Mafias of school education
Unlike other sectors in India, the education sector has largely escaped scrutiny and punitive action regarding acts of corruption perpetrated by small, private and powerful lobbies
After my stint as Coal Secretary when I took over as Secretary, School Education and Literacy in 2016, I soon discovered that whereas in the coal sector, mining was underground and mafias operated above it, in the 'minefield' of school education it was the other way around. All the mafias existed underground, and they were all masked, masquerading as 'noble giants'. Having taken on some of the mafias of the coal sector and having partly succeeded in bringing the coal sector to order, the task was now to handle these 'noble giants'. It was made more complicated as there was no public outrage against the invisible scams in education as was in the case of coal. Everything seemed to be apparently in order.
It would be an understatement to say that the education sector was in bad shape. Yes, all the investments made by the Government, especially those under the mid-day meal, had resulted in children coming to school. But as my Minister, Prakash Javadekar, often said, it merely resulted in 'aana-khaana-jaana' (coming–eating-going) with very little education being imparted. There has been a decline in enrolment in government schools from 72.9 per cent in 2007 to 63.1 per cent in 2014. The 'Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act', 2009 did little to stem the rot.
There was an enormous crisis. It was challenging to light up the coal sector, but it soon became evident that the education sector would require greater attention and effort. Apart from the aforementioned human resource and budget-related issues, the mafias were having a field day and were eating into the essentials of society like termites. Fortunately, like all mafias, those in the education sector too were not in a majority but played a dominant role in decision making. They were extremely well connected and deeply entrenched. There were a host of mafias dominating various sectors, but the prominent ones were as follows:
Bachelor of Education (B.Ed) and Diploma in Elementary Education(D.El.Ed)
There are around 16,000 B.Ed and D.El.Ed colleges in the country. A large number of these exist only in name. If you pay them well, you can get a degree without an effort. It was rumoured that if you pay them more, they could even arrange for a 'naukari' (government job). Action was initiated by Santosh Mathews, the then Chairman of the National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE), an upright officer with enormous experience, by issuing notices to all the colleges to furnish the details of their existence on affidavits. The idea was to ensure that only those that actually existed got recognition and in case of wrong information they could be prosecuted. It worked initially but the colleges realised that quite a few of them could be in trouble. Despite the support he got from most of the states, he was put under enormous pressure by the mafias who took the 'judicial' route to pin down the Chairman. He had to quit. It was the biggest failure in my career spanning 38 years. I couldn't prevent an officer from resigning.
In a few northern states of the country, a number of examination centres are given on 'theka' (contract) for copying. These centres are highly priced as they facilitate mass copying. The current Chief Minister of UP came down heavily on this mafia. This was done on the last occasion by Kalyan Singh in 1991, but thereafter no Chief Minister had dared to do that for so many years. Consequent to the steps taken in UP during the last exams, more than one million students chose not to give exams. It is a reflection of the addiction to mass copying.
Publishing thrives on the education sector. There are deeply entrenched vested interests that want the status quo to continue as this benefits them. It happens at two levels. As respective governments provide free books to students, there are various ways in which money is made. The mandatory cuts in getting the books printed centrally constitute a substantial portion. The initiative taken by the UP Government during 2018-19 and the consequent savings thereunder lends credence to this allegation. Bihar Government is toying with the idea of direct benefit transfer recognising the dealings inherent in central printing and distribution.
The other ploy for money-making is by a handful of private publishers who enter into what might be politely called an arrangement with the private schools in the name of quality and compel the students to buy books that are almost four to five times more expensive than the NCERT books. If all the students of around 20,000 CBSE affiliated schools were to source NCERT Books, there would be an estimated annual expenditure of around Rs 650 crore. As compared to this, if they sourcebooks from private publishers, it would cost around Rs 3,000 crore per annum. The difference is huge in order to justify the quality argument. NCERT put in place a system from 2018 to ensure that books were made available on time so that students were not compelled to buy expensive books but this effort will need to continue. NCERT will always be under pressure from vested interests to be inefficient.
Most of the private schools are contributing enormously to imparting quality education. However, some of them are bringing a bad name to this segment. There are some extremely powerful individuals who are able to get away with blue murder. They violate various norms, legal and ethical, with impunity because, having been part of the official machinery at some point in time, they know the tricks of the trade. Irrational hiking of fee, charging huge sums of money to lend their brand, harassing the brand assignees, are some of the many tricks they practice. Rajesh Chaturvedi, an outstanding officer, Chairperson of CBSE, who chose to take them on was not only shown the door but was subsequently harmed by the influential lobby. His successor, Anita Karwal, one of the finest civil servants, was also set to be sacrificed. But she held her ground despite all the pressure. Uttar Pradesh has indeed enacted a law on fee regulation after consulting all the stakeholders. The legislation has been welcomed by all. Hopefully, other states will follow suit.
School education determines the future of the country but it appears that no one was bothered about it. Perhaps it didn't matter to those that matter. When everyone was obsessed with headlines, the subterranean undercurrent of education had no meaning. The beauty of the situation is that the issues relating to school education are not insurmountable. They can be addressed. Fortunately, they were indeed addressed under the able guidance of Prakash Javdekar. There is some more good news as the Department at the Centre has a very fine set of officers. They will hopefully be able to address issues that have beset school education for long.
Views expressed are personal