Textbook turf wars
- Already a month into the new academic session, thousands of students across the country have yet to get their textbooks
May 9, 2014-In 2009, the government started its free textbook distribution programme for public-school students across the country. Six years have passed since the initiative kicked off, and yet every year there is the same complaint: that the textbooks never reach the students on time. Things are no different this year either. Thousands of students across the country have yet to get their textbooks even though it's now already a month into the new academic session, which formally started on April 15.
The main fault for this dismal state of affairs lies with the Janak Sikshya Samagri Kendra (JSSK), the government entity entrusted with publishing two-thirds of all the books. Students do not get their books at the start of their new academic sessions because the JSSK cannot deliver the books on time. The publishing body, which was tasked with publishing 22.5 million units of textbooks by the second week of April, has, as of now, hardly readied 17 million units—it's short five million units. At its current pace, the JSSK will take at least another month just to get done with printing the books. And then there's the problem of getting the books to the students.
Considering the time required for distribution, it will take at least two months to make the textbooks available to everyone—by then, the students will have already taken their first terminal exams. The Department of Education (DoE) estimates that 38.45 million textbooks need to be printed to cater to the six million students from over 29,000 public schools, and the government has already released Rs 1.28 billion towards that end. Of the total target, the private sector was tasked with publishing around 14 million unitsfor students from grades one to eight. “The private publishers have already met their targets. It's only the JSSK that hasn't been able to come through,” says the chief of the logistic department at the DoE, Rakesh Shrestha, who is monitoring the situation in the districts of the Eastern Development Region.
Strangely, the problem persists not because the JSSK isn't able to produce the required number of books. A recent report by the Auditor General shows that the JSSK has been using just 65 percent of its total manufacturing capacity. It was also found that the body has been outsourcing some of its work to private publishers, because that allows the JSSK to collect a commission from those publishers, which is shared among the JSSK staff as a bonus. The shortfall also reflects incompetence on the part of the Ministry of Education (MoE) and the DoE, and the Curriculum Development Centre (CDC) can also be assigned blame for the shoddy state of affairs. The secretary at the ministry leads the board of JSSK, while the director general at the DoE and the chief of the CDC are its members. The JSSK board, chaired by the secretary, formally requested the ministry for a loan in July last year to purchase the printing paper, but it took five months for the ministry to deliberate over its decision, consequently delaying
the publication process. The CDC
too, which is responsible for developing the curriculum, wasn't completely on the ball.
The CDC had been asked to develop a print-ready-copy (PRC)—the final draft of the textbooks as per the curriculum—by August last year, but the JSSK received the PRC four months after the deadline.
“We cannot proceed without the PRC,” says Anil Kumar Jha, executive director at JSSK. However, the officials at the CDC say that that claim doesn't hold water, because a new PRC is needed only when there are changes or modifications in the syllabus. This year, there were changes to be made in only eight textbooks—for grade seven students—and slight modifications in books for grades nine and 10.
Instead of working together to resolve the problem, the responsible government authorities have over the years mostly resorted to playing the blame game. Some of the officials at the JSSK blame the officials at the MoE, DoE, CDC and even other officials at the JSSK itself: apparently, the substandard work done by the JSSK can be considered grounds for dissolving the body and that would prove justification enough to award all printing rights to the private sector. “The government is keenly working to increase the market share of private publishers rather than bringing reformation in the JSSK,” says an official seeking anonymity. There may be some truth to that statement. The MoE has been increasing the share of private operators in textbook publication every year. Four years ago, the private companies had the rights for publishing only grade one to grade eight textbooks for the Eastern Development Region; that has been extended to include the Western Development Region, and starting this year, the Far Western Development Region also fell within their grasp.
If the private companies were being brought in to improve the situation, then their being granted larger contracts might have been warranted. But their performance has left much to be desired. They have been known to not supply textbooks to rural areas where the transportation cost is higher and they actually want to encroach on the Tarai regions, which have already been assigned for the JSSK, because the transportation costs are lower for these areas. They essentially would like to work only in the sectors that don't require much operating costs on their part.
This year, for example, the private publishers were responsible for supplying textbooks to Darchula, where the transportation costs are 30 percent higher than the country average; however, they did not supply a single textbook to the region, compelling JSSK to bear the losses. “The private publishers capture the business in the Tarai, where they can make more commission than we do, but when it comes to supplying books in the hilly districts, we are compelled to pick up the slack,” says Yogendra Bhatta, the JSSK regional chief for the Far West Developmental Region.
There are solutions out there, though. Suprabhat Bhandari, the chairman of the Guardian Association Nepal and member of the central textbooks monitoring committee, suggests that instead of dividing the delivery areas by region, the government and private publishers should be assigned materials for different grades. “The government should also focus on developing a mechanism to directly transport the required books to the respective schools or resource centres so that distribution doesn’t take as long as it does now,” he says.
And if nothing works, some education experts say the only way forward would be with the help of technology. They say the government should focus on expanding its information technology networks and capacities in schools. “The DoE can put the textbooks on its website and the students can access them easily, that is, when the Internet is available. This is the only permanent solution for the decade-long problem of textbook shortage,” says education specialist Bishnu Karki.
Published: 10-05-2014 14:35