July 7, 2015

What’s causing India’s textbook crisis?

by

Education Minister of Kerala P.K. Abdu Rabb (image via Wikipedia)

Abdu Rabb, Education Minister of Kerala. (image via Wikipedia)

(Trigger warning for any of you production department employees out there—this story gets into some very anxiety-inducing territory.)

The southern Indian state of Kerala recently saw a violent clash between police and protestors in the cities of Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode. The International Business Times reports that protestors were marching in opposition to perceived corruption in the education ministry.

A protest march by Student’s Federation of India (SFI) activists turned violent in Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode on Monday, 6 July, when the police resorted to tear gas shelling, water cannons and lathi charge.

The protesters were demanding the resignation of Kerala education minister Abdu Rabb for postponing Onam exams to 9 September in view of the delay in printing the textbooks.

Reports from Kerala say the protesters threw stones at the police and destroyed an ambulance.

How could Kerala have gone from a simple delay in textbook printing to tear gas and baton beatings in less than a year? The answer involves an unfortunate and increasingly insane conflict between public and private funding that’s been gradually spinning out of control in Kerala over the last year. If you can, please read the rest of this story while imagining the sound of an increasingly louder ticking clock, because that’s the only way to illustrate exactly how wrong things went.

But all of this starts with the Kerala Books and Publishing Society (KBPS). KBPS was founded in 1976 by the Kerala state government, with the express purpose of ensuring that the printing process for textbooks and other widely distributed government publications proceeded at an affordable and efficient rate. Unfortunately, necessary plans to streamline operations at KBPS stalled, and for the last two years the Society has lacked a finance controller and managing director for several years.

Unsurprisingly, many in the state government are eager to place the sole responsibility for the current crisis on KBPS alone. After all, when KBPS received the preliminary order last November for the nation’s supply of 2015 textbooks, around 25 million in total, there was plenty of time for them to fulfill it; the school year in Kerala begins on June 1st.

And then…nothing. Until February, when KBPS finally began printing the books, and by then it was too late. Soon the government had to scramble to make up for lost time; the beginning of the school year was fast approaching, and KBPS was short—by over 6 million books. An interim plan was quickly slapped together, which would shift the bulk of the printing work to three government-owned printers, allowing KBPS to finish up the remainder. This plan hit a snag, however, when the government printers realized they didn’t have sufficient ink and paper to fulfill the order, and were forced to purchase their supplies at full retail cost due to the severely compressed schedule—supplies that didn’t arrive at the printers until just a short 10 days before the beginning of the school term.

How in the hell did this happen?  The Minister for Agriculture, Animal Husbandry, Printing, and Stationery, K.P. Monhanan, claimed that the government never submitted their final order until early February, causing the delay. Education Minister, Rabb denied this. The political opposition on the left accused the ruling government of purposefully delaying the order so that they could easily give the work to private printers, presumably in exchange for kickbacks (which isn’t an unprecedented practice).

Sure enough, the increasing delays continued.  By early June, less than half of the 25 million textbooks were actually printed. On June 8th, the government announced that they planned to outsource the remaining print jobs to private companies. On June 9th, amidst widespread reports of continuing textbook shortages at Kerala schools, Rabb announced that 530,000 unprinted textbooks would be ready by the end of the week. KBPS, meanwhile, continued slogging away, promising they would be done with their portion of the printing by June 20th.

It all went hilariously, terribly wrong.

The government first attempted to outsource the printing of 4.3 million textbooks by outsourcing the outsourcing. They entrusted the Centre for Advanced Printing & Training (C-APT) with finding some private printers who would do the job quickly and, more importantly, cheaply. Teacher’s organizations immediately pointed out a big problem with this strategy:

The decision of the government to outsource printing of school textbooks is set to cost the exchequer dear as the price of one textbook printed at market rates is said to be five times the rate at which government presses print the same book.

According to representatives of teachers’ organisations, each textbook would end up costing the government Rs.15 to Rs.20, whereas the same books could have been printed at government facilities for a maximum of Rs.5.

And sure enough, only a single printer submitted a bid, forcing the government to re-tender their offer—and then retract the re-tendering, which left them with a whole lot of angry students and teachers and increasingly slim hopes of delivering the textbooks in time for major late August exams that coincide with the Onam festival.

So following the maxim “the horribly managed government agency you know is better than the one you don’t”, the government turned back to—you hopefully didn’t guess it, because that would be far too cynical—KBPS, the original printers! Rabb thenannounced that KBPS would definitely be finished with the remaining 4.3 million textbooks by July 20th.

By early July, it was clear that Rabb had delivered yet another empty promise. The left made headlines mounting protests during House assemblies. A (false) rumor began circulating that the Kerala High Court would soon be officially investigating the delay. By July 5th, Manorama the Education Department was actually requesting that schools download and print out the textbooks themselves, at huge cost. Manorama reported:

The situation is worse in schools in low-income areas, particularly the coast and forest fringes. There are schools which cannot even print out the portions for the first trimester up to the Onam vacation. Teachers are forced to make charts by drawing on plastic sheets for want of textbooks, said Sreekumar, an office-bearer of a teachers’ union.

The state officially pushed the Onam exam date to September to buy time, and KBPS announced a new new new finish date of Aug. 1 – which doesn’t account for the month it will take to actually distribute them to schools.

Which brings us back to the SFI protest, the tear gas, the rock throwing, and the baton beating. And while Chief Minister of Kerala Oommen Chandy recently vowed to the Kerala Student’s Union that he would mount an investigation into the entire fiasco, the problem is still very much a problem. Millions of textbooks have yet to be printed and delivered to needy students, and while an autopsy of the current situation will be handy, it doesn’t solve the gigantic problem of the teachers and students whose exams are fast approaching. Finishing the printing can only take so long, but their window of usefulness is shrinking, and if the texts can’t be delivered in sufficient time for exams then the crisis will be compounded.

In publishing, there’s a saying we all murmur to ourselves from time to time: “It’s only books! What’s the worse that could happen?” The Kerala government is providing a very comprehensive answer.

Liam O’Brien is the Senior Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.

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