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February 27, 2001
When Sen didn't seem good sense
Going by half a dozen press reports, Amartya Sen's recent public lecture in Mumbai on India and the World confirmed the nagging suspicion that the Nobel Prize winner is more a raconteur of economic history than a hands-on economist who merits serious consultations by someone like India's embattled finance minister.
With the Union Budget just a week away when he spoke, the thousand and odd eager beavers who overspilt the venue were probably expecting a Palkhivala-like razor-sharp insight into the Indian economic scenario vis-à-vis the global situation.
The scope of the theme given to him was enormous --- how India's annual Budget was too secretive in contrast to, say, that of the USA, how the Union Budget gets too much attention when the budgets of our federation states as a whole are no less crucial for the country, how other countries would attempt to cure the ills of the Indian economy, how some countries were tackling the travails of globalisation, how politicians and trade unions elsewhere had responded to privatisation, how our politicians and people had to change their mindset in order to look at the Budget as more than a tax-raising or tax-lowering exercise, how politics was essentially a matter of economics and how good administration was part of good economics world-wide etc etc.
Instead, Sen took his audience back to Arab mathematicians giving credit to India's decimal system of the sixth century, to China exporting crossbow and gunpowder to the West, to technology transforming European thought, and to the Seattle protests against WTO last year being the result of inequalities. It must be said though that if the audience enjoyed itself being flown back in Sen's time machine, who is this writer to crib and complain?
However, complaint is indeed warranted against Sen's chastisement of the Government of India for its alleged "neglect" of basic education and infrastructure. This charge is now fashionable --- even lay urban respondents in the pre-Budget poll conducted by a popular weekly wanted the Union Budget to do more for education, and several columnists, male and female, forever moan the quality of roads, sanitation, power, housing etc in the country, especially in our rural areas.
Let's take education first. Just what have the last three Budgets of GoI done for education? Table 1 answers that question in some detail.
GOVERNMENT OF INDIA'S BUDGETED EXPENDITURE ON EDUCATION (Rs in billion)
Source: Government of India Expenditure Budget Volume 2 1998-99, 1999-2000, 2000-2001
If one is swayed only by statistics, the GoI devoting less than two per cent of its revenue expenditure on primary and secondary education combined (other than university and technical education) might well warrant the label of "neglect." Consider, however, that:
1. GoI is saddled with the responsibilities of 40 ministries, three full-fledged departments (atomic energy, ocean development and space), offices of the President, vice-president, UPSC, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, and five Union territories.
2. For 2000-2001, out of every Rs 100 spent by GoI:
Consider, moreover, that a till the Constitutional Amendment of 1976, "education" was exclusively a subject for State (not parliamentary) legislation, and even today is a subject on which a state can enact laws modifying those of Parliament, and b primary education in our huge country is best tackled at the state level albeit with central support.
In the light of the above factors, the statistics of Table 1 are not niggardly as believed. Indeed, the really meaningful figures are elsewhere.
Take the success of the Operation Blackboard scheme started by Rajiv Gandhi's government in 1987-88 in order to provide two teachers and teaching-learning equipment to all primary schools in the country at GoI's expense. Till 1998-99, TLE had been sanctioned to 522,902 primary schools and 125,241 upper primary schools. The hundred per cent subsidy to two teachers' salaries has been extended to the third teacher under certain circumstances.
In fact, as a result of several GoI's schemes and a rare national drive-cum-awareness blended with the initiative displayed by the states, Manorama Yearbook 2000 records that India's elementary education system has become "one of the biggest in the world." For the country as a whole, 90 per cent of our children in the age group of 6 to 11 years were enrolled in primary schools for the year 1997-98. (Vide Statistical Outline of India, 1999-2000 of Tata Services Limited). And, five years ago, mind you, there were 2.98 million teachers employed in 0.77 million primary and upper schools. (Latest figures not readily available).
That the standard of such primary education may not be of the desired quality is conceded. But if the teachers are selected on the basis of their caste or "connections", if they draw their salaries without teaching, if the syllabus and the medium of instruction are decided by each state, if the text books contain howlers and are shoddily printed -- if all these and more defects exist, it makes no sense for Amartya Sen or anyone else to blame GoI for neglect of primary or secondary education. Or is the GoI expected to appoint an inspector of education in each taluka of each district of each state? Shouldn't each state, instead, be expected to play the traditional role of the class monitor?
It is the states again that must be held accountable for the dismal attention they have paid to infrastructure and their other responsibilities, the glorious exception being their pretty handsome expenditure on education. Table 2 sets out the relevant statistics.
REVENUE EXPENDITURE OF ALL STATES * ON KEY SECTORS AS PROPORTION OF THEIR TOTAL REVENUE EXPENDITURE (Figures in percentages)
* 25 states and National Capital Territory of Delhi
Source: State Finances - A Study of Budgets of 1999-2000, Reserve Bank of India, January 2000, pp. A82, A83, A84.
The above table is so self-explanatory that you don't have to be a Nobel Laureate to make sense of it and draw meaningful conclusions.
The remedial path is also clear: the states must become stingy --- like not gifting 5.1 million rupees to an Olympic bronze medallist for cheap publicity of a day. They must raise more resources by being bold and imaginative. They should sell off state sector enterprises, and, above all, get down to productive, painstaking and professional administration. All this will be possible only when, for instance, this nation's CMs realise that they cause cancer to the aspirations of their people when they fly off to Agra to wear Shivaji's pugree.
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