The Draft New Education Policy 2019 (DNEP) is deeply problematic both conceptually and structurally. There are several diverting statements, such as the references to the ancient Buddhist institutions of Nalanda and Takshashila (without crediting them to a distinctly anti-Brahmanical and egalitarian tradition) and the need to ensure a contemporary form of wide-ranging and equitable access to ‘quality education’. However, the DNEP fails to define and critically analyze this ‘quality’ or show how it could be realized.
The difficulties arise from the attempt to conceal rather than challenge the deeply hierarchical and discriminatory religio-cultural social structures of traditional Hindu society. Caste stands at the centre of this edifice of oppressive inequality. Over centuries, overlapping divisions of class, gender, religion and adivasi exclusion have reinforced and in turn been compounded by the caste structure. The classic and well-known account of Eklavya, who was identified as the son of his mother (an Adivasi non-patriarchal identification), and who therefore tried to find “merit” outside of the rigid exclusions of the caste system and paid with his thumb (thereby ending his skills in archery) for his transgression of the ruling class “dharma” is most revealing of the social complexity involved. Yet the DNEP refers to all systematically excluded social categories (lowered castes, classes, adivasis, linguistic and religious minorities, particularly Muslims, the disabled and girls/women among all these categories) by an innocuous and bureaucratically opaque term – “under-represented groups”!
If one does not try to find the cause of a centuries-long “under-representation” or the reasons for the failure to break its hold, then one is unlikely to find meaningful and substantive solutions to this “ancient” problem now. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar had specifically argued that a strict policy of reservation could correct caste-based exclusion only by “favouring” those who had been subjected for centuries to suffer the most oppressive inequality. What was eventually implemented was a reservation beginning at the post-secondary level by which time almost 90 per cent of SC/ST, OBC and minorities had already been pushed out of the system. Yet even the chink provided by this reservation has resulted in these groups registering their presence across institutions of higher education. Unfortunately, this has brought out into the open the resistance and insulting attitudes of socially dominant upper castes. Case after case of “reserved” category students being targeted, disparaged and denied even the basic academic requirements and financial and social necessities which are their due, has led to a rising graph of push-outs and even suicides of students. Caste oriented administrations, insensitive faculty and peers are invariably found to be playing a negative role.
In fact, the DNEP seems unable to deal with this serious issue. It moves in the opposite direction to the strategy of affirmative action. The DNEP undermines the reservation policy which is firmly based on the constitutional principle of social justice and pulls out the rabbit of “merit” from its magician’s hat. Quality education is to be ensured, it argues, by “merit-based” alternatives instead of a policy of providing reservations to encourage access to education, employment and promotional avenues. But, in India’s deeply unequal and highly discriminatory social order, the concept of “merit” itself is compromised. In Indian conditions it is often “privilege” that masquerades as merit. Coming from upper caste and well-endowed families, having access to elite private schools and tuitions, and having the colonially instilled aspiration to proficiency in English – it is this that is primarily taken for “merit” in our education system. Clearly such a model is not going to allow access to education for more than 85 per cent of our population who have been excluded because they constitute the most marginalized and deprived sections of the society. Until completely free and compulsory school education of comparable quality, provided by state and central governments from early childhood care and education (ECCE) and up to class XII, is guaranteed for all children we cannot hope to make any progress on this issue.
Merit-based strategy creates the ‘illusion’ of a fair contest
The DNEP only creates the illusion of a level-playing-field by spreading a web of centralized all-India eligibility and entrance tests for determining “merit”. Surely, it asserts, if all students are sitting and competing in the “same” exam, then all will have to equally “prove their merit”! And so the DNEP advocates a National Testing Agency (NTA), and centralized professional exams like NEET.
To demand that all students must display uniform patterns of proficiency suggests that the specificity of individual experience and historical manifestations of discrimination or privilege have no role to play in the learning context. However, as every teacher knows, this certainly is not the case. To demand that SC/ST/OBC students, all varieties of religious and linguistic minorities, women and persons with disability, who have direct experience of oppression and are conditioned by culturally associated histories of deprivation, must achieve the same “learning outcomes” as those coming from the contexts of privilege does not only deny the very need for affirmative action in favour of the deprived in all public institutions, it also presents a distorted picture of the learning process itself by trying to determine in advance what will, or will not, count as knowledge or achievement. The creativity of the classroom experience is thereby diminished.
Standardized concepts of “merit” invariably coincide with the experience of socially dominant castes/classes. Having no inherent worth or excellence, such concepts replace the actual diversity and innovativeness of life with homogeneity and dull routine. They fail to appreciate how different sections and particularly the deprived actually contribute to the learning process. That is why elite perceptions are usually so open to merit-based solutions to the crisis of education. For, they remain aloof from the process which makes learning and education the basis for transformation of both individual potential and socially valued goals. As a result, they do not recognize, and in fact, always deny the significant agency of the socially and educationally marginalized in effecting their own emancipation.
However, the standardized concept of merit is required and remains much in demand with the edu-business corporations. They regard education as only a marketable commodity. For them its very homogeneity actually stabilizes the market for investment and realization of profits. Both the investor who is `providing’ education and the ‘consumer’ who is investing in consuming the commodity know what the “market value” of such a traded commodity is. Whether this has any relation to or influence on contributing to the intrinsic value of the “knowledge” traded is of little relevance. This can clearly be seen in the expensive skill acquisition courses that prepare students for taking their place within corporate organizations: communication and networking skills are valued above critical thinking and interpretation of scientific evidence as important characteristics of knowledge and learning.
Following the neoliberal dictates of World Bank and WTO-GATS
The DNEP structurally follows the pattern laid down by the World Bank (WB), the World Trade Organization and General Agreement on Trade in Services (WTO-GATS) to facilitate the regulation of education as the provision of a tradeable ‘service’. India adopted this pattern with its formal acceptance of the neoliberal reforms policy in the early 1990s and the commitment given to the WTO-GATS in 2005 to treat higher education as a ‘service’ to be regulated according to its conditionalities. Therefore, the recommendations of the DNEP in fact continue the policies of commercialization and centralization first introduced by the UPA government. Though the UPA’s Reform Bills failed to get through Parliament then, the present regime is persisting with the same strategy except that it is using executive orders to implement measures even without the support of the requisite parliamentary and university committees or the approval of the academic community.
From the 1990s onwards the WB has not only been advocating open commercialization and corporate centralization of the education system, but it has also been encouraging countries to place political control of the entire educational system within the office of the Prime Minister so that provisions can be made for the speedy disposal of investor claims in education. Thus DNEP’s proposed National Higher Educational Regulatory Authority (NHERA) provides the ‘single window’ sanctioning authority for private edu-corporations to enter the education sector anywhere in the country. National Certification and Accountability Commission (NAAC) is also conceived of as a single agency for providing recognition and certification. The National Research Foundation (NRF) too is proposed to control all research not through funding of universities, but individual researchers, whose research topics will be decided eventually by the central government – dubbed by the DNEP as the best protector of the “national interest”. And any awards that this research could fetch will also be determined by the NRF!
The DNEP has further proposed that this entire centralized structure should have at its apex a Rashtriya Shiksha Aayog (RSA) on the pattern of Niti Aayog. The Prime Minister is to head it and will determine its membership. All central bodies relating to education (including the above and the National Repository of Educational Data, Indian Institute of Translation and Interpretation, General Educational Council, etc.) will report directly to the RSA, which will also appoint their chairpersons, directors and other members.
However, this centralization usurps the powers of the states of the union by the central government as education comes under the concurrent list. The democratic responsibilities of state governments and legislatures towards their people have to be protected so that the plurality of our history, culture and traditions can be freely articulated and developed. The right to receive education in the mother tongue, and the promotion and development of all Indian languages is also a necessary part of this freedom.
Threat to constitutional federalism
The RSA threatens the very basic structure of federalism in India’s Constitution and seals this with the DNEP’s proposed ultimate authority for the RSA. With all decision-making and regulatory powers centred in a body headed by the PM and the leadership of whichever regime maybe ruling the country, there is an overwhelming risk that partisan-political expediency will inevitably dominate educational policy. An advocacy of ideological elements conducive to the present government’s way of thinking is already evident in the DNEP’s promoting “traditional values” over constitutional values instead of subjecting traditional values to critical analysis and their suitability for realizing modern democratic goals. “Ancient” practices are extolled, but the enormous variety and richness of India’s long civilizational journey are ignored to portray only so-called ‘Vedic’ learning and Sanskrit as being the core of what it calls “India centric” knowledge.
Education has to be an important part of the democratic transformation of Indian society, which despite centuries of technological and intellectual achievements, has remained deeply unequal, unjust and discriminatory. Without confronting harsh caste divisions exacerbated by class exploitation, mere ‘glorification’ of the past, or projection of a ‘euphoric’ future, cannot resolve the crisis facing our education system and our society.
What we need now is a policy for equitable education which can ensure quality learning for all India’s children and youth.
The author is Associate Prof (retd) Zakir Husain Delhi College, University of Delhi and Member Presidium, All India Forum for Right to Education (AIFRTE). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.