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Growing crusade against corruption in education

Education World, 30 Nov, 1999
By Dilip Thakore

Though in the somnolent groves of Indian academia it's business as usual, of late horror statistics and media reportage of pervasive corruption within the education system is arousing indignation among right-thinking people across the country. Dilip Thakore reports

The unprecedentedly large allocations made for education and health in the Union budget 2005-06 presented to Parliament on February 28 by finance minister P. Chidambaram (though adjudged inadequate for the needs of the long-neglected social welfare sectors of the Indian economy by Education World - see April cover story 'Why India's most pro-education budget isn't good enough') read in combination with Chidambaram's frank admission that "outlays do not necessarily mean outcomes", has transmitted a tremor of apprehension within the small community of right-thinking champions of quality education for all across the country. Though in the somnolent groves of Indian academia where tunnel vision is the rule rather than exception, it's business as usual, a growing number of public spirited citizens are drawing up elaborate plans and strategies to safeguard the public interest and ensure that the historically unprecedented budgetary outlay made for educating the cruelly short-changed children of post-independence India is utilised for the purposes for which it has been allocated.

Snowballing apprehension that a massive proportion of budget outlays for soft sectors such as education and health will leak out and be frittered away is understandable. By global standards, particularly of developing countries, the national (Centre plus states) provision for education which has averaged 3-3.8 percent of GDP (gross domestic product) annually for the past half century is hardly inadequate. For instance the red hot, most favoured nation of the newly emerging global order - the People's Republic of China - expends a mere 2.2 percent of its GDP annually on education. Yet 91 percent of its adult population is literate cf . India 's 65 percent. Sri Lanka and Indonesia 's outlays for education are even more modest (1.3 percent of GDP), but they boast literacy rates of 92.5 and 88 percent respectively. Therefore quite obviously the major problem of Indian education is not paucity of resources as much as widespread kleptomania within the system. As India's reformist prime minister the late Rajiv Gandhi once famously observed, barely 15 percent of government outlays made for social welfare projects reach the intended beneficiaries.

But while hitherto the popular reaction to pervasive petty and not-so-petty official corruption which is a defining characteristic of the Indian economy was a gallic shrug and typical soft state rationalisations (ill-paid government servants, natural equalisation of wages etc) and top-level condonation (according to the late prime minister Indira Gandhi government corruption is a "universal phenomenon"), of late horror statistics pertaining to the education system incrementally highlighted by the media ( EducationWorld in particular) is arousing indignation across the country. The ground zero level implications of data glibly cited by the media - one-fifth of government schools (90 percent of the total) are multi-grade teaching institutions; 20 percent don't provide a proper building; 58 percent can't offer children safe drinking water and 70 percent are strangers to toilets and sanitation - are beginning to impact the nation's expanding new middle class which is seriously entertaining the idea of transforming 21st century India into a knowledge economy.

The swelling movement of popular revulsion against ubiquitous corruption in education which directly impacts hundreds of millions of entirely innocent and vulnerable children and indirectly deprives them of their fundamental right to livelihood and life itself, is being led in the southern state of Karnataka (pop.57 million) by Justice (Retd.) N. Venkatachala, former Supreme Court judge who was appointed Lokayukta ('people's commisioner') of the state in 2001. A science and law graduate of Mysore University who practised law in the Bangalore high court for 22 years before he was appointed a judge of the Karnataka high court in 1977 and elevated to the Supreme Court in 1992, Venkatachala is the most active crusader against corruption in government countrywide and has put the fear of God into Karnataka's estimated 500,000 strong unapologetically corrupt bureaucracy. Determined to weed corruption out of the education system in particular, in the four years since he was appointed ombudsman under the Karnataka Lokayukta Act, 1984, Venkatachala has attained the status of a popular folk hero in this southern state.

"Education is the greatest gift a nation or society can confer upon its children. Therefore corruption in education is the worst of all evils and the cruellest of all crimes. Unfortunately after the liberalisation of the Indian economy in 1991, licence raj has moved from industry into education. Elaborate licences are required for promotion of education institutions, government permissions are required even for the introduction of new courses and there are state government, management, religious minorities and SC/ST (scheduled castes and tribes) quotas in higher education. As a result there is excessive commercialisation of education which is ruled by corruption. The Central and state governments' annual budget allocation is sufficient but it is dissipated in corruption and has deprived hundreds of millions of citizens of the right to literacy. In fact illiteracy is much more widespread than indicated by the fabricated statistics of government. The fight against corruption in education is a top-most national priority and it must be won for the sake of future generations," says Venkatachala.

According to Syed Riaz, IPS and senior vigilance officer in the lokayukta's 700-strong office, Venkatachala's rural roots and his first hand experience of petty corruption while a school student in the market town of Mulbagal have strongly influenced him. "Justice Venkatachala is particularly intolerant of corruption in education institutions. He gives top priority to thoroughly investigating education related complaints and reports," says Riaz.

Box 1

Venkatachala's retail corruption blitzkrieg

February 7. Mohammed Mujeebur Rehman, principal of Government Unani Medical University trapped accepting a Rs.30,000 bribe from a student for awarding him full marks in an internal assessment exam.

February 22. K.V. Redappa, executive officer, Srinivaspura taluk of Kolar district remanded to judicial custody under Prevention of Corruption Act for possession of cheques of housing welfare scheme beneficiaries

March 10. Dasappa Maternity Hospital raided. Unaccounted drugs (including date expired formulations) found in storage. Chief health officer Dr. Nagarbeth seeks time to explain irregularities

March 16. Eleven glucometers purchased at Rs.8,000 each for Bangalore City Corporation hospitals discovered in chambers of city corporation officials

Surprise visit to offices of Karnataka Land Army Corporation. Rs.1,000 crore purported to have been spent on public works until 2003, inadequately accounted

March 17. Random check of books of Karnataka Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Development Corporation reveals large scale deployment of cheap loans and assistance to "middlemen"

March 22. Karnataka State Minorities development corporation chairman Obeidulla Sharief caught red-handed accepting a bribe to sanction a loan for purchase of an autorickshaw. Sharief has since resigned

March 29. Autopsy and release of bodies of accident victims ordered. The bodies of the deceased husband and brother of Laxmi were being withheld until she paid a bribe amount. Enquiry ordered

March 29. Principal of Sarvodaya PU College, Bangalore trapped accepting a bribe of Rs.2,000 for issuing an exam ticket to a student

Though it's early days yet and many spirited crusaders against government corruption starting with the late Jayaprakash Narayan down to Anna Hazare (who ironically has been indicted by the P.B. Sawant Commission in Maharashtra on patently ridiculous corruption charges himself) have proved ineffective in loosening the coils of pervasive official corruption which are squeezing the life out of India's relatively young democracy, it's possible that Venkatachala may have sparked a popular revolt against runaway graft in public life. A growing number of perceptive monitors of the socio-economic scene believe that Venkatachala's relentless drive against "retail corruption" could light a nationwide prairie fire against graft in education in particular.

"There's no doubt that Justice Venkatachala is currently the country's most proactive crusader against retail corruption, i.e which affects the common man. Previous campaigns against 'grand corruption' such as defence and import-export deals and the like have failed because they don't directly impact lay citizens. On the other hand Venkatachala's drive against corruption at the tehsildar, sub-registrar, public hospital and school inspector's levels have provided direct relief to people who have been fleeced for decades without anyone taking up their cause. As a result of the lokayukta trapping education department officials and principals with unaccounted money, there is growing awareness within hitherto neglected people that the poor and indifferent education which children receive in government schools is directly rooted in official corruption and collusion. This awareness could spark a popular revolt," says Suresh Balakrishnan executive director of the Bangalore-based voluntary organisation Public Affairs Committee (PAC) founded by Prof. Samuel Paul former director of IIM-Ahmedabad. PAC monitors the quality of public services delivered by state and local governments to citizens for which it has received global recognition and accolades.

While it is debatable whether the snowballing movement against corruption in education originated in southern India and because of the charge led by Justice Venkatachala, a beneficial outcome is that individuals and organisations across the country are becoming aware of the issue and its profound ramifications. Early this year the Delhi-based Academic Foundation in association with the Centre for Civil Society published a path-breaking study Law, liberty and Livelihood - Making a Living on the Street authored by Dr. Parth J.Shah and Naveen Mandava which describes in harrowing detail the open, continuous and unchecked corruption which street vendors, pavement hawkers, railway porters and human-power (i.e non-automotive) rickshaw pullers suffer in India's mean streets. One of the chapters in this extraordinary study is entitled: 'Opening a school in Delhi : A Learning Experience'. It details the myriad rules, regulations and obstacles that educrats in the Delhi state and municipal governments have legislated right under the nose of Parliament and the Supreme Court of India to prevent the promotion of much needed primary and secondary schools by social entrepreneurs, philanthropists and non-government organisations in the national capital.

According to the authors of Law, Liberty and Livelihood , under the Delhi State Education Act, 1973 and related legislation, "opening a private (i.e financially independent) school in Delhi is a mind-numbing task; it involves a colossal amount of paper-work". Starting with getting an association of a group of individuals registered as a society under the Societies Registration Act, 1860, or alternatively as a trust, every promoter of a school has to obtain 'recognition' from one of 12 zonal offices of the municipal corporation; obtain an essentiality certificate from the state government "to avoid proliferation of schools which could make existing schools redundant"; provide freeships or full scholarships to 25 percent of the enrolled students "belonging to the weaker sections" if land has been allotted at a concessional price by the state government; obtain a building safety and health certificate and fulfill eight other conditions relating to minimum land area, playgrounds, class sizes, number of classrooms, prescription of textbooks, provision of libraries etc. Significantly none of these strict conditionalities and stipulations are applicable to any of the 1,833 MCD (Municipal Corporation of Delhi ) schools. Moreover after a private school is operational it is subject to periodic audits by several of the 119 school inspectors of the MCD.

After detailing the case histories of two unidentified regularly ripped off private schools in the national capital territory, Shah and Mandava pronounce the following verdict: "... it requires Rs.15 lakh to open ( sic ) a primary school, Rs.25-30 lakh for a middle school, Rs.60-70 lakh for a secondary school, finally a whopping Rs.1-1.2 crore for a higher secondary school. Without catering to the illegal demands of the sarkari babus (government officials) it is next to impossible to run a private school. In other words, operating through a purely legitimate route is wishful thinking on the part of an applicant." What they could perhaps have also added is that no self-respecting, middle class parent is inclined to enroll his/her child in inevitably chaotic, dysfunctional government schools. And with private schools so difficult to promote, a massive capacity shortage has been artificially created resulting in a plethora of forced donations, capitation and admission fees rackets within established institutions.

It is a tribute to the public opinion and media management skills of the nation's politicians and bureaucrats - the prime beneficiaries of flourishing licence-permit raj in education - that the growing national debate on corruption in education which hits the most vulnerable people in society the hardest, i.e children, ignores this root cause of corrupt practices in the education sector. The attention of most crusaders against corruption in education is focussed upon downstream graft which is the consequence rather than cause.

Box 2

"The power invested in this office flows from the people..."

F ormer Supreme Court judge Justice N. Venakatachala was appointed Lokayukta or people's commissioner of Karnataka in 2001. Since then in pursuit of his avowed mission to ensure that public services are delivered to the common man, he has struck fear within the state's bureaucracy by conducting lightning raids upon the offices of bureaucrats suspected of corrupt practices and seizing incriminating documentation and unaccounted money. In fiscal 2003-04, the lokayukta's office initiated 177 prosecutions and secured 33 convictions. Excerpts from a wide-ranging interview:

The Berlin-based research organisation Transparency International rates India among the ten most corrupt nations in the world. yet this is the same nation whose independence was mid-wifed by Mahatma Gandhi. what are the major factors behind this great fall?

The greed of the post-independence generation combined with Nehruvian socialism which produced the mixed industrialisation model are the prime factors behind India 's descent into the pit of corruption. Though Nehru was well-intentioned, he did not foresee that the licence-permit raj ushered in by socialism would make politicians and civil servants very powerful, a development of which industry and business took full advantage. In the process they enriched themselves and bankrupted the country's industry and banking. In retrospect it would have been better to follow Rajaji's (Swatantra party leader C.R. Rajagopalachari) private sector driven economic development model which would have given newly independent India a solvent, transparent and accountable economy.

There is a school of opinion which says that economic liberalisation is restricted to large-scale industry and that for small-scale industry, farmers, shop-keepers and hawkers it's harassment as usual. what's your comment?

The nation should be grateful to the late prime minister Narasimha Rao and Dr. Manmohan Singh for rescuing India from bankruptcy by introducing the liberal economic reforms of 1991. However the benefits of reform should extend beyond industry and reach the common man and the poor. In particular it's very important for the future of economic reforms that public services reach the targeted beneficiaries. It's the biggest failure of the Indian economy that barely 15 percent of the allocations made to social welfare services reach the poor who need them most. To make this possible is my mission as lokayukta - to make sure that public services paid for by taxpayers are available to the poor. Unfortunately public servants are siphoning off funds allocated for these purposes. My mission is to stop them and bring them to book.

In your experience as lokayukta of Karnataka, what are the most pernicious education sector rackets in the state?

Licence-permit raj is pervasive in the education sector in Karnataka. Permissions have to be obtained not only for the promotion of new education institutions but also for introducing new study programmes. Unfortunately government bureaucrats are taking full advantage of the complex laws, rules and regulations governing the education sector and are blatantly selling their discretionary powers. In turn, institutional managements are extorting donations, admission and other fees from students transforming education into a money-making business. This is bad for India 's future and its younger generation. Therfore I am of the firm belief that liberalisation and deregulation must urgently be introduced into the education sector.

Surely it reflects to the credit of the state government of Karnataka that you are the most powerful and active lokayukta in India . how satisfied are you with the support given to you by the state government?

The power invested in this office flows from the people rather than the government. Since the people of Karnataka are behind me, the government has no option but to support me. Indeed despite my several requests the government has refused to grant me suo motu powers to investigate and prosecute government servants. Currently the position is that I can act only on the basis of complaints filed before me and I have recommendatory rather than prosecution powers.

Are lokayuktas active in other states of the country? How satisfied are you with the enablement of your counterparts in the rest of the country?

As the incumbent president of the All India Lokayuktas/ Lokpals and Upalokayuktas Association, I have a good insight into the battle against corruption in other states. On the whole I am dissatisfied with the support given to my counterparts in other states, though in Madhya and Andhra Pradesh the support structure is better. I would like all of us to be given inquisitorial seizure and prosecution powers to which end the relevant legislation needs to be amended. However I must stress that in Karnataka it is the press and media support which has made this office effective and well-known even in remote villages of the state. Unfortunately the same level of media support is not being extended to lokayuktas in other states.

For instance Jayant B. Jain the Mumbai-based president of the Forum for Fairness in Education (estb. 1995) lists a plethora of rackets against which the forum is rallying public and government opinion. Among them: the levy of illegal capitation fees by institutions of professional education (medicine and engineering), pre-primary and secondary schools; purchase and leakage of board exam and public entrance exam papers by coaching class promoters; moonlighting teachers of government schools; promotion of fake, unrecognised institutes of professional education and auctioning of teachers' posts in government institutions. "Though laws have been enacted by the state government to check corruption within the education system, they are not implemented. Since 1987 despite our having written to the government identifying many school managements which have taken donations, not a single prosecution has been initiated by the government even in cases where acceptance of donations was admitted and refunded on our insistence. Occasionally the government sets up an investigation committee which takes ages to file its report which is then ignored," laments Jain.

According to Jain, if processes of admission into institutions of education are made transparent, "80 percent of corruption within the education system will be eradicated". Strangely apart from criticising the Central and state governments from making too meagre a provision for education ("only 3 percent of GDP of which only 1 percent is spent") Jain does not mention the stringent restrictions and stipulations imposed by the state government's education department upon promoters of independent education for which there is ever-rising demand. "The condition of government and zilla parishad (village) schools is pathetic with most of them lacking benches, blackboards, drinking water and toilets and quite often their teachers are not paid for months on end," he says.

Even in the Hindi heartland cowbelt states where the education system has been damaged perhaps irreversibly by unchecked corruption, the worm is beginning to turn. In Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state (pop. 166 million) Umesh Tripathi, district inspector of schools (DIOS), Kushinagar and hitherto DIOS in the state capital, Lucknow, has attained heroic status for his unremitting clean-up campaign against errant school managements which suborn board examination officials and encourage mass cheating and copying. Earlier this year during the board examinations (March) he lodged 20 FIRs (first information reports) against several school managements and raided five examination centres where mass copying was being encouraged. As a consequence there were public demonstrations against him by private school managers who accused him of selective targeting and death threats against him by the state's powerful education mafia, which is why he keeps changing his phone numbers.

"The education sector is being swamped by anti-social elements who are driven by the sole purpose of making money. This has changed the ideals of education from holistic, intellectual, spiritual, physical and emotional development to the sole purpose of passing exams any which way. These elements have just one guiding principle: give us money and we'll give you results. As a consequence cheating begins from the time of filling examination forms, writing exams and extends up to the evaluation stage with the result that it is impossible to judge the real quality of students coming out of the system," says Tripathi.

Despite the frequent transfers that he suffers which are evidence of high-level involvement in corrupt practices in education, Tripathi believes that a groundswell of support for cleansing the augean stables of education in Uttar Pradesh is building fast. "The fight against the education mafia in the state has been brought out into the open. The media in the state are supporting it in a big way and the public is rapidly becoming aware of the damage that corruption in education does to the fabric of the system and to the lives and future of children. The building of social consciousness on this issue is a very important achievement," says Tripathi.

Box 3

Dirty dozen corrupt practices destroying Indian education

Last october (2004) EducationWorld published a detailed cover story titled 'Dirty dozen corrupt practices destroying Indian education'. Despite this publication having institutional and individual subscribers and multiple readership in all 31 states and four Union territories of India, pervasive inertia in Indian academia and media indifference to the grassroot issue of education failed to ignite a debate on reform of the endangered education system. Therefore a summary of the dirty dozen (plus an additional newly discovered infirmity) corrupt practices is reiterated below:

1. Pernicious license-permit-quota raj regime. Despite India 's rapidly expanding middle class shunning patently dysfunctional, chaotic government schools, a slew of licences, permits, no-objection certificates and quota stipulations govern the promotion of financially independent private schools

2. De riguer kickbacks in government school construction contracts. Government schools are shabby, uninviting and lack even basic facilities such as drinking water and toilets because favoured contractors have to pay massive kickbacks to politicians and educrats

3. Denial of information: opaque education budgets. There's a shroud of secrecy over how education budgets are devised and deployed. However the bottomline is that the per capita education outlay of the Central and state governments combined is a mere Rs.2,940 per year or Rs.245 ($ 5.45) per month - embarrassingly inadequate

4. Unchecked textbooks publishing, printing and distribution rackets. By imposing vernacular languages as the medium of instruction in state government schools, floodgates have been opened for unqualified and crooked authors, printers and publishers to access captive markets

5. Teacher appointment rackets. With pay scales in government schools higher than in private institutions, auctioning of teachers' posts by politicians and educrats is rife in all states of the Indian Union

6. Teacher transfer and salary payment rackets. Government school teachers often have to pay bribes to avoid transfers to hardship postings as also to receive pay cheques in time

7. Negligible investment in infrastructure. With teachers salaries reportedly consuming 85-90 percent of meagre outlays for education, there is little left for investment in libraries, labs, drinking water, toilets etc

8. Pervasive inspection raj. Even financially independent private education institutions are subject to myriad health, hygiene and operational rules and regulations offering government inspectors numerous opportunities for shakedowns

9. Exam paper leakages and corruption rackets. Against the backdrop of acute capacity shortages in higher education, school-leaving and entrance exam papers are routinely purchased and sold by proliferating education mafias

10. College entry and admission rackets endanger student idealism. With admission into the much-too-few institutions of higher education governed by complex rules, regulations, quotas and consequential rackets, students become indifferent to corruption

11. The grand merit hoax and coaching classes boom. Though entry into highly subsidised institutions of tertiary education is supposedly on merit, the overwhelming majority of successful entrants into the too-few prized institutions such as the IITs and IIMs are from middle and upper class households which can afford entrance exam preparation provided by ubiquitous and expensive private sector coaching schools

12. Obsolete syllabuses and sub-standard teaching in higher education. Secured tenure and faculty unaccountability in institutions of higher education rigidly controlled by out-of-date educrats, have rendered syllabuses and curriculums obsolete

13. Pervasive teacher indifference and absenteeism. On any given day 25 percent (i.e 1 million) teachers in government education institutions are absent

Though well-meaning crusaders such as Jain and Tripathi tend to target the symptoms rather than causes of the rising tide of corruption which seems to have flooded education following the industry liberalisation and deregulation initiative of 1991, their contribution to the spreading movement against corrupt practices which threaten to overwhelm the nation's institutions of learning is nevertheless valuable. Certainly the public is now seized of the issue and its debilitating socio-economic fallout. Moreover by a happy coincidence, following the launch of Education World five years ago, media coverage of the education sector has expanded exponentially and (though still insufficient) awareness is mounting within mainstream media of the relative neglect and vital importance of quality education for all of India's 415 million children.

Therefore it is important for the country's intellectual community and the media to grasp that the logic of industry liberalisation and deregulation has to be applied to India 's moribund education system which is in danger of imminent collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. To its credit the Supreme Court of India in the watershed TMA Pai Foundation vs. State of Karnataka & Ors (2002) (8 SCC 481) has taken cognizance of the danger that excessive regulation and micro management by the Central and state governments pose to the education system.

In its historic majority judgement in this case, the apex court expanded the right of minorities under Article 30 of the Constitution to "establish and administer educational institutions of their choice" to all citizens. Secondly it interpreted the word "administer" in its common-sense meaning and specifically overruled its own judgement in Unni Krishnan's Case (1993) under which the apex court had detailed an elaborate schema to govern admission of students into private, unaided colleges of professional education, and empowered financially independent education institutions to devise their own admission systems and tuition fee structures subject to the proviso that they are rational, transparent and reasonable.

Unfortunately, the spirit of the path-breaking 11 judge bench judgement of the apex court in the TMA Pai Foundation Case was diluted by a 'clarification' judgment of a five-judge Supreme Court bench chaired by Justice (now retired) V.N. Khare in Islamic Academy of Education vs State of Karnataka ((2003) 6 SCC 697) which mandated the setting up of admission and fees committees (chaired by retired high court judges) in every state to regulate admission and tuition fees in privately promoted professional (engineering, medical, pharmacy and business management etc) colleges.

With yet another full bench of the Supreme Court which has been hearing the arguments in favour of overruling its judgment in the Islamic Academy Case likely to reaffirm its ruling in the TMA Pai Foundation Case , this is an opportune time for the growing army of crusaders against corruption in Indian education to get their act together. "It's wrong to believe that corruption in the education sector is so deeply entrenched that it is impossible to eradicate. A huge wave of public opinion is rising in favor of total elimination of corruption from administration, especially from education. The President, prime minister and the Supreme Court are strongly behind this movement. What is required is mobilization of public opinion and creating awareness among people of their fundamental right to good quality education for all children. With the power of public opinion behind reform of the education system, it can all happen very quickly," says Justice Venkatachala.

Quite evidently radical reform of India 's comprehensively obsolete education system is in the air and a rising wave of popular indignation promises an overdue spring-cleaning of the augean stables of Indian education.

With Vidya Pandit ( Lucknow ) & Pallavi Bhattacharya (Mumbai)

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