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Friday, June 4, 2010

Last mile governance incubus

When the government steered the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Bill 2009 through Parliament, those of us who had fought for it for two decades were pleased. The important thing, however, is how the Act has been notified. The language of the newly enacted RTE Act leaves a lot of grey areas. And well it might because bureaucrats wrote it and they will fully exploit the obfuscation. For example, they will come down heavily on private schools that cater to the poor in urban slums and rural areas and impose impossible conditions that such enterprises simply cannot fulfill.
Having delayed the universalisation of primary and upper primary education for six decades, now there are too many vested interests. The government school system; high-end private schools that have bribed their way into existence and above all, the alternative NGO schools that survive on government subsidies. With such firepower arraigned against it, the RTE Act will go the way of every well-meaning initiative of the government such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) or Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan. The net outcome will be zero or near zero.
If this sounds cynical, then you should pay heed to my story about a small comm-unity on the outskirts of Delhi. It’s an upscale community of successful professionals which includes about 30 households. The community came into being in the early 1990s. But because it was part of rural Delhi, it was deprived of municipal services such as water, sanitation and roads, never mind street lighting. Like pioneers, residents made their own arrangements: they built septic tanks, drilled borewells and arranged for the collection of garbage. Power was an issue until distribution was privatised, when the resident association petitioned the distribution company. Realising these were high-end customers, the company quickly ensured that power cuts and fluctuations were minimised.
These endeavours took several years and unearthed the fact that their first allotment of several crores was swallowed by the pirates of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. Now this community faces a water problem because its borewells have dried up. This is precious real estate which represents a lifetime investment for most residents. Without water, their charming homes are worth nothing.
The residents’ association applied to the state govern-ment for permission to drill a community borewell. It seemed a logical and eco-friendly thing to do. But between the local water authority, the local police and several residents who had bribed their way into deepening their private borewells, the application was kicked around from pillar to post.
Consequently there’s a huge Indian-style standoff. As some members of the community paid bribes to the water authority and the police to deepen their wells, as a result other residents found their borewells running dry. When the associa-tion sought to build a community well, some residents and recipients of bribes in the water authority and the local police refused permission.
Between corrupt citizens, bureaucrats, police officials and local politicians, this pleasant community is caught in a bind. It needs the rule of law to be enforced but the local government, municipality and the police are locked in a conspiracy of corruption. Residents of the community are not without political influence but stand divided because several members who own houses there, are compromised because the deals they did to buy their houses don’t stand up to scrutiny.
Admittedly, this is a small localised community problem. But its implications have a larger footprint. Even though the Union government has introduced various enlightened policies, local governance is caught in a medieval time warp. In the matter of schools as well, a sweeping and enlightened law seems likely to be wrecked on the rocks of bad last mile governance. In notifying the RTE Act, many activists fear the education bureaucracy will invoke the provisions of the Act to eliminate the option that the poor fleeing indifferent government school education have to attend low cost private schools.
Then there is the issue of the RTE-mandated 25 percent quota for poor children in private schools. The vast majority of private schools, however, already cater to the poor. So how will the quota be enforced? Clearly, framers of the Act were thinking of the elite private schools with no acknowledgment of the private schools for the poor.
Whether it is private schools for the poor or the community borewell for upscale citizens, governance is still hostage to the ideology of the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy lords it over the poor and is prejudiced against the affluent (though not the super-rich). In the event, private schools for the poor will be trampled under the bureaucracy’s prejudice against education as commerce. Likewise the South Delhi community must suffer because bureaucrats of the water authority dismiss it as an “affluent colony” that deserves nothing from government.
In the end, the admirable RTE Act will be subverted by bureaucrats, who oppose all change. Similarly residents of the affluent South Delhi community will have to fight for their water against the forces in charge of local last mile governance.

(An edited version of this post will appear in http://www.educationworld.in, June 4, 2010.)