Education Matters — Part 1

Yesterday I got a call from someone who wanted my advice. It was regarding his son who is in the 7th grade. The school required the parents to fill in a multi-page form with detailed information about the background of the student. The conjecture was that this information was going to become part of the permanent record of the boy. The form, I was told, required the parent to indicate – among other details — if the family belonged to scheduled caste, or scheduled tribes, or other backward classes.

The parent was struggling with one issue: should he somehow acquire from somewhere, with appropriate bribes, a certificate indicating that the family belonged to one of those SC, ST, or OBC? Why, I asked. Well, this goes on the permanent record and in the near future, when the question of college admissions comes up, his son would have a shot at the reserved seats, he said. I said that doing so would be ethically and morally wrong, and it may even be a criminal offense.

It depresses me that our society is so poor that it makes criminals of ordinary citizens. It all begins at the top levels, of course. For getting votes from particular segments of the population, the government has various entitlement programs. If you belong to a certain caste, you are entitled to this or that. As if the society was not divided enough, the divisions are legally strengthened and enforced. Instead of abolishing caste, the government cynically entrenches those divisions and hands out goodies depending on the caste of the citizen.

It has come to such a sorry pass that the government in some states has (indirectly) gotten into religious conversions: there are moves under way to reserve seats for people from “minority” religions – which is of course Islam. In effect, only a Muslim can occupy a seat reserved for a Muslim in an educational institution. And like the case where my associate was wondering if he should declare himself an SC or ST to allow his son to have a shot at those reserved seats, it would happen that people would convert to Islam just so as to have a better chance at getting into that school or to land that job. I suppose it is the pinnacle of secularism – the Indian variety – where the government gets into the business of promoting a specific religion so as to get more votes from that vote bank.


Shortages – the excess of demand over supply – can be engineered and predictably profited from. In the absence of shortages, the opportunity for excess profits (called rents) disappears. Monopolies can restrict supplies and thus extract rents from consumers who have no recourse. When the government gets into being a quasi-monopolistic supplier of goods and services, it can engineer shortages for profit.

There are shining examples of government monopolies (and government sanctioned oligopolies) and its attendant short supplies, high prices, poor quality and deep corruption. With liberalization, some of these have become history, and predictably the corruption, the rents, the shortages and corruption have disappeared. There is one very big sector where the government stranglehold still extracts blood out of the population: the educational sector.


The guy had worked hard. Not just the guy, his family had practically put everything on hold for the big event: the interview. They all worked hard to prepare him and spent months worrying whether he will get through or not. In the end, the big day came, and after the test followed by an interview, the guy got rejected. The entire family was devastated. The mother broke down in tears. Her three and a half year old son would not be unable to attend the lower KG school because his performance in the entrance test and interview was not up to scratch.

Imagine: a 3-year old kid being put through tests and interviews to get admission in kindergarten. It is surreal the way people consider this a normal state of affairs.

I am told that there are schools where you can pay an advance to reserve a seat for your yet to be born children. It is surreal. Supply constraints induced shortages do have that effect. Not too long ago, people used to apply for telephone connections for the households of their children – households that would materialize in ten years or so when the children grow up. The waiting time for a telephone connection was about that long.

Why was the waiting time that long? Because, the argument went, telecommunications is a vital sector of the economy. Therefore, the government had to be the monopoly supplier. Why? Because only the government could be trusted to provide such a vitally needed service. The result was long waiting times, shoddy service, corruption—and most damaging of all, astronomically high social welfare losses and an economy which had one of the lowest teledensities in the world.

The telecommunications story has a happy ending. The monopolization of the sector was ended, the private sector was allowed to enter, and suddenly you could get yourself a telephone connection within days, if not hours. Instead of bribing someone to please let you have a connection, the telephone companies fought to have you as a customer. Phone call prices (both local and long distance) used to be one of the highest in the universe; now India is one of the cheapest – if not the cheapest – places on earth to use a phone.

Private monopolies are bad. But I think that government monopolies are more damaging because they are more difficult to dismantle. Governments are made up of people, and it is very difficult for people to give up power and control. For in the end, it is power and control that motivates people in government to keep meddling in areas where the government has no business to be in. The story is very old: restrict supply, extract rent.

There is a reason why I am weaving the telecommunications story with the education story. The former can teach us a thing or two about why education in India is in shambles, and also suggests the solution.

This I will go into the next time. Stay tuned.

21 thoughts on “Education Matters — Part 1

  1. Well put, Atanu. I have more on this issue at my blog here.

    Far too many times in my life, I have been at the short end of the stick with regards to admissions. How I wish that the monopoly is ended and we have a free and fair education sector! Rural kids don’t stand a chance with the way the whole thing is run now.


  2. Hello Atanu,
    I have been reading your blog off and on for quite some time now because you have the wonderful knack of addressing topical issues with clarity and simplicity. Can’t say I always agree though.
    Unfortunately, since hardly 5% of the people in India have access to your blog I suspect, that you are more popular with NRIs (such as yours truly). I have attached a weblink which may perhaps interest your readers as well.
    Best Regards


  3. I know i have seen through this
    i was one of those kids who went through
    interviews with a jackass to get into a school(DPS)
    The only thing i was being tested was
    a) grooming. I kid you not.
    They did want to look at you physicaly.
    later i had learnt kids being rejected b/c they or their parents were not dressed up to a standard.
    b) weather or not i could speak english.
    Well that is a mark of true colony.
    In all i did get a great education if you count being smug towards my countrymen, my language, my culture.


  4. I used to wonder why my higher secondary was so painful. Shortage of quality engineering colleges. I knew i will get a seat as there were more colleges in TN. But to get into a quality one was the challenge. Now if i think of why it is so painful that some students think about suicide owing to pressure, the pressure is not because of exam or it is because of shortage in quality engineering colleges. If all the 100 are in good quality, teen-age will be sweet-age and not hell-age.

    I can think of Railways as another example of monopolisation.


  5. Ah! The joy of Kendriya Vidyalaya :-).
    I can not thank readers of this blog enough for subsidizing my education.

    On topic, Government monopolies are difficult to dismantle, but the other factor is competetive populism.
    DMK for TamilNadu election is offering a Colour TV to every family.
    Now only, if they were offering free internet connection 😉



  6. I feel that reservations in higher education are a luxury that only developed countries can afford. A country like India must promote merit if it wants to improve its economy. The govt should be more involved in providing primary education. But even there govt alone cannot muster enough resources considering the size of our population. Investing in primary education is not attractive to our politicians since the returns are not immediate, unlike in higher education.

    The state of higher education is in shambles. An engineering graduate does not really have practical skills that he can employ in a real world job.

    The diversity of jobs and hence education is very limited in our country. Law, tourism, wildlife, law enforcement, education, research in science and social issues, etc., do not attract bright minds or these fields hardly exist as an opportunity.

    The whole of education is considered to be a public good in India. One often hears that we need kind hearted people to get involved in education. I disagree. What we need are people with ideas and vision and a free environment for them to flourish. Good things will follow from this. You cannot achieve excellence by appealing to goodness and patriotism.

    Interviewing 3 year old kids is pathetic and should be made illegal. This is one issue where the public will fully support the govt. So I dont see why it is not being done.


  7. I read this article today whch offers a glimmer of hope:
    From here I cannot vouch for its veracity; perhaps somebody can comment. Along similar lines, there is an article ( I do not understand it fully) in the papers section of:
    called “Persistent Parochialism: Trust and Exclusion in Ethnic Networks ”
    [with Samuel Bowles]
    Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization (2004)
    May be somebody more in to economics can comment. Thanks.


  8. Hi Atanu,
    The entropy(read as corruption) of the universe always increases, therefore the govt has decided to go hand in hand with the law of nature and increase percentage of seats allocated to reservation. Someday soon there is going to be all seats towards reservation leading to breakdown of the whole system, I guess till then others suffer.


  9. I know at one student In the Faculty of Management Studies (University Of

    Delhi)who has procured a fake Schedule Tribe Certificate and despite

    doing pethatic has got a seat in this reputed institute,this student has

    paid heavily to get the fake certificate and get the concerned

    authoirity’s record fabricated to get the ST certificate.Stragly he is an

    upper cast muslim and passout of Cambridge Foundation Srinivaspuri Delhi.
    Now can anyone explain me how the resevation system can help the so

    called oppressed and backward class of india? I know for sure a hefty

    amount was paid to get the records fabricated for the concerned authority

    from where the certificate was issued,

    Despite the fact that there are no SC or ST in muslim community under

    the law he could still find and quota under ST catagory

    If anyone has any doubts bout the authenticity of the story can check the

    credentials of the candidate,His name Fahad Asmat Khan passout of

    Cambridge Foundation School Srinivaspuri Delhi where only affluent rich

    class people can afford to have their kids admitted,Currently persuing

    MBA from FMS (DU) under the ST quota,

    but i know for sure that nothing is going to happen for in our country

    all the concessions and reservations are for the rich and mighty though

    under the grab of Social Justice and upliftment of oppressed and backward

    class. No place for poor and bright people

    In India social Justice really means further upliftment of rich and those

    who can manipulate the system

    Is anyone listening??????


  10. I belongs to marati community of Dakshina kannada, Karnataka state and thahasildar has issued a ST CERTIFICATE ON 11-7-1977.Now the sc/st deaprtment dispute that I belong maratha community, hence they allege that I have recieved a fake certificate. At that time the revenue inspector has identified me as ST and thahasildar has issued the certificate. Now please advice me as to what I have to do.


  11. In our modern day political system ,parties have been formed on the basis of caste.They are morally colourless and find the divide and rule policy mutually beneficial.Reservations have become an emotional issue in our society.The primary and secondary education system of our country has failed to live upto expectations.As usual instead of finding remedies to this problem they find giving reservations easier.Reservations divide the people into two distinct groups.They can thus deflect attention from more compelling issues and bring about block voting of particular groups whose votes were earlier fragmented.


  12. hey atanu… where did my first comment on this blog post go? care to explain? … meanwhile, reposting ….

    atanu, my comments may be premature viz. your telecom-education piece…

    private telecom operators are a pseudo-example of decentralisation of power… driven by competition. people got access to choice.

    #create choice.

    private telcos import technology to run their networks… expensive technology, hard to run technology, hard to upgrade technology. the current education system is a bastardised import… it has some merits, but the overall solution is poor and ever-degrading.

    #create localised solutions.

    we can hardly capture the wisdom of a 5000 year old civilisation in 10 years… much less the rest of the world… but we can

    #create enough awareness to push minds to think and question.

    telcos are still controlled by the government… because spectrum is still controlled by the government. so sarkaar still TRAIs to call the shots… there are plenty of examples in india where self governance has yielded sustainable solutions… the spectrum of education is reduced to caste, class, category

    #create teams that can catalyse decentralised learning systems

    four walls, benches and a body in front is an inherently inefficient method to run massively and centrally… it must therefore be standardised. standardisation kills diversity and innovation.

    to me, the singular faliure of the current education system is that it fails to create aware individuals… literacy is a small subset of awareness. technology has the potential to help us…

    #create awareness…


  13. dear antanu,
    plz help!i am a CATaspirant and would like to do my MBA from FMS DU as it is affordable unlike the other institutes.i have secured 45%in my graduation as a Physics Hons. student and am a genuine Schedule Tribe candidate from Darjeeling WB.Am i elligible to apply for the said institute..Please help. Thank you.


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