Originally Published in Peoples Democracy
Any worthwhile policy making has to start with an objective assessment of the existing ground reality. Proceeding from this, discerning the challenges, the policy ought to set out a roadmap for overcoming them. However, despite the PM’s loud claims that NEP 2020 was preceded by intense study and research for last 3-4 years, no data or reference to these appear in the policy document! Therefore, the inescapable conclusion is, more than anything else, this is a vision statement.
The PM is uncharacteristically pitching for NEP asserting that it faces no opposition. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is the third version which has been cleared by the Cabinet. The first in 2017 was summarily rejected in the Parliament. The second in 2019 was forced to be amended within a day on the language question. That draft version prompted thousands of critical responses from every section of the stake holders.
From the reading of the 68 page NEP 2020 put out on the government’s website, it is apparent that though education which figures in the concurrent list of the Constitution, the document does not reflect several serious disagreements of state governments, academic bodies and important academics, organisations of the teaching community and student bodies. With these consigned to wastebins, the PM must be obviously living in an echo-chamber of conformists!
Taking advantage of severe restrictions on public protest in this pandemic affected environment, in its familiar aggressive pursuit of anti-democratic and anti-federal agenda Modi government is aiming to unabashedly promote corporate intrusion through NEP 2020. This atmosphere reinforce his illusion about absence of active resistance!
With the NEP document itself setting out a timeline which will go beyond 2030, the tearing hurry in finalising it without a public discourse and more importantly, a discussion in the Parliament, clearly establishes a unilateral authoritarian drive which betrays anxiety over the possible opposition and resistance!
The RSS is visibly euphoric. Reportedly, during the consultation over the NEP, the most influential voice was that of the Sangh. RSS affiliates were involved through the drafting process with meetings between their functionaries,education minister of some BJP ruled states, representatives of the Government and NEP drafting committee chairman, K. Kasturirangan. The RSS demand on emphasising ‘ancient Indian knowledge’ has been incorporated in the final version of the policy document. Perhaps, this is that crucial ground for the PM’s sense of comfort!
Fundamental departure from the past
Education has been always recognised as a powerful instrument for national development and a means for realising the potential of our people. In fact, the battle for ensuring access to education was aimed against exclusive control of the elite through British colonial policy of limiting mass education. Therefore,
this battle merged seamlessly with the struggle for achieving Indian freedom. Post-independence, this basic thrust on universal mass education found its way into the Constitution and its directive principles. Born in the crucible of the freedom struggle, the Constitution also recognised the rich diversity of the Indian society; its multi-lingual multi-cultural nature, the caste stratifications, discriminations and exclusions, the historical lags suffered by Dalits, Tribals and the unequal status of girl children.
The post independent education policy had aimed towards overcoming these handicaps through the principle of social justice and affirmative action towards reinforcing the secular democratic Republic based on equal citizenship.
Divorced from that anti-colonial legacy, the framers of NEP 2020 has completely broken away from this legacy. In stressing the pre-eminence of Indian past without any specific detailing of the possible course of such assimilation, the ‘vision of NEP 2020’ is “to instil among the learners a deep rooted pride in being Indian, not only in thought but also in sprit, intellect and deeds” and “curriculum and pedagogy from the foundational stage onwards will be redesigned in the Indian ethos”. (Para 4.29)
However, the document does not define the ‘Indian’! Bulldozing the rich diversity, social stratification and exclusion, it does not elaborate on how it will relate to the changing landscape and the global knowledge commons. It also does not underline the need for nurturing scientific temper; with an unabashed advocacy of the glory of the past and not to mention a complete silence about the rich history of assimilation towards composite and syncretic development. With eloquent silence, the policy has stopped short of spelling out the Hindutwa straightjacket! No wonder that RSS is ecstatic!
Centralisation: death knell for federalism, autonomy and democratic participation
Even before the new policy has begun its formal journey, the central thrust is in naked display through the audacious insistence of the UGC to implement its
inflexible prescription for holding the final semester examination for the graduate and the post graduate degrees across the country. Denying leeway to states and respective universities for a credible evaluation while avoiding discrimination on existing digital divide. It is ironical that the very pandemic Act which the Union government is using to pursue its unilateral agenda empowers the states to exercise a flexible approach. But, NEP 2020 will signal the end of such resistance. The policy empowers extra ordinary centralisation to decide on every aspect of education from early childhood care to research.
The Constitution makers had placed education under the state list in the Schedule. The emergency and the 42 nd amendment to the Constitution transferred this from the State to the Concurrent List. But, even with this change, school education was managed by the states through the respective state school boards; NEP virtually abandons this. The precise school syllabus will now substitute curriculum framework. In the case of higher education, the role of central government will be absolutely overarching. Now the apex of higher education governance will be assumed by Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) superseding the role of UGC, AICTE and other such bodies. Headed by the Prime Minister, it
will have 12 government appointees and just two academics. Four parallel stream of structures dealing with funding, accreditation, standard setting and examinations will function under the HECI. For research, the policy proposes a national research foundation which will take over all decisions on advanced research funding from a range of overlapping institutions thus concentrating all conceivable powers for guiding research activities.
The federal arrangements following 1976 amendment will be altogether eliminated as the NEP 2020 does not lay out any comprehensive framework for redeeming democratic obligations under the Concurrent list of the Constitution related to power sharing between the centre and the states.
The federal character of India, as ‘Union of States’ under the Constitution is already greatly stressed due to centralisation of taxation powers of GST, abrogation of special protection to states and dismantling of the Planning Commission. NEP 2020 proposes to further centralise this anti-federal trend.
The language policy and the disproportionate priority for Sanskrit ,not as a subject, but in competing different Indian languages is aimed to institutionalise this arrangement while further loading against the non-Hindi Indian languages.
For NEP 2020, bulldozing the states and the underlined recognition of our rich diversity is the approach for ensuring ‘national integration’.
Apart from centre-state issues, NEP also takes away the role of democratic participation and engagement of the academic community, the students and the society at large to address the unevenness in our development process. The university-laboratory linkage with the community which has been hitherto
recognised as a basis for our education and research activities, will be replaced by a highly centralised bureaucracy driven process. The elected senates, syndicates and academic councils will be substituted by the model of HECI.
Over the years demand for granting more ‘academic autonomy’ is now being finally and decisively abandoned. NITI Ayog’s ‘three year action agenda’ (2017) and UGC’s Graded Autonomy Regulations (2018) formally spoke of autonomy for HEI’s. NEP 2020 continues with same refrain. But the ‘spirit of autonomy’ will be primarily predicated by ‘financial autonomy’, a euphemism for fast-track privatisation.
Prime Mister’s unusual interest in NEP 2020 is unsurprising with gross failures in handling the pandemic and the catastrophic downturn of the Indian economy even before the pandemic arrived; therefore, more rhetoric! His sale pitch hinges on the argument that NEP 2020 will ensure ‘job creators’ instead of ‘job seekers’.
Perhaps his speech is prompted by the proposed fragmentation of both the school and the higher education process with several exit points and variable degrees and certificates. These proposals of NEP 2020 are being flaunted as ‘flexibility’ and ‘choice’. The absurdity of such an argument advanced by NEP can be understood from the fact that the first exit point is after class VI in the school where it is proposed that a child at the age of 12 will learn through ‘fun and work’ as an intern without pay. If this is not legitimising child labour with the existing act laying down prohibition of any labour below the age of 14, what is!
In all these post-independence years, dropout rate in schools and higher education has been a major concern for education policy makers. This concern has prompted attempts to overcome socio economic inequality by inclusive affirmative action. For example, only about 6% of STs, 8% of SCs, 9% of Muslims and 10% of OBCs are able to complete schooling till class 12 among children who are admitted in class I. This massive exclusion from school, as well as, higher education is now being glossed over through frequent use of terms like ‘exit/entry option’ and ‘lifelong learning’ and ‘flexibility’. Therefore, it is not surprising that ‘reservation’ does not find single mention in the entire text of NEP 2020.
Frontal assault on public funded inclusive education
Notwithstanding the PM’s rhetoric, which conveniently overlooks the horrific conditions of employment where thousands of PhDs and post graduates jostled for recruitment to Group D posts in the government sector, the claim by offering exit points is pure delusion. Employability and employment are completely different propositions, as much as ‘job seeking’ and ‘job creation’! The fact of the matter is NEP 2020 constitutes a frontal assault on public funded education.
Notwithstanding the pious commitment to increase public expenditure on education to 6% of the GDP, NEP 2020 does not clarify how much of this expenditure burden will be shouldered by the Union Government which collects 4% education cess on income and how the cost of expansion of pre-primary education for ages 3-6 years will be managed by the severely resource constrained Anganwadis under the charge of state governments. With current record Central Government’s budgetary expenditure and categorisation of higher education institutions (HEIs) gives away the game. Research universities, teaching universities and autonomous colleges aim to actually open floodgates of privatisation. For example, the autonomous colleges will be encouraged to ‘consolidate’ potentially unviable institutions.
That the NEP is not based on any concrete study becomes further clear from the fact that the policy has pegged such autonomous colleges at minimum student strength of 3000. All India higher education survey shows of all the 39,000 colleges in the country, at present only 4.3%, have this prescribed strength. Promise of ‘light but tight’ regulation will facilitate private promoters to go berserk on collecting fees. For ensuring access to higher education, the challenge of education policy making is to guarantee affordability. Indian education features that access is abysmally low at all levels with respect to even comparable developing economies.
Similar exclusionary approach is evident in the proposal for cluster development in school education. NEP 2020 proposes several schools which are spread over in remote habitations are complex to manage and must be clubbed to form a cluster. Apart from running contrary to the ideas off Right to Education Act which stipulates that every habitation must have a school within a radius of 1 km, the proposal merely repeats ideas of Multinational consulting agencies which under the stewardship of BJP led state governments forced closure of thousands of schools. Legitimising drop out, closing down institutions to slash cost on infrastructure and pushing large scale online education while opening up for major privatisation/commercialisation is the preferred route proposed in the new policy.
Contrast this to Kerala where students of private schools are opting to join appropriately publicly funded institutions.
New paradigm: abandoning goal of modern democratic secular Republic
The NEP 2020 sets out a blue print for abandoning the path of empowering Indian education for a democratic secular republic. It constitutes a rejection of a time worn principle of ‘unity through diversity’ by decentralising educational governance to address the social economic and cultural reality. It unabashedly promotes the vision of India of a past characterised by caste hierarchy andbackward looking unscientific orthodoxy. There is a need to draw from the past; but a past which has seen confluences of different cultures and knowledge systems. More importantly, we need to imbibe the rich experience of educational experiences which developed in our battle for throwing off the colonial yoke, initiated by Vidyasagar, Jyotiba Phule, Rabindranath Tagore and several others. We cannot allow our precious education system to be harked back to an unrecognisable ancient past influenced by RSS driven Hindutwa ‘vision’ with accompanying quest for obnoxious corporate profit.