Uniform & equitable

Print edition : September 09, 2011

At a school in Tiruchi on August 16, teaching science to class X students under the 'Samacheer Kalvi' system. - M. MOORTHY

The Supreme Court directs the Tamil Nadu government to implement the uniform system of school education immediately.

Children are not only the future citizens but also the future of the earth. Elders in general, and parents and teachers in particular, owe a responsibility for taking care of the well-being and welfare of the children. The world shall be a better or worse place to live according to how we treat the children today. Education is an investment made by the nation in its children for harvesting a future crop of responsible adults productive of a well-functioning society. However, children are vulnerable. They need to be valued, nurtured, caressed and protected.

The Supreme Court in Rohit Singhal & Others vs Principal, Jawahar N. Vidyalaya, & Others, December 18, 2002.

THE Supreme Court recalled this pertinent observation on August 9 when it delivered a landmark judgment in the Tamil Nadu Uniform System of School Education (USSE) case. The three-judge Bench of Justices J.M. Panchal, Deepak Verma and B.S. Chauhan ended all uncertainties over the fate of the Samacheer Kalvi' (equitable standard education) scheme by directing the State government to implement it for all classes up to Standard X within 10 days.

The court upheld the July 18 order of the High Court declaring unconstitutional and ultra vires Article 14 of the Constitution the decision of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government to put on hold the Tamil Nadu USSE Act, 2010. This ended the nearly 70-day ordeal of 1.23 crore students in four streams State Board, Anglo-Indian Board, Matriculation Board and Oriental Board and their parents and teachers ( Frontline, July 1, 2011, and August 12, 2011). The USSE was introduced during the previous Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) rule.

The Supreme Court's judgment exploded many myths built around the government's decision to stall the implementation of the scheme on the grounds that it suffers from illegality, irrationality and unconstitutionality.

The court cited 25 reasons for upholding the High Court order while dismissing a batch of appeals filed by the Tamil Nadu government and the associations of managements of matriculation schools.

Writing the judgment, Justice B.S. Chauhan said the State government should have acted bearing in mind that the destiny of a nation rests with its youth. The court said: The personality of a child is developed at the time of basic education during his formative years of life. Their career should not be left in dolorific conditions with uncertainty to such a great extent. The younger generation has to compete in the global market. Education is not a consumer service nor can the educational institution be equated with shops....

It categorically said the State government could by no means be justified in amending the provisions of Section 3 of the USSE Act, which stipulates the time frame for implementation of the uniform syllabus. The undertaking given by the learned Advocate General to the High Court that the [USSE] Act 2010 would be implemented in the academic year 2012-13 cannot be a good reason to hold the [Amendment] Act 2011 valid.

Pointing out that the government's decision to revert to the old syllabus would result in unnecessary confusion and stress, the court described the entire exercise by the government as arbitrary, discriminatory and oppressive to students, teachers and parents.

As early as in April 2011, textbooks for Standard X were posted on the official website of the School Education Department and many students, parents and teachers had downloaded them under the impression that for classes II to V and VII to X the common education system would definitely be implemented from the academic year 2011-12. Such pious hope of so many stakeholders could not be betrayed. Rolling back the Act 2010 at this belated stage and withdrawal thereof even for Standard I and VI would be unjust, iniquitous and unfair to all concerned, the court said.

Government's motive

The verdict also questioned the government's motive in amending the USSE Act. Before the first Cabinet meeting of the new government on May 22, that is, on May 21, tenders were invited to publish the books under the old education system. It shows that there had been a predetermined political decision to scrap the Act 2010.

Undoubtedly there had been a few instances of portraying the personality by the leader of political party earlier in power [former Chief Minister and DMK president M. Karunanidhi], that is, personal glorification, self-publicity and promotion of his own cult and philosophy, which could build his political image and influence the young students, particularly in the books of primary classes. Such objectionable material, if any, could be deleted, rather than putting the operation of the Act 2010 in abeyance for indefinite period, the court observed.

The Bench was of the view that the amendment itself was totally unwarranted as the State government had sufficient powers to deal with the nature of defects appropriately under the High Court judgment with the statutory power available for that purpose under Section 18 of the USSE Act, 2010. What could have been done with the help of a needle was unnecessarily attempted by wielding a sword from the blunt side, it said.

The court referred to the plea to scrap the uniform education system made by various private school managements to the AIADMK government soon after it took over on May 16. It said: As most of these representations were made by the societies/organisations who had earlier challenged the validity of the Act 2010 and met their Waterloo in the hierarchy of the courts, such representations were, in fact, not even maintainable and thus could not have been entertained by the government.

The Act itself provided for its commencement, giving the academic years, in a phased programme, that is, for classes I and VI from the academic year 2010-11 and for other classes from the academic year 2011-12. Thus enforcement was not dependent on any further notification, the court pointed out. The USSE Act was enacted to enforce a uniform education system in the State in order to impart quality education to all children without any discrimination on the grounds of their economic, social or cultural background, it said.

The justification pleaded by the State that the Amendment Act 2011 was brought to avoid contempt proceedings as the directions issued by the High Court [in April 2010] could not be complied with, is totally a misconceived idea and not worth acceptance.

Chief Minister Jayalalithaa. Soon after the Supreme Court verdict she announced that the government would implement the uniform system of school education immediately.-DIPR

The government also did not have any material before it on the basis of which it could take the decision not to implement the USSE Act, as, admittedly, the experts' committee constituted on the direction of the Supreme Court had not done any exercise of reviewing the syllabus or textbooks until then, the judgment noted.

Even after the experts' committee had gone into issues relating to the USSE syllabus, there was no unanimity on any particular issue as each member had expressed a different opinion on different issues/subjects, it said. The members did not reject the textbooks and syllabus in toto. However, they pointed out certain discrepancies therein and asked for rectifications/improvements of the same, it added.

Referring to the statement of objects and reasons of the Amendment Act, which spoke of finding a better system of school education, the court said, Thus, the object has been to repeal the Act 2010.

In unambiguous terms the court said: The High Court as well as this court upheld the validity of the Act 2010. Thus it was not permissible for the legislature to annul the effect of the said judgments by the Amendment Act 2011, particularly so far as Standards I and VI are concerned. The list of approved textbooks had been published and made known to all concerned. Thus, the Act 2010 stood completely implemented so far as these standards were concerned.

The Amendment Act, in fact, nullified the April 30, 2010, judgment of the High Court, which was approved by the Supreme Court on September 10, 2010. This is tantamount to repealing of the Act 2010 as unfettered and uncanalised power has been bestowed upon the government to notify the commencement of the uniform education system, it said.

It is a settled proposition of law that what cannot be done directly is not permissible to be done obliquely, meaning thereby, whatever is prohibited by law to be done cannot legally be effected by an indirect and circuitous contrivance., the court added.

The apex court referred to an observation made by the High Court while examining the validity of the amended provisions: As there is no challenge to the Amending Act on the grounds of legislative incompetence, we are not required to examine the effect of the Amending Act on such grounds or to examine whether the Amending Act is a colourable legislation on such aspects.

Moves against commercialisation

Tracing the background of the introduction of the USSE in Tamil Nadu, the court recalled the various steps taken at the national level in the post-Independence period to redeem education from the clutches of commercialism/mercantilism. These steps included the setting up of the Secondary School Commission in 1951 as recommended by the Central Advisory Board of Education and the preparation of textbooks and a common syllabus for all students as suggested by the government.

The judgment also referred to the report of the Kothari Commission (1964-1966) on a national education policy recommending that public-funded schools be opened for all children irrespective of caste, creed, community, religion, economic conditions or social status. The commission's recommendations were accepted and reiterated by the Yashpal Committee in 1993.

It was against this backdrop that there was a demand from people in Tamil Nadu to bring about a common education system for all children, the apex court said. It added that in view of the struggle and campaign and constant public pressure the government appointed a committee under the chairmanship of S. Muthukumaran, former Vice-Chancellor of Bharathidasan University, in 2006.

The panel in its report, submitted on July 7, 2007, recommended the introduction of a common education system after abolishing the four different boards in existence in the State.

On the issue of right to education, the court said: There has been a campaign that right to education under Article 21-A of our Constitution be read in conformity with Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution and there must be no discrimination in quality of education. Thus, a common syllabus and a common curriculum is required.

The right of the child should not be restricted only to free and compulsory education but should be extended to quality education without any discrimination on the grounds of their economic, social or cultural backgrounds, it said.

The propagators of this campaign believed that a uniform education system would lead to a code of common culture, remove disparity and deplete discriminatory values in human relations. The system would enhance virtues and improve the quality of human life, elevate the thoughts that advanced the constitutional philosophy of equal society, it added.

Close on the heels of the clear message sent out by the Supreme Court, Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa announced in the State Assembly that the government would implement the USSE immediately. She had announced on the eve of the judgment that the government would abide by the court's order.

The distribution of textbooks under the USSE has commenced after effecting 41 alterations and deletions.

Several political parties, including the DMK, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India, the Pattali Makkal Katchi and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam welcomed the judgment. They urged the government to take immediate steps for its implementation.

Describing the court's decision as a great success of the sustained struggle of students for an equitable standard education, K.S. Kanagaraj, president of the State unit of the Students Federation of India (SFI), called for immediate steps to distribute the USSE textbooks to all students.

Veteran educationist S.S. Rajagopalan said, The Supreme Court has in its lofty wisdom upheld the validity of the curriculum and the textbooks with a rider that the government is free to review the books and intimate the schools about changes or deletions within a period of three months.

He called for immediate steps to address the other factors contributing to inequity in the field of school education. He also stressed the need for a time-bound plan of action to achieve equitable standard education.

Prince Gajendra Babu, convener of the State Platform for Common School System, described it as a historic verdict. If Samacheer Kalvi is the first step towards social justice, the USSE is the first step taken in the direction of achieving equitable standard education, he said.

A section of managements of private schools, particularly those in the matriculation stream, even while avoiding a defiant posture, put up a brave front.

Addressing a press conference in Chennai on August 11, some functionaries of the Tamil Nadu Nursery, Primary, Matriculation and Higher Secondary Schools Association urged the State government to permit private schools to start Central Board of Secondary Education sections separately even while adopting the USSE syllabus.

This would enable those schools which wanted to switch over to the CBSE stream to do so next year, they said.

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