Manish Sabharwal in The Indian Express
Earlier this month, the Allahabad High Court gave the state chief secretary till the next academic session to require anybody drawing a government salary to send their children to only government schools. The order also specified that the promotions and increments of violators should be deferred, and required that any fees paid to private schools by government servants be deducted from their salary and paid into the state treasury. The judge felt this extreme step was the only way to improve government schools. Is this judgment absurd or wonderful common sense?
This judgment pulls me in two different directions because of who I am (son of government servants who sent me to a private school) and what I do (our company hires only 5 per cent of the children who come to us for a job because their schools let them down). Who I am believes this judgment is absurdity. What I do believes it is wonderful common sense. Why this divergence?
The first reaction is because this judgment violates the fundamental rights of all children of government employees by limiting where they can go to school based on their parents’ profession. I know my professional progress is a child of my private school education; I would not be where I am if I had been forced into a government school in Uttar Pradesh (where my parents are from) or in Jammu and Kashmir (where my parents worked). It’s also unfair to hold every present government servant accountable for the actions and outcomes of a small number of past and present education department bureaucrats. It hardly seems fair that the judgment should not be applied to past politicians who have grossly distorted government school-teacher recruiting, compensation and performance management, or past judges whose judgments have distorted the governance of educational institutions. The problem with holding the current government-employee cohort accountable for school outcomes is the long shadow cast by education policy decisions, where toxic effects show up only after a decade.
But my second reaction is rooted in a recognition of human nature. Wouldn’t Employee’s State Insurance hospitals improve if we forced government servants to use them and abolished their exclusive Central Government Health Scheme? Wouldn’t EPFO reform have happened years ago if every government servant was forced to deal with the organisation for their pensions? Wouldn’t ministers standing in line for security and boarding at airports have forced security forces to reduce lines by junking the meaningless stamping, and checking of stamping, of hand baggage tags and boarding cards? Wouldn’t there have been more urgency for power reforms if distribution companies were prohibited from creating VIP areas where power is uninterrupted? Wouldn’t we have better urban planning, housing and public transport if government servants were not given houses and cars and all their benefits were monetised instead?
Given India’s poor service-delivery outcomes; it’s certainly a tantalising possibility to subject government servants to the consequences of their actions. This judgment is obviously the product of an interesting mind — Justice Sudhir Agarwal — but it is also a child of broader trends in society and merely reflects the rising aspirations and expectations of millions of Indians. India’s poor and youth are no longer willing to be held hostage to poor government provision. They recognise that “elite opt-out” accelerates the decline of the public system because powerful and loud voices don’t care. My parents retired to Kanpur, where the fastest growing industries are private bottled water, private security, private generators, private healthcare and private schools; the poor in UP are buying what should be public goods because their rights as consumers are greater than their rights as citizens. India is reaching the point where government sins of commission (what it does wrong) are not as toxic as government sins of omission (what it does not do). Alexander Hamilton wrote that the courts are the weakest of the three branches of government because they control neither sword nor purse. India’s courts cannot sustainably fix public service-delivery. Government schools can only be fixed by politicians obsessed with execution, not inputs.
The execution problem goes beyond schools. The Indian state has been designed for less complexity, scale and accountability than it faces. Going forward, the state must do fewer things, but do them well. It must retreat where the market works but act muscularly where the market fails. It must separate its role as policymaker, regulator and service-provider in all areas. It must create the hope of rising and fear of failing for the permanent generalist civil service and supplement them with specialist lateral entry. Fixing government schools is crucial to economic democracy; I work for a company that has hired somebody every five minutes for the last five years, but only hired five per cent of job applicants. You can’t teach kids in one year of vocational training at the exit gate of K-12 education what they should have learnt in the 12 years of school. An unskilled or unemployed Indian is not a free Indian. So — with all the hypocrisy of somebody whose turn for a government school education under this judgment is past — I hope the wonderful common sense that this judgment represents is upheld.