Lindsay Pereira: So many zeroes, so little proof

Feb 10, 2018, 06:14 IST | Lindsay Pereira

If we take a closer look and pay attention to the crores listed in the BMC's budget, we will realise that the loss, naturally, is ours alone

The BMC says little about how it intends to improve the qulity of education at civic-run schools. File pic
The BMC says little about how it intends to improve the qulity of education at civic-run schools. File pic

Lindsay PereiraThe Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) intends to spend Rs 27.38 crore on providing dry fruit and 'protein-rich snack bars' to students at civic schools this year. Let's try and process that information for a few seconds.

On the one hand, one has to recognise that these poor students get nothing but a meal of khichdi. On the other, more and more of them are dropping out of BMC-run schools because the quality of education is poor, conditions are abysmal and teachers reportedly care little about completing the syllabus. Two years ago, a white paper by the Praja Foundation stated that the enrolment rate at municipal schools has fallen by around 40 per cent over the past five years. The BMC says little about how it intends to counter this. What it wants to do is buy snack bars instead.

There are more gems like this strewn liberally across this year's budget, if one cares to put aside the apathy and take a closer look. Did you know, for instance, that 159 BMC-run schools have 172 sanitary napkin vending machines? This is great news, but only if someone who isn't employed by the BMC ever audits the state of these machines. 381 more are to be installed in the coming months, at a cost of Rs 2.5 crore.

One of the more amusing plans is related to football coaching. It's called 'Road to Germany', because thinking of names for projects comes easily to those who have little actual work to do. Apparently, students of BMC schools are to be trained along the lines of coaching provided in Germany. Why Germany and not Brazil? Your guess is good as anyone else's. The best players 'may' then be invited to Germany for further training.

The interesting thing about these plans is how open they are to interpretation. Who is to decide what a 'protein-rich snack bar' is, for instance? What do they cost, and what is the difference between one that costs R10 and another that costs Rs 100? Who is examining whether or not the 500 sanitary napkin vending machines are being used regularly, and by students they are actually meant for? At what rate are these napkins being procured? What is the cost of providing something as intangible as football training? Is it calculated per student, or by what a good coach charges?

To pull on any of these tiny threads is to reveal schemes intentionally full of loopholes, gleefully waiting to be exploited by people who know how the system works, how things can easily be swept under a million carpets, and how no one will ever pull up a magnifying glass because everyone in Bombay is too occupied with the stressful business of living to care.

Take any of the things listed and think about them: CCTV installations that are to cost R5 crore, perhaps, or the supplying of tablets to students at a cost of R18 crore. What will these tablets do? Do students using them benefit in any way from their use? Who creates the software or e-learning tools for these tablets to accomplish anything? Again, there are more questions than answers, because talking about tablets makes for good PR campaigns.

There's a note about digital classrooms that will cost R37 crore. What is a digital classroom? Is it one that offers students free Wi-Fi and a tablet to surf the Internet on? Is it a place that will allow poor students to stream lectures by qualified teachers remotely? Will these digital classrooms exist in Bombay or across rural Maharashtra? Will they function like the free Wi-Fi zones that are routinely set up before elections, only to stop functioning approximately a month after the results are declared? What does R4.23 crore allocated for annual picnics mean? What does a sum of R1 crore for something called 'skill development' entail? Who is to say that the Rs 120 crore allocated towards the development of 17 animal enclosures at the zoo will be effectively utilised? What about the provision of R578 crore for the development of projects like escalators at skywalks?

We will never get satisfactory answers to these questions, not because we don't ask them, but because we don't ask them often enough. It's why the BMC alone knows what it actually does with our money.

When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira. Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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