New Education Policy 2016: Subramanian committee report love’s labour lost?

EducationWorld November 16 | Cover Story Education World

In the face-off between entrenched leftists and ‘invader’ right-wing intellectuals and academics on university campuses countrywide, the detailed and constructive recommendations of the Subramanian Committee have little chance of being incorporated into the New Education Policy 2016:  Dilip Thakore

Two years after it was first proposed by former firebrand Union minister for human resource development Smriti Irani, and almost three decades after the National Education Policy (NEP) 1986 was promulgated, a cloud of uncertainty hovers over NEP 2016. To her credit on October 30 last year, eight months before she was dramatically shifted to the textiles ministry in July where she has since maintained an uncharacteristically low profile, Irani constituted a high-powered committee chaired by former Union cabinet secretary T.S.R. Subramanian and comprising educationist J.S. Rajput, bureaucrats Shailaja Chandra, Sevaram Sharma and Sudhir Mankad to suggest the shape and contours of NEP 2016.

Working with unusual speed under the direction of Subramanian, an alumnus of Imperial College, London and Harvard University, USA, who was inducted into the powerful IAS (Indian Administrative Service) — the 5,000-strong fraternity which in effect manages this fractious democracy — in 1961, and rose to the highest position of Union cabinet secretary (1996-98), the Committee for Evolution of the New Policy on Education (aka NPE) 2016 completed its report on April 30 this year, and submitted it to Irani on May 28.

The detailed 217-page report diagnoses the myriad ills of the country’s education system (KG-Ph D) which has suffered continuous under-funding and neglect (perhaps because of the pathetic failure of the world’s first official birth control programme) and the reality that contemporary India grudgingly hosts the world’s largest child population (480 million). It proposes comprehensive reform, including a forthright call to increase the annual national outlay (Centre plus states) on education from the average 3.5-4 percent of GDP of the past 69 years to 6 percent “without any further delay”.

The Subramanian Committee’s report ran into a storm ab initio because his first recommendation to the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre was to make the report public for debate and discussion. This perfectly reasonable suggestion was turned down by Irani on the ground that the report is “the property of 110,000 villages, over 5,000 blocks, over 500 districts, and 20 states, which have entrusted it to us with the confidence that any recommendation that comes to the Centre will be shared with them before it is made into a draft policy”.

The reluctance of the BJP government to make public the report, which is obviously too liberal for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) the Hindu majoritarian ideological mentor organisation of the BJP, is understandable. The prime objective of the RSS is to transform secular India into a Hindu majority rashtra (nation). Moreover, it has promoted and runs over 17,000 Vidya Bharati primary-secondary schools countrywide apart from 15 teacher training and 12 degree colleges, providing the type of “nationalist” education RSS believes the country needs, to over 2.2 million students. In the circumstances, the progressive education reforms centred around greater institutional autonomy and child-centric teaching-learning proposed by the Subramanian Committee Report (SCR) have undoubtedly come as rude shocks to the RSS top brass and BJP leaders, who are now regretting having chosen the fiercely independent Subramanian who was reportedly impervious to RSS/BJP pressure to produce a ‘nationalist’ report drawing from the gurukul traditions of ancient India.

The SCR is obviously a disappointment for the BJP. Hence Irani’s reluctance to make it public. Except that unimpressed by Irani’s logic, the feisty Subramanian, an impeccably honest bureaucrat who has no skeletons in his cupboard which could be rattled to make him fall in line, called a press conference in Delhi on June 23 and suo motu released the 217-page SCR, which has made 90 major recommendations for incorporation into the National Education Policy, 2016. “An informed public discussion (of the report) can provide valuable inputs for the final exercise to be undertaken in the (HRD) ministry,” he said at the press conference explaining his breach of protocol.

Consequently, with the inconvenient SCR now a public document, BJP spokespersons are inclined to belittle the comprehensive 217-page report which suggests sweeping, deep-rooted reforms in Indian education because “the country now needs to invest in its strength, i.e its children”. Prakash Javadekar, hitherto Union minister of state for environment, forests and climate change in the Narendra Modi-led government at the Centre, who succeeded Irani in Shastri Bhavan, New Delhi on July 5, echoes the official party line.

“The report of the TSR Subramanian Committee is only one of the many inputs the Union government has invited for framing the New Education Policy. Because this is the first NPE after 1986, we are determined to formulate it very thoroughly to ensure it addresses the needs and aspirations of all segments of society. Therefore, over a period of 18 months, we have held over 29,000 meetings with citizens at the village, block, zonal and state levels inviting people’s suggestions on the shape and contours of the New Education Policy. Moreover, we have invited written suggestions from all sections of society and have received suggestions aggregating to over 1 million pages. All these inputs need to be processed and evaluated,” Javadekar informed your correspondent in a telephone interview.

Interviewed over the telephone by your correspondent on October 16, the Noida-based Subramanian sounded taken aback by Javadekar’s assertion that his committee’s voluminous and all-encompassing report is valued as little more than “one more input” for the formulation of NEP 2016. “Suggestions received from village, block and local communities and NGOs invited by the HRD ministry were forwarded to us right from October 2015 onwards and some of them have been incorporated into the recommendations made in our report,” says Subramanian, who seems dismayed that the consultation process is still continuing. Indeed in SCR, the committee expresses its thanks for receiving “important comments and suggestions” and particularly for 107 documents of “varying length and substance on various thematic areas”, and provides an extensive list detailing the senders of documents and suggestions in an annexed Volume II. Curiously but perhaps inevitably, the detailed recommendations sent twice by EducationWorld, are not acknowledged in Volume II.

Quite clearly, broader consultations is an excuse for delaying and side-lining the sensible and overdue recommendations of the Subramanian Committee Report (see p.62 for highlights). Plainly, the BJP/RSS strategy is to dilute and/or only partially incorporate selected recommendations of the committee in the final NEP 2016, citing the overwhelming number of contrarian recommendations received from village, block and other committees packed with RSS and sangh parivar cadres in favour of greater government control over syllabus formulation and regulation of education institutions, rather than the liberalisation and greater autonomy recommended by SCR.

An indication that the BJP/NDA government is likely to ignore the major recommendations of the Subramanian Committee is provided by Javadekar in his interview with your correspondent (see p.68). The minister outrightly rejects perhaps the most important recommendation of the committee, viz, that the national outlay (Centre plus states) for education should be raised to 6 percent of GDP “without further loss of time” — endorsing a long-standing demand of EducationWorld which has also repeatedly detailed ways and means to recast Union government finances to mobilise additional resources for education (see EW April 2016).

According to Javadekar, national expenditure on education currently aggregates 4.5 percent of GDP and provision for education consumes 15 percent of the Union budget and a higher percentage in states ruled by BJP governments. “The problem of Indian education is not adequacy of resources, but effective expenditure by reducing wastage and plugging corruption loopholes in spending,” says Javadekar, reiterating a familiar establishment line of argument.

Subramanian is unimpressed by this reasoning. “In our report we have recommended that the ambit of the RTE Act (i.e, the landmark Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, which makes it obligatory for the State to provide free and compulsory education to all children in the 6-14 age group) is extended to include children from age four onwards. This will perhaps require a greater provision than 6 percent of GDP.

However, the point is that greater provision for children’s education and efficiency of expenditure are not mutually exclusive. The stark reality is that the huge majority of government primary and even secondary schools, particularly in non-urban India, are almost wholly deprived of laboratories, libraries, ICT and teachers. The NEPs of 1968 and 1986/92 had recommended 6 percent of GDP for education, but actual expenditure has remained consistently below this level, and in recent years has hovered around 3.5 percent. Most OECD countries spend more than 6 percent and many progressive countries have managed to cross the 6 percent benchmark,” says Subramanian.

The discomfiture of the BJP/NDA government with the SCR’s recommendation to ramp up the national annual expenditure on public education to 6 percent of GDP, is that if this recommendation is accepted, the Central government’s outlay for education has to at least double from the current 0.48 percent of GDP. Yet in the Union Budget 2016-17, finance minister Arun Jaitley — perhaps for the first time ever in post-independence India’s history — actually reduced the Centre’s provision for education from the Rs.82,771 crore budgeted for 2015-16 by the Congress-led UPA II government to Rs.72,394 crore. The justification proffered by Jaitley was that since the 14th Finance Commission has devolved a 10 percent larger share of Central taxes to state governments, the latter would increase their education outlays — wishful thinking because state politicians are even less interested in public education. On the contrary, most of them are neck-deep in teacher recruitment, exam paper leakages, reckless cronyism and numerous other rackets with the result that state government schools are facing a massive exodus of students from even the poorest households into privately-provided education.

Greater budgetary provision for education apart, it’s highly unlikely that the BJP government in New Delhi will accept the other major recommendations of SCR either. Among those likely to be ignored are establishment of an Indian Education Service, education tribunals for institution-student disputes, and curbing politicisation of college/university campuses as per the recommendations of the 2006 Lyndogh Committee (since ABVP, the students’ wing of the RSS, is on a major drive to dominate college/university campuses). Moreover, given the BJP’s proclivity to foist patently unqualified RSS ideologues as heads of important higher education institutions such as the Indian Council for Historical Research, the Film & Television Institute of India, Central Board of Film Censors and universities, the probability of accepting the SCR, which its chairman says is all about quality improvement across the spectrum, inclusivity, particularly of the rural population into mainstream education, and making teachers and students the focus of education reforms, is remote.

However, although most of the recommendations of SCR are sensible and rational, the report is not without its flaws. For instance on the thorny issue of medium of instruction in Indian education, it has re-opened a can of worms. Despite the Supreme Court after a prolonged battle in the classrooms and courtrooms of Karnataka, having ruled (State of Karnataka vs. Associated Managements of (Government Recognised Unaided English Medium) Primary & Secondary Schools (2013)) that the choice of medium of instruction in which children study is of their parents, after endorsing the three language formula, SCR recommends “it is desirable that school education should be provided through the medium of mother tongue or regional language, at least till class V”, and invests in state and local governments wide powers to impose the second and third languages. This foolish faith in the wisdom of the government is perhaps inevitable in a committee comprising aged, retired bureaucrats who have devoted their entire working lives to building the scaffolding of neta-babu licence-permit-quota raj.

On the contrary, the greater probability is that with state governments given greater power to tinker with syllabuses, commission shallow intellectuals to write parochial and/or mythology-oriented textbooks, and pack the teaching profession with RSS cadres as the CPM (Communist Party of India-Marxist) did when it uninterruptedly ruled West Bengal for 34 long years (1977-2011) and destroyed the state’s education system, the prospects of root and branch reform of Indian education as recommended by the SCR have receded considerably.

“There is a paradox at the heart of Indian public life today: that while the country has a right-wing party in power, right-wing intellectuals run thinly on the ground. This makes India an exception among the world’s larger democracies. The US, UK and Germany all have a lineage of first-rate intellectuals on the Right who continue to provide ballast to parties such as the Republicans in America, the Conservatives in Britain, and the Christian Democrats in Germany. On the other hand, while the BJP has emerged as the principal pole of Indian politics, it can command the support of few well-known, or widely published intellectuals,” writes sociologist-historian Ramachandra Guha in his recently published compendium of essays titled Democrats & Dissenters (2016).

But if ill-qualified RSS and sangh parivar (‘RSS family’) right-wing intellectuals are set to exert pressure on the BJP/NDA government to reject and/or dilute the plainly overdue  recommendations of SCR, they will be following an established tradition. Ever since the nation wrested independence from the soul-destroying British Raj (1757-1947) during which GDP growth averaged 1 percent annually, the Indian academy and education system have been hostage to left-wing Nehruvian intellectuals who derived their inspiration from Soviet communism.

With the tacit encouragement of the Nehru dynasty and the Congress party, Left intellectuals with whom Guha seems enamoured, infiltrated and micromanaged Indian education, systematically blocking all initiatives for a right-wing intellectual tradition to emerge. And in the process of imposing an inorganic Soviet-inspired, rigidly State-controlled model of education upon newly independent India, Left academics have diminished it to the point of destruction.

Nor is biased writing of history, sociology and social sciences books prescribed by NCERT and even independent boards such as CISCE (Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations) restricted to school texts. Left academics who dominate higher education administrative and supervisory organisations such as UGC , NCERT, and textbook committees, routinely commission fellow travellers to write ideologically slanted textbooks which are obligingly prescribed by packed university senates and councils. Thus nonsensical texts propagating ‘Indian Economics’ which laud India’s failed socialist experiment are still being studied by millions of students countrywide who are assessed on their comprehension of goobledegook Marxist economics, sociology and history. Little wonder that according to several authoritative studies (McKinsey World Institute-Nasscomm (2005) and Aspiring Minds (2015)), 85 percent of arts graduates of Indian colleges and universities are routinely rejected as unemployable by self-respecting Indian and multinational corporates.

Unfortunately for the country’s children and youth, leaders and down-market intellectuals of the RSS and sangh parivar have been quick to learn the art of packing publicly funded education institutions from Nehruvian socialists, particularly from the CPM whose half-baked intellectuals and party cadres massively infiltrated, overwhelmed and to all intents and purposes destroyed the once hallowed schools and universities of West Bengal (pop. 91 million). Now under the indulgent watch of BJP-dominated governments at the Centre and in several states, shallow RSS and sangh parivar academics are infiltrating the country’s schools, colleges and universities and are set to replicate Marxist adventurism in education and academia.

In the face-off between the entrenched leftist and ‘invader’ right-wing intelligentsia which is already creating mayhem on university campuses countrywide, the well-reasoned, constructive and indeed erudite recommendations of the Subramanian Committee have little chance of being incorporated into the New Education Policy 2016. If and when it’s finally promulgated.

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