Utilising the leverage
Government needs to recognise and scale the efforts of private players to supplement its policies and transform the outlook of social sectors
The National Education Policy, announced a few months ago, is being lauded by most of those associated with education. It is undoubtedly a visionary document that takes a comprehensive look at this critical sector. At the conceptual level, the policy can't be faulted except perhaps in its inability to appreciate the role of the private sector in school education and the potential of public-private partnership. Unfortunately, the policy expects almost everything to be done by the Government, keeping the private sector at a safe distance. "For-profit" continues to be a dirty word. The policy overlooks the fact that around 50 per cent of children go to private schools and the number is increasing by the day. This 'suspicion' of anything that is non-government will make the tasks of those responsible for the implementation of the policy even more difficult.
Contrary to the belief of some people, the private sector is already playing a big role in the social sector. It is directly participating in government schemes of social transformation and relief. Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY), hailed by the World Bank as "a model of good design and implementation with important lessons for other programmes in India'', rode on public-private partnership. The scheme was almost totally funded by the Government but the private sector insurance companies competed with public sector companies to provide the insurance cover. Similarly, the private sector hospitals were empanelled along with the public hospitals to provide greater choice to beneficiaries. This healthy competition also improved the quality of delivery in government hospitals. The reincarnation of RSBY and PMJAY (Prime Minister's Jan Aarogya Yojana) is also thriving on a public-private partnership to benefit millions of poor in the country.
After my stint in the coal sector, when I took over as the Secretary of School Education under the Government of India, I soon discovered "that whereas 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" (Ethical Dilemmas of a Civil Servant). The Right to Education Act, 2009 that was supposed to improve the quality of education had done little and one of the primary reasons was the 'suspicion' from the private sector. This is not to say that they are all angels sitting in the private sector. There are indeed mafias as well. However, these 'bad apples', though dominant, are limited in numbers. By leveraging the 'good' part of this segment and enabling them to expand, these 'mafias' can easily be isolated and made redundant.
At another level, the public-private partnership was making a huge difference in the field. As I travelled through the length and breadth of the country, I discovered some amazing models. How Sampark Foundation was transforming school education in the interior parts of Chhattisgarh in collaboration with the state government was a revelation. The Akshara Foundation was doing the same under the inspired leadership of its chairman, Ashok Kamath in Karnataka in sync with Ajay Seth, the then Principal Secretary of Education in Karnataka. Nand Kumar, Principal Secretary, School Education in Maharashtra was instrumental in promoting public-private partnerships, thereby bringing in qualitative improvement in the delivery of education. Kaivalya Foundation, led by two stalwarts, Aditya Natraj and Manmohan with their committed team, was making the best use of a proactive School Education Secretary, Naresh Gangwar to impact the quality of education in the state. Delhi's transformation in school education can also be attributed to this partnership. Many more such examples made me believe that the humongous problems of school education cannot be solved by the government alone. These initiatives need to be understood, evaluated, appreciated and replicated. All these and more such initiatives were identified, understood and scaled. The impact became visible as these 'performing' NGOs were enabled to expand their domains to other states. The Central Government was now playing the role of a facilitator. It helped.
The NEP just makes a passing reference to the role of NGOs in the field of school education. For example, one of the chapters in the policy deals with getting the out-of-school children back. The Policy expects teachers to perform this role. If this were to happen, it would have happened long ago. Can the teachers do this job? Should the overburdened teachers be doing this work? Perhaps, no. Is there an alternative? Yes. There are NGOs like Humana People to People already doing this wonderful job in tandem with the state governments. Can these efforts be replicated and scaled? Yes, because they are already being replicated. Scaling would require government support and facilitation. Many such initiatives are already prevailing in the field but for some unknown reason, the policy chooses to be indifferent.
Whether it is health or education, public-private partnership is already playing an important role. To make it transformational, the role of private players needs to be recognised and appreciated by the policy makers and "decision-takers". By ignoring them we are missing out on leverage that is already available to us. The NEP hopes for 6 per cent of GDP going to the education sector. This 'hope' was expressed by Dr Kothari a few decades ago. It didn't happen then. It will not happen now because it is not practically feasible to allocate that amount. The governments just don't have the money. They are struggling to pay even the salaries of teachers. Why can't we be realistic and accept it? Why can't we rid ourselves of our dislike against "for-profit"? Many private schools are indeed making a profit but not showing them as such. How about accepting the fact, allowing 'profit' to happen, and taxing this profit. This will provide some part for "6 per cent " that the policy aspires for.
We can't afford to treat the private sector as a "pariah" or even be indifferent towards it. Public-private partnership is the way forward even in the social sector. So many things are already happening. We need to identify good work, understand it, appreciate it and then attempt to replicate and scale it in the true spirit of Nexus of Good.
Views expressed are personal