Opinion - Between progress and reluctance Krishna Kumar The Hindu Friday, Aug 24, 2007 Any agenda for educational reform must start by recognising that children belong to a special category of citizens because they cannot protect their own rights. There is no alternative to evolving a child-centred system of governance.
Kusum Nair’s classic, Blossoms in the Dust, which was first published in 1961, provides a benchmark for judging India’s progress. The book describes her travels and conversations with villagers across many regions of India. Her conclusion about the prospects of development in rural India was that modern means of production alone will not succeed unless there is a change in values and attitudes. Her major advice to planners was that they must recognise the sharp diversity of values and perceptions that prevails between and within different regions. Apparently, she hoped that education would play a big role in bringing about social change. This expectation was shared by several social scientists and commentators of the 1960s. Perceived as a panacea for many familiar ills, education was itself in dire need of reform. Its colonial character had exacerbated the very malaise that it was supposed to cure. For instance, the stigma attached to manual work was at the heart of caste and gender-based hierarchies. The spread of education has undoubtedly helped to develop fissures in these hierarchies, but the outcomes of this significant change are unevenly distributed. Between caste and gender, the latter provides far more visible and pervasive evidence of change than does the former. Educational and employment opportunities have changed the lives of millions of women along lines that had already surfaced in the late colonial period. Women’s autonomy and lack of fear have become increasingly more manifest in our public life, but there is an irony in this. From the early decades of the 20th century onwards, educated women started to face a rough time in seeking social acceptance. Their personal and emotional experiences got tougher as their levels of educational attainment increased. The reason was that while education opened up a new world to women, it failed to socialise men into a new, corresponding mould. Men’s expectations from women remained unchanged, and hence women’s emancipation evoked conflict, aggression, even violence. Looking around, we can witness this state of affairs daily. Searching for the causes responsible for this lopsided impact of education, we would soon realise that what education teaches, its curriculum, has failed to keep pace with the requirements of sensitising society to new realities. On the front of caste, education didn’t even try to change the values reinforcing the caste system. An assumption prevailed that the bonds of caste would on their own, somewhat magically, loosen up as a result of literacy and success in examination. Neglecting teacher training has further compounded the losses incurred on account of indifferently induced, or entirely absent, curricular changes. Teachers constitute the most important factor in determining the quality of children’s experience at school. Today, millions of children born to illiterate parents are expected to attend school, yielding the exciting potential to nurture a thoughtful and tolerant society of the kind the Constitution envisions. Yet hardly any State is in a position to realise this potential because the welfare and training of teachers have been ignored everywhere. Instead of moving forward, in this sector we have actually regressed. School teachers had played an important role in the national movement, both as individuals and as a professional group. Far from treating them as a national resource for deeper social churning, independent India treated them as a faceless mass of literate workers. The Chattopadhyaya Commission appointed by Indira Gandhi in 1983 noted that “today the average teacher’s perception of his role and responsibility is far too limited and is concerned with his own immediate tasks.” The Commission felt that the teacher must “actively and feelingly associate himself, as an essential and responsible partner, in the great tasks which face the nation.” This recommendation failed to save the school teacher’s status as it declined rapidly over the decade of the 1990s, and continues to do so today. The profession has lost all attraction for the young, due to which only those who fail to materialise all other aspirations accept teaching as a last resort. A great opportunity was lost when the Constituent Assembly failed to mobilise consensus on making elementary education a fundamental right of every child. That mistake was corrected a few years ago when the Constitution was amended. However, necessary follow-up steps to make the amendment meaningful have not been taken. Given the sad condition of the infrastructure of education in most States (most accurately reflected in the sad physical and academic condition of most State Councils of Educational Research and Training and District Institutes of Education and Trainings), there seems little alternative to Centre-led reforms and a bill passed by Parliament. Those who oppose this assert that the responsibility to pass the necessary legislation and to provide resources lies with the States. Historically, the vague division of educational responsibilities between the Centre and the States has harmed India’s children since colonial days. The lone instrument of Centre-State dialogue on education, namely the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE), has no executive authority or powers. As far as our elementary school children are concerned, India continues to be reluctant to own them. The case of pre-school children is worse, for they are not even nominally covered in the constitutional amendment. Even as our rural masses now face the worst ever-crisis of survival, which the Magsaysay award winner P. Sainath has amply described in his regular writings in The Hindu, the wrangling over the bill on right to elementary education and the hesitation to allocate adequate resources for it casts a tragic shadow over the remarkable economic growth rate we have achieved six decades after Independence. Any agenda for educational reform must start by recognising that children belong to a special category of citizens because they cannot protect their own rights. Children must be warmly hugged by the state in respect of all their needs, namely health and nutrition, safety, security, and education. Significant reforms in governance are required to ensure that the efforts to be made by different departments come together. This is not easy, but there is no alternative to evolving a child-centred system of governance so that India stops wasting its huge human resource potential on account of malnutrition, illiteracy, and child abuse. With widespread low haemoglobin levels and frequent illness, especially among girls, India cannot compete with its neighbours like China and Japan, let alone the Europeans and the Americans. For greater focus and efficiency in the delivery of child-related services, the entrenched Centre-State impasse must be overcome. While no one can deny the Centre’s role in setting policy goals and providing funds for systemic reform, we can hardly overlook the lack of rigour and accountability in the States’ response to policy directions. One glaring evidence is that 40 years after the Kothari Commission wrote its laudable report, even the pattern of stages it recommended has not been implemented in all the States. Adoption of the National Curriculum Framework, 2005, though it has the approval of CABE and has been implemented by CBSE, presents a similar story. State-level issues of educational governance are ignored by the national media as well as by civil society groups. A vast number of systemic problems simply never get resolved. Territorial disputes between SCERTs and Boards, the isolation of SCERTs and DIETs from universities, and the multiplicity of structures (e.g. the existence of more than one Board in Tamil Nadu) are illustrative instances of the kind of long-standing problems that keep the system stymied. Even small decisions require a mountain of pressure. Consider, for instance, the eligibility of Delhi University’s B.El.Ed. (Bachelor of Elementary Education) degree-holders for the salary scale of a ‘trained graduate teacher’ (TGT). This is the least that Delhi Government could do for a world-class programme of teacher education. Almost a decade has passed since the first batch of remarkable teachers came out of this programme, but the modest honour of a TGT grade still eludes them. Why? Because the word ‘elementary’ has no operative value in the lexicon of scales. If you teach up to Class V, you get the primary teacher’s measly salary; you get a TGT scale if you are qualified to teach up to Class X, not if you stop at Class VIII where the Constitution defines the end of elementary education. Apparently, the Constitution can guide the nation but has little value for those who decide salary scales. (Professor Krishna Kumar is Director of the National Council of Education Research and Training.)