The BJP led NDA II (National Democratic Alliance II) government under Narendra Modi has established itself as a harbinger of much needed changes, since it came to power in May 2014. There is an excellent list of achievements directly under the Prime Minister (PM) in the area of foreign affairs, national security and defence. He has coined several attractive phrases in English as well as in Hindi to make certain that Indian voters are impressed by them. There is thus, ‘Make in India’ or idea of ‘Red Carpet’ welcome to investors instead of subjecting them to Indian bureaucracy’s ‘Red Tape,’ and many others.
In the field of education, the PM has chosen Smriti Irani, as the Minister of Human Resources Development (HRD). She is the youngest person in the cabinet; she too is fond of developing several catchy phrases in Hindi/Sanskrit like ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’, ‘Padhe Bharat Badhe Bharat’ etc. But early in her innings, she created avoidable controversies about her educational qualifications. She took certain hasty steps in her over enthusiasm to implement certain, in my opinion, nationally good programmes, like introduction of Sanskrit in Kendriya Vidyalayas, on which she had to beat an early retreat. But the media and opposition parties like the Congress have been mocking her mainly because of her lack of higher educational degrees.
But record of even highly-qualified HRD ministers like Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi during the NDA I or during eminent lawyer, Kapil Sibal’s tenure under UPA II has been mixed. Sibal for instance, is a very smart and quick learner; that I learnt from a personal encounter with him. I was facing a problem with the CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) in Delhi, which was objecting to giving their affiliation to our English High School because the building in which we housed it, also accommodated a Kannada medium school affiliated to the Maharashtra State Board.
I posed him in Mumbai a question: If your objective under the Right to Education (RTE) is to universalise education, why should the CBSE object if a school building being used by the CBSE is also used by a State Board school? Within 10 days, a new rule was made to accommodate use of the school building by any other institution as long as it is not put to ‘commercial use’, and we got the permission! But Sibal was not necessarily good when it came to other school issues, which will be discussed here below. Point is, as long as you have your ear close to the ground reality, not having a degree should not matter!
What have been the achievements of the HRD ministry? Though 13 months are a short period to make an impassioned assessment, there has been the creation of new IITs (Indian Institute of Technology) and IIMs (Indian Institute of Management); while the move is good, the effort has to be to create world class infrastructure. The creation of the National Digital Library is another good move. Similarly, a new scheme of ‘Global Initiative for Academic Network’ has been launched to bring to India, globally best known educators. There are many other initiatives, but space is a constraint!
In the field of school education, Smriti Irani has done well in trying to introduce Sanskrit; but her hasty move turned out to be her undoing. It is a tragedy of Indian education that during the British times Sanskrit was taught widely in schools and colleges. However, it was gradually withdrawn from schools and colleges. There are great advantages for all Indian languages in studying Sanskrit, as these are rooted in that language. Today, the younger generation is unaware of it. When I say in the Hindi heartland Jalapatra the audience says, “Oh, you know Hindi”. When I have used that word in Gujarat, students have expressed surprise, that I speak Gujarati!
More urgent changes are required in school education – Primary, Secondary and Higher Secondary; some to be changes in the so called reforms of former HRD Minister, Kapil Sibal and a few pro-actively by the present Minister. Certain disastrous changes introduced by Mr. Sibal should go. For example: 1. If an over-age student, who has not had any education – formal or informal, seeks admission, he should be admitted to a class according to his age and not according to his level of academic achievement. 2. Age for admission not to be insisted; schools are expected to admit on the basis of estimated age.
The previous government`s order not to fail any student on whatsoever ground/s till Class VIII is not a good decision and needs to be changed. Primary school children do not commit suicide because of failure in a class. RTE is fundamental, but there is no fundamental right to pass! Dr. Pallam Raju, successor to Mr. Sibal had favourably spoken about changing these atrocious prescriptions, but went out of office without achieving his aim. A student enrolled in a school has a right to know the level of education achieved by him or her. How can children learn that there is a grading system in the society? It is inevitable in all walks of life!
However, it is also necessary for the minister to proactively take certain steps such as, nationally implement uniformity in the number of classes covered by a specific section like Primary, Upper Primary, Secondary and Higher Secondary. As of today, while CBSE and ICSE (Indian Certificate of Secondary Education) consider up to Std. V as Primary, within Maharashtra, there are different patterns like some considering up to Std IV as Primary, while some are calling up to VII as Primary!
The worst feature of the RTE as envisaged by the previous government and unfortunately also embraced by the present at the federal level is an overwhelming emphasis on universalisation, without any concern for quality of education; main concern is to make every child enter a formal educational institution. The emphasis on quality of education is completely missing. This will ruin a generation before the government realises its folly and agrees to change.
There are certain welcome steps which are being debated. The best one is the proposal to increase the age of school admission from present five to six; even seven should be considered, as toddlers should be allowed to enjoy their free years. During the British rule, school admission was at seven.
Comparatively, in my opinion, higher education in India is better than school education. It has become a standard expression that even after 68 years of Independence, we have not been able to produce a world class university that can be counted in the world’s top 200! But, our higher education has created a sense of urgency to reform education in the United States as evident from Obama’s frequent references to the fact that Indians are capturing American jobs!
However, the problem of qualitative universal literacy is gigantic. Last year, the UNESCO published their Annual Education for All Global Monitoring Report, which stated that India alone has 1.38 million children in the age group of 6-11, who have not seen the doors of a school. India is the fourth top illiterate country. India needs to double the allocation for education. In 1999, it was 4.34 % of the GDP and it came down to 3.35% in 2012, according to a World Bank report.
Even if the government wants to achieve a semblance of universal education, it needs to construct 100 thousand primary schools with eight rooms and every room accommodating 30 students. The task is not impossible but the government needs to take a bold decision to double allocation in the budget for education. Instead of doing that, the governments under the UPA II and the NDA II have been following the same policy—since it is decided by the same bureaucrats. Thus, there is the pressure on privately managed schools to admit 25 per cent of the children under RTE. The Supreme Court had exempted minority run schools from the RTE reservation. But the bureaucrats are busy finding out where and how the pressure can be mounted on minority run schools to accommodate students under RTE quota!