By Swapan Dasgupta in Right & Wrong | India | TOI
It is a measure of the frivolity that has gripped the commentariat that the only discussions on last week’s ministerial reshuffle were centred on Smriti Irani’s shift from the HRD ministry to the sedate ministry of textiles. No doubt Irani may have contributed to the trivialisation with her characteristic forthrightness and her needless battles with detractors on social media. In the process, however, the country experienced an unfortunate shift of the national discourse away from education — a subject that, along with economic growth, must be high in the list of national priorities.
Even the controversies that marked her two-year stint in Shastri Bhavan had, alas, very little to do with the real issues. The student agitations at the Central University in Hyderabad and Jawaharlal Nehru University were all about campus politics and not remotely connected with scholarly pursuits. On top of her refusal to be browbeaten by voluble slogan-shouters, Irani riled the academic community — a difficult body at the best of times — with her no-nonsense style. Irani, an accomplished communicator whose parliamentary interventions on matters connected to her large ministry were exemplary, loathed being patronised by the academic community and responded with a show of exaggerated abrasiveness that complicated matters. Her legion of detractors may gloat over her apparent ‘demotion’ but her political career is far from over. A focused individual, she is certain to bounce back.
Many of the irritants that Irani faced in the HRD ministry may not be faced by her successor, Prakash Javadekar. The ever-smiling and affable Javadekar has a knack for negotiating his way out of sticky situations. In combining diligence and pragmatism, he was successful in extricating the ministry of environment from the controversies that marred the tenure of his predecessors. As his initial response to queries about student belligerence suggested, Javadekar has a way of projecting himself as a model of reasonableness. The anti-Narendra Modi brigade on the campuses may find that the new minister is more artful in negotiating contrived controversies.
Yet, coping with the HRD ministry is not merely about fire-fighting. Indian education, as the recently released National Policy on Education Report 2016 (NPER) has convincingly argued, is in a state of “disarray”. Having coped with the pressing issue of battling illiteracy and providing access to education, India’s education system is faced with the more challenging issues of poor standards, teacher indifference, pedagogic shortcomings and dysfunctional monitoring institutions.
Endorsing a survey by Pratham for 2014, the NPER noted with alarm that nearly half the Class V students were unable to reach the reading and arithmetic levels stipulated for Class II. The shoddy standards in this government-dominated sector also persist (with exceptions) in higher education. In a sharply worded indictment the NPER commented that “anyone having dealings with the education system has generally lost faith in its credibility…(Those) who can afford to turn their backs on government schools and colleges reach out to private schools or emigrate abroad for study.” Nor does the private sector constitute islands of uniform excellence. Here, too, degree shops and money-grabbing enterprises rub shoulders with institutions trying to make the best of a grim situation.
The NPER report may not be perfect — academic administrators have already begun rubbishing it on the ground it was drafted by a committee of retired babus. Yet, it does alert us to the magnitude of the problem and sets out a programme of modest reforms that, if left unattended, has the potential of transforming India’s demographic dividend into a horrible nightmare.
Javadekar has his work cut out for him. In the environment ministry, he moved away from the doctrinaire and occasionally vindictive approach of his predecessors. Now he has to cut himself loose from the culture of overbearing, bureaucratic controls and initiate steps to make education less prone to political interference, more flexible, and create purposeful and professional self-regulating institutions. Most important, he has to have the large-heartedness to permit genuine centres of excellence to be entirely self-governing.
The challenges before Javadekar are daunting. Not only will he have to persuade state governments that there is more to politics than the transfers and postings of government teachers, he will have to scrap moribund institutions such as the University Grants Commission, give a more purposeful role to the private (and corporate) sector and be more receptive to foreign participation in higher education. For Javadekar and, indeed, for Prime Minister Modi these campaigns should be more of a priority than tackling acts of puerile grandstanding on the campuses.
Sunday Times of India, July 10, 2016