A civil servant devoted to educational reform

October 12, 2016 12:50 am | Updated 12:50 am IST

Anita Kaul

Anita Kaul

The passing away of retired IAS officer Anita Kaul this week, aged 62, is a great loss to the school education sector in India. The last message I received from her, just days ago, was a link to American rap poet Prince Ea’s short video, “The People vs the School System”. The video begins with Albert Einstein’s remark that everyone is a genius, but if we judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.

For most of her life, Anita Kaul had battled this aspect of the school education system: the “one-size-fits-all” yardstick used to assess the abilities of all children without recognizing that each child is unique.

Without fear of failure

Her life’s work was dedicated to the belief that all children should be able to learn at their own pace, without fear of failure, in a joyful, affirming, non-threatening environment.

As a senior colleague and mentor, Anita was hard-working, insightful, empathetic and deeply committed. She was that rare civil servant who combined a creative mind with the ability to push new ideas through an ancient, creaking system. She could focus on quality without losing sight of scale. Interested in everything, she was incredibly generous about sharing ideas and feedback.

She could connect you to a rich variety of perspectives across academia, activism, and the non-governmental sector. She and her husband Sanjay Kaul (also formerly in the IAS) were a warm, delightful couple.

Late last year, feeling despondent about something at work, I called Anita for advice. “Go to the field,” she urged.

“You will see that people are working in spite of everything.”

I went. In a remote Bidar village, I chanced upon a lovely primary school classroom where an Urdu teacher and her class were using a set of old, frayed but carefully preserved learning cards from Karnataka’s Nali Kali system of activity-based learning.

Years ago, Anita Kaul had played an important part in bringing Nali Kali into Karnataka’s primary schools. I filmed a video of a little girl reading, the teacher’s eyes shining with pride, and I sent it to Anita. For a civil servant, there can be nothing more satisfying than to see the good work one started years ago still being carried forward.

Sterling contribution

Anita Kaul belonged to the 1979 batch of the IAS, Karnataka cadre. She had a distinguished career, a major part of it in the social sector. After retiring as Secretary, Justice, in the Government of India, she joined the Council for Social Development in Delhi — an institute set up in 1962 by Durgabai Deshmukh — as its Director.

From their initial conception, new initiatives usually take a long time to show results on the ground. It is a rare thing for those who initially worked on a policy to be able to see results within their tenure. But Anita Kaul’s greatest achievement was as one of the principal architects of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009. The rest of us can only dream of contributions on this scale: Anita Kaul managed to achieve them, and yet I have known few people who wore their achievements as lightly. Her passing comes too soon and she will be greatly missed in the education sector. Deepest condolences to her husband, Sanjay Kaul, and the family.

The writer is in the IAS, currently based in Bengaluru

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