Hard lessons

Print edition : August 12, 2011

SCHOOL CHILDREN WITH THEIR Samacheer Kalvi textbooks in Kancheepuram. - B. JOTHI RAMALINGAM

The Tamil Nadu government has no option but to implement the common syllabus in schools across the State, following a Madras High Court order.

THE two-month-old All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government in Tamil Nadu suffered a tremendous loss of face when the High Court of Madras struck down, on July 18, an amendment it made to the Uniform System of School Education (USSE) Act of Tamil Nadu, 2010. The amendment aimed at shelving the Samacheer Kalvi (equitable standard education) scheme introduced by the previous Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government. The court said the amendment was unconstitutional and ultra vires Article 14 of the Constitution.

Though the State government moved the Supreme Court on July 19, it did not get the relief sought. In response to its special leave petition (SLP) that sought the quashing of the High Court judgment and an interim stay, the Supreme Court, on July 21, directed the government to begin distribution of the USSE textbooks forthwith and complete it on or before August 2 instead of July 22 as stipulated by the High Court. The court posted July 26 as the date for the final disposal of the case.

The court order left the government with no option but to implement the USSE for all classes in all schools under the four streams State Board, Matriculation, Oriental, and Anglo-Indian in the current academic year itself.

The Samacheer Kalvi scheme was introduced for Classes I and VI all over the State in the academic year 2010-11. It was also decided then that it would come into force for classes II to V and classes VII to X in the academic year 2011-12.

The State government's decision to challenge the High Court judgment triggered a protest, with students, parents and organisations such as the Students Federation of India (SFI) staging demonstrations in different parts of the State calling for the implementation of the scheme without further delay. Signature campaigns and dharnas were also launched. In Chennai, activists of the SFI staged a road roko agitation near the Directorate of School Education and courted arrest.

Major political parties in the State, including the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), which is the principal opposition party in the State Assembly, the DMK, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India, the Congress and the Pattali Makkal Katchi, have urged the government not to defer the implementation of the scheme, particularly in the wake of the High Court order.

High Court's direction

The High Court had also directed the government to distribute forthwith the textbooks printed under the USSE and complete the process on or before July 22 to enable teachers to commence classes.

Delivering the order, the First Bench, comprising Chief Justice M.Y. Eqbal and Justice T.S. Sivagnanam, said: [W]e feel that the decision of the State government to put on hold the Uniform System of Education and to revert back to the 2004 stream is undoubtedly a step backward, which we shall not permit.

In tune with the Supreme Court's observation in the Indra Sawhney vs Union of India case of 2000 that the court can tear the veil to decide the real nature of the statute if the facts and circumstances warrant such a course, the High Court said: We have no hesitation to hold that the State has exceeded its powers in bringing the Amending Act to postpone an enactment which has already come into force.

The doctrine of colourable legislation also states, whatever legislature cannot do directly, it cannot do indirectly', it added. An amendment Act which has the effect of repeal of the parent Act under the guise of postponement of its implementation, when in fact the parent Act has already been implemented, though partially, has to be held to be an arbitrary piece of legislation which does not satisfy the touchstone of Article 14 of the Constitution of India.

The court said that amendments to principal or subordinate legislation either by executive decisions or by a legislative Act should normally have one paramount consideration in mind, that is, the persons who were going to be affected by such amendment. Bearing in mind the above principle, we have no hesitation to hold that if the impugned amending Act is allowed to stand, the impact on the education system and over one crore students would be tremendous and would result in far-reaching consequences. The petitioners had also submitted in a singular voice that students had been idling for nearly one month now as they had not been provided with textbooks, it pointed out.

Against this backdrop, the court said, [T]o end the impasse, the only legal, reasonable and proper solution would be to direct the State to commence academic session 2011-2012 by following the uniform syllabus and common textbooks under the uniform system which have been printed and are ready for distribution, while simultaneously permitting the State to examine the issues pointed out by the committee [appointed by the present government, as directed by the Supreme Court] to suggest additions, deletions within the shortest possible time, say within three months, and, if necessary, to introduce a supplemental booklet to cover the topics which are stated to have been omitted and simultaneously provide material to the teachers guiding them about teaching methodology for effective implementation of the uniform system of education.

Expressing concern about the plight of as many as 1.23 crore students from Standards I to X in all the four streams of school education in the State, the court said the children were left without any textbooks and syllabi. [A]long with their parents, they are in a dilemma as to whether the uniform syllabus, which was to commence as per the Tamil Nadu Uniform System of School Education Act, 2010, would be postponed because of the amendment brought in the Act by the new government immediately after coming into power, and also as to whether the textbooks as per the new syllabus got printed and made ready by spending about 200 crore rupees of public money by the erstwhile [DMK] government would be destroyed or disposed of.

Samacheer Kalvi

In its preface to the order, the Bench also gave a brief history of the Tamil Nadu USSE Act, 2010. The Samacheer Kalvi scheme was introduced to provide a common syllabus, common textbooks and common examinations for all the four streams of school education. The then DMK government was of the view that it was indispensable to evolve a uniform system of school education in the State to ensure social justice and provide quality education in all the schools in the State. The court also referred to the appointment of the Muthukumaran Committee to examine the possibilities of implementing the USSE and also recounted other follow-up measures taken by the then government ( Frontline, July 1, 2011).

Private school managements from various districts challenged the Act on various grounds, one of which was that the legislation interfered with the right of children to choose their preferred system of education. However, the Act was upheld by a Division Bench of the High Court on April 30, 2010. The aggrieved parties moved the Supreme Court by filing SLPs that were ultimately dismissed, and the judgment of the Division Bench attained finality.

However, the Cabinet of the new government at its first meeting on May 22 decided to put on hold the Act and the Assembly passed on June 7 a Bill to amend Section 3 of the Act [fixing the time frame for its implementation and the norms for giving instructions and conducting examination]. The amendment was stayed by the High Court on June 10. But the court made it clear that the stay would not operate as a bar for the government to conduct a detailed study of the common syllabus and common textbooks introduced under the original Act and that the government was entitled to delete, add, modify, substitute or alter any chapter, paragraph, portion of textbooks that were included to propagate the achievement of a political party or an individual and issue appropriate instructions in this regard.

Challenging the High Court's stay order, the State government moved the Supreme Court. The apex court disposed of the appeal on June 14 with certain directions, amending the interim order of the High Court in the interest of justice.

The order said that USSE, which had already been in force for Standards I and VI for the academic year 2010-11, should continue in all aspects for 2011-12 as well. The court directed the State to appoint a committee primarily to examine ways and means of implementing the Uniform Syllabus System' to the Classes (II to V and VII to X) in question, common syllabus and the books which are to be provided for the purpose, besides going into the objections which are raised to the books already published or any part thereof. The court also said that the expert committee headed by the Chief Secretary to the Tamil Nadu government should place its recommendations before the High Court within three weeks.

Pursuant to the order, a committee was constituted by the government on June 15 and the panel submitted its report to the High Court on July 5. The panel, in its recommendations, concluded that the common syllabus for implementing the USSE was not up to the standard and the Samacheer Kalvi textbooks could not be used for the academic year 2011-12.

Striking at the roots of the USSE, the committee concluded that equality in schools would not be achieved just by imparting education by devising a common syllabus and textbooks but would also need other important segments of education such as infrastructure in classrooms, toilets, drinking water facilities and a safe environment for children and, most importantly, qualified, well-trained teachers in the right pupil-to-teacher ratio.

Claiming that the committee's recommendations were unanimous, the report decried the common syllabus for not being age-appropriate. The report also faulted the syllabus on the grounds that it had been organised around abstract concepts without giving importance to key themes in any subject area; that it deviated from the National Curriculum Framework 2005 with regard to primary and upper primary stages; that it neglected analytical thinking; that it omitted life and survival skills; and that it lacked gradation and interdisciplinary relationship among the concepts in a subject and across subjects.

The committee is of the strong opinion that the common syllabus has been framed in a hurried manner within a very short period of time without taking into account the basic requirements of formulating a good curriculum, the report said. Dubbing the textbooks substandard, the committee appointed by the AIADMK government said, [T]he textbooks seemed to be prepared in haste and in a hurried manner. The textbooks have been translated from Tamil into English, which in general is very poor and at times atrocious. This process of literal translation has made the science and social science textbooks of all the classes worthless.

N.G.R. Prasad, senior counsel appearing for the State Platform for Common School System, argued that the Supreme Court had not directed the committee to reject the uniform syllabus and the common textbooks but only to submit its recommendations as regards the implementation of the USSE. Therefore, the report of the committee was far beyond the mandate granted by the apex court, he argued.

Specific mandate'

The High Court Bench also observed that the Supreme Court had given a specific mandate to the committee to review the quality of the textbooks prepared under the USSE and there was no direction to decide whether the Samacheer Kalvi textbooks could be used for the current academic year. But the committee came to the conclusion that the Samacheer Kalvi textbooks cannot be used for the academic year 2011-12. A similar stand was taken by the respondent-State in their counter-affidavit. Not only that, the whole exercise was done by the Secretary, School Education Department, right from the preparation of the draft report till the finalisation of the final report, it pointed out.

After going through the minutes of the proceedings of the expert committee meeting, the High Court said not a single member of the panel expressed the opinion that the textbooks could not be used for the academic year 2011-12. At this stage, we may note that the committee members were not of unanimous opinion that the uniform syllabus and common textbooks have to be discarded for the current year. Each member has pointed out certain changes and additions. The nominees from the NCERT [National Council of Educational Research and Training] have also voiced such an opinion. The positive aspects of the uniform syllabus and common textbooks have been pointed out in their individual reports, the court observed.

Referring to the efforts made by the previous government in evolving the USSE system, the court said, We cannot countenance the submission made by the State as well as the matriculation schools that the introduction of the Uniform System of Education was done in a hasty manner. On the government's claim that certain provisions of the Act, such as the notification of an Academic Authority, were not complied with, the court said: We fail to understand as to why the student community should be put at peril for the inaction or lethargy of the executive.

Referring to the decision of the Cabinet to put on hold the USSE at its hour-long meeting on May 22 where several issues, including the one relating to Samacheer Kalvi, were discussed, the court said, Prima facie, this shows that the action of the government to switch back to the old syllabus is not based on the report of any expert committee. On a closer examination, by going into the true intent of the amending Act, it is in effect a repealing Act, seeking to repeal the parent Act.

The State government's SLP said: The High Court failed to appreciate that the amendment Act is a valid legislation empowering the executive government to decide when to implement the uniform syllabus after overhauling the syllabus thoroughly and all steps are taken to comply with the directions of the judicial verdict.

As such it is a well-recognised legislative tool which ought not to have been lightly interfered with and interdicted, that too without any finding of transgression of constitutional guarantees and/or nullifying judicial pronouncement.

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