The South Asia Channel

India’s Elementary Mistake

The Modi government's planned cuts to elementary education spending are a step in the wrong direction for India.

DELHI, INDIA - NOVEMBER 08:  Young India Children in class at Katha Community School in the Govindpuri slum district during day 3 of an official visit to India on November 8, 2013 in Delhi, India. This will be the Royal couple's third official visit to India together and their most extensive yet, which will see them spending nine days in India and afterwards visiting Sri Lanka in order to attend the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.  (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)
DELHI, INDIA - NOVEMBER 08: Young India Children in class at Katha Community School in the Govindpuri slum district during day 3 of an official visit to India on November 8, 2013 in Delhi, India. This will be the Royal couple's third official visit to India together and their most extensive yet, which will see them spending nine days in India and afterwards visiting Sri Lanka in order to attend the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

Development economists have long argued that universal primary education has tangible benefits on economic growth. Not surprisingly, successive Indian governments have toed this line in the recent past. Yet, a quick look at the Indian budget for 2015 reveals an interesting strategic shift in Indian polity. The Indian government has reduced its planned allocation to school education by about 10 percent, while increasing the higher education budget by about 22 percent. Budget cuts to the tune of 22.14 percent have also been made to Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the government’s flagship program for facilitating access to universal elementary education. The human resource development minister, Smriti Irani, described the budget as “pragmatic,” feting the allocation of funds for higher learning. But at a time when a substantial part of India’s population is poised to become part of its elementary education system, access to education is a measure India cannot afford to shortchange. Building an inclusive elementary education system must be at the core of the Modi government’s agenda.

There are two prominent narratives on universal elementary education in India. Some argue that India has achieved substantial progress towards increasing the enrolment of children in primary schools. Others claim that tremendous strides have been made towards increasing access, and focus instead on the learning crisis in schools. Statistics suggest that there is significant merit to both these narratives – for instance, according to the government school education in India report for 2014 to 2015, the total enrollment in primary education (gross enrollment ratio, or GER) in primary education in those years stood at an impressive 100 percent. At the same time, only 7 percent of primary school children enrolled in third grade in 2014 had basic arithmetic capabilities. This does not mean, however, that access to elementary education is no longer a challenge. This is primarily for three different reasons.

First, the current GER of 100 percent is, at best, misleading. GER includes within its ambit over-aged and under-aged students that are in primary school as a result of either early or late school entrance and grade repetition. A more meaningful statistic is the net enrolment ratio (NER), which only includes children of official primary school age. The NER stood at 87.4 percent in 2014-15, suggesting that there is still a sizeable population of over 40 million children that that lack access to primary education. The situation worsens for upper primary level, with schools registering an NER of 72.4 percent.

Second, attendance rates present an even bleaker picture. Attendance of students within government schools is low, with some states recording less than 70 percent of enrolled children present. Additionally, India also registers some of the highest drop-out rates at the primary and upper primary level at 20 percent and 36 percent, respectively.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, these aggregated figures mask deep structural inequalities inherent in access to education. Exploring these inequalities through the twin lenses of geography and social groups is revealing. In states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar for example, only 55 percent and 58 percent of enrolled children attend primary school, respectively, as opposed to 91 percent in Kerala. Among the children of official primary age not attending primary schools, a staggering 77 percent belong to children living in rural areas. Finally, compared to the national primary level drop-out rates of 20 percent, the average drop-out rates for the socio-economically backward scheduled tribes is as high as 31 percent. Studies indicate that low levels of participation are also prevalent especially among children of migrant populations, low-income groups, and first-generation learners. Ignoring this inequity threatens to perpetuate a culture of exclusion and domination, and prevents education from shifting power relations and access to resources in favor of hitherto marginalized groups.

Why such inequities? One view, advocated by Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze in their seminal scholarly monograph, India: Economic Development and Social Opportunity, is the problem of political action. Framing the consistent neglect of primary education as a political problem, Sen and Dreze argue that political disempowerment coupled with an underestimation of the socio-economic value of primary education by India’s political elites has resulted in a lopsided primary education policy. Elementary education is also perceived as an opportunity cost by poorer households where a child joining the workforce presents an immediate economic gain. Finally, traditional reasons including the cost of participation, distance from schools, and lack of interest in studies, factor into this low access. While there is no denying that these inequities are partly informed by the lack of quality elementary education, targeted policies can help address “access”-related issues in specific target groups.

There are a number of measures the Modi government can take to redress the poor access to education that India continues to suffer from.

First, the government must focus on building inclusive models of access to elementary education, which specifically target groups most likely either to be excluded altogether or to drop out of the formal educational system. Children from several marginalized groups, such as scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, are often first generational learners, for instance. For them, it is crucial to facilitate greater parental engagement to drive home the long-term benefits of education vis-à-vis the immediate benefits that employment presents. The government also must bring a sustained focus on aspects that are relevant to school participation and extend beyond education. For example, while health and nutrition are well established as an important input in elementary education, the funding for the Mid-Day Meal Scheme has been reduced by 16.4 percent. Adopting a holistic approach to elementary education will be a crucial part of the puzzle.

Second, the government needs to limit the participation of children in wage labor or domestic work so that they are allowed to attend school instead. Unfortunately, the Indian Child Labor (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2012 makes this an uphill task by allowing children aged 6-14 to work in family enterprises after school hours or during holidays, leaving a significant loophole to be exploited by the burgeoning child labor industry. Even otherwise, studies seem to suggest that school children belonging to low-income families are often required to manage different responsibilities throughout the day, whether at school, at home, or at work, preventing them from attending classes regularly. Subsequently, children often drop out of the school system.

Third, the central government must review its strategy of offering little to no support to states in matters of infrastructure under the new budget. Sustained investments in infrastructure, whether that entails developing model schools in backward districts or expanding access via prominent existing schemes – like Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas (residential schools for rural poor), and Kendriya Vidyalayas (affordable, high-quality, schools established by the central government) – is crucial to address low levels of access. A recent human resources development ministry initiative to seek budgetary approval for setting up additional Kendriya Vidyalayas in parliamentary constituencies is a welcome step.

At a time when India seems poised to become the world’s fastest-growing economy, crafting a prudent education policy is critical. Only by investing wisely in its primary education will the country be able to create a citizenry that can become a productive workforce. The government’s push for economic reforms holds little value if it is not matched in intent and action by socio-economic reform. Revisiting its flawed assumption on the education policy should figure at the top of that list.

Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Aditi Singh is a Consultant at Dalberg Global Development Advisors in Mumbai and a Non-resident Expert with the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy in New Delhi.
Gayatri Nair Lobo is a Senior Project Manager at Dalberg Mumbai and former Chief Operating Officer of Teach For India.
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