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Monday, January 25, 2010

Trick Or Teach?

Here is an incontrovertible fact: the majority of children between the ages of eight and 14, rich or poor, attend private schools. Even poor families shun government schools and willingly pay fees to enrol their children in private schools. To cater to this demand, private schools are flourishing, not just in cities and small towns but in villages as well. These schools have been established as commercial ventures. They are of two kinds: recognised and unrecognised by the government. To obtain recognition, private schools have to fulfil impossible criteria including infrastructural demands and have to pay teachers according to the government-appointed Pay Commission's recommendations. Thus, teachers must be paid upward of Rs 20,000 a month as entrants and the scale rises with experience.

Of course, schoolteachers should be paid well and the new scales are welcome. These salary standards, however, are daunting for private schools except elite institutions securing funds from trusts and alumni. In the end, most private schools are commercial ventures that need not just to balance their books but also make a profit. There is a limit on the fees they can charge. And yes, in order to sustain themselves, they must have money to pay their bills and provide a return to investors. Most people are aghast that schools can be run as commerce. Actually, all schools are: the recognised ones are eligible for government grants; the elite ones depend on trust funding; government schools eat up taxpayers' money. Any which way, schools are an enterprise and cannot indefinitely sustain themselves without government funding, alumni benefaction or fees.

Parents shun government schools because these don't function. Government schoolteachers are political factotums who must perform election duty and schools are closed because they are venues for the vote. Politics always get the right of way. In my neighbourhood, i have to cast my vote in the local government school that is truly a beautiful setting, with huge grounds and trees. But when I go into the classrooms where the voting booths are, I find the rubble of broken desks, splintered blackboards and a general aura of decay. One election agent told me very few teachers actually attend class; they mostly have a side business as private tutors. It makes me wonder: what are the children in these schools learning?

The government school system is broken beyond repair and everybody knows that, including the poor. Yet the new Right to Education (RTE) Act turns a blind eye and instead seeks to impose impossible burdens on private schools, not just elite institutions but others catering to the common man. Recognised or not, these schools are filling the gap that government apathy and ineptitude has created.

Recently I attended a conference in which participants debated the newly-enacted RTE Bill. The focus of the discussion was Section 12 of the legislation, which mandates: "For the purposes of this Act, a school, specified in sub-clause (iii) [special schools like Kendriya Vidyalaya, Sainik School, Navodaya Vidyalaya, etc] and (iv) [private unaided] of clause (n) of section 2 shall admit in class I, to the extent of at least twenty-five per cent of the strength of that class, children belonging to (the) weaker section and disadvantaged group in the neighbourhood and provide free and compulsory elementary education till its completion.."

Also, "the school specified in sub-clause (iv) [private unaided] of clause (n) of section 2 providing free and compulsory elementary education as specified... shall be reimbursed expenditure so incurred by it to the extent of per-child-expenditure incurred by the State, or the actual amount charged from the child, whichever is less (sic)..."

Talk about obfuscation. Who is to decide who this "weaker section and disadvantaged group in the neighbourhood" is? And what is "the extent of per-child-expenditure by the State"? The answer to the first question is: state-level bureaucrats and local politicians will decide who qualifies. It sets up one more opportunity for milking the poor and holding private schools to ransom. In addition, the government's "per-child-expenditure" is about Rs 3,000 a year, based on an extrapolation from figures provided by the standing committee on human resources development. That's Rs 250 a month! Under the NREGA, the government pays Rs 100 a day for the poorest of the poor to dig ditches. Even that is low. In Goa, the mandated rate for manual labour is Rs 200 a day.

The RTE Act is poorly framed. It is currently being translated into policy under the ministrations of half a dozen bureaucrats. Like all well-meaning legislation, it will only create more problems. Government schools will remain non-functional. Private schools will have to face, in addition to highfalutin government influence over admission policies, the spectre of dealing with low-level bureaucrats and local politicians (read thugs).

Which leads to a crucial question: who says only the government can provide welfare services? Private schools are doing what the government is unable to do. Instead of helping them discharge the function, the new RTE Act creates problems. Is it ineptitude or another scheme to extract rent? Confusion has wrought its masterpiece.

This article appeared in The Times of India, Goa, December 29, 2009.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2010

Saturday, January 2, 2010

In the Early Hours of 2010…

A Family Celebration

Breathes there the man with soul so dead whose children are alienated from him? When the hurly burly’s done, my daughters seem actually to enjoy time spent with me. Nothing is more fulfilling; nothing so soulful.

And so it was on New Year’s Eve in Goa, we ordered several bottles of champagne while awaiting 2010. There was music and dancing and much merriment. I felt lucky to be me. Those assembled that night were an incestuous mix of family and friends. Above all, it was a raucous lot.

Noise somehow seems to be directly proportional to the fun you are having. And our noise started before even the first glass was poured. If a bunch of stone-cold sober people can stir up the pot, what happens after a couple of bottles of champagne?

Answer: it does not get maudlin or sentimental or nostalgic, only much more fun as people yell and smile and nod at each other to communicate over the loud music, without really hearing what anyone’s saying. They happily pour themselves that extra glass of champagne that teeters between enhancement of reality and oblivion.

So what’s the big deal about this particular midnight? I think it is a generic birthday celebration when we all get older by the calendar year, never mind specific birthdays. It’s not as though human existence can be subsumed by accurate accounting: no, I’ll be 50 only in March; or 65 in September or 21 in July and 40 in April.

On January 1, everyone is a year older, give or take 365 days.

New Year’s Eve is a communitarian birthday celebration and as such egalitarian. Random strangers come up and wish you with a smile in their eyes and good cheer in their heart. And you think to yourself, what a wonderful world! You think about new beginnings, rather than endings; of spring, not fall. The key message is renewal, not decay.

There’s no denying, for many of us, more such celebrations are behind rather than ahead of us. Growing older is a complicated process. At once, you are wiser, more sure of yourself. You realize clearly you will never run a four-minute mile or do a breakdance. The real issue is whether you find value in your life or moan the years that have flown

My wish for New Year’s Eve is we will continue to have fun with family and friends, not just on mankind’s common birthday but on every occasion we can grab.

Happy New Year!

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2010