DEV  360 (MY latest  colum)

Deccan  Chronicle, March 2

It is a pity that we don’t have someone of the calibre of George W. Bush, that brilliant stand-up comic, who was also the President of the United States, to entertain us through panel discussions on the Union Budget. Asked about his “budget experience” some 10 years ago, straight-talking, regular guy Bush said: “It’s clearly a budget. It’s got a lot of numbers in it.” Quite.

Every year, when I listen to discussions about the Budget, I must confess I have my George Bush moment. Much of the discussions revolve around figures, specifically outlays — which sectors are getting more money, which ones are getting less, which ones are getting nothing at all, and so on. Panelists often speak in what I call “panelese”, which others of the tribe understand, but which leave the rest of us flummoxed.

At the end of the half-hour or hour, sometimes one feels one has witnessed the Dance of the Ghosts (bhooter nach), the famous sequence from Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, Satyajit Ray’s immortal children’s film, with figures substituting ghosts in the dance sequence.

To me, to really understand the “lot of numbers” in the Budget, it is useful to look at some other numbers in other documents, and ask the right questions to unbundle the buzz words of the day.

Because of shortage of space, I am pulling out just two figures which relate to education and health in this year’s Union Budget.

The plan allocation for school education has increased by 16 per cent from Rs 26,800 crore  in 2009-10 to Rs 31,036 crore in 2010-11. The plan allocation to ministry of health and family welfare has increased from Rs 19,534 crores in 2009-10 to Rs 22,300 crores for 2010-11.

What do these increases, or hikes in general in sectoral allocations, really mean? To get a handle on that, it is perhaps useful to glance at two other official documents — the Economic Survey 2009-10 and a slim position paper titled “Implementation of Budget Announcements” which focuses on the status of implementation of announcements made in the previous Budget (2009-2010).

Let us take adult literacy, the most basic indicator of educational progress.

Last year’s Budget noted that “the low level of female literacy continues to be a matter of grave concern” and announced the decision to launch a National Mission for Female Literacy, with focus on minorities, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other marginalised groups.

What is the progress on that on the ground? We learn from the position paper that “A new variant of the National Literacy Mission was launched on the occasion of the International Literacy Day (September 8, 2009)”. Then onwards, almost every sentence in the text relating to this segment, uses the word “will”. It is clear that we have a wonderful roadmap. The new mission will do a host of things to provide comprehensive opportunities of adult education primarily to women with focus on disadvantaged groups. It will cover 70 million adults in 365 districts in 26 states and so on.

India accounts for 30 per cent of the total illiterate population in the world. Seventy per cent of these are women. To know if the new mission is on track, we need to know what has been achieved with the resources already ploughed in. We have some information. By December 31, 2009, the mission had been rolled out in 167 districts in 19 states covering 3.82 crore non-literates, including 80 per cent adult female non-literates. Further, the government of India’s share of the expenditure had been sanctioned as the first instalment to cover the period upto March 31, 2010. But we don’t really know the experience of the illiterates in the states where this new variant of the Literacy Mission has already been rolled out, about mechanisms to address bottlenecks detected during the first phase of the roll out nor if they are functioning.

The Economic Survey (2009-10) tells us that in 2009, 96 per cent of children in the age-group six to 14 in rural India were found enrolled in school. But we don’t really track the dropouts. How many of those who enrolled dropped out — when, where and why?

In India, being enrolled in school does not necessarily mean that a child is learning much. Reading further, I came across some numbers which are truly disturbing: in maths, for the country as a whole, the ability to do division problems has hardly improved for children in Class V. Nationally, between 2007 and 2009, the percentage of children taking paid tuition increased in every class, in both government and private schools. (Only Kerala and Karnataka show a small but consistent decline in the incidence of tuitions in government schools).

Now, let us turn to health. A cursory glance shows the yawning cleavage between pronouncement and practice. The Economic Survey tells us that though the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) has “initiated decentralised bottom-up planning”, district-level annual plans were not prepared during 2005-08 in nine states. In 24 states and Union Territories, block and village-level annual plans had not been prepared at all. Funds for local action through untied grants and annual maintenance grants to health centres remained mostly unspent. The NRHM adopted an inter-sectoral convergence approach to healthcare. However, the committee on inter-sectoral convergence did not meet frequently.

To all this, my 11-year-old daughter might say LOL (Laugh Out Loud)! Sadly, this is no laughing matter. Millions at the bottom of the pyramid do not yet have the tools — education, skills, and good health — to meaningfully participate in the discourse on double-digit growth.

More money for elementary education and healthcare matter. But more important is how that money is being spent and who is monitoring the money trail. More school buildings, healthcare centres and medical equipments are no doubt needed. But if we don’t ask the right questions about the quality of learning inside those schools or the quality of services at the health centres, we are really monitoring process, not progress.

– Patralekha Chatterjee writes on development issues in India and emerging economies and can be reached at


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