No idea of building knowledge society

EducationWorld March 2019 | Expert Comment

Shiv VisvanathanBudgetary allocations in India are not just a parade of numbers, they represent a parable of messages articulating a regime’s logic of welfare and its vision of the future. Budgets also provide a sense of how a government senses the nature of citizenship. When one reads budgetary allocations, one summons not the accountant but the psychoanalyst to decipher what ails the ruling dispensation in Delhi.

When proxy finance minister Piyush Goyal presented the Union budget 2019-20 on February 1, he described it as a roadmap for the future. If one takes words seriously, one must tell Goyal that what he has mapped are not the highways of the future, but a series of roadblocks. Uncle Scrooge seems like Santa Claus compared to Piyush Goyal. This essay will use the budget, especially the statistics on education, to speculate what the regime thinks about developing a knowledge society. It’s obvious that the Union budget 2019-20 is a rhetorical device to hide the BJP/NDA government’s indifference to academic education.

In its gargantuan style more attuned to the Guinness Book of Records, the BJP visualises a $10 trillion (Rs.714.8 lakh crore) economy because of its emphasis on technology and infrastructure development. It promises revolutions in space and transport, but is absent-minded about people. It seems to think rockets and vehicles make an economy, but it has no sense of the quality of people required to build a knowledge economy. Consider the facts.

In a mood of election euphoria, it has promised a 10 percent reserved quota in higher education and government jobs for the upper castes, but has failed to translate what this means for the university. There is no plan for the necessary increase in capacity. Goyal visualises an increase of 200,000 seats but has made little provision for academic personnel or infrastructure. Presumably seduced by the promise of the digital economy, he has forgotten the tangible requirements of laboratories, libraries and classrooms.

Secondly, the budget awards Central universities Rs.6,604.46 crore. The money, if spread across 49 Central universities is meagre. In fact, one senses a benign neglect of education in this era of elections. There’s a clear hint that universities should be self-financing in terms of research and infrastructure. Yet in the Orwellian world of Mr. Goyal, some institutions are more equal than others. The regime is unembarrassed about starving ordinary higher education institutions to fatten what it describes as institutes of eminence, including the yet non-existent Ambani centre. This allocation creates privileged institutes encouraged to indulge in conspicuous consumption in a wider desert of half-starved universities. Institutions of eminence have been allocated Rs.400 crore, a new year gift that will no doubt delight them.

Regrettably the Union budget 2019-20 shows little understanding of linkages between skills, jobs, innovation and education. Creating this synergy has been left to the self-help plans of the students’ community. The BJP seems amnesiacal of its promises around skilling as a key strategy of education policy. In fact, the Union budget is an abandonment of youth at a time when India boasts a young population as its greatest demographic and knowledge asset. There are overt acts of pampering, but as a wag puts it, “it is a regime of sops confronting the grim reality of stops”. Higher education and the university as institutions lack the budgets to creatively transform themselves into knowledge societies of the future. Even the IITs which take budget inequalities for granted, feel short-changed. In fact, the promise of a science-oriented education system seems an absent minded leftover from some previous document.

There is tragedy here — a paucity of creative and logical thinking which goes beyond the battle between Left and Right. The BJP behaves as if anyone below voting age hardly exists and children who are non-voters, are almost totally ignored in the budget. If children are ignored, youth is short-changed and exhorted to resort to self-employment through startups, since the public sector as employer has reached its plimsoll line.

Deep down, this regime loves ancient science because its understanding of the current dynamics of science is mediocre. It has little idea of the demands of research from a doctoral programme to the responsibility of sustaining creative research. It has a baniya’s quick-return understanding of education which bowdlerizes information, and worse, instrumentalises it. The essential culture of the BJP is to celebrate consumption of the benefits of education from information to innovation. It has hardly any sense of the economic demands of producing research, little idea that corporates in India can hardly sustain research.

Yet a longer perspective is required. Each regime that governed India marginalised education as a policy priority. In fact, the description of benign neglect best applies to education with each regime having ignored it in its own special way. The challenge before the academy is to produce a report on education, a new version of the Kothari Report. Once philosophers are clear that a vision of justice is articulated, perhaps democracy can ask regimes to match vision and budget. Till then, the farce called education policy will re-enact itself every year.

(Shiv Visvanathan is a well-known columnist and director of the Centre for the Study of Knowledge Systems, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat)

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