Wed, 06 Aug 2003 16:34:22 GMT

TECH TALK: Transforming Rural India 2: Education.

Education plays a paramount role in the process of economic development. Besides being instrumental in development, it is also an end in itself because it helps people lead better lives. For broad-based sustainable economic development, primary education is critical. Neglect of primary education is endemic in developing nations.

Public support of education is often regressive. For instance, public spending on education for a set of selected developing countries by income quintile shows that the poorest income quintile receives around 14 percent of total spending, while the highest receives around 28 percent (Source: World Development Report 2000/2001: Attacking Poverty” Oxford University Press). Systematic discrimination against the poor regarding public spending in education is also found in India. As shown in the table below, public expenditure for elementary education is only 0.17% of GDP for India.

For 2003-04 (in US$ billion) Percentage of GDP
GDP $ 581 100.00
Aggregate Govt Budget $ 93 16.08
All social services and
poverty alleviation $ 14 2.49
All education $ 6 1.05
Elementary education $ 1 0.17

The public support of higher education primarily benefits the urban rich and middle class. The policy choice of supporting higher education at the cost of the neglect of basic education is short-sighted. Policy makers must recognize the redressing of the imbalance as one of the most critical challenges facing them. This task is made more tractable by the wide availability of ICT tools. The leverage provided by these tools releases the severe resource constraints that bound the task of bringing primary education to the population.

Education can be categorized into primary, secondary, adult, and vocational. We will focus on primary education since the arguments can be easily extended to the other categories.

Primary Education

Primary education is a public good. Therefore, the level of primary education provided by the market can be expected to be lower than the socially optimal level. Therefore it is up to the government to step in and either provide primary education itself or subsidize its provision by the private sector.

The higher income groups living in urban areas have the willingness and the ability to pay for primary education. The low income groups in urban areas and most income groups in rural areas do not have the ability to pay for education

One way of solving the problem would be for the government to provide credit to the poor so that they could pay for primary education. However, given the small size of the budget allocated for primary education and the immense size of the relevant population, it is a challenge that cannot be addressed without resort to technology induced increase in productivity in the education sector.

To briefly review the broad scope of the problem of primary education , we note that literacy is only 80% in urban areas and 60% in rural India. (For urban areas, the male literacy level is 86% and for females it is 73%; the corresponding numbers for rural areas are 71% and 47%. Data from Census of India 2001 and from the Azim Premji Foundation.) About 36% of all 7-14 year old children are illiterate. That is, the total population in rural and urban areas that needs primary education is 340 million. The annual budget for primary education is only US$1 billion (See Table 1). Therefore per capita approximately $3 per year is available for primary education. This sum is clearly inadequate even if utilized most efficiently under the current method of delivering primary education. Thus if we consider that the budget constraint is hard, then the only way out is to innovate in the process of imparting primary education .

Just to provide primary education, India requires seven million teachers if one were to have a 1:50 teacher to student ratio. Not only is that number formidable, the problem is compounded by the fact that these teachers are mainly required in the rural areas where the current number of qualified teachers is extremely low.

Tomorrow: Distance Education

[E M E R G I C . o r g]

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