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India's Poorly Performing States need a Federal Takeover (OZY)

March 11, 2019

From the article:

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.


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.


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.


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Photo of Anit Mukherjee
Policy Fellow