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Local initiative key to quality education: Akshay Mangla

Interview with Assistant professor, Harvard Business School

Aditi Phadnis 

Akshay Mangla, assistant professor, Harvard Business School, who has studied education and the role of the state in India, tells Aditi Phadnis how the government needs to change the way it looks at the delivery of education

You have carried out a study of comparative models for the delivery of primary education in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Tell us what you've found. What works and what doesn't?

My research identifies distinct bureaucratic cultures across these two states. I refer to these as "bureaucratic norms", unwritten rules that influence how officials behave and interact with citizens. In Himachal Pradesh (HP), public agencies exemplify a deliberative model, meaning that they encourage discussion and collective problem-solving across the hierarchy. By contrast, state agencies in Uttarakhand are legalistic,reinforcing rules, procedures and hierarchies, often in a top-down fashion. Field-based evidence shows that deliberative agencies in HP implement primary education more effectively. Local officials have the discretion to adapt policies according to the needs of different regions. For example, they can modify the school calendar based on local weather and harvest conditions. This determines whether students can attend class and prepare for examinations. Further, the planning process in HP is highly participatory. State planners elicit input not only from departments but also from a broad network of non-governmental agencies, women's groups and other civic bodies, which are often closer to the ground. Finally, deliberative agencies help sustain participation from local communities, another critical factor in the comparative success of primary education in HP. When state officials enjoy the freedom and support to work with parents, schoolteachers and other stakeholders, they can address problems more effectively.

In Uttarakhand, by contrast, local officials are averse to taking independent initiative. They wait for orders to come from above and they regard women's groups and other civic bodies with suspicion. Local communities receive little support from state officials when they need it. As a result, parents often get discouraged when they approach the state, which undermines collective action.

Ultimately everything depends on the quality of bureaucrats. You say the state agencies in HP tend to attract higher quality personnel. What does HP do right and what can other states do to attract a similarly high quality of personnel?

Let me clarify two things. First, I am not suggesting that bureaucrats in HP are intrinsically "good" or more motivated than their counterparts in Uttarakhand. One can find committed officials in both states. Further, because state civil services have similar procedures for recruitment and promotion, one should not expect bureaucrats in HP to be of an inherently higher quality than those in Uttarakhand. Rather, the distinct norms that they are socialised into, while on the job, heavily influence their behaviour and shape how they understand and carry out their everyday duties.

Second, bureaucracies do not operate in a political vacuum. Public institutions evolve over time, often in response to their social and political environment. Political leadership in HP played a constructive role, especially in the initial stages of state formation. The political class relied on the bureaucracy to obtain fiscal resources from the central government, which facilitated the dispensation of patronage and provision of public goods. Bureaucratic initiatives were supported by the political class and then further reinforced by the local community. One must not overlook the fact that the hill region has relatively inclusive caste and gender norms, especially in comparison to the Gangetic plains.

And in the case of Uttarakhand...?

Uttarakhand shares a similar social fabric, yet the primary education system fares much worse. Political leadership in Uttarakhand offered little vision for developing the hill region, even after its separation from Uttar Pradesh. This pattern has historical antecedents. At independence, Uttarakhand was far more literate than HP. Communities in both the Garhwal and Kumaon regions had a long history of collective action. However, political leaders got strong incentives to leave their hill constituencies behind and seek power in Lucknow. The need to govern from afar reinforced legalism in the bureaucracy, which helped maintain stability and law and order. The bureaucracy learnt to thwart local demands, which it continues to do today. The lesson here is that bureaucracy matters, particularly at the local level. But for a culture of deliberation to take root inside the state, concerted effort is also needed from the political class.

You emphasise the external environment that pressures the state to produce results. Bihar has created a similar external environment: 50 per cent reservation for women in local bodies that appoint para-teachers, intense monitoring of their performance, a huge hike in their salaries… How do you assess the Bihar experiment, given the abysmal results in terms of quality?

The Bihar experiment is among the most interesting in India. The state saw a major turnaround under Nitish Kumar, who put forward a developmental vision. His government greatly expanded access to primary schooling and helped raise attendance through schemes such as providing free bicycles to girls. Quality initiatives were taken with inputs from Pratham, Azim Premji Foundation and other organisations. From the outside, it appears that the state did everything right. As you point out, however, the quality of education remains abysmal. To understand why, one has to look inside the state. First, reforms were introduced from above, with little input from the lower-level bureaucracy. Institutional changes such as enhanced monitoring of para-teachers remained legalistic in nature. Local officials were asked to conduct inspections but were rarely consulted. Instead, they were pressured to apply rules and directives from above. Children enrolled in Bihar's government schools are largely first generation learners. The issue of how to connect their parents to the school system received little attention. The emphasis on legalism did have some merit. Bihar faced massive problems of law and order. Policy reforms to encourage rule-following were probably needed at that stage. Now that basic order has been restored, the question is how to move to the next stage and for reform institutions to carry out more complex tasks, like the delivery of quality education.

Having legislated the Right to Education (RTE), the challenge for India now is to deliver not just scale but also quality in primary education. With your extensive study, do you think this is doable?

To my mind, there is no paucity of laws and regulations governing the education sector in India. Missing are the capabilities of the state to effectively implement these laws. The notion that national legislation such as the RTE Act will fill the gap in learning by imposing uniform standards on infrastructure and other inputs seems mistaken. Educating children requires the joint initiative of schoolteachers, communities and the local administration. It cannot be prescribed from New Delhi. Both state and non-state local bodies need far greater autonomy and flexible resources to govern education themselves, along with routine guidance and oversight of learning outcomes to use their powers wisely. To that end, investment in school administration and local capacity-building is one place for the state to play a constructive role; the promotion of educational research and dissemination of successful models is another. A repository of best practices can be assembled for schools to learn from and adopt according to their needs. The state can also do a far better job of harnessing civic partners and the private sector in education. At present, private schools either grow unchecked or else face suffocating regulation, a suboptimal state of affairs. By promoting local initiative and innovation, quality education is possible in India. For this to happen, we must rethink the role of the state in education.

First Published: Sat, January 09 2016. 21:46 IST