Friday, December 03, 2010

A great Indian merger

Author:- Anurag Behar

Yoking social schemes for education and health will not only have economies of scale, but also lead to holistic child development

Last week, I met a thoughtful professor from Tajikistan. He had heard my colleagues and I talk about the woeful status of education and child health in India. As a professional, he recognized the urgent need for improvement and reform in our education and health systems. But as an eyewitness to the recent history of Central Asia, he had another view. The essence of this view was "count your blessings; you cannot imagine what things may have been like if your government had not taken up the primary social responsibility of education and health".

Let me take up that perspective, which can come only from a little distance, and from having seen worse. And with that perspective, in this season of scams, let me heap some unlikely praise on successive governments in India, and so also on our democratic society.

Slowly but surely, two of the flagship social programmes of the government of India have become bigger and have reached more children.

Education for All, or Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan's (SSA) mission is quality education for 192 million children across 1.1 million habitations of the country. Today, 98% of the habitations have a school within 1km. This is some progress.

On the other hand, the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme aims to improve the nutritional and health status of children in the age-group 0-6 years, and to lay the foundation for proper psychological, physical and social development of the child. The mechanism for this is the "anganwadi" (daycare centre) in every habitation. The state governments run about 1.4 million such anganwadis across the country.

These numbers are astounding for anyone outside India or China. If you consider the complexity arising from the incredible diversity of India — linguistic, socio-economic, cultural, and geographic — these programmes are truly staggering. We know the graft, the poor execution, the shoddy quality, the lack of outcomes, and numerous other such similar woes that plague these schemes. But for a moment, let's use my Tajiki friend's eyes, and praise them, mindful of what the alternative might have been.

These have been big and bold plans. The government has taken up the responsibility for these issues, and genuinely done something about them. The government should now take the next big step. It's a logical one — potentially beneficial from the point of view of all relevant outcomes, and also likely to be economically efficient.

This big (and in some senses bold) step is to merge SSA and ICDS, to integrate education and early childhood care. Operationally, this means that the institutions that are currently completely separate and independent - the schools and anganwadis - should be integrated. It's not difficult to see why such a merger may be resource efficient. We are talking about over a million schools and over a million anganwadis currently being run as two separate groups of institutions - with their separate infrastructure, services and operations. Consolidation at that scale can surely have potential resource efficiencies.

But this economic outcome is not the reason why we should take this big step of merging ICDS and SSA. We should do it because of the fundamental potential to improve the desired outcomes of learning, child development and health. Why would these outcomes improve? The answer lies in the natural process of education. Some of the drivers of the improvements are, for example, an integrated pedagogical and curricular approach as the child will be taken care of at one institution, the possibility of using play-and-learn in a seamless age-appropriate manner, the social process of peer learning - both for the children and the teachers with the anganwadi workers - reduced transitions for the child, and improvement in the possibility of community and parent engagement.

It will not be easy to do this. Any merger at this scale cannot be simple. It will have administrative and turf issues, it will add to the woes of the school on its ability to handle multi-grade (multiple age cohorts together) teaching, the execution will be a massive logistical challenge, there will be site and locational constraints, and many more such issues.

But the definite improvement in outcomes and potential improvement in economics makes it worth going for. The right way to do it will be to try it first in a few districts in each state, learn from that process and then implement it across the nation.

What I am suggesting has often been suggested by people involved in education — and indeed it seems something very obvious. The fundamental stumbling block is that ICDS is a ministry of women and child development programme, whereas schools and SSA are the responsibility of the ministry of human resource development.

We know that every merger (and acquisition) needs its champion — this grand merger is also awaiting its champion — despite the rationale being so compelling.

(This piece was published as a part of Anurag's fortnightly column, "Other Sphere", in Mint on December 1, 2010.)