Eleventh approach to the same plan?

Indian Express, 15 August 2006

The approach paper to the eleventh plan outlines the framework for growth in various sectors over the next five years. It sets a growth target of 8.5 percent for GDP growth. It talks of growth in agriculture going up from less than 2 percent to an an unrealistic high of 4 per cent over the five years of the plan. It sets targets for savings and investment and government spending which would throw FRBM's fiscal deficit targets off track. It fails to show how schemes that have not removed poverty or create employment or reduced regional inequality in past plans would succeed this time. It fails to show why panchayati raj institutions would do any better than they did under the tenth plan.

Criticised for being called the eleventh approach to the same plan, the paper titled "Towards faster and more inclusive growth" lacks a clear blue print of how the government would create a conducive environment for private investment, how growth would become faster, or more inclusive.

Yet, what the paper does do, perhaps so clearly for the first time, is to admit to the government's complete failure in delivering reasonable quality education and health. While there is no clear plan saying how the problem would be solved, admitting that current programmes have failed is a step in the right direction. Even if the approach does not have all the answers, for the first time, there is a willingness to admit that now things are so bad that business as usual cannot continue. Tentatively though, some solutions have been proposed.

What is the best we can hope for? That even if the planning commission only does pilots for new proposals like health and education vouchers, the least it must do is not to spend even another rupee on current programmes. Since this is almost the only innovation in the approach paper, if it cannot make its mark even on this, the accusation that approach paper is merely the eleventh approach to the same plan, will not be far from the truth.

In the context of primary education the paper cites the recent Pratham study which finds that 38 percent of children who have completed four years of schooling cannot read even short sentences. 55 percent of such children cannot divide a three digit number by a one digit number. It admits that these are indicators of how bad things might be in the learning of other subjects.

What is new about the approach to primary education in the eleventh plan is that, unlike in the past when poor performance implied that enough money was not being spent and so the next plan should increase spending, the Planning commission has proposed education vouchers. It says that "a more powerful method of enforcing accountability is to enable parents to choose between the schools where they will send their children. Enabling people to choose between available public or private schools (by giving them suitable entitlements reimbursable to the school) and thus creating competetition among schools could be considered."

Further, another new element in the approach is the proposal to monitor learning. Until now, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan has put emphasis on enrollment and attendence (through the mid-day meal scheme) with the 'Shiksha' part of it not getting much importance. The approach paper suggests that the extent of learning should be monitored by regular testing by independent bodies and this used for rating schools.

A similar framework is proposed for secondary schools. At present 58 percent of secondary schools are private aided or unaided. The approach paper again suggests a voucher scheme which would allow students to go to private schools in areas where they exist.

Similarly, in the field of health, there is an acceptance of the failure of the tenth plan on primary health care. The paper reports that random checks have shown that 29 to 67 percent of doctors were absent. It proposes that in order to energise health systems for improving health outcomes, innovative finacing mechanisms are critical. "Publicly supplied health care depends on how health care providers are paid. Providers should be paid only if they actually perform a service."

It is clear from the approach paper that additional money should not be spent on current schemes. But will the planning commission be able to resist pressure from ministries such as the human resources and health ministries who usually like to expand existing systems, employ more teachers and doctors? Vouchers would do away with the rents that politicians and bureaucrats earn in appointments, transfers and procurements. It would be a pity if despite a realistic assessment of the situation and an honest analysis of the problems, the government goes back to increasing plan outlays on the tried, tested and failed schemes.

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