Historically education has been the exclusive preserve of the minuscule upper caste elites in India. It is only during the colonial times doors of education were opened to masses. This exclusionary ethos remained subdued during the colonial times but resurged after 1947. The Constitution had given prime importance to education, spelling out a uniquely specific timeframe of 10 years for the rulers to accomplish free and universal education of all children up to the age of 14 years. Accordingly, in 1948, a committee was constituted to recommend how to universalise free and compulsory elementary education. In the field of higher education, steps were taken to create an institutional structure through the University Grants Commission, IITs, and other central institutes. There have been several commission reports in early years of the newly independent nation: the Radhakrishnan Commission Report (1948) on higher education, Mudaliar Commission Report (1952) on secondary education and Kothari Commission Report (1966) on the entire education system, which variously stressed the importance of education and made many pro-people recommendations. However, the rulers largely ignored them. The Kothari Commission, for instance, had noted the unhealthy social segregation between the schools for the rich and those for the poor, and recommended that primary schools should be made the common schools of the nation by making it obligatory on all children to take education in schools in their neighbourhood. It valorised the elementary education to such an extent as to declare, “The destiny of India is now being shaped in her classrooms”. But these recommendations remained unheeded.
The covert introduction of neoliberal reforms
Following the 5 billion SDR loan from the IMF in 1981, the biggest by the IMF to any country until then, the government stealthily initiated neoliberal reforms since mid-1980s. It was symbolic of these reforms that the name of the Ministry of Education was changed to the Ministry of Human Resource Development in 1985, implying that the very purpose of education was not social development and preparation of citizenry but to produce consumable input for the global capital. Aggravating the evolutionary divide between the urban and rural education, the National Policy on Education, 1986 (as modified in 1992) had proposed introduction of a layer of about three lakh non-formal education (NFE) centres of inferior quality below the mainstream government schools and another of much-hyped Navodaya Vidyalayas, one per district, above it, paving the way to the multi-layered education system. In July 1991, India formally adopted neoliberal reforms, which were basically to drive liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation of the economy. Many changes were brought into the sphere of education. Higher education was declared to be a non-public good, opening the flood gates to the private players to skim the lucrative market for professional streams like engineering, medicine and education.
Destruction of the quality and credibility of the government school system
In the sphere of primary education, the World Banksponsored District Primary Education Programme (DPEP) was implemented to operationalise the philosophy of structural adjustment, viz., to reduce public expenditure on education. These included induction of under-qualified, untrained and under-paid ‘para-teachers’ appointed on short-term contract; legitimising the shameful method of one teacher teaching two or more classes simultaneously in a single classroom; promotion of multi-layered school system rooted in discrimination; and reductioning curriculum to literacy and numeracy. The DPEP largely destroyed the quality and credibility of the government school system. Consequently, it led to rapid expansion of the market for private schools by the end of the 1990s. In 2000, the DPEP were re-packaged and presented to mislead the public under the shining label of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA). In pursuit of the next round of neo-liberal reforms, the so-called ‘Right to Education Act, 2009’ was enacted with much fanfare. This Act basically excluded children below six from right to education and legitimised the multi-layered education, reproducing essentially the traditional caste paradigm. Despite these much trumpeted schemes, almost half the children of the relevant age group continue to be deprived of even eight years of elementary education. Of those admitted to Class I, only 15 -17 percent are able to clear Class XII. Among the lower social groups this percentage is still lower: about 10-11percent for OBCs, around 9 percent for Muslims, about 8 percent for SCs and 6 percent for STs. This means that almost 92% of dalits and 94% of tribals never become eligible for the benefits of the much flaunted reservations.
Government policies have only aggravated the negatives
The state of the entire education is alarmingly bad. The successive policies of the government have been only aggravating the negatives. The entire rural India where still 70 percent Indians live, is completely cut off from quality education. Barring a few elite institutions in the urban area, which cater to a handful of elite population, even the majority of urban population also have no hope of getting quality education and thereby better life. It is not that the rulers do not know what needs to be done. But they have dodged the issue with an alibi of inadequate resources. Interestingly, right from the days of Macaulay, this alibi of shortage of funds was used to restrict education for elites.
Education and health constitute the basic inputs in empowerment of people and are interrelated to some extent. The countries that provided these two inputs to its population have really prospered. India has uniquely ignored both. India’s health system is one the most privatised in the world and its education also getting similar. She has squandered the oncein- centuries opportunity of demographic advantage of having predominantly young population and created a huge problem for itself in future. By the maxim, ‘better late than never’ it could recover some of the lost ground by putting in sincere efforts in these spheres. In health, it possibly can do precious little except for ensuring the children are born healthy. But there is much that she can do in educational sphere, to start with the school education, which the founding fathers had emphasised, and which she must.
The foremost, India will have to undo much that she did during the recent years. The RTE Act, which actually took away children’s fundamental right to get universal, free and quality education will have to be re-enacted to institute a neighbourhood school system, entirely run by the government, offering standard quality education to all children up to the age of 18 years. All children, irrespective of social and economic background of their parents would be compulsorily enrolled in these schools. This will necessarily involve closing all public/private schools which do not fit in the plan of neighbourhood schools. Implement massive training programme for teachers and institute a monitoring system for the schools by the local community. Teachers would be freed of all the non-academic tasks. The education shall be freed of religion and mythologies. Across the regions, the three language formula shall be applied uniformly. Every child will be given basic education up to the standard four in its mother tongue; the foreign languages to be introduced only from the fifth standard.
The objective of the school system shall be to ensure all children born in India do not carry the imprint of their parents’ poverty or affluence and grow with the ethos of equality. Towards that it is vital that they are born healthy. Today more than half, 58 percent pregnant women suffer from anaemia and malnutrition. Interestingly, during the booming years of India’s GDP growth, this percentage rose from 50 to 58. As a result, over 40 percent children under age three are stunted and almost one-fifth of them are wasted (defined as an abnormally low weight for the child’s height). Nearly 80 percent of all children are anaemic. This state breeds insurmountable structural inequality. In order to ensure that no child is handicapped by its parents’ poverty, the government should undertake a plan to provide a comprehensive prenatal health and nutritional care to all pregnant women who need it. If such healthy new-born children are equipped with equal quality education, the need to provide artificial crutches of reservations and associated ruling class intrigues would disappear.That indeed would be great by product.
Higher education totally commercialised and beyond the reach of majority
There is so much mess created in educational sphere that it may not be possible to clear it in any conceivable term. Higher education, estimated to be 50 billion dollar worth stands totally marketised and beyond the means of majority of population. During the last two decades, many private institutions and universities have mushroomed all over the country to grab the rising share of this market. It has surely improved the enrolment in higher education but the quality has also suffered equally rapidly. It can be imagined from the fact that the topmost one or two of our IITs rank above 240 in the international ranking. There is a dire need to institute quality standards in our higher education system. In appreciation of the context that we live in the knowledge era, higher education cannot be treated as non-public good and privatised. But it still constitutes secondary priority after the school education.
India with its dollar 1.8 trillion economy has resources; what it lacks in is political will.