A lion’s looks, a rabbit’s liver

In our era, all idols seem to have clay feet. So too with Amartya Sen, celebrated Nobel Prize winner. Having admired his passionate writings to empower people, I am dismayed by his craven backpedalling in a report for the Pratichi Trust.

This elucidates a field study of government primary schools and Shishu Shiksha Kendras (SSKs) in three districts of West Bengal. The SSKs are parallel schools outside the standard government system. The study’s main findings:

  • Government teachers earn up to Rs 10,000 a month. SSK teachers earn only Rs 1,000 per month. Yet parent satisfaction was 54% for SSK teachers against 41 % for government teachers. Dissatisfaction with government teachers (24 %) was almost thrice as high as for SSK teachers (9 %).
  • SSK teachers typically cared for poor and low-caste children, but Government teachers displayed caste and class discrimination. One teacher made tribal children sit separately. Teacher absenteeism was an appalling 75 % cent in schools with a majority of SC/ST children, as against 33 % in schools where higher castes predominated.
  • Student attendance was higher for SSKs (64 %) than governments chools (51%). Teacher absenteeism was higher in government schools (20 %) than in SSKs (14 %).
  • Richer children used private tutors to supplement schooling. Of a sample of young children, 80 % of those with private tuition could write their names, but only 7 % of the others.
  • With so little being imparted in schools, private tuition becomes a determinant of success. The richer children are able to buy an education, while the poor cannot. So the richer children do better in exams, creating the illusion that they are a meritocracy, when in fact they are a priviligentsia.

These findings will surprise nobody familiar with the dismal state of education in India. The fundamental right to education has been sabotaged by a failed state-run model. The accountability of teachers is entirely upward to the state capital, not downward to the people they serve. Teachers’ unions with strong political connections ensure that absentee teachers are not punished. Students are disempowered, teachers’ unions are highly empowered.

The obvious solution is to empower students and disempower teachers. Instead Sen, who normally waxes eloquent on empowerment, proposes Orwellian solutions that attack fundamental rights.

The great evil is obviously the non-accountability of government teachers. But for Sen the great evil lies elsewhere. “The evil of private tuition must be uncompromisingly overcome.” He argues for banning tuitions. Private suppliers of education are performing far better than government ones. Sen’s solution is to ban those that perform! All in the hope that this will somehow improve government schools in the long run.

Surely all human have a fundamental right to improve their learning. No state or Amartya Sen has any business to take away from us the right to pay for books, computers, degrees or tuitions. Like Sen, I am dismayed that government schools have failed so miserably. But the remedy cannot be to deny people the right to improve themselves with their own money.

Let’s take Sen’s thinking to its logical though Orwellian conclusions. Private tuitions must be banned because they give the rich an edge. So, logically, we should also ban all books, since the poor cannot afford them. All books should be burned, starting with Sen’s. All private schools should be shut since they do a good job, and that is unforgivable. No Indian should be allowed to go abroad for a quality education, and those already abroad must be prevented from returning (including Sen himself). There remains the dreadful possibility that, with tuition and private schools banned, rich parents might teach their children at home. Such parents must be jailed immediately.

Sen’s thesis is not merely a denial of rights, it is rank hypocrisy. Sen himself has just accepted a position at Harvard University, which charges astronomical tuition fees. Rich American universities pay enormous sums to attract Nobel Prize winners. Apparently Sen can accept a cushy job in a high-tuition university in the USA, but no teacher in India should have the right to give private tuitions!

The real solution is to empower communities by giving them the authority and resources to hire, pay and discipline teachers. In China, counties hire teachers on renewable 3-year contracts. Teachers that perform can get double promotions, drones can be sacked. In India, no panchayat or Mandal has power over teachers. In Kerala, I am told, panchayats can hire and discipline veterinary doctors, but not teachers. In effect, animals are more empowered than students.

Educational vouchers are an alternative way of empowering students. The government can give all students educational vouchers, usable to pay fees in any school of their choice. Private schools should compete with government ones for students. Parents will be empowered by the right to choose schools. Schools that do not perform will lose their students, and hence their funding.

You might think that Sen, the great white knight of empowerment, would be forthright in demanding the heads of Bengali teachers who do not teach. Alas, his knees seem to turn to jelly at the thought of taking on the unions, and he runs for cover in euphemisms and worse. Moral exhortation will not work, he admits, so “institutional collaboration would be needed.” He says there is “a strong case for the acceptance of much greater responsibility by school teachers.” Why all this timid waffling? Why not say outright that teachers’ unions are exploiters that must be quashed?

What a sad performance from a champion of empowerment. An old Hindi phrase says it all: sher ka soorat, khargosh ka kaleja. Looks like a lion, has the liver of a rabbit.

One thought on “A lion’s looks, a rabbit’s liver

  • 2013.Jul.28 at 10:30

    Good one but I wish you also read Pratham’s report which puts private schools slightly better, but only just. Problem solving abilities of private school students are way below the international average. As for private tuition, they are the reason why education is in such a parlous state. They impart the 3rs but not the all round development needed in the formative years. The so called privilegentia are just automata regurgitating precooked ‘knowledge’.


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