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The Road Less Travelled

Public Provisioning for Elementary Education in India by Praveen Jha

Economic & Political Weekly EPW february 7, 200951book reviewThe Road Less TravelledAnit MukherjeePublic Provisioning for Elementary Education in Indiaby Praveen Jha, Subrat Das, Siba Sankar Mohanty and Nandan Kumar Jha (New Delhi: Sage Publications), 2008; pp 454, Rs 575.At a time when the world, including India, is in the throes of an eco- nomic downturn, a book that ex-horts the government to substantially in-crease its spending on education may not get a serious hearing. But it is precisely the timing that lends credence to the idea of higher levels of public provision in this often neglected sector of the economy. Coupled with the tabling of the Right to Education Bill in the winter session of the Parliament in December 2008 and its attendant debates vis-à-vis its resource requirements, this book fills the gap in the literature on the current state of public expenditure on basic education in India. Given the critical role that it plays in a modern economy, the public policy debate on education in India has until now been restricted surprisingly to issues such as reservations rather than financing. Except for a general call to spend 6% of the gross domestic product (GDP) on education, aca-demic work on issues of universalisation of basic education, changes in the financ-ing structure, efficiency of public expendi-ture and quality of schooling is hard to find. It is the outcome of these debates, however, that will determine the long-run trajectory of both economic and social development in India. Who Will Bear the Burden?It is, therefore, heartening to find that Jha et al have attempted to address all these debates in their volume. While the reader is sometimes confronted with bits and pieces of the same argument (on Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management (FRBM) Act, for example) located in different chapters of the volume, what emerges is a comprehensive picture of the current level, nature and structure of financing of ele-mentary education in India. This task is achieved through the investigation of standard secondary sources such as the analysis on budgeted expenditure on edu-cation, as well as finance accounts and budget documents published by the central and state governments. Collection of district-level data on public expenditure in elementary education is a commenda-ble step forward in pushing the frontier of analysis. As noted in the book, the onus of financing is increasingly falling on the union government. The responsibility of implementation, however, is being pushed on to the district level and below. The structure of financing universal elemen-tary education, therefore, suffers from an underlying tension between “centralisa-tion” of revenue mobilisation and assign-ment, and “decentralisation” of expendi-ture and accountability. Even though the states still bear a considerable burden of the revenue expenditure on education, their role has become more like that of an agent facilitating this transition in the current scenario. The debate about who is going to bear the burden of additional resources required to operationalise the Right to Education Bill whenever it comes into force is slowly being settled in favour of the union, rather than the state govern-ments. The authors come to the same conclusion as well. The reasons for the decline in the rele-vance of the states in the process of uni-versalisation of elementary education are manifold. The authors harp on the FRBM Act several times in practically each chapter to justify why this situation has arisen. States which have committed to implement-ing theFRBM law do face a hard budget constraint and need to adhere to the rules of fiscal prudence. However, even before the Act came into existence, most state governments did not spend enough on improving infrastructure, training teachers and quality of education. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan(SSA) has been able to meet most of these requirements, freeing up resources for states to start hiring teachers again. There are hopeful indications that states with better fiscal performance are begin-ning to invest their own resources in schemes that complement SSA expenditure (bicycles for upper primary girl students in Madhya Pradesh, for example). Some of the disparity in per capita expenditure in education was addressed through limited equalisation grants mandated by the Twelfth Finance Commission. It is quite possible that this route will be used by subsequent finance commis-sions to enable the states to fulfil their obligations vis-à-vis the objective of uni-versal elementary education of acceptable quality, as envisaged by the Right to Education Bill. A Road AheadA substantive part of the book deals with an analysis of elementary education expendi-ture in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat and Rajasthan. The similarities among and differences between the states have been neatly brought out. The starting point of the analysis is arguably the most important – the composition of govern-ment schools among local bodies, depart-ment of education, tribal and social wel-fare departments and other managements. The situation in Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat is somewhat similar, with local body schools dominating public provision of elementary education. InRajasthan, the department of educationrunsnearly two-thirds of the totalschools,whilein Bihar, there are virtuallynoschoolsrun by local bodies. The paradigm of “decen-tralisation” in the delivery of publicly funded elementary education is therefore vastly different between the states. This leads us to efficiency in planning and utili-sation of resources. The book devotes a whole chapter to this issue, offering com-pelling evidence to show the complexity of plans and a low rate of utilisation of available funds. There is no doubt that the situation has improved onbothcountsover the period thatSSAhas been in operation. However, the authors rightly note that
BOOK REVIEWfebruary 7, 2009 EPW Economic & Political Weekly52most of the increase in utilisation has been due to construction and repair of school buildings and classrooms, and school facilities. As the infrastructure and human resource gaps become smaller, there will be a need for a longer term vision to improve quality. Efficiency of public expenditure is ultimately judged not only by universal enrolment and retention, but by the indicators of outcome in terms of learning achievements of the students. The road ahead, therefore, is probably tougher than the road already travelled. As the authors have noted, there have been many previous initiatives for improv-ing the public provision of elementary education in India. The objective of every child in school is only part of the overall aim of a well-functioning system that imparts a high standard of education to all who avail it. To that end, public expendi-ture needs to be increased and sustained. This is more so in a time of crisis such as the one facing us at present. It should also focus our attention on the efficiency of public spending – doing things right is as important as doing the right things. Email: the History of the InvisibleS AnandhiDalit movements in Maharashtra (including the Ambedkarite move- ment) are a fairly well-traversed terrain as far as history writing is con-cerned. Though women have participated in these movements in large numbers, their voices and experiences have not been given adequate importance in the written history of such movements. Again, their participation in politicsas dalit women is not usually recorded in the writing of women’s history. In short, dalit women’s participation in politics is doubly invisib-lised. The book under review, originally written in Marathi by two dalit feminists, squarely confronts the politics of histori-ography by recovering and showcasing the voices, perspectives and experiences of dalit women participants in the anti-caste struggles of the Ambedkarite move-ment. As the authors observe, the writing of dalit women’s history is politically important and historiographically neces-sary since conventional archives (like newspapers and periodicals) and main-stream historical narratives have refused to record their activities. The first part of the book, which con-tains 11 chapters, takes us through the historical journey of dalit women to the public realm of politics. It offers a de-tailed account of the migration of the Mahaars to Bombay leading to changes in their socio-economic lives. In the city, the women took to education and to the teaching profession. This enabled them to organise themselves under the leader-ship of Babasaheb Ambedkar against casteoppression, the wretched conditions of work in the city, and inequalities im-posed by the religious hierarchies. Though this part of the book is about the dalit women’s participation in politics, it privi-leges the dalit identity over the differences based on gender within the community. As the authors narrate the achievements of Mahaars, their patriotic fervour, etc, they insist that the history of dalit women cannot be separated from the history of the community. In short, they sideline dif-ferences based on gender in order to high-light the differences based on caste. In situating dalit women’s entry into the anti-caste political movement led by Ambed-kar, the authors interpret the efforts of the Congress Party and the Hindu Mahasabha to mobilise the dalits as attempts to con-tain their resistance and to uphold the Hindu Dharmashastras (pp 63, 65). Accor-ding to them, the Gandhian programme for Harijan welfare was politically moti-vated to counter the Ambedkarite move-ment, and at the inter-caste meals organ-ised for their women, the Brahmin women dropped the food on their leafplates taking care not to touch them (p 64).Interspersed throughout the introduc-tion are interpretations of Ambedkar’s thoughts on dalit women’s liberation, especially his thoughts on prostitution and on the cultural identity of dalit women. As the authors show, he persuaded women to give up prostitution, the traditional modes of dressing, and adornment of heavy jewe-llery as a way of seeking self-respect and dignity for the entire dalit community. However, what is puzzling is why Ambedkar, despite being aware that the devadasi tradition had the sanction of Hinduism, did not advocate conversion of devadasis to Buddhism and instead advised them to take to married life even if it meant sharing a life of poverty with their husbands (p 100).Significantly, Ambedkar’s speech persuading devadasis to get married was made at a women’s conference in 1936 afterhedecidedto convert to Buddhism in 1935.These Are Our RightsThe book has detailed descriptions of dalit women’s involvement in the Ambedkarite movement from the time of the Mahad Satyagraha (1927) to the mass religious conversion in 1956. It brings to life moving tales and woes of women participating in struggles for the rights of the dalits. Such participation heightened the political con-sciousness of even the illiterate dalit wom-en who in their speeches critiqued Hindu-ism and the caste system as being respon-sible for the denial of rights to the dalits. For instance, when Waralebai, who was arrested for participating in the satyagra-ha against the Poona Pact of 1946, was asked what she meant by the term “rights”, she promptly replied thus: “That we should enter the temples which the Hindus enter, that we should be free to draw water where they draw water, these we call our social rights. And to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Viceroy and pull the cart of political affairs that is our political right” (p 151). Such articulations by dalit We Also Made History: Women in the Ambedkarite Movement by Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon(translated from the Marathi and introduced by Wandana Sonalkar) (New Delhi: Zubaan), 2008; pp 358, Rs 595.

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