Left Is Right

Updated: Nov 28 2002, 05:30am hrs
In two years, the chief minister (CM) of West Bengal, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, has walked the reform talk more than his predecessor ever did. Driven more by fiscal compulsions, education and court fees have now been hiked and the idea of user fees is no longer anathema. There has also been some disciplining of profligacy by bureaucrats and ministers and the CM seems to be serious about closing down sick state-level public sector enterprises. Education has been the most prominent target of reforms. Private participation has been encouraged, tuition by government school teachers banned and fees charged by medical colleges hiked. Medical college fees were unchanged at Rs 12 per month for 50 years and will now be increased to Rs 1,000 per month. However, this still leaves a significant subsidy. Although it is fitting that the CM should pick education to get reforms going, four caveats are in order. First, subsidy removal should extend to all educational institutes and not be restricted to medical colleges alone. Second, the removal of state intervention is the key. Had it not been for unnecessary state intervention, many so-called elitist institutions wouldnt have collapsed and human capital flight from West Bengal wouldnt have become the norm.

It is doubtful that the point about unnecessary state intervention is adequately appreciated. While government funding should indeed be linked with government intervention, as the recent Supreme Court judgement on minority-run schools funded by the government declares, state intervention also characterises institutions where there is no state funding. Third, in all social services, the issue remains one of subsidising the targeted poor groups, rather than offering across the board subsidies through low user charges. Unless this is adequately addressed, all state governments will find it difficult to handle the criticism of the poor being crowded out. Fourth, the Left Front is still not sold on the idea of competition. Private entry into professional higher education has been permitted, but is anathema not only in general higher education, but also in primary education. Had that not been the case, the government wouldnt have been so fixated on banning private tuitions by government school-teachers. That is a non-issue. The issue is making government school-teachers accountable and offering choice and competition to students. For instance, subsidies can be routed directly to poor students through vouchers rather than through the schools. Perhaps the Left Fronts confusion stems from the fact that reforms are driven by fiscal compulsions rather than logic.