Facebook Badge

Monday, June 7, 2010

Bureaucratic Subversion

The Bane of New India

When the government steered the Right to Education bill through Parliament, those of us who had fought for it through two decades were pleased. The important thing, however, is how the act would be notified. The language of the bill leaves a lot of gray 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.

There are too many vested interests: the government school system; the 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 bill will go the way of every well-meaning initiative of the government such the NREGA or the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan. The net outcome will be zero. And so everything will come to naught.

If this sounds cynical, then you should listen to my story about a small community on the outskirts of Delhi. This is an upscale community of successful professionals that includes about 30 houses. It is an oasis in the chaos of Delhi, with trees and birdsong. It’s a wonderful community where neighbors meet frequently to have a drink or dinner and to discuss issues of India’s development. The people who live there are respected professionals whose interests span public health, wildlife conservation, media, law and what have you.

The community came into being in the early 1990s. Because it was part of rural Delhi, it was offered no municipal services like water, sanitation or roads, never mind street lighting. Like pioneers, residents made their own arrangements: people built septic tanks, drilled bore wells and got their own garbage collection. Power was an issue until distribution was privatized, when the resident association petitioned the distribution company. Realizing these were high-end customers, the company quickly ensured that power cuts and fluctuations were minimized.

On the roads issue, the resident association petitioned the Delhi government arguing from a taxpayer viewpoint; so the road was built: badly but still motorable. It took several years including the fact that the first allotment of several crores was swallowed by the pirates of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. Now this community faces water a problem because the bore wells have dried up. This is precious real estate but more important it represents the single major investment for most of the residents. Without water, their homes are worth nothing.

The association applied to the Delhi government for permission to drill a community bore well. 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 bore wells, the application has been kicked around from pillar to post.

So here you have this huge Indian-style standoff: members of the community paid bribes to the water authority and the police to deepen their wells. As a result, other residents found their bore wells running dry. When the association sought to build a community well, some residents and recipients of their bribes in the water authority and the local police struck a dissonant note.

Between corrupt citizens, bureaucrats, police officials and local politicians, this pleasant community is caught in a cleft. It needs the rule of law to be enforced but the local government: the municipality and the police, are locked in various corrupt projects. Residents of the community are not without 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.

This is a small localized community problem, to be sure. 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 stands to be subverted on the rocks of bad governance. In notifying the RTE act, many activists fear the education bureaucracy will not let private schools for the poor flourish.

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, cater to the poor. So how will the quota be enforced? Clearly, framers of the bill were thinking of the elite private schools with no acknowledgment of the private schools for the poor.

Whether it is the private schools for the poor or the community bore well for the upscale Delhi community, governance is still held hostage to the ideology of the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy lords it over the poor and is prejudiced against the affluent (not rich). In the event, private schools for the poor will be held hostage to the bureaucracy’s prejudice against education as commerce; likewise the South Delhi community must suffer because the bureaucrats of the water authority dismiss it as an “affluent colony” that deserves nothing from the government.

In the end, the admirable RTE bill stands to be subverted by bureaucrats, who oppose all change. Residents of the affluent community will have to fight for their water against the very forces in charge of governance.

An edited version of this article appeared in Education World, June 2010.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2010