IN the run up to last year's general elections, BJP had promised the country a government that would have natural empathy towards the underprivileged and work for their empowerment as it would be run by a "poor chaiwala". However, three major steps taken by the BJP-led government within one year of assuming office make it clear that its policy is to ensure that the children of "chaiwalas" across the country never get a chance to go to school. As part of the "achhe din" policies of the Modi government, the education sector witnessed a budget cut of more than Rs 13,000 crore. In a country which still suffers from high rate of illiteracy, major reductions in allocations were for programmes linked to school education.
DEATH BELL RINGS FOR MID DAY MEAL SCHEME
For the last few months, the government has been running an advertisement on television and through other mediums which sends out the message that the fundamental way for the people of India to prove their patriotism and commitment towards the country's economic growth is to give up their cooking gas (LPG) subsidy. Perhaps as part of this project, the Modi government has taken a major stride forward to make almost 11 crore children studying in government schools in India "patriots" by compulsion!
Recently, the central government has decided to withdraw subsidy on LPG cylinders used to cook mid-day meals in schools. The Ministry of Human Resource Development has instructed state governments to buy cooking gas at the ongoing market rate. The Centre's allocation for Mid Day Meal Scheme was Rs 13,000 crore, which has been brought down to Rs 9,000 crore in the current financial year. Given the situation, it has become almost impossible for this programme to run. And this is going to have dangerous social implications.
A recent report of the United Nations showed that, in India, 2.1 million children die every year before reaching the age of 5, due to malnutrition. For crores of children in India, mid-day meal served in schools is their only source of proper diet. Large numbers of poor families send their children to schools only because it guarantees at least one proper meal a day for them. So the breakdown of this programme will not only lead to widespread malnutrition among children, especially those in rural areas, but will also result in massive decrease in school enrolment ratio and increase in drop-out rate. In spite of the relatively higher budget allocation that existed so far, time and again there have been instances of the scheme going horribly wrong. More than a decade has passed since the programme was made universal with the aid of the central government. But 40 per cent of schools under the scheme are yet to have their own kitchen and store while 49 per cent of the schools do not have hand-washing facilities. An estimated 6.5 million children do not have access to clean drinking water in schools. Auditors in several states have given detailed accounts of the unhygienic conditions in which food under the programme is prepared and served, and the poor quality of food itself. Two recent audit reports by the governments of Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh showed food served under the scheme was often filled with stones and worms. Another survey by the Indian Institute of Management noted that many schoolchildren in "Vibrant Gujarat" were made to wash their plates after their meals by "rubbing the playground soil and then giving a quick rinse!" One can easily recall the terrible incident that happened two years ago in a government primary school in Chhapra district of Bihar, where 23 students died of poisoning after eating mid-day meal.
So what was expected from the government was an adequate increase in allocation so that the programme can be run more efficiently and these kinds of untoward incidents can be avoided. Instead, the government decided to curtail the budget. This is a ruthless wrongdoing that will not only result in mishaps occurring with sickening regularity, but also ring the death bell for the scheme.
SARVA SHIKSHA ABHIYAN FACES DECLINE
SSA, a flagship programme of the central government aimed at universalising elementary education by increasing enrolment and checking school drop-out rate, is also facing difficulties due to sharp budget cuts by the BJP government. The MHRD had asked for Rs 50,000 crore to run SSA, but in the 2015 budget it was allocated Rs 22,000 crore, which itself was nearly Rs 6,000 crore less than the previous year's allocation. The budget also scrapped an MHRD scheme to build 6,000 model schools across India, including 2,500 in partnership with private entities.
The Centre's decision to stop funding for construction work under SSA makes setting up of new schools almost impossible for the states. Also in existing school buildings, infrastructural developments like construction of additional classrooms, separate toilets for girls and boys, and extension of drinking water connections would become difficult. The worst sufferer will be the school-going children in rural areas.
Apart from reduction in the fund allocation for SSA, what is allocated is also not reaching the state governments properly and in due time. Even part of the money that is being approved by the Project Approval Board is not being issued to the states. At present, nearly six lakh teaching posts are lying vacant under SSA. With the funds from the Centre not reaching the states adequately and in due time, the recruitment of teachers are getting stalled across the country, and thereby the teacher-student ratio is climbing.
The BJP-led NDA government's apathy and mistreatment towards SSA is characterised by the expenditure which is not only inadequate but also irrelevant. When almost all the state governments across the country are struggling to make ends meet due to the budget cut, the NDA government of Punjab has set a unique precedence. The Parkash Singh Badal dispensation used SSA funds for telecasting Teachers' Day speech of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to students of the state. Lakhs of rupees that could have been spent for better purposes were exhausted to hire TV sets, speakers, projectors, Internet and cable connections, and generators for broadcasting the Prime Minister's speech.
SUMMONS SENT TO RASHTRIYA MADHYAMIK SHIKSHA ABHIYAN
RMSA was introduced in 2009 with the objective of providing equitable access to quality secondary education by removing socio-economic barriers including those of gender and disability. According to the MHRD, it is "envisaged to achieve an enrolment rate of 75 per cent from 52.26 per cent in 2005-06 at secondary stage of implementation of the scheme by providing a secondary school within a reasonable distance of any habitation". But the last budget saw the allocation for this programme undergo a cut of 28.7 per cent to come down to Rs 3,565 crore from Rs 5,000 crore in the last fiscal.
Earlier, the Centre used to bear 75 per cent of the financial responsibilities while the remaining 25 per cent was on the state. However, for the northeastern states, the Centre used to bear 90 per cent of the funding. But now the Modi government has brought down the Centre's share to 65 per cent of the total expenditure, thus transferring an extra proportion of financial responsibility to the state governments. The government has argued that the allocation has not been reduced for RMSA, rather the proportional sharing between the Centre and the State has been reorganised as the state governments are now getting greater share of tax revenues as per the directions of the 14th Finance Commission. However, a major section of the funds received by state governments are "tied" funds which can be used only for the purpose defined by the Centre. Also, the responsibility of school education has always been lying generally with the states. But in spite of that, the very idea behind introducing central projects on school education like SSA and RMSA was to curb the regional disparities that were prominent across the country. And what we are seeing today is an effort by the central government to shy away from that responsibility.
Due to the cut by the central government in the budget, it has become difficult for the state governments to pay the salary of teaching as well as non-teaching staff. In such a situation, most of the state governments are trying to retain teachers as far as possible, which is eventually leading to several thousand RMSA workers who were working as laboratory assistants, office staff members and in other clerical positions in government schools losing their jobs.
These cuts in allocations for primary and secondary education come as part of the general decrease in social sector spending by the Modi government. And HRD Minister Smriti Irani, while trying to justify these measures, said in Parliament: "So far as budgetary cuts with regard to Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, Mid Day Meal Scheme and Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan are concerned, as you know, in higher education there has been an increase in allocation." But even if the government would have been serious about higher education, it would have never tried to neglect school education, as that would make growth in higher education an unreal dream. Any sensible person would know that with a dismal rate of enrolment in primary education and a soaring school drop-out rate, most of the colleges and universities of this country would be left with unfilled classrooms.