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Intelligentsia and Status Quo Tango

The serious crisis of rising youth unemployment predicted in these columns for several years — a message which fell on stony ground — is now ballooning towards explosion point. According to an official government response in the Rajya Sabha in early February, unemployment within the Indian economy has risen from 3.8 percent in 2011 to 5 percent in 2016. Bearing in mind that the working age population (18-65) of the country is 860 million, this statistic translates into a massive army of 43 million unemployed. If to this huge figure one were to add the large number of under-employed, particularly in rural India which hosts 60 percent of the country’s 1.25 billion citizens who are forced into idleness because of rain dependence, post-independence India’s national development effort, especially in employment generation, has been a disastrous failure.

The causes of continuous overt and disguised unemployment in the Indian economy — disgraceful under-investment in public education, profligate wastage of national resources invested in thousands of unproductive public sector enterprises, covert appropriation of over 20 percent of Central and state government budgets by politicians and bureaucrats who have devised opaque budgeting formats — have been highlighted ad nauseam. But an ill-educated public, a complacent, uncaring intelligentsia (including academics), and developmentally-ignorant media have failed to pressure India’s plethora of governments to switch from the state-centric Soviet-style heavy industry economic development to the labour-intensive wage goods manufacturing model, the prime factor behind the amazing transformation of resurgent ASEAN countries over the past half century. 

Unfortunately, instead of reform and renewal of public education by granting greater autonomy to bona fide educationists for modernising the obsolescing education system to global standards, the BJP-led NDA government, which was voted into power at the Centre three years ago, has licenced ill-qualified RSS/sangh parivar intellectuals to run amok within the education system. Coterminously, BJP governments at the Centre and in the states have made no discernible effort to privatise bleeding public sector enterprises, or to improve the ease of doing business for private entrepreneurs who can add momentum to economic growth rates and create jobs. 

But while it’s all very well and a national pastime to blame government for all the ills of the economy, a substantial share of the blame must also be laid at the door of the country’s intelligentsia — academia and media included — and apathetic middle class. Lacking ideological moorings and awareness of history, they don’t encourage new political formations and invite — instead of discouraging — government intervention in all sectors of the economy. The result is a continuous status quo tango — one step forward, two back. 


Classic instance of Careless legislation

The right of children to free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (aka RTE Act), which became law on April 1, 2010, completed its seventh anniversary recently. Though it was dressed up as historic landmark legislation following a constitutional amendment, in reality the Act was a belated and grudging acknowledgement that several governments at the Centre had totally ignored Article 45 of the Constitution of India which way back in 1950, directed the State to provide all children in the 0-14 age group free and compulsory education by 1960. Even so there’s little cause to celebrate. On the contrary, the RTE Act is yet another classic instance of foolish legislation drafted by the neta-babu brotherhood — instead of learned academics and educationists — and nonchalantly enacted by Parliament. 

The greatest fraud perpetrated by the RTE Act is that it cleverly offloads a part of the obligation of the State (Central, state and local governments) to provide universal free and compulsory primary/elementary education on to the nation’s privately promoted — including financially independent — schools. Under s.12 (1) (c) of the Act, private schools are obliged to reserve 25 percent of their capacity in classes I-VIII for children of poor households in their neighbourhood. Under s.12 (2), part of the cost of their elementary education — subject to a ceiling of per child expenditure incurred by the state/local government in its own schools — is to be reimbursed to private school managements within unspecified periods. 

Since then over the past seven years, implementation of the rashly drafted RTE Act and s.12 (1) (c) in particular, has embroiled private schools in endless litigation which has endangered the country’s brittle K-12 education system. Identification and certification of ‘poor households’, defining the ambit of ‘neighbourhood’, defining exempted minority schools, definition of ‘free education’ (does it include books, uniforms, co and extra-curricular education?) have provided the country’s notoriously venal educracy vast opportunities for bribery and corruption. Moreover, sensationalised media focus on 12 (1) (c) frauds and litigation have completely overshadowed the obligation of state and local governments to improve teaching-learning standards in government primaries where learning outcomes are sliding year by year. 

There’s lot else to complain about the ill-advised legislation that is the RTE Act. For instance, until this year, the Act (s.16) mandated automatic annual promotion of children up to class VIII. 

All this compounded by foolish demands of parent stakeholders of private schools — the sole bright spot of the country’s crumbling education system — for government intervention to regulate tuition fees, is drying up the flow of investment into private education. In the new era of globalisation in which Indian education across the spectrum needs drastic overhaul, instead of being celebrated, the RTE Act needs to be radically reformed, if not entirely buried. 

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