India’s schooling system is notoriously unequal, with wealthy private schools offering horse-riding classes often sitting near crumbling public schools. But ask any Indian parent to pick between public schools run by the federal government and those managed by states, and you’ll likely hear this answer: “the so-called central schools, please.”
Welcome to an inconvenient truth about Indian democracy. Decentralization of power is, without a doubt, essential for deepening the roots of democracy. Indian elections, from the national level down to the villages, mean the world’s largest democracy is also among its most robust, and an example for other postcolonial nations. But what if education and health standards in some states are consistently much poorer than in most union territories (UTs) — seven federally governed regions spread out across India? In those cases, it’s time for the central government to step in.
The central quality of administration of education and health is much better.
Jandhyala Tilak, professor at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration
India’s federal government should, for a short, legally circumscribed period, take over the governance of education and health from the country’s worst performing states until standards are raised to the national average. This is a controversial proposition and needs safeguards to avoid a ruling party at the center from injecting partisan political policies for schools and health centers in states where it’s not in power. But a Supreme Court–monitored panel of experts could monitor how the federal government governs education and health in states where it takes over these sectors.
That would allow these states to benefit from a reality that most experts agree on, even if many of them disagree with handing greater powers to the center. “The central quality of administration of education and health is much better — the machinery is working much better than in the states,” says Jandhyala Tilak, a professor at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration in New Delhi.
The facts bear that out. India has 29 states and just seven UTs. But six out of the top 10 ranks in literacy, from these 36 administrative units, are occupied by UTs: Delhi, Chandigarh, Puducherry, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Lakshadweep and Daman and Diu. Dadra and Nagar Haveli, the final UT, also ranks above the national average. Five out of the top 10 spots in the human development index (HDI) are also held by UTs.
Why are the UTs outperforming states in education and health?
First, the central government simply has more funds at its disposal than any state. And successive federal governments have focused those financial resources on building top-notch educational and health institutions in the major union territories, especially Delhi, Chandigarh and Puducherry, according to Rama Baru, a professor at the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).
Officials in charge of implementing policies in many states also typically face greater political interference than their counterparts managing federal education and health programs, experts say. Because states run programs using a combination of some of their own funds and the rest from the federal government, officials in states often receive conflicting instructions, complicating their work. “The UTs have a big advantage because there is just one set of instructions to be followed,” says Anit Mukherjee, a policy fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington, D.C.
The better-performing educational and health institutions, in turn, help UTs attract strong professionals in these sectors, which further reinforces the divide with struggling states, says Baru. That then allows institutions in UTs to set higher-quality norms — from teacher-to-student ratios to hospital facilities, says Tilak.
Globally, the picture is more complex. While the federally governed Australian Capital Territory of Canberra has the highest HDI in that country, other states are very close, unlike India, where a 30-percentage-point literacy gap separates the top and bottom rankers. In the U.S., which has large disparities across states like India does, the District of Columbia ranks a middling 20 in American HDI ratings. India has a combination of the two: high-performing federal territories and large disparities.
To be sure, it’s far from cut-and-dried in India. Where political leadership, like in southern India’s Tamil Nadu, has given technocrats space to work without interference, states have performed well, Baru notes. Tamil Nadu has for decades led education innovation in India — including a free school lunch program that has helped keep millions of poor kids in school. Some small states have also performed on par with UTs, suggesting that further decentralization, rather than centralization, might help, argues professor Ramila Bisht of JNU and Altaf Virani, a doctoral candidate at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.
No state will likely agree to cede total control over education and health to the federal government. And many experts worry that the dangers of an even stronger federal government could risk the balance of powers that allows states to serve as a check on the party in power centrally. The current government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in particular, says Baru, has stopped the process of consultations with public health experts that previous governments had pursued. “Things are more opaque now,” she says.
But there are examples from the recent past, says Mukherjee, where the central government has taken greater control of key social programs without leaving state governments feeling threatened. Under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, India’s mega education-for-all initiative that has helped dramatically improve school attendance this century, the central government identified 121 particularly troubled districts across the country and pumped in additional money and resources — in exchange for greater control over policy implementation. The federal government has driven India’s HIV/AIDs prevention program. “We were clear that, given the sensitivities [condoms and sex are taboo subjects in many parts of the country], many states may not take it up,” recalls Mukherjee. And at the very least, says Tilak, state institutions should pick up the stricter governance and quality norms that have made their central counterparts tick.
India owes that to its citizens.
This spring, OZY will be reporting untold stories from every Indian state and union territory, introducing you to new people, trends and places. Join us for the ride.