New Education Policy

The policy suspense

Print edition : July 08, 2016

HRD Minister Smriti Irani with T.S.R. Subramanian, Chairman, Drafting Committee for framing the New Education Policy, at the National Conference on Reforming and Rejuvenating Indian Higher Education, in New Delhi on June 18. Photo: V. Sudershan

At the State-level Consultative Meeting on New Education Policy in Puducherry in October 2015. Photo: T. Singaravelou

The Human Resource Development Ministry’s insistence on keeping the T.S.R. Subramanian Committee’s report secret fuels apprehensions about its agenda in the education sector.

The latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) paints a grim picture of the country’s school education system. According to the report, 21.6 per cent of the students in Class VIII cannot read the texts of Class II; only 24.5 per cent of students in Classes I to VIII can recognise numbers; 52.6 per cent of Class V students cannot do simple division; and a staggering 75.5 per cent cannot do simple subtraction. The Narendra Modi government, which assumed office two years ago riding a huge wave of expectations, has done little to improve the school education system beyond tokenism and empty rhetoric.

The government has been working on a new education policy for a year. But if reports in the media are to be believed, it may take many more months before it announces the policy and implements it. The exercise was formally launched on January 26, 2015, with the government inviting suggestions online at the ‘mygov’ website after putting up over 33 themes for consultation. These included ensuring learning outcomes at the elementary school level; extending outreach of secondary and senior secondary education; strengthening vocational education; reforming the examination system; revamping teachers’ education; promoting information and communication technology; promoting inclusive education to benefit students belonging to the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes, the minority communities and girls and special needs children; promoting languages, ethics education, physical education, arts, crafts and life skills; and focussing on child health.

According to the Ministry of Human Resource Development, over 29,000 suggestions were received online. Its press release last year said over 2.5 lakh gram panchayats, 6,600 blocks, 6,000 urban local bodies, 676 districts, and 36 States/Union Territories participated in the ground-level consultations between May and October 2015. It noted that 63,100 villages, 3,088 blocks, 822 urban local bodies, 247 districts and three States had uploaded their suggestions on the ‘mygov’ website by October 2015. Besides, on August 19, 2015, a meeting of the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) was held, in which views of all the States were invited. According to the press release, HRD Minister Smriti Irani held six zonal meetings during September-October 2015 with State Education Ministers and officials and also a meeting with Central Ministers to seek their suggestions. Extensive online parleys were also held: six online discussions with subject experts and field practitioners, online surveys by the CBSE, and youth surveys and group discussions by the Mahatma Gandhi Institute for Education for Peace and Sustainable Development.

On the basis of suggestions made at these consultations, to draft the new education policy it formed a five-member committee, headed by former Cabinet Secretary T.S.R. Subramanian, on October 31, 2015. Former Chief Secretary of Delhi Shailaja Chandra, former Chief Secretary of Gujarat Sudhir Mankad, former National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) chairman J.S. Rajput and former Delhi Home Secretary Sewaram Sharma were its members. The committee was to submit its report, along with a Framework For Action (FFA) by December 31, 2015. However, it got an extension and finally submitted its report on May 27, 2016.

After such a painstaking exercise, the government was expected to place the report in the public domain and invite suggestions from the public at large before announcing the much-awaited National Education Policy. After all, it was after a gap of over 30 years that the education policy was sought to be rewritten. The last National Education Policy was announced in 1986.

But the HRD Ministry announced that the report would not be placed in the public domain until it was discussed with the States, their suggestions incorporated and the draft policy finalised. This shroud of secrecy around the report fuelled apprehensions that the government might try and push its political agenda through the new policy. In the mean time, parts of the report were selectively leaked. Developments elsewhere—the turmoil in the Jawaharlal Nehru University and the University of Hyderabad, appointments of right-wing people at key positions in institutions such as the Indian Council of Historical Research, the University Grants Commission, the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, the Banaras Hindu University, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, the Film and Television Institute of India and the Central Board of Film Certification—stoked fears of an agenda to tighten the hold of the Sangh Parivar on institutions of education and culture. These fears led to a demand from academic circles to make the report public.

According to officials in the HRD Ministry, there were apprehensions within the Ministry that making the report public would lead to unnecessary controversies that might scuttle the policy. “We just wanted to avoid controversies,” a senior Ministry official said. But then the committee chairman, T.S.R. Subramanian, wrote a letter to the HRD Minister demanding that the report be made public and saying that he would make it public otherwise. He said that in his opinion there was nothing secretive about the report and it could be put up for discussion in the public domain before being announced as the national policy. This evoked an angry outburst from the Minister who said the report would not be made public until the States had been consulted and that it could not be treated as a legacy of one individual seeking to make headlines.

Twitter battle

Addressing a press conference to announce the Ministry’s achievements over the last two years, Smriti Irani said: “This education policy will not become an attempt to be a legacy of one individual who seeks a headline. My request is that this policy recommendation is the property of one lakh and ten thousand villages, over 5,000 blocks, over 500 districts, and 20 States, which have entrusted it to us with the confidence that any recommendation that comes to the Centre will be shared with them before it is made into a draft policy.”

She further said: “It is unfortunate that misleading or distasteful headlines are being done. I will not renege on my promise to State governments that they will have a voice in it [the draft policy] before I dedicate it to the nation.”

Her statement led to another controversy since the report had not been sent to the State governments either, which was evident from a Twitter battle between her and Bihar Education Minister Ashok Chaudhary. He asked Smriti Irani in a tweet when she was going to deliver on her promise of announcing the education policy as her declared deadline of December 31, 2015, was long over. Smriti Irani retorted that Bihar had still not sent its suggestions.

“But this is ridiculous because we have not received the report yet. How can we give our suggestions?” Ashok Chaudhary told Frontline from Patna. The Bihar government had not received the draft report and the Union Minister was fooling everyone by saying that States had been consulted, he said.

The controversy has created an apprehension that the much-awaited education policy might get inordinately delayed. Prominent academics have wondered what the harm was in putting the report in the public domain for a larger discussion because it was a matter that had a bearing on future generations. “Something as sensitive as the education policy should have had the maximum consultation. Why make it so secretive, selective and ineffective?” says John Kurrien, the director emeritus of Centre for Learning Resources, an organisation active in the field of child education and child rights. According to him, the lack of transparency in formulating the policy makes the government’s intention suspect. “Only 29,000 online suggestions and a fraction of villages, urban local bodies and only three States have uploaded their suggestions online and even these are not open to public viewing. So what is the credibility of who is being consulted, who is giving suggestions, whose suggestions are being accepted?” Kurrien said on the phone from Pune. Academics have also taken exception to the fact that the drafting committee had only one academic. All others, including Subramanian, were bureaucrats. “In view of that, it was even more important to make the report public so that the academic community could have discussed it,” says Kurrien. Subramanian, while refusing to talk about the contents of his report, told Frontline that in his opinion the report should be made public before being announced as policy, not afterwards, so that it had the widest possible consultation. “I did a lot of soul-searching and finally decided to write to the Minister, because in my opinion this is not a top-secret document but a report which is in public interest, hence it should be made public,” he said. He refused to comment on the controversy. “Let us not focus on non-issues. Let us focus on substantive issues which are going to impact our future generations,” he said.

J.S. Rajput, former NCERT chairman and known to be in the good books of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), said: “I think Subramanian should not have written that letter. Our job was to write the report, after that what the government does with it should not be our concern.”

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