Can Azim Premji do what the govt can’t/won’t?

NIKHIL MORO writes from Atlanta: As if in response to Sreelatha Menon‘s Business Standard report that Indian billionaires are stingy, comes this story in Star of Mysore: “50,000 schools to be handed over to Azim Premji Foundation.”

The story, assuming it is accurate, disturbed me almost into hysteria. Not because I am against private or charitable participation in education, but because any such decision— even if involving Premji’s noble charity—must be preceded by careful debate.

Karnataka has sprung on us this jack-in-a-box without discussion in the legislature or outside.

Whatever happened to democratic courtesies?

Besides, the state’s jettisoning its duty to elementary education reveals a deep incompetence—or an incredible arrogance.

I can barely believe that governance has to come to such a pass in the 60th year of independence that our state won’t manage a basic education for our youngest and most vulnerable citizens. Our politicians must, as a community, hang their heads in shame.

It seems like our chief minister is inept; he must make way for someone who can deliver better. His doing so would, of course, be no reflection on the charitable zeal of the Azim Premji Foundation. A karmic explanation of Sri. Premji’s being so incredibly wealthy—he made Rs. 580 crore in 2006-07 just from holding 82 per cent of Wipro’s stock—might be that he is not just a terrific businessman but also a humanist.

Even in market-reformed societies where the notion of natural liberty is better evolved than it is in India, there is consensus that government cannot divest itself of the three basic duties prescribed by the 18th century Scottish economist Adam Smith: Providing security, justice, and public institutions.

Our elementary schools are our most visible public institutions—a grand theme of the state’s support to manifest the “perfection already in man,” to quote Swami Vivekananda‘s view of education.

In 1989, my headmaster at Sri Ramakrishna Vidyashala, the redoubtable B.S. Srikantiah, once exclaimed about the Vontikoppal government school visible from our terrace: “See that school? Raja Ramanna went there.”

That school’s kids—soiled uniforms, no footwear—were immersed in a raucous game of soorchi using a deflated tennis ball; their building had gaping holes in its roof where Mangalooru tiles should have been. We felt privileged: Sri. Srikantiah had succeeded in piling on us a ton of expectation!

Even well-oiled market economies such as the United States manage vast if inefficient systems of public education. We need to adequately debate why Karnataka should not. Meanwhile, the courts must be asked to scrutinize the legality of the government’s momentous decision.

Related link: Educationists oppose Karnataka move