Are publishers willing to reduce textbook prices?

Soon, it will be the beginning of a new academic year for most schools, and this seems the appropriate time to try and predict the future role of the private publisher in Indian schoolrooms.

Publishers can continue to be part of this growing market segment, K–12 as the new age would call it, but how they will be part of it is what I set out to answer in this article.

Indian publishers believe that the NCERT and CBSE are faring poorly with regard to providing textbooks for children, both in terms of quality and availability. The reason is that the National Curriculum framework was released in 2005, and the NCERT published books to align with that syllabus. We are now in 2017, and we have not seen any significant changes in the content of the NCERT books. Further, there is a cost to running the NCERT, and if the syllabus hasn’t changed for over twelve years, and no new content has been generated in this time, how can the cost be justified? This, too, at a time when the NITI Aayog is recommending fewer subsidies even in the agriculture sector! Organisations with varying degrees of state ownership also suffer due to lack of independence from the government.

The pricing of textbooks has been a major debate in recent weeks, reaching a crescendo even as I write. (The hunchback/ heavy schoolbag remark made by the late RK Narayan in the Rajya Sabha seems to have taken a back seat for now.) On the price issue, publishers have drawn the ire of parents. In my opinion, the best starting point is for publishers to internalise this matter, overcome current dilemmas, and make tough decisions on the way textbook selling is done.

Too much cash is transacted in the entire selling mechanism, and it is easy to foresee the government applying pressure on schools because of this. (The same pressure faces the pharmaceutical industry as well.) This is a path, of course, not predestined, but being forced on textbook publishers. However, publishers must see that it is for the good of schoolchildren, and their parents, who would be happy to have their financial burden reduced. Let us not forget that the same school segment was operating at much lower level discounts, with retail bookshops selling books, as opposed to schools utilising the opportunity to commercialise the transaction.

Hold a mirror up to the past few weeks, and you will see that the story of publishing and selling books is changing. The e-commerce operators have had to wake up after the Delhi High Court judgment ruled to ‘ensure schools don’t sell textbooks’.

How attractive will this Indian school publishing market remain? This is an area already viewed as a low-margin profit market by overseas publishers. The rupee will have its own risks, driven by inflation which will, in effect, return fewer dollars. Yet, the government is chasing FDI into India. We are facing yet another turning point in the industry.

Having said that, the government is trying to create world-class institutions, and success is unlikely if we make availability of content the monopoly of the state. It is the middle class which sends its children to the CBSE private schools because it can afford to do so. What the government should concentrate on is to help the economically underprivileged with better education, surely a cause worthy of being funded. Many studies and reports have been published comparing the teaching and learning outcomes in CBSE private schools with government schools. The question that then arises is: why is the government not focusing on the few million schools it owns instead of on a mere 18,000+ CBSE private schools? Further, should the government exit the NCERT and put its funds elsewhere? (Even as I write this, there is a move to upgrade the NCERT, and increase its powers.)

Parents should fight for reduction of school textbook prices; publishers should fight for the freedom to publish. In other words, the NCERT cannot and should not be the sole provider of classroom content. I say this in the interest of children, their parents, and, indeed, in the interest of childhood literacy and school education on which all else, including the future of our great nation, rests.

The crooks we (sometimes) elect

Which Indian states have the highest number of ‘criminals’ elected to the legislature? For most Indians, the answer to this question seems obvious: The BIMARU states (namely, the states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh, all of which are widely considered among the least developed in the country). However, this would be the wrong answer. The top five Indian states with elected representatives that have serious criminal charges pending against them are Jharkhand (about 53%), Maharashtra and Bihar (with 40% each), and Andhra Pradesh and Odisha (about 28% each). This is one of the many interesting revelations from Milan Vaishnav’s When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics (Yale University Press, 2017). The book received glowing reviews in American publications, with the Wall Street Journal reviewer describing it as ‘a close look at the underbelly of the world’s largest democracy’.

The thesis of Vaishnav’s book is that Indian politics has two major problems: money (which fosters corruption) and muscle (which brings criminals into politics). I agree with Vaishnav’s position, with the caveat that ‘money’ is a common problem in (almost) all democratic countries, so, India’s unique problem— the one that is undermining democratic institutions in the birthplace of democracy—is ‘muscle’. Let me explain. The way modern democracies are structured, politicians across the spectrum need money to run for elected office. This money can come from the government (state funding of elections- to my knowledge, nowhere in the democratic world completely) or it can come from private sources such as individual and corporate contributions. Most democratic countries in the world allow (even encourage in some cases) private funding for elections. Because of this emphasis on private funding, money has become the biggest corrupting influence in many countries, including the United States. Google the recent case of Virginia’s former governor Bob McDougall, and you will see the disgusting extent to which politicians can be corrupted by money. Other countries like Brazil, Italy, and Mexico have their own horrid tales about the corrupting influence of money in politics.

Where India has gone wrong is in permitting political parties and candidates unregulated and unmonitored access to private funding. Consider that Indian law exempts parties and candidates from declaring financial support below Rs 20,000. Is it any surprise then that, for most major political parties in India, 75% of their income is reportedly coming from donations less than this amount? Then there is the BSP, which claims that 100% of its income is from those who give below the legal disclosure limit, so that BSP leader Mayawati is routinely accused of demanding money to nominate candidates for elections to represent her party. The solution to the corrupting impact of money in Indian politics is simple, yet no political party has dared to make it happen: Mandate official declarations for all political contributions, regardless of amount. This small change can go a long way towards cleaning up India’s elections and reducing the insidious influence of money in the country’s politics.

The distinct feature of Indian politics—the one that sets it apart from other well-functioning democracies in the world, and certainly not in a good way—is the role of criminals in elections. All major political parties in India—including the wellestablished BJP and INC as well as the upstarts AAP—willingly and knowingly nominate candidates with pending criminal cases to run for elections. In India, criminals not only provide support to incumbent politicians, thousands of criminals have successfully crossed over into becoming elected representatives themselves.

One of Vaishnav’s most illustrative example of criminals in Indian politics is Raghuraj Pratap Singh (or ‘Raja Bhaiya’), a five-time MLA from the Kunda constituency in Uttar Pradesh. Singh is no ordinary MLA, as he has also been a minister in the state government on five separate occasions. His criminal rap sheet includes charges of kidnapping, attempted murder and dacoity. During his time

as the food minister of Uttar Pradesh, Singh was allegedly responsible for looting food grains worth hundreds of crores from poor beneficiaries. Another illustrative example Vaishnav discusses is that of Paritala Ravi from Andhra Pradesh. A Naxalite turned politician, Ravi had 54 serious criminal cases to his credit, 16 of which involved murder. He was not only ‘the most feared person in Anantpur district’, but was also a minister in the state cabinet. Vaishnav discusses many such examples of criminals in Indian politics, from Arun Gawli in Maharashtra to the mafia leader Suryadeo Singh in Bihar.

Vaishnav’s provocative argument is that Indian people knowingly elect criminals to elected office in anticipation of some benefits. Research, however, shows that constituencies with elected representatives who have ongoing criminal cases show significantly lower rates of economic growth. More interesting, perhaps, is that the detrimental effect is amplified when the elected representatives face serious criminal charges. What this shows is that the net benefit of electing criminal candidates is negative even for people who vote for them.

While there is much to agree with in Vaishnav’s work, I disagree with the overall pessimistic tone of his message. It is true that, time and again, corrupt and criminal politicians in India run for public office and win elections. Unfortunately, our media seldom highlights such examples, so that the public tends to focus on the criminal and corrupt politicians who seem to be going from one success to another, ignoring the growing ranks of disgraced and humiliated politicians.