How Modi Government Is Undermining Indian Education

One issue that has not received the attention it deserves from observers of the Modi sarkar has been its treatment of education. We have all heard for some time about the demographic dividend that awaits our nation from its youthful population, but we can only reap that dividend if we train and educate our young people to be able to take advantage of what the world has to offer them in the 21st century. Otherwise, the Naxalite menace shows us how easily the demographic dividend can become a disaster: there is nothing more dangerous to the nation than legions of under-educated, unemployed and unemployable young men with no stake in our society. This is why I have often argued that education in India is not just a socio-economic issue, but a national security issue as well.

But the Modi Sarkar’s performance in education so far does not inspire confidence. Its budgetary allocations tell the tale. The overall education budget is down from Rs. 82,771 cr to Rs. 69,074 cr. Whereas under the UPA, the Plan allocation went up by 18 per cent in 2012-13 and by 8.03 per cent in 2013-14, the BJP Govt has reduced the Plan allocation for 2015-16 by 24.68 per cent. The savage cuts go across the board: the flagship Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan has been reduced by 22.14 per cent, funding for the Mid-Day Meal Scheme by 16.41 per cent, the Rashtriya Madhyama Shiksha Abhiyan for secondary education by 28.7 per cent and the Rashtriya Uchhattar Shiksha Abhiyan, to support state colleges, by 48 per cent. To take just one example, the SSA, which funds schools across the country: MHRD had asked for Rs. 50,000 cr in 2015-16; it received Rs. 22,000 cr from the Modi sarkar’s current Budget.

How can the government’s grandiose targets – and more important, the nation’s indispensable objectives – be achieved? The onus will be on the States, but they are the ones clamouring for more Central assistance. Formerly, the Central government had shared its RTE budget with states on a 65:35 proportion (90:10 in the NorthEast) but most states had been unable to provide their share. (When I was Minister, I recall that Rajasthan, for instance, didn’t pay teachers’ salaries till Central funds were received). Now, presumably, the share expected from our cash-strapped and governance-challenged states will be higher – and their failure bigger.

What monitoring mechanisms is the cash-strapped MHRD devising? Now that the Planning Commission has been abolished, who is going to perform its oversight role?

In higher education, we have long lamented that not a single Indian university is in the top 200 of any of the global rankings. But look at the non-seriousness of the BJP’s approach to our flagship IIT system. They have announced the creation of five new IITs with a grand total investment of Rs. 1000 crore – but the Government’s own Detailed Project Report specifies that the cost of establishing an IIT is Rs. 2200 cr over a period of 7 years: in other words, each new IIT needs an annual expenditure of around Rs. 310 crore a year. Mr Jaitley’s allocations fall dramatically short of that – and this excludes any amount which may be needed for completing the construction of previously announced IITs. Inadequate funding has compromised the quality of education in all newly established IITs and IIMs, with the government rolling out more such institutions without strengthening the existing infrastructure.

This is just one example. The reduced allocations across the board do not match the 12th Plan objectives regarding expansion, growth, access, or quality of Higher Education. The 12th Plan approach paper had proposed that 18 per cent of all Government education spending or 1.12 per cent of GDP should be on Higher Education, and Parliament’s Standing Committee on HRD recommended raising it to 25 per cent and 1.5 per cent respectively. Instead, this government is going in the opposite direction.

The picture of enrolment is more encouraging, but offset by an alarming level of dropouts. Our Gross Enrolment Ratio at primary level is high (over 101 per cent) but so is the dropout rate – about 30 per cent drop out by Class 8. You can’t educate them if they’re not in school. MHCR has also released figures of 60 lakh out-of-school children; according to the Ministry’s ‘Education for All’ report to UNESCO in 2012, this had declined to 30 lakhs just 2 years ago, which suggests that the trend is reversing. When I pointed this out in the Lok Sabha, Education Minister Smriti Irani declared that my math was wrong. It isn’t, but perhaps one of MHRD’s figures is.

My concern about this situation is that SC/ST children and those from disadvantaged communities are disproportionately missing out. It is clear that they are not taking advantage of schemes like the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas (residential schools in which 75 per cent seats are reserved for SC/ST/OBC/minorities). The Centre also says it will no longer support states in building 6000 model schools in educationally backward districts. Announcing Central objectives and expecting the States to fund them is a peculiar hallmark of this government. But it is not going to transform this country in any domain, least of all education.

Take Kendriya Vidyalayas. Demand for KVs has been going up: most Indians want quality education that’s also affordable. But again, more Central investment is required in the scheme. For the six KV seats I’m entitled to allot under the MP’s quota, I had 459 requests from constituents. The increase from six seats to ten proposed by the Standing Committee and recommended by the Minister won’t come close to overcoming the demand/supply mismatch. The only answer lies in creating 500 more KVs across the country, as UPA wanted to do. The BJP has given no resources for this. Nor does it plan to enhance the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas, highly sought-after residential schools for the mainly rural poor. It should ideally create JNVs for specially disadvantaged groups, like the fishing community in the coastal areas.

An educated country needs good teachers, and enough of them. But only 63 per cent of government schools have a Pupil-Teacher ratio as per RTE norms (30:1 primary, 35:1 upper primary). According to the RTE Act, the prescribed norm had to be reached by March 2015: what is government doing about it?

We have a shortage of trained teachers as well as training institutes. There are 6 lakh posts of teachers vacant under the SSA. Even in the KVs, 7698 out of 44,529 sanctioned teaching posts are vacant; so are 50 per cent of positions in teacher-training institutions. Most teacher training colleges, as the Verma Committee observed, are so bad they should be closed down. If we train teachers badly, they will teach children badly. A serious initiative by MHRD is needed: urgent recruitment, more Teacher Eligibility Tests, remedial training. Instead we have a level of governmental inattention to the crisis that matches our notorious culture of teacher absenteeism. The picture is even worse in higher education: Central Universities, IITs, NITs, IIMs, are all suffering crippling shortages of teachers.

As a result, the quality of education continues to suffer. Learning outcomes in our school system remain weak. The National Achievement Survey, PISA and other measurements show that not even half the children in Class V can read a Class II text. The government seems bereft of ideas to remedy this.

One of the areas the government should be able to have a direct impact upon is infrastructure. But construction delays are affecting 177 KVs (including Pangode in my own constituency). Only 52 per cent of schools have a playground; only 83 per cent have a girls’ toilet. (MHRD’s own figures show 2 lakh schools without toilets and 5.2 lakh without playgrounds.)

Performance indicators make dismal reading. Take the scheme to set up girls’ hostels in all Educationally Backward Blocks: 3453 were approved, only 536 are functional. Only 69 per cent of the kitchens-cum-stores sanctioned for the mid-day meal programme have been constructed; the quality of food served remains a widespread concern, and not only because of the Bihar tragedy in which dozens of children died; teachers remain reluctant to supervise the cooking or taste the food. These are all issues the government could fix, but it will take resources, including more honoraria to the cooks/helpers. Instead, the mid-day meal budget has been cut by the government.

With this record of under-performance, it’s troubling that the government is busy undermining the autonomy of institutions of higher education. There is widespread concern about the announced resignations of key academic leaders, from the Chairman of the Board of Governors of IIT-Bombay, to the IIT-Delhi Director, the NCERT Director, and even the Chairman of the National Book Trust, the eminent Malayalam writer Sethumadhavan, seven months before the expiry of his term. Sethu had published 17 novels and 20 collections of short stories, so at least the Book Trust was headed by someone who had written books – but the new regime has predictably replaced him with the former editor of the RSS mouthpiece, Panchajanya. A similar attempt to remove Delhi University VC Dinesh Singh has been held up by President Mukherjee seeking further clarifications.

Saffronisation seems to be the name of the game. Can the Minister say that the new VC of Benares Hindu University, a prant-level official of the RSS with very slender academic credentials and no books on his CV, is worthy of a position formerly held by the likes of Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Acharya Narendra Dev? What are the qualifications of Mr Y Sudershan Rao to Chair the Indian Council of Historical Research – other than his Hindutva views?

It’s not just appointments. MHRD’s directive to educational institutions to observe 25 December as Good Governance Day, requiring the physical presence of students on the Christmas holiday, was an anti-national step. So was the instruction to set up separate vegetarian canteens at the IITs (I am vegetarian myself, but my intellectual contact with my fellow students was never, and should not be, limited by what they eat.) We need an assurance from the government that it will uphold the integrity of educational attainment in India beyond religious considerations.

The supposedly autonomous University Grants Commission has become a poodle, being instructed to issue a directive to Delhi University to withdraw its four-year Undergraduate Programme abruptly, and to disqualify all other universities from offering such courses. (The UGC’s craven political expediency in reversing its own previous decisions on laughable grounds is another embarrassment.)

Equally dismaying is the new MHRD instruction that it must be informed before any MoUs with foreign universities are signed. This is contrary to the Acts governing institutions like IITS, NITs, and Central Universities, which give them the power to enter into academic collaborations with other educational institutions, including foreign ones. The previous NDA government had done the same thing; in August 2004, UPA withdrew that requirement, saying it was “unnecessary interference in the autonomy of institutions”. With the BJP back in power, autonomy is again history.

Our educational system is over-regulated and under-governed. I hope this government will rethink the disastrous course upon which it has embarked, and revive the UPA proposal to abolish UGC and AICTE and create an overarching Council of Higher Education to facilitate, rather than restrict, educational autonomy. Excellence can only thrive amid freedom. Sadly, the BJP Government does not appear to believe either in promoting freedom or financing excellence.

(Dr Shashi Tharoor is a two-time MP from Thiruvananthapuram, the Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs, the former Union Minister of State for External Affairs and Human Resource Development and the former UN Under-Secretary-General. He has written 15 books, including, most recently, India Shastra: Reflections On the Nation in Our Time.)
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