Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the Politics that accompanies it

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India has come a long way in providing Education facilities to its masses. Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan is a claim that the government very proudly flaunts as its achievement in bringing about an evolution in Education. However, there is still a ‘learning crisis’ that looms over us. The number of children in class 5 who could read a class 2 text dropped by 5% between 2006 and 2015- from 53% to 48% and this is a cause of worry among many. In chai-stalls and think-tanks alike, there is always a talk of restructuring the systems in place- to make implementation effective and outcomes desirable. But, little is the realization that politics is at the heart of such restructuring. And unless we understand the nature of that, we won’t be moving towards an aggregate solution.

Theodore J. Lowi of Cornell University and James Q. Wilson of Harvard University developed a matrix to analyze the political implications of policy changes. The matrix looks like this:

matrix
Depending on the kind of costs and benefits that the policy implies, a different kind of politics emerges. So, if the costs are being borne by only a particular set of people, i.e., concentrated costs and the benefits are being borne by a lot of people, i.e., diffused benefits- then the policy will lead to an entrepreneurial type of politics. And the other cells of the matrix can be read in a similar manner.

In Education, a lot of the reforms now needed lead to majoritarian politics and that becomes the biggest problem for the government. No government would want a majority of their vote-share to be susceptible to swings towards the opposition. In the system, as noisy as it is today, even a small risk of such a wavering would prevent any restructuring from happening at all.

Lets take the example of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan(SSA). In the past 15 years, the government expenditure on education has increased 9 times, mainly through SSA. But, the elephant in the room that no one is talking about is the flawed institutionalization of the centrally sponsored scheme.

SSA has become like a parallel institution to the state departments of Education. Most of the state government’s budget for elementary education goes into paying teachers’ salaries. For all other expenditures, they turn toward the SSA funds from the center. But, under the SSA framework- the money can be spent on only a certain limited number of initiatives. The final decision, just by the design of the system, lies with the SSA authorites. This asymmetrical power automatically makes SSA authorities more powerful than their corresponding state department designees.

Even though SSA has been flagged as the backbone of Education in India, it has its own worries. The fact that each state has its own state board, a very different diaspora of children, curriculum limitations and pedagogical needs- its safe to say that a blanket solution will not work and devolution of funds with greater autonomy to state education departments is essential. As Yamini Aiyar of CPR points out- a certain state government wanted funds for restructuring its teacher-training model but the SSA framework didn’t allow it and the state government had to abandon the idea entirely. Thus, there is a case to be made for changing the working of SSA. And a very strong one indeed.

In the current government’s outreach- we see them recognizing the importance of decentralization and that of devolution of funds. This is why the Modi government has slashed Centrally Sponsored Schemes to a mere 30-odd, which were towering over 150 during the UPA regimes. However, we do not see a restructuring in the SSA, primarily because it’ll disrupt the politics being played out.

Accountability Initiative provides a solution to the funding design. They propose a ‘3-window funding mechanism’.

The first window is a set-annual grant to all states to meet the RTE expenditures. The second window is a formula-based learning grant to meet the state’s long-term targets. The third is an annual performance-based system that rewards states on how well they perform.

To rework the funding from central to state governments requires the Union to muddle with the power structure already established for the past 16 years. So, even though the above solution seems to be a key input in solving the current crisis, it is unlikely that it will fly.

Looking at it from the Wilson-Lowi matrix- the costs involved are diffused, as it requires the established SSA machinery to be dismantled completely. The benefits, as is very evident, are even more diffused for they will give each state autonomy over structuring its own administration for such implementation. However, in the rather volatile political atmosphere being experienced these days- it seems very improbable that the current government will undertake a move anywhere close to such restructuring.

Making politics a part of the equation is the only way to get a solution going. Reworking the SSA is a need of the hour, but unless the governments are given a solution with its political considerations at bay- no progress can be expected on this front.

– Prakhar Misra

Prakhar Misra is a Chankya Scholar at the Meghnad Desai Academy of Economics. Prior to this he was a Fellow with the Swaniti Initiative and with Teach For India. He completed his Bachelors in Engineering from MS Ramaiah Institute of Technology and completed the Graduate Certificate in Public Policy from The Takshashila Institution. He tweets @prakharmisra

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