The BJP led NDA Government at the Centre unveiled a new National Education Policy (NEP) a little while ago amidst a lot of fanfare. A casual look at this will immediately show that it is simply old wine in a new bottle. There are a lot of sanctimonious noises about children and ability to learn, and some diversionary tactics about the role of `mother-tongue’ and teaching in this in early years, and some cosmetic changes to higher education like the possibility of leaving at various stages in a proposed 4 year undergraduate degree with a diploma and a certificate. There is also a lot of talk about inviting foreign Universities to set up shop in India. Many experts are debating the pros and cons about these policies and it is slowly dropping out of the news, since there is a perceived futility in talking about these matters.
The NEP has to be seen against the backdrop of the reality that India has found itself in for over seven decades since independence from British Rule. At the time of independence, the people of India were infused with the hope of a bright future. They were given promises that once we are independent, the people will have not only food, clothing and shelter but also education as a right. Whereas many of these have been included in the Directive Principles of State Policy of the 1950 Constitution of India, there have been no enabling provisions.
The last seven decades have also shown some particularly important appalling features of the education system in India. Whereas government figures can show upwards of 70% literacy, for most part such literacy is merely the ability to be able to sign on a document. A huge fraction of this is not functionally literate. It would be a statistician’s nightmare to figure out what the literacy figures in India really are. This may be further examined to show that literacy here is not in any sense correlated to say, even completion of primary school education. In large swathes of the country, especially in the rural sector, schools exist only nominally. There are no classes, no teachers, no headmasters. In urban areas, there is a plethora of educational institutions which are privately run. In these areas there are also a large number of schools for middle and upper-middle class children with curricula comparable to the education anywhere else in the world, and also elite schools that provide education for children of wealthy people comparable to those in advanced countries. It is no wonder that lakhs of Indian students every year flock to foreign countries for degrees.
All the above said, what has happened is the continuation of existing class and caste stratification of the society. Those who were at the bottom of the pyramid continue to be at the bottom. There are millions of people who were deprived of quality education and therefore have nothing to offer except their cheap manual labour This is a great boon for the monopolies to make super profits under the conditions of liberalization and privatization.
And no small measures can tackle this system. Across the world, the erstwhile USSR and the eastern bloc, and other countries such as Australia and New Zealand, Germany, the Scandinavian countries, and China have all achieved much better performance in education thanks to a solid uniform education system. The overwhelming majority of students in these countries graduate through a common school education system, which in most cases is free and run by local or state authorities. All of them have achieved near total literacy and lead in many of the social indices. A common schools system guaranteeing free and good quality education system is the only solution to the problems facing the lack of education in India.
The creation of a small privileged minority that holds the reins to education in India has only exacerbated the tensions in society. The problems of education and lack thereof are a ticking time-bomb and a war like effort is required to tackle it. No short term measures of the type inspired by the NEP can provide solutions.
The problems of education are intimately tied to the problems of society. It is imperative that all those interested in resolving the problems of education also apply their minds to the problems of society. There is no other option available at this time.