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Mafia in the education sector

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Mafia in the education sector

The presence of mafia-like structures in school education sector can significantly undermine the integrity and effectiveness of the education system.

From darkness to light. Or so I thought when I heard about my shifting from dark dungeons of coal mines, as Coal Secretary, to the bright lights of school education, as Secretary, School Education and Literacy. However, soon I was to discover that whereas in the coal sector, mining was underground and mafias operated above it, in the ‘mine field’ of school education it was the other way around. All the mafias existed underground, and they were all masked, masquerading as ‘noble giants’. Having taken on some of the mafias of the coal sector and partly succeeded in bringing the coal sector to order, the task was now to handle these ‘noble giants’. It was made more difficult as there was no public outrage against invisible scams in education as was in the case of coal. Everything seemed to be apparently in order. To make matters worse, when I took over as Secretary, School Education and Literacy in 2016, I was the fifth person to hold this charge in preceding three years. Most of my predecessors had impeccable credentials in the education sector but either they did not continue or were not allowed to continue. The Government apparently found in me the most ‘educated’ person (I had never worked in this sector except for a brief tenure of 3 months in Adult Education in the State) to handle this sector.

It would be an understatement to state that the education sector was in bad shape. Yes, all the investments made by the Government, especially those under mid-day meal, had resulted in children coming to school. But as my Minister, Prakash Javadekar, often said, it merely resulted in ‘aana-khaana-jaana’ (coming–eating-going) with very little education being imparted. There has been a decline in enrolment in government schools from 72.9% in 2007 to 63.1% in 2014. The Right to Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 did little to stem the rot. Ironically the budgetary allocation for school education has seen a decline over the past few years even in nominal terms.  The budgetary allocation for school education was Rs. 55,115 crores during 2014-15. As a percentage of GDP, it was 0.52% and 3.07% of the entire budget. This amount got reduced during subsequent years. Even for 2016-17, the amount of Rs. 43,554 Crore was less than the allocation made for 2014-15. As a percentage of GDP, it came down to 0.36% and 2.16% of the budget.

On the human resource front too, the situation was alarming.  Apart from musical chairs for at the Secretary level, a number of Joint Secretaries were also changed during the past couple of years. It was  reminiscent of my days in UP where it was rumoured that the only industry flourishing was the transfer industry.

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In the two biggest states of the country, the positioning of top management followed a peculiar pattern. Whereas in UP there were two Additional Chief Secretary level officers manning School Education and Secondary Education separately (creating huge coordination problems), in the state of Bihar, one officer looked after both Education and Health Departments. Consequently, the health of education suffered.

There was a huge crisis. It was challenging to light up the coal sector, but it soon became evident that the education sector would require greater indulgence. Apart from the aforementioned human resource and budget related issues, the mafias were having a field day and were eating into the essentials of the society. They were like the termite.  Fortunately, like all mafias, those in the education sector too were not in majority but played a dominant role in decision making.  They were extremely well connected and deeply entrenched.

There were a host of mafias but the prominent ones were as follows:

  1. Bachelor of Education (B.Ed) and Diploma in Elementary Education(D.El.Ed)
  2. Examination Centres
  3. Publishing
  4. Private Schools

There are around 16000 B.Ed and D.El.Ed colleges in the country.  A large number of these exist only in name.  If you pay them well, you can get a degree without an effort.  It was rumoured that if you pay them more, they could even arrange for a ‘Naukari’ (Government Job).  Action was initiated by the then Chairman of National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE), an upright officer, by way of issue of notices to all the colleges to furnish the details of their existence on affidavits. The idea was to ensure that only those that actually existed got recognition and in case of wrong information they could be prosecuted. It worked initially but the colleges realised that quite a few of them could be in trouble.  Despite the support he got from most of the States, he was put under enormous pressure by the mafias who took the “judicial” route to pin down the Chairman. He had to quit.

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In a few northern States of the country, a number of examination centres are given on “theka” (contract) for copying.  These centres are highly “priced” as they facilitate mass copying.  The current Chief Minister of UP came down heavily on this mafia.  This was done on the last occasion by Kalyan Singh in 1991 but thereafter no Chief Minister could dare to do that for so many years.  Consequent to the steps taken in UP during the last exams, more than 1 million students chose not to give exams.  It is a reflection of “addiction” to mass copying.

Publishing thrives on the education sector.  There are deeply entrenched vested interest that want status quo to continue as this benefits them.   It happens at two levels.  As respective governments provide free books to students, there are various ways in which “money is made”.  The “mandatory cuts” in getting the books printed centrally constitutes a substantial portion.  The initiative taken by the UP Government during the current year and the consequent savings thereunder lends credence to this allegation. Bihar Government was also toying with the idea of direct benefit transfer recognising the “dealings” inherent in central printing and distribution.

The other level of “money making” is by a handful of private publishers who enter into an “arrangement” with the private schools in the name of quality and compel the students to buy almost four to five times more expensive books as compared to NCERT books.  If all the students of around 20000 CBSE affiliated schools were to source NCERT Books, there would be an estimated annual expenditure of around Rs. 650 crores.  As compared to this, if they source books from private publishers, it would cost around Rs. 3000 crores per annum.  The difference is huge to justify the quality argument. NCERT did a wonderful job during the current academic year to ensure that books are made available on time so that the students were not compelled to buy expensive books but this effort will need to continue. The NCERT will always be under pressure from vested interests to be “inefficient”.

Most of the private schools are contributing enormously in imparting quality education.  However, some of them are bringing a bad name to this segment.  There are some extremely powerful individuals who are able to get away with blue murder.  They violate various norms, legal and ethical, with impunity because having been part of the official machinery at some point in time they know the tricks of the trade.  Irrational hiking of fee, charging huge sums of money to “lend” their brand, harassing the brand assignees are some of the many tricks they practice. The Chairperson of CBSE who chose to take them on was shown the door. His successor, Anita Karwal, one of the finest civil servants, was also set to be “sacrificed”. But she held her ground despite all the pressure.  The good news is yet again from UP where the State has enacted a law on the fee regulation after consulting all the stake holders.  Hence, the legislation has been welcomed by all. Hopefully other states will follow suit.

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Anil Swarup IAS (Retd)
Anil Swarup IAS (Retd)
Anil Swarup is a former 1981 batch, Uttar Pradesh cadre  IAS officer, and was awarded Director's gold medal for "best officer trainee" at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA). He served the Government of India in various capacities for 38 years and went on to become Secretary, Department of School Education and Literacy and the Coal Secretary of India. He also served as Additional Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Additional Secretary, Labour & Empowerment, Export Commissioner in the Ministry of Commerce & Industry of India and as the District Magistrate of Lakhimpur Kheri. He couldn’t make it to the “elite” Indian Administrative Service (IAS) on his first attempt but qualified for the Indian Police Service where he worked for one year before clearing IAS in his next attempt. He is today an author of several looks like 'No More a Civil Servant,' ‘Ethical dilemmas of a civil servant’ and ‘Not just a civilservant’. The views expressed are his own.


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