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     Volume 8 Issue 55 | January 30, 2009 |

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Cover Story

The Mystery of the
Missing Books

Ershad Kamol
Photos: zahedul i khan

It's already the end of a month into the academic year and yet students of secondary schools are still waiting to get most of their textbooks. So far, only 14 categories of books on Bangla, English and Mathematics for class VI to Class IX are in the market. The acute crisis of books has forced students to buy books at prices higher than those fixed by the National Curriculum of Textbooks Board (NCTB). Although NCTB, the authority that publishes the textbooks, announced that 38 categories of books would be available from January 16, these books have not been made available in the market till writing this report on January 26. No one, not even the NCTB officials, can confidently say when exactly all of the 76 categories of text books for secondary school students will be available in the market, though, the authority is expecting that the crisis will be solved by January 31.

Classes are yet to start full swing at secondary state-schools because of this shortage. Classes at most schools don't run more than three or four periods. Teachers are using last year's textbooks and students are finding it hard to concentrate as they have not yet collected most of the books. Which is why teachers cannot give homework, which may sound great for the students but in this system, will make it very difficult to complete the syllabus. Teachers anticipate that the classes will not start properly until April, since the schools will be closed for a month from middle of February for the upcoming Secondary School Examinations. Thus the students will get only seven months to complete the academic year.

“In fact, the schools will run classes for a fewer number of days" says a headmaster of a government high school on condition of anonymity. "Besides, the ongoing problem, schools will be closed for Ramadan and other vacations. Usually schools remain closed for 85 days a year for different types of vacations. In addition to this, we have 52 days weekends. Now, you tell me how many days will we get if we can't take classes for about two months because of shortage of books?” he demands.

The headmaster says that in previous years fresh books are usually available in the market at the end of January and the students collect the books from the seniors to attend the classes. However, in this academic year NCTB has changed the exercise sections and has introduced a creative question method for the secondary students. "So students are reluctant about collecting any old books and waiting for the new books, though we told them to collect old books from the seniors, since the contents of the books are same”, he continues. "But, the fact is that there will be enormous pressure on students and teachers to complete the syllabus in time. And I don't know how to overcome the crisis.”

On the other hand the guardians are worried since their children are not studying at home because of the crisis of the textbooks. “My daughter who is a science group student of class IX studies only Bangla, English and General Mathematics. I had to buy these books paying five taka extra than the government fixed rate. But, her science books are not available in the market, still, I don't know when will these books be available? Is it fair that because of the book crisis the students won't be able to study? Then what does the government do?” says Ruksana Akhtar, a frustrated parent.

Meanwhile the NCTB, printers, wholesalers and retailers are blaming one another for the delay. The truth is all of them are responsible in some way or another. The major causes behind the crisis are the shortage of paper to print textbooks at the initial stage of printing, lack of co-ordination of the officials of the government agencies, NCTB's failure to calculate the required number of books to be published, allotting excessive numbers of textbooks to a few printing presses beyond their capacity, lack of monitoring by NCTB and tendency of making 'extra profit' by the businessmen by manipulating the situation.

For this academic year, NCTB allotted offer letters to 291 printing presses to publish 2.62 crore textbooks of 76 categories costing 75.41 crore taka. NCTB planned to market the books in three phases. The first lot of 14 categories of Bangla, English and Mathematics books for all classes were scheduled to be released on January 6, but came in the market from January 12. Thirty-eight categories of books of other important subjects were scheduled to be released on January 15, though these books are yet to be available. The remaining books (of relatively less importance) were scheduled to be released on January 26, but nobody knows when these books will actually be within the reach of the students.

Many retailers force students to buy illegal notebooks.

The crisis began when NCTB could not adequately supply paper to the printing presses because of the last national elections. Karnaphuli Paper Mill was too busy printing ballot papers at that time. The decision to instruct the NCTB to collect paper from alternataive sources, moreover, came late.

When the NCTB changed the question methods, a rumour spread that these textbooks had been totally changed and old books would not be in use; usually 30 percent of old books are re-used each year. But the government- run agency NCTB, failed to act accordingly to quell the rumour. Actually only the exercises at the end of the chapter have been changed. Anticipating that some books would be re-used, NCTB ordered to publish almost the same number of books that they had ordered last year. In any case, there is no authentic data available to the NCTB of the number of existing students of secondary level.

In previous years private companies have printed a large number of books except those for Bangla. This year, however, private publishers have refrained from printing any text books as the exercises have been changed, something the NCTB had overlooked before ordering text books.

Wholesalers are accused of hoarding textbooks to create artificial crisis.

All of the three printing associationsBangladesh Printing Industry Association, Bangladesh Textbook Printing and Marketing Society and Book Publishers and Sellers Society alerted NCTB several times to take measures to control the upcoming crisis. These associations even suggested rescheduling the date of marketing the books, since they would not be able to market books in time because of shortage of papers and other circumstances such as Eid vacations. Moreover, they suggested increasing the number of fresh books to meet the need.

“I sent letters several times suggesting NCTB to reschedule the date of marketing the books," says Tofael Khan, president of Bangladesh Textbook Printing and Marketing Society. "At the same time I keeping stocks of sufficient papers to print one crore textbooks if needed. But, the NCTB did not listen to my advice."

“Because of lack of co-ordination of the officials of the NCTB, the state-run organisation provided the positives of one installment of books, however, supplied papers for other installments. That is another major reason for being late”, he adds.

Guardians rush to shops for textbooks.

On the other hand, NCTB officials have accused the printing associations for the failure. “They wanted to publish five crore fresh books, but the number appeared very unusual to us. NCTB purchasing 58 grams 22 into 32 size papers at the rate of 1235 taka per ream provides the printing press at a subsidised rate of 606 taka per ream. This year we gave a 25 crore taka subsidy for six thousand tonnes of paper. Our previous observations say many of the printing presses do not publish all of the books against the papers they take to print. They use the papers for other purposes”, a high official of NCTB continues, “To face the book shortage in the market when we declared for an open tender to publish the books they said an additional 70 lakh books of all categories would be enough to solve the problem, though initially they insisted that we print an additional 1.5 crore books. At last they told us that only 20 lakh additional copies would be enough to solve the crisis. That shows their intention was to collect more subsidised papers and to make illegal business. Moreover, they came up with many illogical arguments for not marketing the books in time such as power cuts, though this year's scenario was better than the previous years.”

Many parents are buying textbooks at prices higher than fixed rates.

“Partially we are helpless and in the grip of the excessive profiteering tendency of the business community in this sector. They get 13 percent commission and papers at subsidised rates, however, they do not do their job faithfully. For their irregularities, earlier we have blacklisted many publishers. This year we will also take similar actions,” adds the NCTB high official.

While the NCTB and printing presses were busy in mudslinging each other, a Banglabazar-based syndicate of wholesalers capitalising on the crisis, made some quick money by hoarding books and not giving the retailers any commissions. Which is why the retailers are selling the books at higher rates than the government fixed rates. This only deepened the crisis and became beyond the control of the NCTB.

“The wholesalers are not giving us books as per the requirement, " says a retailer at the Baily Road area. "Neither are they giving us any commission. Usually we get 10 percent commission, but this year we are buying books from the wholesalers at the rate of NCTB fixed prices. So we are bound to sell the textbooks at rates higher than the NCTB fixed rates and facing the rage of the customers since they think we are intentionally selling at higher prices to make more profit. There may be a crisis of books, but the wholesalers must give us commission to sell the books according to the fixed price”, he informs.

Outside Dhaka, consumers pay as much as 10 taka extra for each book. To make even more profit the retailers are forcing the students to buy illegal 'notebooks' or guides, since the retailers get 30 percent commission from the wholesalers for selling the guidebook.

A visit to the retailer shops at Nilkhet and Baily Road reveals that the illegal notebooks from class VI to class IX are sold openly. Many of the retailers are selling textbooks on the condition that the consumer will buy the notebook also. At the wholesale market at Bangla Bazar, illegal notebooks are randomly sold throughout the year. A wholesaler of the market 'manages' the local police station; on the other hand a former student leader now connected with a political party manages the local 'terrorists' for the smooth business of the illegal notebooks.

This year, the random sale of illegal notebooks has increased because of two reasons. Because of lack of monitoring by NCTB during the tender process of allotting offer letters for printing the textbooks, a good number of illegal notebook businessmen, who are wholesalers as well, hogged 80 percent of the work order. These printer cum wholesaler cum illegal notebook producers not only have created an artificial crisis, but also used subsidised papers provided by the government to print illegal notebooks.

Prescribed by the 'Secondary Education Sector Development Programme' (SESDP), NCTB introduced the new exercises to discourage the notorious practice of coaching and dependence on notebooks and to promote creativity. But, the whole process has appeared to have boomeranged since the teachers are not trained properly to teach the new method and so are inclined to tell their students to use the notebooks.

Another undesirable consequence of the crisis is the increased number of low quality duplicates of the new textbooks in the market, provided by unauthorised wholesalers. These duplicate books are printed at many presses at Loharpool, under Sutrapur Police Station and Babu Bazar under Kotwali Police Station. But, the wholesalers do not sell these duplicate books in Dhaka, rather sell in the remote areas and district towns through their own channels. The students, thinking them to be original textbooks, buy the duplicates at 10 to 15 takas more than the price fixed by NCTB. Random marketing of such duplicate books is not only illegal, but also harmful for the business of authorised printing presses. Moreover, NCTB is deprived of royalties because of the open sale of such unauthorised textbooks.

The book crisis is even worse in case of the English version of the textbooks, which are studied at the cadet colleges, prominent schools in district towns and at the schools of Bangladesh embassies abroad.

Retailers are accusing wholesalers for not giving them any commission.

So far, NCTB has not yet published a single copy of the English version of textbooks. Because of the acute crisis of such books an old version is now being sold five times higher than the fixed price. And many English version texts of previous years are unavailable even at the NCTB office. Sources confirm that the principals of the cadet colleges have officially asked the NCTB chairman to provide the textbooks immediately. NCTB has told them that they would be able to provide English versions of the textbooks from February 15, since they had a shortage of manpower to translate suggested creative questions for the latest the English version texts.

NCTB Chairman, Prof M Masir Uddin, in response to all the above findings, has promised to take drastic actions against any misconduct and denied many allegations. He says, “To control the hoarding tendency of the businessmen our vigilance team is working in the wholesale markets. We have also requested police and Rab to control it. We have already filed a case against notebook producers and distributors. Moreover, the notebook producers who got offer letters to print textbooks would be blacklisted.”

The NCTB Chairman says NCTB is still unaware of the duplication. “We will verify the incident”, he has said.

The shortage of textbooks for the secondary school students has become a hot topic these days. Each year NCTB accuses businessmen who, in turn, accuse the government agency for the shortage. But ultimately it is the students who suffer. There are two possible solutions for the problem: either increase the prices of the textbooks or distribute them totally free of cost. If the first option is taken, the government will have to increase the price of books evaluating the current price of papers and other printing materials. So, that the business communities cannot misuse the government provided papers at the subsidised rate. This option is, however, questionable in the sense that the increase in book price will affect many poor students, more than that there is every possibility of less books being published than the ordered ones, since the government does not have strong monitoring channels at the sector.

The second possible solution-- providing books free seems more feasible; it certainly works at the primary level. If it is done, the government will have greater control over distribution. In this case the schools will ask for the number of books required through Uapazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO) to the NCTB. NCTB will then distribute the books to the schools through the UNO offices. In that case the government will have to provide only service charges to the printing presses. On the other hand it will save 30 percent commission to the printers and wholesalers. And if NCTB does not take any royalty of 11.1 percent, almost 41.1 percent production cost will be reduced. NCTB high officials inform the government will have to spend around 140 crore taka to provide secondary school textbooks free. This figure is not so forbidding when one considers the enormous benefits of providing students with free textbooks and that too, on time.

Students attending classes without most of the textbooks.

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