The drift that had set in during UPA-II in several areas of policy and implementation continued in the first year of NDA rule. In school education, the implementation of the Right to Education (RTE) Act depends on the Centre maintaining its pressure on the states, considering that RTE is the lone school-related law passed by the Parliament. A committee led by the late Anil Bordia had recommended an elaborate plan to achieve full compliance with RTE by carefully merging the special structures created for Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) into the old machinery of the Directorates of Education in the States. Little progress worth noting has been made in this respect. More worrisome is the demand — now getting louder — for revisiting certain provisions of RTE, especially the policy of no-detention. If the Ministry of HRD entertains such demands, the edifice of this bold historic law may begin to crumble.
The Centre’s budget for Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) has also sent dark signals. The idea to let the States own greater responsibility by utilising the additional funds to be shared with them under the 14th Financial Commission’s provisions is, of course, good. But it does not necessarily imply that the Centre’s fiscal and advisory arm should get weaker. There is plenty of evidence that the northern States suffer from structural inability to prioritise education. Their progress in enrolment and retention over the last two decades owes almost entirely to Central assistance, monitoring and push. The general policy of cooperative federalism emphasised by NDA might sounds great, but its application in the context of elementary education risks the loss of assiduously made gains in the populous north. Conditions in MP, UP and Bihar are fast deteriorating. In Rajasthan and Maharashtra, a vast number of schools have been closed down. Bengal had barely begun to look at the details of RTE. At this juncture, it would be tragic if the Centre chooses to become a mere spectator of action in the States.
In secondary and higher education, lack of sustained desire to choose between conflicting options had paralysed UPA-II. One option was to improve the state’s institutional capacity; the other was to outsource reforms. The larger ethos has, in any case, been dominated for quite some time by the trend towards accommodating commercial interests. They have gone deep in many States, giving rise to the popular belief that educational reform calls for dilution or withdrawal of state control In most fields of professional education, privatisation is now normal. Regulatory capacity of state bodies has proved inadequate; in many cases, corruption has crippled this role.
In academic higher education, the University Grants Commission (UGC) has behaved as if it is functioning from an island where the chaotic din of the India’s distressed academia does not reach. UGC has been pushing a remarkably ill-conceived set of changes in faculty recruitment, syllabus making and institutional management. The NDA government seems to want the UGC to carry on with its positively harmful manoeuvres.
The war against teachers that began in the mid-1990s is still raging in most parts of the country. The government seems indifferent to their plight.
Nor is there any sign that the quietly initiated policy discussions will treat teachers as a focal concern. Indeed, at the end of its first year, the NDA government has given hardly any signal about its long-term plans or aims.
The only move it has articulated with a certain degree of urgency is in skill development. Around last autumn, it looked as if action was round the corner but nothing happened. Perhaps the expected cooperation from industry did not materialise. Skill education is dispersed over several Ministries: bringing them together proved difficult under UPA-II. NDA too faced this difficulty and did not devote much energy to overcome it.
As for increased state spending on rejuvenating and expanding the Industrial Training Institutes, the government remains committed to the reluctance it inherited from UPA-II. Possibly, it feels that by maintaining restraint, it will allow different spheres of education to seek new kinds of equilibrium with private capital.
Krishna Kumar is professor of education at Delhi University and former Director of NCERT.