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A crisis of implementation

The Supreme Court order directing states to meet RTE standards frames the limitations of a rights-based approach to education

October 23, 2012 2:48:45 am

On October 3,the Supreme Court issued an order directing state governments to equip all schools with appropriate facilities such as toilets,drinking water,classrooms and teachers within six months to ensure that schools meet the standards set by the Right to Education Act (RTE). This is not the first time the SC has taken a stand on the issue. Between April 2011 and March 2012,the court issued several interim orders and with each successive order,extended the deadline. That the court has intervened so often,and with little success,serves as a reminder that the state faces a serious crisis of implementation capability — one that legislation and SC interventions are unlikely to fix.

To meet RTE targets,budgetary allocations for Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) — the government’s flagship scheme for implementing the RTE — have more than doubled from Rs 26,169 crore in 2009-10 to Rs 55,746 crore in 2011-12. Infrastructure creation and teacher salary budgets,the very activities the SC is concerned about,have been prioritised. These line items now account for close to 80 per cent of the SSA budget. Yet,when it comes to even the simplest of tasks: ensuring that these enhanced allocations reach the appropriate level of government in a manner that enables efficient expenditure,the system flounders.

To understand where the problem lies,we tracked SSA implementation in nine districts across seven states over a two year period between 2009-10 and 2010-11. Our analysis of district monthly expenditure statements reveals that none of these districts received their entire allocated budget in the period tracked. For the money that did reach,much of it arrived in the last quarter of the financial year. Even districts in well-functioning states like Maharashtra and Himachal Pradesh received more than half their annual budget somewhere between December and March. Even more surprising,and contrary to popular perception,even teacher salaries don’t get paid on time. In fact,a recent newspaper report from Rajasthan revealed that as many as 20,000 teachers paid through SSA have not received their salaries since August 2012. In addition,the process of fund transfers is so opaque that district administrators have no prior information on the timing and quantum of money that they can expect to receive. Faced with these constraints,even a well-intentioned administrator will find it difficult to get things done. Often,inaction may be a deliberate strategy to deal with financial constraints.

When money does reach and planned activities are initiated,bureaucratic red tape,inter-departmental turf wars and complex administrative requirements can make getting things done almost impossible. Take infrastructure works. In most states,infrastructure monies are sent from the district to schools’ bank accounts. But building can only start once administrative procedures are completed — works need to be sanctioned and approved from authorities outside the department of education,such as the public works department; issues like land access need to be negotiated; and finally,competent authorities need to provide a certificate of approval. This requires coordination between multiple administrative authorities and leads to delays.

Human resource constraints exacerbate the problem. Many administrators pointed out that vacancies,particularly at the block level,are rife. In one district in Maharashtra,for instance,50 per cent of junior engineer posts had been vacant for more than a year. Junior engineers play a critical role in implementing infrastructure projects — they are responsible for giving technical clearances in the absence of which construction work cannot begin. Within the education bureaucracy,the problem is even more acute. Bihar reported 36 per cent vacancies for SSA posts in May 2012. In 2011-12,Maharashtra had sanctioned 407 posts for block resource coordinators (BRCs),of which 353 were vacant.

The human resource problem is not just about shortfalls. It’s also about building management and training systems that enable officials to do the jobs they are hired for. This is where state capacity is at its weakest. To illustrate,the BRC post created under SSA is meant specifically to provide “academic support” to schools. However,these officers are mostly trained as administrators and have little exposure to pedagogical strategies. At most,they can monitor teaching activity in schools but given their limited exposure,their contribution in terms of real academic support is necessarily limited. Added to this,weak management systems result in overburdening officials with unplanned administrative tasks that are outside their job profiles.

These implementation constraints are not unique to elementary education. However,in the specific context of the RTE,these constraints are amplified because the goals of RTE necessitate more than constructing schools. As we have argued before in this newspaper,the real goal of a right to education is to build an education system focused on quality and achieving learning outcomes for children. But delivering such a system is a complex task. At minimum,this requires the education bureaucracy to be attuned to learning needs of children and develop appropriate pedagogical strategies to meet these needs. Given the failures of the state to effectively complete straightforward tasks like meeting infrastructure targets,can one expect the goals of RTE to be achieved without significant investment in building and strengthening the delivery system? Creating rights is important,but without corresponding investments in state capability,rights alone are unlikely to yield results. This is the lesson from the SC’s continued intervention on the RTE.

Yamini Aiyar and Ambrish Dongre are with Accountability Initiative,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi

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