Lessons must be learnt from education cess

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Before starting a health insurance scheme, the government must ensure that taxpayer money does not go down the drain

By Roomy Naqvy

Illustration: Anand Naorem

INDIAN TAXPAYERS may have to shell out more. The Union government has announced plans for a universal health insurance scheme to provide minimum healthcare for everyone in the country. The Planning Commission’s expert panel has not yet recommended how the money would be collected but even a 1 percent levy would yield around Rs 9,000 crore for this year. This brings us to the more important question about the education cess, which has been in force for the past few years: How has it been spent? I am not against a cess to fund social schemes but it is important to monitor the monies, to check whether they have been adding to the morass of corruption.

The education cess on taxable income has been collected under two heads — primary education and higher education. The government began with the primary education cess in 2005 that has been credited into a non-lapsable fund called the Prarambhik Shiksha Kosh, which would be utilised for schemes like the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the mid-day meal.

In 2007, the government introduced the higher education cess to fund its various ambitious initiatives to push the growth of higher education in the country. A part of that cess was to be diverted into setting up the National Higher Education Finance Corporation (NHEFC), to provide concessional loans to higher education institutions. It has been four years since the proposal was mooted.Then apparently the Planning Commission shot down the concept. The government seems to be dragging its feet on the proper implementation of the monies collected under the higher education cess. The state of stasis here reflects the limbo in which the government finds itself.

The money collected under the primary education cess goes into a non-lapsable fund that focusses only on the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the mid-day meal. We are aware of the mismanagement that has come to characterise government schemes and their ineffective delivery mechanisms. Speaking of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the Department of School Education & Literacy outlines the aims on its website, which includes “to provide useful and relevant elementary education for all children in the 6-14 age group by 2010”. Other objectives include:

(i) All children in school, setting up of an Education Guarantee Centre, Alternative School and ‘Back-to-school’ camp by 2003

(ii) All children complete five years of primary schooling by 2007

(iii) All children complete eight years of elementary schooling by 2010

(iv) Focus on elementary education of satisfactory quality with emphasis on education for life

(v) Bridge all gender and social category gaps at primary stage by 2007 and at elementary education level by 2010

(vi) Universal retention by 2010

None of these objectives have been fulfilled. If you look at the stupendous amounts of money allocated, it is mind-boggling. According to the Union Budget, the government has spent Rs 28,000 crore on the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan from the Prarambhik Shiksha Kosh in the past three years. But it doesn’t have much to show.

The mid-day meal scheme is again a good idea. It is the largest such scheme in the world, supposed to cater to more than 11 crore children. The government has also spent more than Rs 17,000 crore from the Prarambhik Shiksha Kosh in the past three years on the meal scheme. However, implementation is important and the government does not seem to have efficient monitoring mechanisms to plug leakages and loopholes.

The government has fallen short of its promises. The leakages are rather substantial and the government should wake up to the reality. The education cess might be welcome theoretically but its implementation shows that taxpayer money is going down the drain.

Roomy Naqvy is Assistant professor, Jamia Millia Islamia. 
roomynaqvy@gmail.com

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