The translucent trade

2014-04-05

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The Nepali New Year celebration can be a temporary illusion of hope for most, given the endless phases of political instability. But the annual holiday promises huge monetary rewards to a certain group of people. This group includes the publishers of school textbooks, their book-agents and owners of private schools. As the new session begins in Baisakh (April/May), more than 2 million students of private school  either queue up in the school premise or in bookshops, which are often prescribed by the schools, to buy textbooks. A set of textbooks cost no less than Rs. 2, 000, according to booksellers, but keeping this figure as the mean value, the total cost of 2 million sets of textbooks hits a colossal amount of four hundred billion—the complications born from this trade are supposed to be just as big. 

The inverse relation between demand and price apparently does not work in this market for a growing number of publishers in the market have led to a price hike in textbooks. A set of books that one could buy for Rs. 700 five years ago now costs more than Rs. 2000, and this inflation, as we discover, is a result of the publishers’ business practice. “Publishers give higher commissions and other perks to school owners who prescribe their books,” says one who declines to be named. “A production cost of Rs. 45 is thus marked up to Rs. 210.” 

This difference between production cost and the marked price includes two layers of commission that a publisher offers. The 25 percent commission to booksellers is normal fare; however, the same amount (or sometimes even more) is offered to school owners as well. Private school owners thus get motivated by commissions in selecting their textbooks. 

The schools receive commissions from booksellers too, which is why they sell books within the school premise, from selected bookstalls. “Most school owners are driven to make money through textbooks, and they don’t even bother to check if they fall in line with the curriculum,” says educationist Prem Aryal. 

A Curriculum Development Centre (CDC), which has the right to reject or ask for changes in content, checks if the books fit into the government’s curriculum. Publishers send their books to the centre for approval before selling them to students, which incurs another fee. “We charge Rs. 5000 per book of the primary level and Rs. 7000 per book of lower secondary and secondary level,” says CDC Chief Chitra Devkota. 

However, very few publishers, including Indian ones—whose books are prescribed in many schools of Kathmandu—practice this 

formality. “We have informal reports that more than 60 percent of books prescribed in private schools are not approved by the CDC,” says Devkota. Knowing this, the CDC has not monitored the unapproved books prescribed in schools as yet. “Though we know that schools have prescribed books which are not approved by us, we do not have the rights to punish them,” adds Devkota. According to him, only the Department of Education can punish those who transgress publishing rules. But the director of the department, Dilli Rimal himself is not clear about who actually has the rights to check this irregularity.

“The government has not yet formulated any concrete book policy,” says Ram Chandra Timothy, chairman of National Booksellers 

and Publishers Association of Nepal. Government bodies have not been able to monitor the book trade without a proper policy. Besides, expenses incurred by CDC also discourage publishers to send their books to the centre for approval.   

Publishers and private schools have not realised the necessity of seeking CDC’s approval before prescribing books to students. As a result, students are either given books of lower quality or ones published from Indian firms consisting of the Indian curriculum-which lead children to believe that “Our national animal is the Tiger.” Rajesh Khadka, chairman of Private and Boarding Schools’ Organisation Nepal (PABSON), however, does not concede to this. “Established and well-known schools have been checking this tendency and asking publishers to have their books approved,” he claims. 

After news of these irregularities emerged in the media, the Department of Education ordered the District Education Office to monitor and check them. The immediate measures that government bodies usually adopt after problems surface in the media cannot solve them for good. Thus, if these irregularities are to be checked, the government and concerned bodies should work towards a concrete policy on book trade. Alongside, a strong mechanism should be developed to check if the policy has been executed well. This will not only help maintain the quality of books that our children read but will also reduce the financial burden of more than 2 million students.

(Source: The Kathmandu Post)