Debating India

PUNJAB

Private Lessons

Monday 25 April 2005, by DOGRA*Chander Suta

Faced with an alarming drop in school standards, Amarinder unveils his plan: privatise schools

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Prshant Panjiar

If chief minister Amarinder Singh has his way, Punjab will become the first state to hand over public education, even at the primary level, to private entrepreneurs. Though there are discordant voices even in the high-powered committee set up by the state government to work out the proposal, Amarinder is firm on going ahead. "A revamp of the education system with involvement of industrial houses and well-established private schools is being done. In the first phase, the government plans to hand over about 2,000 government schools to private hands," he has said. In all, Punjab has 19,000 government schools.

The need to ’revamp’ schools came after some shocking findings in a government study. It was revealed that 30 per cent of children up to class V in Punjab’s government schools couldn’t read or write. Then, the latest World Bank report, Resuming Punjab’s Prosperity, reveals

that on any given day 36 per cent of the government primary teachers are absent. This is well above the 25 per cent for the rest of India. In absenteeism, Punjab ranks third after Bihar and Jharkhand. Even when the teachers are present, only half (49.8 per cent) were found teaching. This is below the national average of 59.5 per cent.

It is in such a dismal scenario with the government unable to check errant teachers, who otherwise draw fat salaries, that the ’privatisation plan’ has been mooted. Part of the problem was that there has been no institutional check on the teachers. There is also no accountability. The government says it can do little to rein in the teachers since they are politically organised. In fact, government school teachers represent a powerful lobby connected to senior politicians. It is this teacher-politician nexus which is being blamed for the decline of education in Punjab in recent years.

The government has come in for much criticism for wringing its hands helplessly and not admitting to its own management failure. Though Punjab finance secretary K.R. Lakhanpal rationalises it, saying it’s not "privatisation but an alternative delivery system to provide better education", critics have called it a sellout. In fact, with the opposition raising a hue and cry over the proposed move, the government is at pains to explain that all this will not mean higher fees in government schools. The government spends Rs 700 per child every month. It is being proposed that this money be handed over to the private management so that free elementary education up to class VII continues.

With the fall in teaching standards, only the very poor now send their children to government schools. In every Punjab village, there are at least three or four private schools which are hugely popular. According to the Punjab School Education Board, the number of requests for affiliation coming in from rural areas is at least one-and-a-half times more than from urban areas. Ironically, the teachers employed by these schools are paid between Rs 2,000 and Rs 5,000.

On the other hand, the average salary of a government school teacher is between Rs 10,000 and Rs 15,000 a month. And as an officer of the education department points out, it is fairly common for a teacher posted in a rural area to hire a fresh graduate for Rs 2,000 a month to substitute in his or her place while the former runs coaching classes in a nearby town. Absenteeism among government school teachers is rampant. And the reason why teachers don’t teach even when they are present is because half the time they are deputed on sundry non-teaching assignments such as conducting surveys, census and election duties. Even now, government teachers are busy for the next one week conducting an economic survey.

By all accounts, privatisation is easier said than done. Already the opposition Akali Dal and the BJP have announced they will oppose the move.The coming days will test the chief minister’s determination to push his plan through.

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