Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Political economy of education budget

"The punishment for the wise who refuse to take part in politics is to be governed by the fools.”

This is an adage proven several times in the context of Nepal, sans being contested. We have been governed by the fools for centuries. Only the difference is that they keep on changing.The latest instance is the decision made by major political parties on finalizing the annual budget for the fiscal year 2010-11. They formed a four-member committee comprising former finance ministers Dr Babu Ram Bhattarai, Dr Ram Sharan Mahat, Bharat Mohan Adhikari, and former Finance Minister Surendra Pandey.

The parties, save the Unified Communist Party of Nepal Maoist (UCPN M), basked in presenting the supplementary budget for the current fiscal year. They have mistaken it as their triumph over the Maoists as it ended a political impasse. This is a misapprehension. They ‘might’ have won the battle but lost the war.
The entire nation welcomed the move of the parties as it gave respite to the stagnating national economy. But quite a few people must been aware of the fact that in the name of reaching a consensus and removing difficulties, the parties have made a blunder.

Former Minister Pandey in the original budget had earmarked money for making the education of grades nine and ten of the public schools free by providing scholarships to all students, boys and girls alike. While presenting the supplementary budget, he said that he had made budgetary arrangements to make grades nine and ten free.

Free education has always remained a vexed question in the context of Nepal.
But the parties put a full stop on overall development initiatives by preventing Pandey from introducing double-barreled programs. It has cost the nation dearly and the loss would be irreparable.
Adhikari and Pandey should be given the benefit of the doubt. Bhattarai and Mahat are the names to conjure with in Nepali politics yet they lack the courage of convictions. Hence, they should be held more responsible for this blunder.

Bhattarai and Mahat might have thought that with that step Pandey and his party Communist Party of Nepal Unified Marxist and Leninist (CPN-UML) would gain a new political height and tower over their personality. Unfortunately, this step has reduced them to a mere political cadre.Bhattarai represents a revolutionary party. As a finance minister he had earned name for raising an unexpected amount of revenue and making grade eight free. He untiringly talks of holding the state accountable to providing, protecting and fulfilling the basic rights of the people.

Mahat considers himself a champion of democracy. His party Nepali Congress (NC) is known for its fight for democracy and being the custodian of civil rights.Moreover, the NC was one of the coalition partners of the UML-led government and it could stake claim on the credit of the plan.
Unfortunately, being aware of the butterfly effects of aborting the plan, they could not rise to the occasion. The cancellation of the plan would result in a ‘lost generation’ as a huge number of students from marginalized communities of public schools particularly in the remote areas would drop-out.
This will be an irreparable loss to the drop-outs, their families and to the nation in the longer term as they would be economically and socially poorer and weaker. Despite the gross violation of their rights, their overall poverty will breed a poorer generation.History will record the idiocy of the stakeholder political parties and people will not forgive them as it will be proven a deplorable action in the long run.

The economic pundits may deny it. Uriah Heeps, intellectual dwarfs and political Lilliputians would join them. They will resort to constitutional provisions stating that the constitution bars a caretaker government from introducing any new program, and to abide by the rule of law is their duty. It is but a semblance.
In fact, prevention of new programs is unlawful as it contravenes the constitutional provision that enshrines the right to education as a fundamental right. Barring quite a few media, no one opposed the mala fide move of the parties.
They are aware that the popular movement of 2006 overthrew the 244-year-old monarchy and introduced a republican polity. The movement and the ensuing political change were not allowed by the Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal, 1990.Therefore, preventing the introduction of new programs in the budget on such a pretext is merely a ploy.

The Constitution has been amended eight times due to their folly, incompetence and imprudence, and to secure the job of 601 Constituent Assembly members rather than writing the constitution itself.
Political leaders who untiringly make commitments to delivering the good to the people have cheated the poor children who are and would be deprived of completing even school education. It is a regressive step in many ways.

Besides the national commitments, Nepal has made education-related two major international commitments: Education For All (EFA) and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). They bind the government to provide education to all including adults by 2015.

According to Nepal Human Development Report 2009, the literacy rates of female is just 54.4 and of male 81.0 percent. The percentage of female and male having secondary school or higher education are 29.3 and 53.5 respectively.

The situation of the Tarai dalit is the worst. Their female and male literacy rates are 17.2 and 48.5 percent respectively. Only 5.2 percent female and 19.2 percent male have attained the secondary school or higher education.

Even if we believe the blatantly inflated government data, the percent of the school-going children is 94.6 and the government does not have data on the hardest to reach group of children. This defeats the goal of providing education to all – each individual – be it literacy or basic education.

Nepal cannot achieve the EFA and MDGs related to education by 2015. The out-of-school children from marginalized groups like dalit, children with disabilities, religious and ethnic minorities, conflict victims and HIV and AIDS-infected and -affected are the hardest to reach. Among them girls are the most disadvantaged.

The government is not serious to providing education to those children as it has been extending a token support to the children with disabilities, religious and ethnic minorities and dalit and it has no plans and policies for the HIV and AIDS-infected and -affected children.

One of the major causes of drop-out is unequal and unjust distribution of scholarship boys and girls. Except for the girl students of Karnali zone only 50 percent of girls of public schools receive scholarship.
In order to stem drop-out, Minister Pandey had planned to distribute scholarship to the students of public schools irrespective of gender. And it would to a greater extent be effective in reducing the number of drop-out children.

The ground realities show that still a considerable number of children from the remote areas of Nepal drop-out due to their parents’ inability to provide them with stationery and clothes. And girl children top the list of such drop-outs.

Moreover, drop-out continues in higher class as well. According to a government data, only 15 percent of the students enrolled in grade one pass out School Leaving Certificate exam. The drop-out rate in grades nine and ten is 7 percent.

Although the education sector absorbs the biggest chunk of the national budget of Nepal, it has always been a shortfall to give continuity to the ongoing programs and to introduce new ones. On top of that previous budgets have ignored the inflationary aspect.

The international benchmark for education budget is 20 percent of the national budget and 6 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). The education budgets have never met those requirements. This year’s education budget is 57.65 billion rupees which is 17.1 percent of the total budget and 4.87 percent of the GDP.

Despite receiving the greatest amount, it has remained inadequate for decades as 88.2 percent of the education budget goes to the salary of teachers. What do you do with the remaining 11.8 percent? This scribe may appear a Jeremiah, but it is a bitter truth.

Allocation of 17.1 percent and an increment of 24.5 percent compared to the education budget of the previous year are meaningless in the face of reconstruction of school building demolished during the decade-long armed conflict and to meet the requirement of increasing student number, spiraling double digit inflation, and stagnating economy.
It is an open-and-shut case that the poor children would be prevented from an opportunity to complete high school education. For the political leaders who shamelessly keep on talking about changing the face of Nepal, the only way of absolving of the guilt is retroactively introduce the plan of Minister Pandey.

by:RAM SHARAN SEDHAI , Republica