Undermining the Constitutional thrust on social justice, NEP 2019 raises serious questions for educationists

NEP 2019: The devil in the detail

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The draft National Education Policy 2019 systematically evades the Constitution’s focus on social justice in educational institutions. It seeks to have power concentrated in an overpowering authority in order to keep the deception of having generated a level playing field within a fundamentally unequal, unjust and discriminatory social system.Can one hope that “the Draft National Education Policy 2019” will be the foundation on which the education policy of the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance government would be conceived, articulated and comprehended? Will it provide justification for some of the sweeping strides already taken by the Government of India (GOI)—the massive cuts in budgetary allocations for both school and higher education with corresponding schemes for “rationalisation” of government schools through merger/closure of well over one lakh schools across the country, and the slashing of seats in public-funded higher education institutions while declaring at the same time that a non-existent “initiative” by a private corporate be recognised as an “institution of eminence”? Or will it be yet another smokescreen behind which different agendas are being furthered?

Dr K. Kasturirangan, chairperson of the “Committee for Drafting the National Education Policy”, is hardly reassuring in his Preamble to the Draft. Assuming that he would only have to build on the report submitted by T.S.R. Subramanian, who had chaired the “Committee for Evolution of the New Education Policy”, and the Ministry’s subsequent “Some Inputs for the Draft National Education Policy 2016” from the Human Resource Development (HRD) Ministry, he had agreed to submit it within six months (emphasis added, throughout). However, as he began to get “a sense of the members… with their rich and unique insights into our society and its implications for education”, he realised that “this Committee was going to be ‘out-of-the-box’ in its thinking”. Hence the two-year delay in preparing the draft.

The “completely new and far-sighted policy” to change the “educational landscape” and prepare the youth to meet “present and future challenges” is said to be guided by the goals of “access, equity, quality, affordability, and accountability” and will look at education as a “single organic continuum from pre-school to higher education”. Ensuring universal access to education of “high quality” is stated to be the draft’s topmost priority, as quality and equity are “considered central to sustainable development, achieving success in the emerging knowledge economy and society…and for building an equitable, just and humane society”.

The following recommendations are welcome: renaming the HRD Ministry as the Ministry of Education; the emphasis on teacher education; extension of coverage of the Right to Education (RTE) Act, 2009, and the mid-day meal scheme to include pre-primary on the one hand, and up to Class XII on the other; review of the amendment to the RTE Act’s no-detention policy up to Class VIII and the conception of the education system as an organic continuum from pre-primary to higher education. Regrettably, providing an “exit” point from Class VIII itself without demanding a complete ban on child labour is problematic as the current child labour laws allow children to work in “family” enterprises from 10 years onwards, reinforcing both caste-based occupations and economic exploitation. However, two fundamental contentions require to be probed as they apparently undermine the laudable objectives of the draft.

The first springs from a cavalier attitude to the Constitution using a selective quotation from Dr B.R. Ambedkar that the “working of a Constitution does not depend wholly on the nature of the Constitution….”

The second claims that what we have “so far not recognised is that there are a multiplicity of agencies and individuals in this country who will come forward willingly with their support if they are convinced that there is sincerity and honesty and an ethical approach to building a knowledge society”.

The republican Constitution of India is the outcome of a protracted and wide-ranging struggle against British imperialism. It was committed to the creation of a modern, independent nation and society in which the rights of all persons would be recognised and upheld. The nation-state is constitutionally obligated to defend and further people’s rights irrespective of caste, creed, region, language, gender and disability.

In particular, the state is obliged to ensure and safeguard the rights of those sections who, for centuries, have been traditionally relegated, often with strict religious sanctions, to a “depressed” status in the interest of dominant castes and communities. Consequently, in the education sector, special provision for “reservation” in post-secondary education and subsequent employment were made for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (S.C. and S.T.) and extended to cover Other Backward Classes (OBC) following the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations. Despite these measures, the educational status of these sections and that of the Muslim minority remains distressingly low. Between 6 and 10 per cent are able to complete Class XII and hence over 90 per cent do not even become eligible for reservation.

Silent on reservation

Yet, the draft, which also refers to relevant Unified District Information System for Education (U-DISE) data for 2016-17, is shockingly silent on the issue and systematically evades the Constitution’s focus on social justice in educational institutions. The issue of making provisions for challenging and countering caste-based discrimination and oppression is absent from the document. In fact, the word “caste” itself has been used perhaps only twice in the draft and that too in a perfunctory listing of categories. The “reservation” policy is not referred to even once and the draft consistently emphasises the so-called “merit-based” criteria for admissions at all levels of post-secondary education, including the mandatory BEd for teacher training; for scholarships, for financial and other forms of aid on the basis of “socio-economic backwardness”; for the selection and appointment of faculty and for promotions during their career. How such a “meritorious knowledge society” can be created without addressing the issues of centuries of exclusion and oppression of the lower castes, of gender discrimination, of communal hostilities and tribal marginalisation appears to be a matter of little concern.

Unfortunately, the draft neglects to quote Dr Ambedkar on this question. Speaking in the Bombay Legislative Council, he unambiguously stated that “if all these communities are to be brought to the level of equality, then the only remedy is to adopt the principle of inequality and to give favoured treatment to those who are below level”.

Although it is recognised that “under-represented groups”—a euphemism for the “excluded” categories of persons—constitute a major deprived section of Indian society and require attention, no specific provisions by the Central and State governments are envisaged for them in the draft. It merely states that giving complete autonomy to private institutions of higher education may “encourage” them to voluntarily make some provision “either within or outside of CSR [corporate social responsibility]”.

The draft’s approach is particularly provocative as it comes in the wake of the institutionalised “murder” of research scholar Rohith Vemula (University of Hyderabad) which led to widespread and angry protests from all democratic sections. The GOI brazened it out as two of its Union Ministers were directly implicated in goading university authorities to ignore the legitimate grievances of the Dalit scholars. This was followed by the suicide of a 17-year-old Dalit student, S. Anitha, from Tamil Nadu after her petition against imposing the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for admission to Tamil Nadu State government medical colleges was rejected by the Supreme Court. In her moving statement, Anitha had questioned the justice of expecting those who had been consistently denied equal opportunities to “compete” with the privileged for admission. Just recently, Dr Payal Tadvi, a second-year tribal student pursuing her postgraduate medical education, was driven to suicide because of constant harassment and persecution by upper-caste seniors at her Mumbai hospital.

These prominent cases are only the tip of the iceberg behind which lie the barely registered suicide deaths of several thousands of students from marginalised communities in higher education institutions as the combined result of socially discriminatory practices and insensitive responses from peers, faculty and administrators. One would have expected the draft to do a sustained analysis of this clearly problematic situation and offer recommendations appropriate to its urgency and gravity.

Instead, we have a sanitised assertion that students from “socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds require particular encouragement and support to make the transition to higher education successfully. …Universities and colleges must be required to set up high quality academic support to educationally disadvantaged groups and must be given adequate funds and academic resources to carry this out effectively” (page 241). This appears both exasperating and even offensive as there is a constant and self-conscious endorsement in the draft of “ancient” educational forms such as the caste-based gurukula, which is prominently eulogised among a list of “religious schools”.

Further, the term “Indian” as it is used to describe culture, civilisation, educational institutions and principles and the “India centred” vision of the draft make it difficult to escape the conclusion that the “Hindutva”/“Manuvadi” identification is being propagated as fundamental to Indian identity and nationhood. For example, in order to give legal studies the “necessary social relevance and acceptability”, framers of the law curriculum are advised to “fall back upon the culture and traditions of people, the history of legal institutions and the victory of ‘dharma’ over ‘adharma’ writ large in Indian literature and mythology” (para 16.7.1).

Promotion of Hindi & Sanskrit

Although references are made to the universities of Nalanda and Takshashila, and the draft’s goal is proclaimed to be “inspired” by both Nalanda and the Ivy League Schools, the plurality of India’s diverse sociocultural forms, languages, practices and beliefs are consistently downgraded by being referred to as “local”, “regional” and “State-level” to distinguish them from what is asserted as the dominant “Indian” identity. Thus, the draft recommends that promotion of Hindi and Sanskrit will be the Central government’s responsibility because these languages are not “restricted” to one State or community. The other Indian languages of the Eighth Schedule will remain only within the jurisdiction of their respective State governments. Perhaps this explains why the voluminous draft has been made available only in Hindi and English. Given the limited time to respond to the draft, it would be difficult even to arrange for translations in any other Indian language.

The treatment reserved for Sanskrit makes the neglect even clearer. Stated to be an “important modern” and functioning Indian language so that it can be propagated under the three-language formula along with Hindi and English, it is further privileged by claiming it as the classical basis for most other Indian languages. Its pre-eminence is thereby asserted over other “regional” or “community”-specific classical languages whereas, in fact, it is Brahmin dominance and the “standardisation” of other Prakrit languages that have contributed to their “sanskritisation” over centuries.

Multiple Agencies

Consider next the proposed role of multiple agencies, including religious, private corporate and/or philanthropic ones, in making provision for education. The need to find funding and “to find it quickly” seems to be a primary motive, but the experience so far with high fee-charging private schools and private universities has been less than inspiring as an important means for furthering access to education. The public-private partnership (PPP) model has become associated with the commercialisation of education. The draft’s solution is to substitute “Public Philanthropic Partnership” for the earlier PPP, but no attempt at regulation is proposed as it is suggested that “autonomy” will allow space for private “partners” to voluntarily rationalise costs and fee structures imposed on students.

Even low-budget private schools that are depleting public funds through reimbursement for enrolling students from the economically weaker sections under the RTE Act have proved to be inadequate as the majority of them have failed to meet the standards laid down in the Act and are now engaged in demanding that conformity to these norms be dropped so that students are not denied education. Significantly, the draft proposes that there should be no rigidity in observing the “input” norms prescribed by the RTE Act. The emphasis in government schools, it is argued, should be more on “outcomes” in order to improve learning skills.

Other agendas can also be well-served. Multiple agencies can run seamlessly with total autonomy within the structure of the public-funded system, but in what is truly novel for India today, they can also run parallel to it. In a little-noticed move, in February 2019 the Central government gave sanction to a private “Bharatiya Shiksha Board” (BSB), which had earlier been cleared by the Maharshi Sandipani Rashtriya Vedavidya Pratishthan (MSRVP), a fully funded autonomous body under the HRD Ministry working on promotion of “ved vidya”. The BSB will be funded, designed and managed by Ramdev’s Patanjali Yogpeeth. Like any other school board it will draft the syllabus, conduct examinations and issue certificates. Once established, it is likely to benefit educational institutions such as Acharyakulam, Vidya Bharati schools (run by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh) and gurukulas run by the Arya Samaj, allowing them to sustain their model of education up to Class XII, something which school boards like the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) did not permit so far.

Alongside these institutional channels, the draft also recommends inducting “volunteers”, non-governmental organisations and “social workers” through a National Tutors Programme (NTP) for retaining a close tutoring relationship with government school students on the one hand and adults in the literacy/continuing education programme of the Adult Education Centres (AEC) on the other.

It is clear that such an open-ended system will be almost impossible to monitor both for its adherence to the goals set by the draft for the education system or for the public funds and assets that it will become possible to assign to these diverse private players.

Rashtriya Shiksha Aayog

The draft’s crucial recommendation for setting up a supreme policymaking and oversight body for the entire education system, the Rashtriya Shiksha Aayog (RSA), is a singularly unimaginative and centralising solution to the problem of holding together a nationwide system of public/private school complexes—the “smallest unit of management”, and colleges and universities that are autonomous and empowered to combine curricular, administrative and financial elements within a single entity. This demands credible accountability procedures, and once again the draft resorts to the unimaginative but market-friendly one-size-fits-all remedy. All provision of education, regulation, standard setting, accreditation and funding will be undertaken by separate entities.

The deception of having so generated a level playing field within a fundamentally unequal, unjust and discriminatory social system is clearly in need of the “authority” rather than the “vision” of the Prime Minister as Chairperson of the RSA, and within the Prime Minister’s Office, that is, within the leadership of whichever regime is currently occupying the highest level of political office, to keep it all in place. All the bodies determining “accountability” are, of course, to be appointed by the RSA.

However, constitutional provisions are violated by this concentration of power. Education comes under the Concurrent List, and the Centre cannot override the powers of the States either in determining or in regulating education which are the prerogative of State governments and legislatures both of which are finally answerable to the people of the State concerned.

The impact on the education system itself is also extremely negative. The necessary autonomy and independence of the education system from direct political or bureaucratic control is seriously undermined by the proposed RSA. The report of India’s first Education Commission, the Kothari Commission, emphasised that teachers and students constituted a “learning society” with “shared” (but not uniform) “goals” which they must be left to pursue with as much academic freedom as possible, retaining their independence from interference by political and market forces, from pressures of governmental, administrative and financial intervention, and the prejudices of socio-religious ideologies.

Unfortunately, the draft fails to defend the learning society on every one of these counts.

(The author is Member Presidium, All India Forum for Right to Education (AIFRTE); the article first appeared here and is bein published here on the express request of the author)



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