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Only tiger cubs become tigers

India’s population of illiterates (at least 350 million) is larger today than its total population was in 1947. To all who believe Indi...

Written by Santosh Mehrotra |
November 10, 2005

India’s population of illiterates (at least 350 million) is larger today than its total population was in 1947. To all who believe India is an emergent market economy, and a future global economic player, this should be a stark reminder of the ground reality. And to those who proclaim that India reduced its income poverty rate from 36 per cent in 1993/04 to 26 per cent in 1999/’00, they should also not forget that India’s child malnutrition is one of the worst in the world — much worse than that in Sub-saharan Africa. Worse still, India’s child malnutrition rate hardly fell from 48 per cent in 1992 to 42 per cent in 1998/9. If poverty were to be measured not merely by income, but also by educational and nutritional status, the numbers of poor would be much larger than the 260 million or so income poor. If India is not ‘shining’, the majority of its people certainly can feel the darkness of despair, even if its middle class and some leaders cannot!

India’s middle classes would like to see us become a tiger economy, but for us to prosper, are we willing to accept that the over 350 million adult illiterates and millions of malnourished, wasted and stunted children cannot be left behind? Only tiger cubs will grow up to become tigers.

Long before South Korea became a tiger economy in the ’70s, it had universalised primary education—by 1960, ie, within a decade of the end of the Korean War. Its period of sustained rapid economic growth came after it had not only universalised primary education, but made massive strides in secondary education. India cannot expect to turn the tide of history and become a tiger economy overnight.

One reason for Korea’s equitable growth pattern was land reforms implemented in the 1950s, not half-heartedly, as in much of India, but effectively. Another reason why economic growth was equitable in Korea was because most of the population could benefit from that growth and participate in its fruits, precisely because of the widespread availability of schooling. But what ensured the widespread availability of schooling in Korea? It was equity in their pattern of public education spending. Two-thirds of government spending on education went to primary education. Not surprisingly, 95 per cent of all children of school age went to government primary schools. And, interestingly , two thirds of the secondary school students went to private schools, paying their way. And, even more importantly, the vast majority of tertiary level students also studied in private universities.

The pattern in India has been completely contrary. Most universities have been publicly funded, and even more, the recurrent costs are almost entirely subsidised. Most students who reach tertiary levels of education are naturally children of the non-poor, but their tertiary level education is heavily subsidised—in a country where one-third of the population is still illiterate! In a few universities, fees have increased in the 1990s. But one study showed that of 36 universities, over 75 per cent of total costs in 12, and 50-74 per cent of costs in 20 were still met by the government. In only four were less than 50 per cent of costs met by government. For only 15 does cost recovery exceed 20 per cent of university income.

The share of elementary education (classes 1-8) has increased, but even after the increase, rarely does the share of elementary education exceed 55 per cent in government education spending. There is hardly any state in the country where more than a third of total public education spending goes to primary (classes 1-5) — now or ever in the past.

Let us look at our creme de la creme of higher education — the IITs. Till a few years ago, the tuition costs of an undergraduate education in an IIT was almost negligible. After several increases, fees went up to Rs 18,000 a semester, or Rs 36,000 per year. Meanwhile, the cost to the state of educating an IIT undergraduate was Rs 1.25 lakh per annum, or 29 per cent of the cost was borne by the state. For a world class education, on the completion of which a significant share of students migrate permanently to the West, India’s middle class was, and is, paying precious little.

No one is suggesting that the Indian state should not have made the capital investments in medical and engineering schools. Rather, that it is high time the middle class owned up to the fact that they have benefited disproportionately from public subsidies to higher education. The fiscal deficits to GDP, which have risen to over 10 per cent of the central and state governments combined, show that the state is in no position to continue its largesse to the middle classes.

But the additional revenues from cost recovery in higher education will have to be ploughed back into universities so that they can have better stocked libraries, and scholarships for poor and talented students can be increased.

Meanwhile, government elementary schools in poorer states of the north remain seriously under-funded, despite the increases in allocation through the 1990s. These increases came about due to the District Primary Education Programme of the Central government funded mainly from external sources, and the more recent Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan. In a report to the Ministry for Human Resource Development in 2002, we had argued for a hypothecated tax to be used only for elementary education; the Central budget of 2004 imposed a surcharge of 2 per cent on all central taxes to finance elementary education. The gap between available and needed resources will not be filled unless a similar ear-marked tax is imposed by state governments on a tax source in the jurisdiction of states. It is the poorer states in the north that need it most since their per capita public spending on elementary schooling is among the lowest in the country.

The writer is regional economic adviser, UNDP Regional Centre for Asia, and co-author of ‘Universalizing Elementary Education in India. Uncaging the Tiger Economy’(OUP)

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