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West Bengal: Political primacy

EducationWorld April 13 | Education News EducationWorld

To the growing dismay of its electorate, West Bengal’s mercurial chief minister Mamata Banerjee, whose Trinamool Congress Party (TMC) swept the state assembly elections in May 2011 ending 34 years of continuous rule of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM)-led Left Front government in the state, is not cut from a radically different cloth from the comrades of the CPM politbureau.

It’s hardly a secret that during its 34 years of continuous rule in the state, the CPM infiltrated its cadres and fellow-travelling intellectuals into every nook and cranny of West Bengal’s education system, bringing it to the brink of ruin. Today West Bengal, which before the beginning of Left Front rule was one of India’s most educationally advanced states, is ranked 32 on the Educational Development Index (EDI) 2012 compiled by the National University for Educat-ional Planning and Administration (NUEPA), Delhi.

On March 21, the west bengal legislative assembly in which TMC has a 109-seats majority, passed the West Bengal Higher Educational Institutions (Reservation in Admission) Bill, 2013 which reserves 17 percent of seats in higher education institutions for OBCs (other backward classes/castes). According to the Bill, hence-forward 22 percent, 6 percent, 10 percent and 7 percent of capacity in colleges and universities will be reserved for scheduled castes (SC), scheduled tribes and OBCs (categories A and B) respectively aggregating 45 percent of capacity, well below the reservations ceiling of 50 percent imposed by the Supreme Court. Reservations for SCs and STs were hitherto under executive orders, but have been brought within the framework of the “comprehensive legislation’’ which is the Act.

To meet the new quotas, 415,000 new seats will have to be created in undergraduate and 31,000 in postgrad programmes involving a financial liability of Rs.1,070 crore to be borne by the state government. The Act will be effective from the academic session beginning 2014-15. However, the ambit of the new enactment has been restricted to state-funded universities, government and government-aided colleges exempting institutes of excellence, research institutions, institutions of national and strategic importance and educational institutions established and administered by minorities, as well as super-specialty courses.

To the TMC government’s credit — and the surprise of Kolkata’s intelligentsia which tends to dismiss TMC ministers and party top brass as intellectually challenged — considerable care has been taken to draft the new OBC reservations Bill within the framework of the Supreme Court’s “compromise’’ landmark judgement in Ashok Kumar vs. Union of India (2005). Following the late unlamented Union HRD minister Arjun Singh’s out-of-the-blue 2005 announcement that additional reservation (i.e. in addition to the 22.5 percent reservation for SCs and STs) would be mandated in Central government institutions of higher education for OBCs, the Supreme Court approved the constitutional validity of the Central Educational Institutions (Reservation in Admission) Act, 2006 subject to several qualifications.

Among them: that instead of the reserved quotas being carved out of existing capacity, higher ed institutions would be given a time frame to steadily expand capacity to admit the additional number of students, and that institutions of excellence, research and super-specialty education would be exempted from the reservation mandate. West Bengal’s OBCs reservation Bill adheres to the provisions of the apex court’s judgement and CEI Act in every detail.

Inevitably, academics in Kolkata’s top ranked colleges and universities are sceptical about the impact of the additional reservation mandated for OBC students. “The Act will add to the numbers on campuses and put pressure on infrastructure which is already under strain. Though the motivation and intent of the TMC government is noble, hasty implementation without addressing the issues of improving infrastructure and faculty shortages will dilute academic standards. Unfortunately nothing has changed in West Bengal under the new regime and attempts to control colleges and universities continue as in the previous decades under the Left Front government. Instead of charting a new path and increasing the autonomy of state-supported colleges and universities, the TMC government is following the academically destructive tradition of the CPM,’’ laments Dr. Omprakash Mishra, professor of international relations at Kolkata’s state government-supported Jadavpur University.

But with private investors shunning West Bengal and the state government almost bankrupt, additional capacity creation is virtually ruled out. In the circumstances the TMC government had no option but to carve out new quotas in existing institutions. And if in these circumstances academic standards plunge, so be it.

Baishali Mukherjee (Kolkata)

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