The UGC’s decision to close its centres for research on social integration is not in keeping with the Constitutional vision for nation-building
The framers of our Constitution were conscious that rigid hierarchies and structured inequalities had dehumanised many sections of the population, excluding them from the mainstream. They wanted to salvage the nation from this at the earliest. So, when the Constitution was framed, it enshrined special provisions to evolve an inclusive, egalitarian society devoid of disparities and discrimination.
India would have become a robust and cohesive, inclusive society in a decade or two after it became a republic had: the special provisions been utilised to frame carefully calibrated, public policies, these policies implemented in earnest, and their implementation been evaluated from time to time.
That even more than 60 years after India became a democratic republic it has not become an inclusive society — leaving its citizens where they were as a part of the fragmented and fractious, heterogeneous caste and communal ensembles that comprised traditional Indian society — is a result of the blatant subversion of the special provisions of the Constitution for vote-bank politics.
As though, however, from an epiphany, India’s Tenth Plan affirmed making the country an inclusive society, with the Eleventh Plan reaffirming it. Following this, as a special scheme since 2008, the University Grants Commission (UGC) began establishing Centres for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy (CSSEIP) in universities across the country; there are 32 centres in 24 States (though going by the UGC’s annual report 2010-2011, there were as many as 35 centres functioning in 35 universities). The UGC’s rationale for starting them made immense sense: social exclusion not only generates tension, violence and disruption but also perpetuates inequality and deprivation in society. In India, certain communities such as the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and religious minorities experience systemic exclusion in the matter of taking advantage of development. Social exclusion is a complex and multidimensional concept with social, cultural, political and economic ramifications. The consequences of macroeconomic policies such as against poverty, unemployment and involuntary migration exclude the victims from economic, cultural, and political activities. The primary spaces where “exclusion” can be studied, understood, and first transcended are our universities, which can and must act as a beacon for society. The UGC, therefore, decided to support research on the issue of social exclusion, which has theoretical and policy importance. The idea — to establish a number of teaching-cum-research centres in universities to pursue these themes.
However, the manner in which the UGC went about its task was clumsy and haphazard as though it was establishing departments in universities. It should have networked all the centres, and got nodal agencies to appraise them. This would have ensured that the universities provided them enough elbowroom and ambience for mobility and growth, while periodic reports from the centres would have facilitated collective deliberation and action.
Instead, in a number of universities, staff members were not recruited. To those recruited, the universities did not provide space and infrastructure. In one instance, an assistant director appointed to a centre was deputed by the vice-chancellor of the university as principal of a college, leaving the only other person, the centre’s director, to fend for himself.
Though the UGC’s understanding of social exclusion and inclusive policy was narrow, as though its concern was mainly Dalits — most of the staff members appointed were also Dalits — as a beginning, this approach was acceptable. As the centres began to stabilise and gain a broad understanding of social exclusion and integration, the scope and sweep of their work could have expanded to study other aspects of exclusion and inclusion such as those concerning women, and other socially disabled sections. In fact, when stabilised, the centres could have been ideal places to deal with problems of Left extremism or so-called naxalism, which is a fallout of the state’s failure to enable inclusive governance.
Not much ‘impact’
However, instead of helping the centres overcome teething troubles, the UGC chairman, Ved Prakash, has chosen the easy way out; the 493rd meeting of the UGC of May 10, 2013, approved the recommendation by the Joint Secretary, UGC, K.C. Pathak, to discontinue the centres. It said that the scheme of having the centres had not “taken off” and, therefore, could not make much of an impact; on May 29, Mr. Pathak informed the centres of their discontinuation.
Following a letter on June 6 from the Joint Secretary, Department of Higher Education, Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), R.P. Sisodia, citing among other things demands by several organisations not to discontinue the centres, the UGC informed the centres the same day that they would continue until “further orders” — a case of knowledge production in bits and pieces and uncertainty and, to use UGC’s officialese, until “further orders.”
The UGC’s sudden decision to discontinue the centres after projecting them as a beacon of society, which has been dumped after five years, raises a larger question: do its present leaders have a vision for inclusion? If so, what is it?
(P. Radhakrishnan was Professor of Sociology, Madras Institute of Development Studies. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)