Government think-tank Niti Aayog’s collaboration with three state education departments appears to have set off friction with the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development. An official of the Niti Aayog, who did not want to be identified, said the ministry has objected to the think-tank’s programme called Sustainable Action for Transforming Human Capital, or SATH. Under the programme, the Niti Aayog has signed agreements with the governments of Odisha, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh to draw a roadmap to restructure their education systems.

Officials at the ministry did not respond to’s emails seeking to confirm the objections and understand the reasons for them.

The Ministry of Human Resource Development is the Union government’s main body to fund and regulate education in India. But beyond setting the terms for centrally-funded schemes, the ministry has little say in how states organise their school education.

Last year, however, the ministry produced a roadmap of reforms, complete with timelines for implementation, for Uttar Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir, on the request of the two state governments. Now, the Niti Aayog is also doing the same.

But while the ministry’s collaboration with Uttar Pradesh was the result of an “informal discussion with the state’s education officials”, as a ministry official told in August, SATH is a 30-month long programme backed by formal agreements with the participating states. The states and Niti Aayog are paying an equal share of the Rs 26 crore earmarked for the project in each state.

Another difference between the ministry and Niti Aayog’s programmes is that while the ministry created its plans in collaboration with the state education departments, the states were free to implement the plans autonomously. The Niti Aayog, however, has placed teams – consultants from two private firms – within the education departments of the three states to ensure that the plans are executed.

The first phase

Unlike the Planning Commission, which advised the Union government, the mandate of the Niti Aayog, which replaced the advisory body in early 2015, was to design “strategic and long term policies and programmes for the Government of India” and also provide “relevant technical advice to the Centre and states”. One of its stated objectives is to “radically” redefine the Centre-state relationship. The Niti Aayog also describes itself as “a platform for cooperative federalism” facilitating “the working together of the Union and States as equals”.

In May, the Niti Aayog wrote to all states offering assistance with improving their health and education sectors. According to the official from the Niti Aayog, 16 states responded. “We basically needed a commitment from their chief ministers,” said the official. That month itself, management consulting firm Boston Consulting Group and Piramal Foundation for Education Leadership, a philanthropic firm run by the Piramal Group, were signed up to assist participating states.

On June 10, state officials from 14 of the 16 interested states presented details of their health and education sectors, as well as their plans to improve them, before members and officials of the Niti Aayog. The Sustainable Action for Transforming Human Capital was subsequently launched. In early August, Odisha, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh were selected for the programme. The ministry of Human Resource Development was involved till this stage. A director from the ministry was even part of the committee that picked the three states.

“But after that, the ministry objected to Niti Aayog’s drawing up plans,” said the Niti Aayog official. “We have kept the ministry informed and will take suggestions – it is the main funding and implementing agency – but Niti Aayog and the two [private teams] are doing the planning.”

On November 25, the Odisha government signed a memorandum of understanding with the Niti Aayog. Madhya Pradesh entered into a similar agreement in December, and the Niti Aayog official said that the deal with Jharkhand “is almost done”. The official added that the work on reforms began immediately after the selection of the three states.

Over December, the Niti Aayog and education departments of the three selected states organised workshops with education officials, non-governmental organisations and others involved in education in those states – Odisha on December 7, Madhya Pradesh on December 18 and Jharkhand on December 23. Officials from the ministry did not attend these meetings.

“We had invited them [the ministry] and have been keeping them informed but no representative came,” said the Niti Aayog official. “The ministry has now sent us its plans [for Uttar Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir] and told us to follow them, but our teams in the states are already framing their own policies.”

Mergers and closures

For all the competition over roadmaps between the Union ministry and Niti Aayog, there is one major objective common to both sets of policy makers: the merger or closure of a large number of public schools that have a low enrolment rate. The ministry’s policy for Uttar Pradesh had suggested that schools with less than 50 students be merged with other schools within a one-km radius. The Niti Aayog official said that planning such mergers is one of the major activities its teams will engage in.

Odisha, which has made maximum progress with the Sustainable Action for Transforming Human Capital programme so far, has identified 4,200 schools that have under 10 students each. This list is based on data from the District Information System for Education, the only national-level public database on schooling.

“We are now in the process of verifying the actual situation on the ground after which all schools with less than 10 students and with other schools within a one kilometre [radius] will be closed,” said Chintamani Seth, Odisha’s director of elementary education. “Where a school is not available within a kilometre, we plan to provide a transport allowance.”

According to the plan, neighbouring primary (Classes 1 to 5) and upper primary (Classes 6 to 8) schools will be merged next and brought under the charge of one head of school. Similarly, upper primary and secondary (Classes 9 and 10) schools situated close to each other will also be merged.