One of the biggest complaints about government spending in India is that no one seems to know exactly where all the money is going.
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Children line up for meal at a government primary school in Hyderabad.
Housed within New Delhi think-tank the Center for Policy Research, the Accountability Initiative has been trying to figure out how to answer that question, starting by looking closely at a portion of educational spending for the past two years.
The 2010 PAISA report, its second, tracked about 16 billion rupees (about $360 million) of India’s 1.9 trillion-rupee (around $40 billion) education budget for the fiscal year that ended March 31, 2010. The funds tracked were those that go directly to schools.
Working with another organization that tries to measure learning levels in schools and that included some of the Accountability findings in its January report card, the group asked over 13,000 schools whether they received all three school grants they were supposed to get, at what point in the financial year they got them, and what they did with them.
India Real Time spoke to Yamini Aiyar, director of the Accountability Initiative, after the full report was released this week. Edited excerpts:
IRT: The PAISA report expresses concern about the increase in government spending in education and the lack of improved services that have resulted. Can you expand on that?
Ms. Aiyar: By one of the most recent rough calculations, the overall social sector budget has gone up by over 15 times in the last 15 years. Partly as a consequence of liberalization and more tax buoyancy and also a political push, there’s been much more focus on putting money into the social sector.
Before we used to say we didn’t have the money. Now the money’s not the problem. The big problem is how we spend it.
[The government] doesn’t measure regularly…and when it does measure, it measures on the basis of inputs [money disbursed] not outcomes.
IRT: You’re tracking less than 1% of the total education budget. What can you learn from that?
Ms. Aiyar: If you actually want money to be spent in a way that reflects local needs, money that reaches the ground is the most important money.
Most of the rest of the money gets absorbed in administrative expenses and other things that contribute to service delivery but don’t actually reach the ground. This is the only money that schools have control over.
IRT: What positive outcomes did you find?
Ms. Aiyar: The money actually reaches [schools]. We’ve been quite amazed, and even within the government people have been surprised by that. Something actually gets where it’s supposed to, and more or less in the amount that it is supposed to. The amount of money that reaches and the speed of money reaching have also improved.
There have been some changes that have helped—some states have introduced an electronic transfer system, which has helped cut some of the bottlenecks along the way.
IRT: And negative outcomes?
Ms. Aiyar: The unfortunate thing is the learning levels seem to be stagnant year after year.
The timeliness is a big problem. Even though it’s improved from 50% [the previous fiscal year] to 60% of [schools reporting] funds arriving by halfway through the financial year, it’s still huge that 40% of schools don’t get funds [by then]. That has serious repercussions.
At a school in Madhya Pradesh we’ve been working with, they wanted money to fix a leaky roof and they made a plan for it. But for various administrative reasons the money didn’t reach till November. The monsoon came and went. It had two repercussions—during the monsoon kids couldn’t sit in the classroom, and parents who had participated in planning felt very dejected.
IRT: Your report notes that toilet facilities aren’t often in place, and that schools do a lot of whitewashing every year.
Ms. Aiyar: Everywhere toilets are built and they’re not maintained. It’s not necessarily seen as a local priority. A lot of people who work on sanitation say the solution doesn’t lie in building a toilet but in getting people to understand that there are huge public health hazards to not having a toilet.
There are also a number of toilets that are locked and we need to investigate this further but what I suspect is the teachers use these toilets and keep them locked to keep them clean and so the children don’t get to use them.
[On the whitewashing], money arrives really late and there’s a pressure to do all your spending within the administrative system by March 31 so you have to start closing all your books for the financial year and sending utilization certificates up. White-washing is a quick and easy thing to do. The other reason is perhaps a lack of planning capacity. Very little effort is made by administrations…to think innovatively about what they can do with their schools with the money they get.
IRT: Will you expand this annual tracking effort to other sectors?
Ms. Aiyar: We’ve already done a small experiment with panchayat level [village council] finances in West Bengal. The problems we see in education aren’t unique to education. There’s lots more money going in and very little coming out. Therefore it’s important to be able to get a broader view of what’s happening in all these sectors because they all together contribute to human development.
I think there are two main areas where we want to go next. One is public health. The National Rural Health Mission has also significantly increased spending in the last few years and that’s an area that is crying out for more research. That, I think, is the first place we’ll go.
The other thing is looking at local government spending more broadly—money that goes to panchayats. There’s a small pocket of money that goes with no guidelines and no pre-determined spending tags. It’s the only opportunity local governments have to spend money in a way they think is necessary, so understanding what they do with that is quite crucial.
Fuente: India Real Time