DFID) of the United Kingdom, and the European Union (E.U.). The remaining 70 per cent comes from the Central government (45 per cent) and the concerned State government (25 per cent).

Dr. Anil Sadgopal, former Dean of Education at Delhi University and member of the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE), says that accepting external assistance has resulted in several distortions and dilutions of policy commitments: “External aid for SSA amounting to a credit of Rs.4,710 crores for a three-year period was agreed to by the previous NDA [National Democratic Alliance] government, in an MoU [memorandum of understanding] signed with the international aid agencies and kept confidential till recently. This amounts to 0.6 per cent of the current GDP [gross domestic product] level, that is six paise out of Rs.100 earned by India!” It is far short of 6 per cent of GDP, the percentage of public spending on education, which is generally recognised to be the minimum requirement in India. In its Common Minimum Programme announced after the May 2004 general elections, the United Progressive Alliance [UPA] pledged to move public expenditure towards the long-accepted goal of 6 per cent of GDP.

But this relatively small contribution apparently authorises the World Bank to participate in Joint Review Missions, with its inspectors being treated as VIP visitors.

Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, an enthusiastic champion of the scheme.-S. THANTHONI

Photographs of one such visit are prominently displayed in the Chennai office of SSA. This relatively inexpensive programme fits nicely into the globally influential current `wisdom’ on the wastefulness and inefficiency associated with social subsidies. What poor developing nations should be allowed to spend on their social sectors seems to be very much the business of international lending agencies. Such aid extracts its pound of flesh in terms of an erosion of belief in the capacity of the Indian state to educate all its children. This constitutional commitment tends to be dismissed as utopian both in private discussion and in public discourse.

At present, only about 53 per cent of Indian children enrolled in Class 1 stay in school until the end of Class 10. Launched in 2000 under the NDA government, SSA is a package of mini-interventions in State education systems, bearing the somewhat hyperbolic name of an `abhiyan’ (`mission’ in the current politically correct vocabulary, in which a morale-boosting, quasi-religious tone is given to certain social programmes). SSA is a response to the stigma of illiteracy, which is perceived to be holding India back from taking its place in the globalised economy. Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram hailed this scheme of “Education for All” as “the cornerstone of the government’s intervention in basic education for all children”, and increased the allocation to Rs.7,156 crores in this year’s budget. In his recent Independence Day address, the Prime Minister hailed Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan’s role in the universalisation of `primary’ education. According to SSA’s blueprint, by 2010 all children enrolled are expected to remain to finish their 10th class.

Under SSA, government-funded and aided schools receive Rs.2000 annually for minor building improvements and facilities, and Rs.500 a month for each participating teacher, who also receives monthly in-service training plus small sums for teaching materials. SSA is now poised to make another leap forward to address the demand for secondary education, which is expected to take off after 2010. The Planning Commission is already planning a mission to universalise secondary education as a major Eleventh Plan initiative.

SSA started off as the pet project of Murli Manohar Joshi, Minister for Human Resource Development in the NDA government. His blueprint for a national education system, with its emphasis on majoritarian ideology, differed markedly from the present government’s. And yet, SSA has now been given a considerable boost by the UPA government, concurrently with its initiative in reconstituting the CABE and revamping the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) with a view to correcting the distortions in the curriculum and textbooks. An education cess of 2 per cent has also been brought in. Certainly, the atmosphere for debate and discussion has improved significantly, and reports on the ground realities and recommendations for reforms have been submitted by the CABE and the NCERT. There is a measure of cautious agreement that the country needs a national system of school education that will make good on the promise of free and compulsory education for all.

Some people in the Congress party’s influential National Advisory Council feel that a beefed up SSA would have the potential to catalyse the movement towards the Common School System (CSS) recommended by the Kothari Commission on Education 40 years ago. But in the light of the CABE’s emphasis on access, equity, quality and relevance, and also the new National Curriculum Framework (NCF) framed by the NCERT, SSA seems insignificant indeed. Its aim of getting all children into some form of school by 2005 allows for a considerable dilution of what a school should be – with multi-grade and non-formal classes, NGOs and PTAs supplying “contract” teachers with minimum training and qualifications, and so on.

Reformers point out that equity issues are closely connected to quality and excellence. But a careful reading of the CABE reports and the NCF 2005 shows that rhetoric apart, there is considerable queasiness among policy-makers about tackling the problem of parallel streams of education.

Schools in India present a veritable buffet of options ranging from posh `international’ urban schools with swimming pools and air-conditioned buses to the squalid, teacherless `alternative innovative education’ centres within government schools. The original proposal to require private schools to take in at least 50 per cent of the poor children in their neighbourhood has been muted to 25 per cent.

Even this is likely to remain merely a paper requirement, since none other than Minister for Science and Technology Kapil Sibal has declared that the government cannot touch private schools as they do not receive any aid from government. Of course, it is common knowledge that most private schools do a roaring business, although they are often run by charitable and minority `trusts’ and receive land and other sizable subsidies and tax write-offs.

It looks like the longstanding demand for good neighbourhood schools funded by the government and following a national framework, but run by local bodies, may not quite make it into the `realm of feasibility’ paradigm being outlined by planners. The high-decibel-mission mode typified by the SSA is being promoted as more `pragmatic’ and suited to Indian conditions. . The `mission’ idea of tackling social development goals has become a kind of tradition in India, ever since the heady days of Sam Pitroda’s brainchild, the National Literacy Mission of the early 1990s. Simultaneously, the development of government school systems faced a nationwide slowdown as a consequence of economic reforms.

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Author: Shirley