Something is very rotten in a State that spends increasingly lavish sums every year on primary education only to see standards deteriorate. Yamini Aiyar, through her work at the Accountability Initiative, is determined to follow the money. Down whatever surreal garden path it may lead. Much of the trouble, she tells Shougat Dasgupta, is caused by a centralised bureaucracy that refuses to cede even minor decisions to local authorities best placed to make decisions. The results are Kafkaesque.
What prompted the Accountability Initiative to examine education spending?
Accountability Initiative was established in 2008, when we had many new schemes and laws towards building a social welfare state, with a lot of resource investments being made. Yet we did not have a clear sense of how this money was translating on the ground. That’s important, as once one understands how it is spent, one can get clues about why we’re not getting the outcomes we hope to get. Education is a particularly interesting place to start, because the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) surveys gave us a good handle on the fundamental problem, which is that large amounts of money were being invested and outcomes simply did not match up. Our work was to unpack the governance architecture to understand why this was so.
Why does the money spent lead nowhere?
Whatever the government’s rhetoric has been, the primary goal that has been set for primary education, particularly in the last few years, has been input-focussed. The focus was on what we call ‘schooling’; the assumption was that when you build a school, learning will happen automatically. But what is clear from the ASER surveys is that schooling does not lead to learning. We’re now at a crucial juncture where, if we don’t focus on learning, inputs will be meaningless. People are voting with their feet; everyone is moving out of the government system.
Even when the money is available, is it the case that schools are hamstrung by centralised bureaucracy?
One of the most important things about the education budget is to understand how much money the school has control over, which is about 2 percent of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan budget. Even with this tiny slice, often schools are given instructions by block-level officers on what they ought to spend their money on. We came across one district where all schools were told to spend their money on furniture, another where they were asked to buy storage cupboards. My favourite is a school without a building that was asked to buy fire safety equipment with grant money. But, of course, there was no building, so they bought the equipment and asked the shopkeeper to keep it until such time they were able to erect one. When the school’s needs are simply ignored in the larger framework of rules and goals, there is little ownership and you end up with wastage.
Can local schools and authorities deal responsibly with the powers you would like to see devolve to them?
For better outcomes, you need to think systematically and see what can function better at the local level. For example, no school can create its own curriculum, but for issues like learning or teacher attendance, local authorities are best placed to see what works. All they can do now is petition one level up, so decisions are being taken very far away. The schoolteacher therefore has very little incentive to respond to the parents, the headmaster or the panchayat.
But doesn’t the data show that most schools don’t spend their funds, or make only cosmetic improvements?
In 2011-12, actual expenditure was quite low, at 61 percent of funds allocated. It had a lot to do with the increase in budgetary allocation at the Central and state level due to the rte Act. The spending capacity of the State has always been low. You think about the Indian bureaucracy as this large, bloated, overstaffed place. For the amount of work local officials are supposed to do, the staff available to them is quite low and the expectations of what they’re supposed to do are increasing with new social welfare schemes. The other part of the problem has to do with how the money is released. If you get the bulk of the money by the end of the financial year, you’re going to do what’s easiest. That’s why so many schools use their money to whitewash their walls. Every year.