Kerala finance minister Thomas Isaac presented his thirteenth state Budget on Friday January 15. The Kerala Budget 2021 was a caravan of freebies, not entirely unexpected in an election year. Amid several proposals to strengthen the state’s economy, there was a small proposal that carried the unique Thomas Isaac touch.
The academic turned politician announced 500 post-doctoral fellowships of Rs 1,00,000 per month in his Kerala Budget 2021 speech. This would go a long way in addressing the Achilles heel of Kerala’s education sector. The state known for its near universal primary education has nothing to boast of when it comes to higher education. The move will lay the foundations of a minimum efficiency wage system in higher education, thereby bringing in the missing element of quality.
Trouble with private education institutions
Touching reflections of the woes of Kerala’s school teachers in 1950s and the 60s were captured by the writings of Karoor Neelakanda Pillai. This conscientised the state’s population about the lives of teachers. The education reforms were initiated by Joseph Mundassery, the education minister in the first elected Communist government in the world, led by EMS Namboodiripad. Mundassery, an eminent writer and teacher himself, changed Kerala’s education landscape forever by funding the salaries of the staff of aided schools and colleges.
But ever since, the managements of private educational institutions have been keeping jobseekers at their mercy by charging hefty sums for appointing teachers. Any enhancement of salaries and benefits at the national level would lead to a massive jump in these bribes. Massive corruption in this field has no parallels in any other part of the country. This has led to quality issues in Kerala’s higher education system.
Kerala Budget 2021: Towards minimum efficiency wage
The financial burden of such appointments has forced the state government to not approve vacancies. The managements merrily hire ad hoc lecturers at abysmally low salaries. Isaac’s post-doctoral fellowship will play the role of the minimum efficiency wage for skilled research workers, similar to the role played by MGNREGA in the case of unskilled labour at the national level.
Minimum wages for unskilled labour as well as agricultural labor have been fixed through legislation. But not much has happened for skilled workers. Those teaching in the private colleges have been receiving an unfair deal, particularly in terms of the hours they need to put in. In fact, being unskilled sometimes seemed to pay off in the countryside, as the angels of social protection smile only at them. Hopefully, the post-doc fellowships propounded by Isaac in Kerala Budget 2021 would be attached to institutions such as CDS, KILA, CESS and similar ones that were set up in Kerala in 1970s. This move would be another feather in Isaac’s cap who is credited with the first “fat tax” in the country.
(Krishnakumar S teaches economics at Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi.)