Shades of saffron

Print edition : June 05, 2009

Rajya Sabha members Thanga Tamil Selvan, M. Venkaiah Naidu, Maya Singh and Nandi Yellaiah meet the press after a discussion with parents in Chennai on the introduction of the Adolescence Education Programme in schools. A 2007 picture.-S.R. RAGHUNATHAN

A PROGRAMME designed by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD) to impart adolescence education to children aged 14 and above in schools has run into trouble following an adverse report by the Rajya Sabha Committee on Petitions. The committee, headed by M. Venkaiah Naidu of the Bharatiya Janata Party, stated in its 135th report that the Adolescence Education Programme (AEP) launched in 2005, was a cleverly used euphemism whose real objective was to impart sex education to schoolchildren and promote promiscuity. It also disapproved of the importance given to the National Aids Control Organisation (NACO) in the AEP.

The 10-member committee was reconstituted three times in 2006-07, 2007-08 and 2008-09 with Venkaiah Naidu continuing as chairperson. Its members in 2008-09 were Vijay Darda, Dharam Pal Sabarwal and Ram Chandra Khuntia of the Congress, Maya Singh of the BJP, Subhash Prasad Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, N.R. Govindarajar of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Sabir Ali of the Lok Janshakti Party, Shyamal Chakravarty of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Virendra Bhatia of the Samajwadi Party.

The committee has imbued the report with its own interpretation of culture through sweeping generalisations of what an adolescence education programme for schoolchildren should contain. In the process, what could have emerged as a gender perspective on adolescence education has been reduced to a litany of criticism on what is culturally appropriate.

The committees report has come at a time when a review is under way and several State governments, who had been told that culturally specific modifications could be made according to their needs, have initiated the process in their curriculums and informed the petitions committee of the same at the State-level deliberations.

It is also not clear whether the committees report reflects the sentiments of a cross section of people other than those represented by religious organisations, the Save Education Committee and student organisations such as the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad.

By the committees own admission, the Rajya Sabha secretariat wrote to all States and Union Territories seeking their views. Only 13 States/Union Territories sent in their views; the committee heard the views of six States when it visited them. A perusal of the responses from the States the committee visited showed that not all of them had rejected the AEP in toto. While Gujarat and Rajasthan rejected it outright, many others had only made changes to it.

Interestingly, the report states that the students the committee interviewed in government schools, as also teachers and parents, were receptive to the idea. But it also declares that of the 4,50,000 representations it received, the overwhelming majority was against the introduction of AEP in schools. It noted a general sense of protest amongst the stakeholders during its visits. However, this sense of protest is not reflected in the views of a few State government representatives, students, teachers and parents mentioned in the committees report.

The culturally loaded conclusions in the report give the impression that the committee was set up with the sole purpose of imposing on adolescent minds a certain value system rather than to address their problems. Incidentally, the committee was set up on the basis of petitions and representations primarily from the Shiksha Bachao Andolan, which claims to be a forum of nationalist historians, intellectuals, teachers, students and their parents resolved to protect Indias education system from exploitation by the regressive influences of Marx, Macaulay and Madrassa (the Evil Three).

The committee apparently collected feedback on the AEP for almost one and a half years. It concluded, among other things, that there should be no sex education in schools; that a message should be given to schoolchildren that there should be no sex before marriage, which is immoral, unethical and unhealthy; that the new curriculum should include appropriate material on the lives and teachings of our great saints, spiritual leaders, freedom fighters and national heroes so as to inculcate in children our national ideals and values, which would neutralise the impact of cultural invasion from various sources; that the school syllabi should cater to the needs and requirement of our society and culture; and that our countrys social and culture ethos are such that sex education has absolutely no place in it.

The committee also noted that basic human instincts like food, fear, greed, coitus, etc., need not be taught, rather control of these instincts should be the subject of education. But present [sic] academic system incites stimulation of instincts, which is detrimental to the society. To focus Indian education on instinct control should be the important objective and for that the dignity of restraint has to be well entrenched in education.

A leading educationist pointed out that the first few pages of the BJPs manifesto for the 2009 Lok Sabha elections read much the same as the committees conclusions on culture and education. It looks like the former HRD Minister of the NDA regime has drafted it, he said.

The committee has asked the HRD Ministry to consider its recommendations when it finalises the new syllabus on the basis of the revised curriculum submitted to it by the National Review Committee. It has further recommended that feedback be taken from State governments, Union Territories, parents, experts, teachers and the general public, and that the revised syllabus so prepared be placed before a Chief Ministers conference for a consensus.

The committee has said that pending finalisation of the new syllabus the Ministry should issue advisories to the respective authorities in the States and Union Territories to withdraw the existing AEP literature from all schools, be they State-run or affiliated to the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE). In fact, the committee has called for a national policy on the new curriculum.

The committee criticised the HRD Ministry for allowing NACO to control the entire exercise instead of seeking a national consensus on the AEP. The Ministry said in its defence that the consensus to introduce the AEP in schools was evolved at a national seminar on adolescence education organised by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) on April 12-13, 1993.

The seminar, it said, was attended by eminent educationists, psychologists, medical scientists, curriculum developers, teacher-educators, school principals and teachers, government officials and non-government representatives involved in imparting education on sex, family life, AIDS, health, population and drug abuse. There were specialists from universities, State councils of educational research and training (SCERT), the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), NACO, the Centre for Social Research, the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and representatives from United Nations organisations.

The seminar recommended the introduction of adolescence education in the curricula at all stages of schooling. Subsequently, the NCERT developed the general framework of adolescence education, which included the following three components: the process of growing up, HIV/AIDS, and drug abuse.

The HRD Ministry said the report of the seminar, titled Adolescent Education in School, brought out by the NCERT and the National Curriculum Framework 2005 paved the way for framing the AEP. Additionally, it explained that the AEP was an initiative to upscale three educational programmes that were being implemented. The implementation of the AEP was preceded by eight national workshops, which led to State-level action plans. More national-level meetings followed, after which the AEP tool kit was designed and the field testing was done in Delhi and Andhra Pradesh.

In 1999, the NCERT brought out a publication on Adolescence Education in Schools, whose objective was to ensure that children had proper knowledge about their bodies so that they were not lured to wrong information through their peers or other informal sources of learning.

The AEP concept came into existence after an inter-ministerial meeting on HIV/AIDS on October 27, 2004, at the HRD Ministry, which was identified as the lead agency for the implementation of the programme with financial and technical support from NACO, the United Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). It is perhaps the involvement of several funding agencies for the programme and the agenda-setting by some of them that led to the AEP receiving more flak than it merited.

Coming down heavily on the Ministry, the committee said it was shocking to note how so many agencies of the government could come together, conceptualise a syllabus, provide all kinds of justification to it, spend substantial amount of money in the printing of the material and then circulate it throughout the country with the avowed aim of providing scientific information and knowledge to the adolescents whereas the reality was that the AEP volumes were highly objectionable and bound to be rejected lock, stock and barrel.

Perhaps the only valid ground on which the AEP could have been criticised was its link with the prevention and control of HIV and AIDS. There is no doubt about the need for a gender-sensitive programme on sex and sexuality for adolescents irrespective of the perceived challenges of HIV and AIDS.

As an educationist involved with school education in Delhi pointed out, perhaps some of the explicit graphics, conceived as a tool kit for teachers, could have been modified given the sensitivities of teachers, especially male teachers, towards girl students. Anil Sadgopal, formerly Dean, Education, University of Delhi, said a gender perspective would be the right approach to instil in students a healthy attitude towards each other on issues related to sexuality and dispel the fears in this regard. The gender dimension, he said, would have taken it beyond issues of sex and sexuality.

I do not subscribe to the notion of Indian culture described by the committee. Indian culture has the highest understanding of sex and sexuality. Perhaps the committee hasnt been to Khajuraho. Even Meera Bais expression of bhakti for Krishna is so sensual, he told Frontline.

He also opposed the term life-skills as used in the AEP. He said that life-skills meant different things for children living in different socio-economic milieus. For a child in Jharkhand, it may be about land rights; for an upper middle class child in Delhi, it may mean something different, he said.

He recalled how a curriculum prepared with a gender perspective was tested in 36 government higher secondary schools in Chattarpur district of Madhya Pradesh. It looked at reproductive health issues and the patriarchal notions about them. It was received very well by the teachers, who were mainly from upper castes, and the students too, he said.

One of the petitions that the committee received from Asha Sharma of Delhi and Pratibha Naitthani of Mumbai, along with Anusuiya Uikey, a BJP member of the Rajya Sabha from Madhya Pradesh, who countersigned the petition stated that the material prepared for sex education would promote promiscuity of the worst kind. The main prayer of the petitioners was to put a hold on the introduction of sex education. Interestingly, the programme under attack does not use the term sex education in its title.

The petition, filed on May 17, 2007, said sex education would corrupt Indian youth and lead to a collapse of the education system, transform student-teacher relations into that of a man and woman, lead to the creation of immoral society and growth in single-parent families. The petitioners contended that it was an education to sell condoms.

On its part, the committee seems to have proceeded with preconceived notions right from the start. While collecting oral evidence from the petitioners it dissuaded them from making a powerpoint presentation on the grounds that its explicit contents would be embarrassing to the lady members and other lady staff present.

It was a striking coincidence that the petitioners and the witnesses examined by the committee held almost similar views on the subject. Further, the objections of the main petitioners and those voiced by the committee appeared to be the same. Both seem to be worried about the prospects of unbridled promiscuity.

One educationist quipped: We did not become one billion just like that. The experts and activists consulted by the committee included Dinanath Batra, national coordinator of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan; J.S. Rajput, former Director of the NCERT; and Joginder Singh, former Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). A number of religious heads, too, were consulted.

Janaki Rajan, former Director of SCERT, Delhi, and now Honorary Director, Sarojini Naidu Centre for Womens Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, told Frontline that children had a right to unbiased education and schools were the agency to provide this. Sex education should be made mandatory. There shouldnt be any fear-mongering in the name of HIV and AIDS, she said and added that some of the representations and questions in the AEP were not pedagogically sound. Sex education cannot be in the form of a medical model. It has to be taught with feeling and respect. It should not be done away with in the name of culture, she said.

While the last word on adolescence education is yet to be said, it is clear that the nature and content of any AEP will depend on what the government at the Centre wants it to be. One only hopes that the real needs of the adolescent group in a country as diverse as ours are not bypassed in the name of culture.

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