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Tuesday, November 25, 2003

The education debate

Tsqaured: yes I think I misunderstood. Sorry about that. I also think you are right that Indian taxpayers wouldn't mind paying up if they knew that the money was being transparently and effectively used for primary education.

So I think, it might be worth charging a primary education cess like the National Highway Program. A few rupees surcharge on everybody's tax return, 1% in new VAT etc etc and use the money exclusively for primary education/mid day meals. Pass a law if need be, so that the government cannot use the money in their general budgeting.

However, I oppose giving any tax breaks to anybody, mostly for reasons pointed out by the Kelkar committee--lack of transparency and price distortion. All social objectives should be funded directly by government so that the Public Accounts committee can review it. I am not sure if such special purpose vehicals fall under the purivew of the CAG, but I can find out. If they do, all the better.

I agree with tsqaured that for all intents and purposes primary education will have to be funded by public money. No NGO, however, savvy can be expected to raise the sort of money we need. Since government money is going to have to be used anyway why shouldn't the government be involved in the running of schools?

The broader point I am trying to make is that primary education is the responsibilty of the government. What is the need to outsource it to NGO's or the private sector? What incentive does an NGO have to run a school properly? What oversight exists? Why wouldn't they just siphon off the money? (it happens). There are good dedicated NGO's and there are bad corrupt NGO's. I would have supported the private sector entering the education sector funded by government vouchers, however there seems to be some bad news about vouchers lately. Besides, I am having second thoughts about vouchers in general.

So the solution, if government is not doing its job properly is to make it do it properly, not bypass it. Easier said that done, you say. True but I just don't see any other way. I might add this is source of all my disagreements with liberatarians. The government has all the incentive to provide elementary education. By some estimates the return on primary education is 15%. If Vajpayeeji was my fund manager I would want him to invest my taxes in primary education. Besides, there is parliamentary and possibly auditor oversight, Public Interest Litigation, pressure of press and civil society not to mention the prospect of being booted out in the next election. A self interested citizenry would make use of all this tools to make its government deliver. The trick is get government down to the right level. Panchayats have been very effective in running their village schools. Sitting in Delhi its difficult.

So you ask, if everything should be so hunky dory why has the country not done better. Well, ideology, illiteracy, religion, caste, languange complicate the picture not doubt. But there is increasing evidence that the electorate is willing to reward good governance. Witness Chandrababu Naidu and now, hopefully, Shiela Dixit.

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