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Choice vs inspector raj

Mint, November 05 2007

The moment the poor are a little less poor, they opt for private services, including schools, a choice which should be respected and appreciated

Go to any gathering on education for the poor. The speakers are usually well-off intellectuals and activists. The discussion invariably veers towards how pathetic things are—absentee teachers, irrelevant syllabus, non-existent buildings, no separate bathrooms for girls and so on.

Right after the wailing, they volunteer their recommendations: We must energize the bureaucracy; help discover politicians' political will; shoot off memos to the minister, secretary, President of India; poor, Dalit and tribal must perform rasta-rokos and dharnas; empower village block development officer; encourage government teachers to do X (the latest teaching fad or the speaker's pet obsession); the list goes on.

Another beauty goes like this— we are all citizens of this country, those government schools are our responsibility. Inspecting them and ensuring their proper functioning is our duty. Imagine if one is foolish enough to take these recommendations seriously. How many of your waking hours will you spend inspecting government establishments??

Let us step back a bit. These government "services" are funded by our taxes. We pay taxes for pretty much anything we buy or sell and on our income. We get paid to do our job. Not for inspecting other people's work. So, if we spend our time inspecting government works, filing RTI, etc., we don't get paid. If we don't get paid, we don't pay taxes. No taxes, no government "services".

Also, where are the people who get paid to inspect, poke and probe various government "services"? Why are we being asked to duplicate their duties?

During one of my rare visits to my children's private school, if I find a problem that we usually associate with government schools, what do I do? I talk to the principal. Since I am a patient man, I may even explain things a second time: "Fix it or else". But the third time, my children move to another school. I don't have the time or the inclination for rasta-rokos. I like former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. But I don't want to appeal to him. Or to ministers, bureaucrats, Supreme Court judges, public interest litigation lawyers, well-wishers and do-gooders. I sure need them but not for my children's education and neither, for that matter, for my children's food or health.

Why my limited need for these powerful people, you wonder? Because I have the resources to pay for my family's needs and there are schools, shops and hospitals to choose from. That, too, plenty and good because there are many like me who can afford them and competition forces them to serve us for our money.

So, instead of sermons from the elite, can we get entrepreneurs to compete to serve the poor? I think so. The moment the poor are a little less poor, they opt for private services, including schools. Let us respect their choice and stop insulting them with patronizing hypocrisy about commercialization of education. Let us empower them with vouchers, tuition reimbursements and cash transfers so they can access far better services that the private sector is able to provide. Instead of funding inferior government services with taxes, let us empower the poor with those funds.

Today, we have choices, the poor have none. Soon, thanks to the growing school choice movement, they, too, will have a choice. When the revolution comes, for the first time in our history, the poor will be able to taunt government and private service providers: "If you want my money, you will have to dance to my tune. I will tell you how, when and how good. Dance with a smile and say thank you. Else, move on. Next!"

Now wouldn't that be a worthy rebellion, real empowerment and real liberation for a change?

Raj Cherubal is vice-president of the Centre for Civil Society, New Delhi. Comment at otherviews@livemint.com

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