Data Blind Abhiyaan: Indian Schools shutting down en masse, why is govt silent ?

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The Right to Education Act (RTE) was passed with much fanfare but 5 years into its existence, it has not achieved anything more than what Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan has done. In fact, the law has been systematically depriving lakhs of children their opportunity to go to a school of their choice even as the government remains a mute spectator. This serious issue has eluded much public understanding thanks to how the government treats data.

Education is one of the highest budgeted areas of government intervention – the union side budget this year is about 69,000 crores, to which the states add about half of that amount. Yet, as a recent reply of the union Minister for Human Resource Development, Smriti Irani, to a question raised by the Chandigarh MP, Kirron Kher, proves, the country’s education policies are not entirely based on evidence.

Discrepancy in data

On 5th August, in a written reply to a question from Kirron Kher (she raised the issue of schools shutting down in the last session of the parliament too but the ministry did not have much information), Minister of Human Resources Development, Smriti Irani said that a total of 2173 schools have so far been closed down across India for failing to fulfill input criteria (ie. get recognized) stipulated by the Right to Education Act (RTE) – 1170 in Punjab, 4 in Himachal, 998 in Madhya Pradesh and one in Puducherry. Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Goa, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Odisha, Rajasthan, Sikkim, Telangana, Tripura, Uttarakhand, Chandigarh, Delhi and Lakshadweep have reported that no school has been closed, which is not true as I will explain later. The rest of the states have not responded to MHRD’s request for the data. Since the RTE allows the recognition criteria to be fixed by the states, these are basically schools shut down by the state governments enforcing the RTE.

India Institute has been tracking the number of schools closed down under RTE by following media stories that have quoted government sources and collecting information from the state education departments. As per this count, a total of 2947 schools have been closed down so far. The numbers that the Institute maintains and the numbers in the minister’s reply to Kirron Kher differ for several states. Haryana alone has closed 713 schools (as per data from the state) which the minister’s reply does not include. But she mentions 998 schools closed in Madhya Pradesh, which the Institute was not aware of. In the absence of correct data, on what basis policy decisions are made by theMHRD is a question of serious concern. Over the last two years, close to 4000 schools have been closed down displacing lakhs of children but the union government has been unaware.

Government’s system of data collection for school education

The government does undertake an annual data collection exercise through the District Information System on Education (DISE), which was launched in 1994. DISE data is essentially an aggregation of school education numbers reported by state education departments. Data on school facilities, some operational details such as attendance and enrollment are compiled and reported by block and district level education officers, the same people whose job it is to improve on these parameters. Thus the process disincentivises honest reporting so much that two decades into operation, the only national level government data remains unreliable. In 2012, an India Institute study of schools in Patna found that 1224 schools existed where DISE said only 14 schools existed. In another example, while Delhi reports no data on unrecognized schools, the Shailja Chandra Committee (2012) report mentions a municipal survey that found 1593 such schools where 1,64,000 children were enrolled. The ethical and logical questions of banning what people want aside, the sheer ignorance of the government with respect to the extent of the consequence of its actions is worrying.

Policy ramifications of lack of data

Not having the right data on the number of existing schools misguides the government’s funding priorities and obfuscates accountability. For example, the statewould build schools where they are not needed, wasting enormous sums of money. To put into perspective the scale of inefficient expenditure just on this count: Karnataka has shut down 146 government schools this year as they had no takers. Assuming it costs just Rs 10 lakhs to build a school (the government does not put out data on cost of building schools, but Telangana earmarked Rs 1.25 lakh for each new school toilet), these schools were built at a cost of Rs 14.6 crore. If the statewere to shut down all the 9503 of its schools where enrollment in classes 1 to 7 this year is less than 20, it would amount to Rs 950 crore on wasteful capital expenditure. Another glaring example:The Delhi government announced last year that it was looking for private players to run 30 of its schools as the schools had no takers. A couple of months later, in an RTI reply, the education department conceded that it did not maintain nor know of any agency that maintains data on the number of school aged children in any area of the state. In effect, the state has 30 unwanted schools and cannot reasonably predict where new schools are required. Yet the new government intends to build 500 new schools.

While there are several other consequences of lack of proper data – teacher and other staff recruitment, mid-day meal budget, contracts for supply of uniforms and text books, maintenance expenses etc. – perhaps the biggest policy flaw resulting from a combination of ideological bias and lack of credible data is the banning of unrecognized schools under the Right to Education Act (RTE). Sections 18 and 19 of the RTE criminalizes running of unrecognized schools as an offense punishable with a minimum fine of one lakh rupees and/or imprisonment. Several independent assessments show these schools are in hundreds of thousands and preferred by parents to whom these schools offer a balance between affordability and the kind of education they desire for their children. The government had no data on the extent of their prevalence but banned them nevertheless, robbing educational opportunities of their students.

Give data its due in policy

Education is still a highly regulated sector characterized by government monopoly and attendant ills such as corruption, cronyism, and lack of transparency and accountability. When the state decides to hide or not maintain information, proving it wrong is almost impossible.As a result, while thereis enough evidence to suggest that we need urgent reforms in education, governments have been interpreting it as a need to tighten their grip on the sector. If serious steps are not taken to ensure transparency through credible data, this disservice of the nation to its children would be less inexcusable only than its failure to protect them all from physical abuse.