By Madhav Nalapat
Children ride a cart on their way home from school on the outskirts of New Delhi. REUTERS
Officials in the Union Ministry of Finance like to point out that tax rates in countries such as Sweden or Germany are even higher than in India. They forget that in Sweden or Germany, the citizen gets first-class healthcare, law and order, education, infrastructure and housing, usually free. Contrast that with India, where the government provides housing almost entirely to itself, leaving others on the pavement, while public healthcare, housing and education are of a standard that would make Rwanda seem advanced. Don't policymakers know this?
They have indeed, which is why they have thought up a fresh tax, this time an invisible one, and for the present confined to private schools that are not minority-run institutions. This is that a quarter of private school slots be given via a lottery, the mechanics of which will be controlled by the bureaucracy, to "needy" students. The state now wants more than taxes, it wants a share in private property. Had schools been given the freedom to at least select the students who will be given the slots to be made available to the economically disadvantaged, it would not have come as such a blow.
Discipline is emerging as a serious problem in schools, with a more permissive culture being encouraged. Worse, harsh punishments, this time to teachers. There are numerous reasons why a young student commits suicide. Unwelcome sexual attention by older pupils. Inability to face up to parental demands. Issues involving classwork, or personality. However, in Kapil Sibal's India, if a suicide takes place, it is always the fault of the schoolteacher, who is promptly jailed. With the coming into force of the Right to Education Act, the problems of the teacher in a private school can only increase.
The hurrahs that have gone up over the passage of the RTE fail to take account of the fact that several of the affected schools in India will have to shut down. Fortunately, members of the minority communities are still allowed to set up schools sans RTE, hence we can expect a mushrooming of minority institutions that can take up some of the slack. But is this what India is all about, a country that continually segments itself on the basis of faith? Soon we can expect the rest of private schools to face demands to reserve 50% rather than 25%. And it will not be a surprise if the "lottery" ensures that students from affluent families get chosen for the "poverty level quota" seats, because a bribe ensures that the high (and now higher, thanks to RTE) fees need not be paid by Junior. In case the government had given an adequate taxbreak for those willing to pay for the upkeep of a poor student in a private school, the problem of gaining access to quality education may have got tackled in a far better way. But this is a government as unwilling to surrender revenue even to promote growth or welfare as the East India Company was.
But why are only private unaided schools run by the majority community the target of the government? Why not a quota for homes as well? Why not legislate that any dwelling ought to set aside 25% of its space for the poor? A beginning can be made by HRD Minister Kapil Sibal, who can reserve a quarter of both his state-provided mansion as well as his private residence for the economically disadvantaged. Indeed, any person being lucky enough to enjoy government accommodation that is more than 1,250 square feet in size ought to be made to set apart 25% for the poor. Certainly our ministers and senior officials would rush to do this, in view of their love for the poor. The whole campaign of "25% for the poor" can be kicked off by Sonia Gandhi, who can accommodate poor families in 25% of the living area of 10 Janpath. After all, there is plenty of spare capacity in that building. Sonia Gandhi, who loves the poor, will no doubt welcome them as inhabitants of her official residence and farmhouse. Why only schools? Surely houses ought to be next.
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