Within days of taking charge as our Minister for Human Resources Development (HRD) in 2009, Kapil Sibal pronounced his 3 over-arching goals for Indian education - access, equity (inclusion) and excellence.
Ninety-six percent of Indian children of school-going age are already enrolled in schools, so it would appear that access is not the major problem facing our schooling system. Most would assert that excellence is, especially in schools run by the various avatars of our government. Certainly, an increasing number of parents believe this, and across rural India, 22% of parents pay to send their children to private schools, rather than avail of the free schooling offered to them by the government.
The Right To Education (RTE) implicitly acknowledges that private schools deliver better education to their students, by requiring that 25% of their intake of students be from poorer sections of society. This provision speaks to the politically attractive 'equity' platform of Kapil Sibal's education agenda, and is designed to earn his government gain brownie points by free-loading onto the more effective private schooling system, without addressing the much more difficult task of improving quality in the government school system.
The measure is marginal at best. Assume private schools in India account for 25% of school children. Assume, further, that they increase their admissions by 25% to accommodate the provisions of the RTE. This will account for 6% of Indian children. The balance 69% will still need to go to government schools, with their absentee teachers, high drop-out rates, and low learning achievements. This is equity of a token kind, which will also raise all manner of micro issues - if 30 economically disadvantaged kids get to be admitted to Delhi's best day school, The Shri Ram School, odds are, there will be hundreds of parents wanting those slots. Who gets to decide? Enter political privilege.
Privilege, in this country, begins with political and bureaucratic power. While paying lip service to equity, those who run our government follow the natural human instinct of giving their children the best education they can afford. Beginning with teachers in government schools, this is rarely the local government school. Where private schools are available, they send their kids there.
Where there aren't any, Central Schools were created for the children of Central Government employees and those working for other all-India services. These 1073 institutions concretise the perception that what is good enough for 'them', the common man, is not good enough for 'us', the Sarkar. So much for equity.
And then there is the Sanskriti School. In the 12 years since it was set up, admission to the school has become a signal of being part of Delhi's power elite. In 2005, India Today reported that when "Delhi's elite Sanskriti school" withdrew admission to Amar Singh's "twin daughters, infuriated, he vowed to take revenge." A senior civil servant was quoted as saying, "Delhi is a cruel city - the incident just underlines the fact that Amar Singh has lost his clout".
Finely tuned to the shifts in Delhi's power structure, the school bills itself as "a public service oriented, non-profit organisation". Its parent organisation, the Civil Services Society, is a little more honest about its aims and objectives, of which No.7 is "To work for the general welfare of the Civil Services and their families."
Since the Society's governing body includes the Cabinet Secretary, the Home Secretary, and the Foreign Secretary, it has little difficulty in raising the resources to carry out this noble work. In the case of the Sanskriti School, these include 7.67 acres of land in the diplomatic enclave of Chanakyapuri, worth well over a thousand crores, leased to the school for Rs. 2 per annum. The school was built by grants of Rs. 23.8 crores by government bodies, including the Ministry of HRD, the department of Personnel and Training, and the Central Board of Customs and Excise.
Later, the Reserve Bank of India jumped on to the band wagon, donating Rs. 1 crore, to facilitate admission of its employees' children to the school. That led the Delhi High Court to fulminate, "there is nothing on record to suggest any central government policy to prioritise education of wards of its employees through donations to private schools." And, "the conditionality of having to admit children of employees of central government can hardly be characterised as a legitimate public end. It certainly would not muster any permissible classification test under Article 14 (Right to Equality) of the Constitution."
Public funds lavished on private purpose, the spirit of our Constitution violated to create islands of privilege - elitism is the natural instinct of our governing class. Talk of equity is cynical politics at its worst. But it keeps the jholawalas happy, for a while.
Mohit Satyanand is an entrepreneur and portfolio investor.