If you are looking for an explanation for the poor quality of public education in India, you will find it in a policy note circulated by the Department of Personnel and Training. The document lists the reasons for setting up private schools, subsidised by the government, for the children of Group A government officials from the Indian Civil Services.

The policy wants to replicate the private school model of Delhi’s Sanskriti School, which was founded 18 years ago by the Civil Service Society – an NGO set up by the wives of senior civil servants. The school website says that they realised “the importance of a premium school offering quality education to wards of the officers of All India and Allied services and Defence Personnel”. Land for the school, more than seven acres in central Delhi’s Embassy quarter Chanakyapuri, came from the central government, as did a financial grant for construction. The school has continued to receive funds from various government departments and ministries.

Sanskriti school has a 60% quota for children of Group A government officials, and also offers them discounted fees. Non-discounted fees for the academic year 2015-'16 were between Rs 1.3 lakh and Rs 1.5 lakh.

The children and grandchildren of politicians, big businessmen, stars of the entertainment world and journalists are among Sanskriti School’s regular fee paying students. It is, in a word, the school of choice for New Delhi’s ruling oligarchy.

A welfare measure?

The Department of Personnel and Training policy note says that the Government of India should encourage and support the opening of Sanskriti-type schools in other parts of the country “…as a welfare measure.” It says that Group A government servants “suffer transfer” and school admissions in metro cities is the chief cause of their anxiety. It adds that the government, as a “model employer”, seeks to remove the source of this anxiety.

The government already runs more than 1,000 schools for the children of civil servants and armed forces officers. The Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan, which has schools across the country (and three abroad), exists for this very purpose. Kendriya Vidyalayas, or central schools, were sought after schools in their time. Many people, who today hold key positions in government and in the private sector, were educated in these schools. But the Department of Personnel and Training’s policy note says that the Kendriya Vidyalayas will not do as they favour children already enrolled in such schools.

This begs the question: why are so few group A civil servants’ children enrolled in Kendriya Vidyalayas? The answer is that over the years, the senior bureaucracy has been buying its way out of public services. When government salaries were lower, the central schools offered highly subsidised (currently a maximum fee of Rs 500 a month, and no charge for single girl children) quality education. A former Kendriya Vidyalaya principal, who served in different schools across the country, said that their old reputation as “good schools” was because the parents of students were powerful, and ensured the schools were well run.

But now, instead of finding ways to strengthen the public school system and maintaining or improving the standards that the best Kendriya Vidyalayas were known for, civil servants have abandoned them, for private schools.

Civil service pay today is well above the median professional wage in the country. A mid-level Group A civil servant can expect a salary in the region of Rs 1.5 lakh a month plus housing (usually in the most select neighbourhoods of any town or city). If posted in a “hardship” area, the civil servant can keep the government-provided house in Delhi or the state capital for three years, while also being provided with government housing at their new post.

But with their incomes going up, civil servants don’t merely want their children in private schools, they also want quotas and government subsidies.

Last year, the Delhi High Court quashed the quota for children of civil servants in Sanskriti School stating that there was no justification for government funds going to a private individual to establish a school for an elite segment of society. The court said it was not against the government creating good and quality schools, but against it creating schools with a quota for the elite.

The Civil Service Society and the Centre, represented by the Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi, went to the Supreme Court in appeal. In January, the apex court stayed the High Court judgement. Kapil Sibal, who was the Human Resources Development minister in the previous United Progressive Alliance government, assisted the court.

Public resources go private

The Department of Personnel and Training’s note about setting up “Sanskriti-type schools” is just the most recent example of the government’s best-paid and most powerful employees aggrandising public resources for private ends. The justification given – that Kendriya Vidyalayas are hard to get into and that transfers take place without considering the school term – are a thin cover for the reality of taking what you can, because you can.

But, the Kendriya Vidyalaya to Sanskriti-type elite school story isn’t the only instance of this cornering of public resources. The general decline in public services runs parallel with bureaucrats aggrandising public funds to buy their way out of poor public services. For instance, today senior civil servants no longer use government-run clinics and hospitals. Instead, the government pays their private hospital bills.

Anyone who has seen the inside of a public hospital or a government school knows that the government has failed to provide basic services to those who need them the most. What makes this all the more galling is that government servants, who are tasked with delivering these public services, have successfully insulated themselves from the results of their own failures. With no sense of shame, they are able to describe a government subsidy for their own children’s expensive private education as a “welfare measure”.

It is the governing class’s culture of self-aggrandisement that stands in the way of any change in the poor public services – the real welfare measures – that India delivers to the poor.