To undo the damage

Published : Jun 18, 2004 00:00 IST

The new Human Resource Development Ministry has several important tasks at hand - reverse the communalisation of education, allocate more funds for elementary education and ensure the autonomy of premier institutes.

WITH elections having dealt a blow to the political career of former Minister Murli Manohar Joshi, the Human Resource Development Ministry in the new government is faced with the task of undoing his controversial acts. (Joshi lost to the Samajwadi Party's Reoti Raman Singh in Allahabad.) The immediate task, as one educationist summed up, is "detoxification and re-construction after the Talibanisation of education by Joshi". Issues before the new Minister include the saffronisation of education, reduction of fees at the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), curtailment of autonomy of premier institutes, appointment of Sangh Parivar sympathisers to research councils and change in approach to primary education.

Institutions that need a complete overhaul include the University Grants Commission (UGC), the All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE), the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR), the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) and the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS).

However, it is in the primary and secondary education sectors that the new Ministry will have to do much work. The new textbooks written by academics appointed by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) came under fire for plagiarism, factual errors and distortion of facts. For instance, "Modern India", the NCERT's history textbook for Class XII, lifted major portions from historian R.C. Majumdar's classic History and Culture of Indian People. Similarly, "Ancient India" reproduced entire paragraphs from Romila Thapar's History of India. Many of the textbooks are replete with incorrect statements about places, dates and events. They also seem to have been carefully doctored in order to suppress inconvenient facts. Rather than improving on the textbooks in use, the NCERT printed new versions that omitted historical events not corresponding to the "national identity" prescribed by the BJP regime. Questions have also been raised about the fate of NCERT Director J.S. Rajput, who was appointed during Joshi's tenure. He is due to retire in a few months.

The Left parties have demanded that the new government revert to the old textbooks. Communist Party of India general secretary A.B. Bardhan said: "A review committee of experts should be set up to go into all the mistakes and distortions. The saffronised textbooks should be withdrawn and revised ones printed again."

In his first meeting with mediapersons after assuming office, Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh said that he was willing to correct the wrongs, but only after a thorough review. Arjun Singh said that he was aware of the Left's demand but did not want to take any decision in haste.

One of the first things he did after assuming office was to meet the NCERT staff and the IIM heads. Congress and alliance leaders had opposed Joshi's interference in the IIMs and condemned his decision to slash their fees by 80 per cent. With the IIM fee issue in court, the government will not be able to take a decision now.

A possible patch-up with the autonomous School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), New Delhi, which was to be taken over by the Ministry, could also be delayed because a case in this regard is pending before the Delhi High Court. SPA Professor K.T. Ravindran said: "In the short term the new government should remove the uncertainties around the SPA which have demoralised the faculty. The academic autonomy of the SPA needs to be restored immediately."

The work of the last government has proved that the very administrative structure of professional institutes makes them susceptible to government pressures. Ravindran said: "This is not good for any institute. There is a need for changing the system structurally to make it free from political pressure and leanings."

The new government also needs to put the policy on elementary education in order. After spending several thousand crores on elementary education, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government was able to bring down the dropout rate in primary schools by only about 2 per cent. Justifying its work, the government said that all major schemes of universalisation of elementary education started after 2000. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the government's most ambitious project on elementary education, was launched in 2001. The 86th Constitution Amendment Act (since re-enacted as the Free and Compulsory Education Bill) that made elementary education for all children a fundamental right was enacted in 2002.

Objections have been raised against the Free and Compulsory Education Bill too. Former NCERT author and historian Arjun Dev said: "The Bill provides legitimate space at various administrative and academic levels for extra-constitutional authorities, including communal bodies such as the Sangh Parivar organisations, to introduce their ideological agenda in school education while keeping them outside the purview of the constitutional framework."

Delineating the problematic areas in the Bill, Dev points out that it promotes privatisation and `corporatisation' of school education; franchises parts or whole of districts to corporate or religious bodies for running the elementary education system; shifts the constitutional obligation of the state to support elementary education to parents and local communities; promotes `special schools' for the disabled children at the cost of inclusive education; and introduces a range of other distortions in the elementary education system.

The Bill exemplifies the inept approach of the NDA government towards elementary education, which worked on the assumption that a school type facility would ensure attendance of children in schools. On the other hand, experts point out that there is an urgent need to devise a curriculum that would be more relevant to the needs of children in rural areas. The Bill enforces primary education by compromising on the overall quality of education for the underprivileged.

The new government would also need to overhaul the education system so that it benefits girl students who have a higher dropout rate than boys. The NDA government reduced the budgetary allocation to several educational schemes that benefited the girl child. One such project is the Kasturba Gandhi Swatantra Vidyalaya (KGSV) programme. (Under KGSV, approximately 35 million girls, who were out of school, were to be offered free accommodation and condensed academic courses until they were ready to be inducted into the formal school system.) In 2003 the Ministry stipulated that Rs.1,200 crores would be needed to run the project, but the government allocated only Rs.489 crores. For Mahila Samakhya, another gender-specific programme on elementary education, the Ministry initially proposed to spend Rs.250 crores. However, only Rs.100 crores was allotted to the scheme in the Tenth Five Year Plan.

Critics warn that such massive reduction in funds for elementary education will push back the literacy programmes by several years. A reduced budget may mean fewer teachers, lesser and poor quality teaching aids and a compromise in the implementation of the schemes. The NDA government spent Rs.15,588 crores on elementary education under the Ninth Plan, about Rs.1,000 crores less than the original allocation of Rs.17,000 crores. This year the budget for primary and adult education has gone up by Rs.1,100 crores. Experts say that the amount is still not sufficient. Under the Tenth Plan, the Mahila Samakhya, the KGSV, Free Education for Girls and Secondary Education for Girls schemes would require around Rs.4,100 crores.

Experts point to the need to fill the cumulative gap built up since the Education Commission's recommendations in 1964-66 within a 10-year time-frame. In the case of elementary education, it was to fill this cumulative gap that the Tapas Majumdar Committee (1999) recommended an additional investment of Rs.13,700 crores a year for the next 10 years, which amounts to about 0.6 per cent of the current gross domestic product (GDP).

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