By Walter Fernandes
After uploading a draft education policy on the website of the Ministry the former Union Minister for Human Resource Development held five onehour Skype based consultations on its contents for differentzones. That is a positive point. Also its objectives look good. It aims to revamp teacher education to improve their quality, encouraging new knowledge, pedagogy and approaches, enabling inclusive education and financing higher education. However, these objectives remain at the policy statements with no idea of how it is to be implemented. The measures it suggests seem to be geared to the needs of the upper classes and elite institutions not to those of the poor.
After expressing the intention of the Government to enable inclusive education the focus of the policy draft is to prepare teachers for the globalised world. It is speaks of new techniques and international standards but does not say how it will enable inclusive education. The document speaks of the need to have good quality colleges, universities, medical and technical institutions of an international standard. That is a crying need in India because no Indian university is among the top 200 of the world. Hidden while focusing on international standards the document does not say how they will be inclusive i.e. how the poor will gain access to them. Prestigious medical colleges, management institutes and IITs are useful but very few persons from the region even from the middle class gain access to them. For example, I do not have recent data but in 2012 we were informed at a meeting that IIM Shillong had only two students from the region. The situation was slightly better in IIT Guwahati. It is true that some NE students go to other such institutes outside the region but their number is somewhat small. That puts the region at a disadvantage.
While it is true of the Northeast as a whole, the situation is worse when it concerns the poor. It means that, one has to go beyond building only high quality institutions in cities to making these services accessible to the rural areas and to the poor. The benefit of medical colleges and other institutions can remain with major cities and may exclude villages and small towns. That issue is crucial for the Northeast. For example, those who study the land issue know that much land alienation in the region today is within the tribe. In the absence of good colleges in their States parents send their wards to colleges in Guwahati and Shillong or outside the region. They sell some of their land to richer persons in their tribe to get money for their children’s education. Of much greater importance is the absence of good health care facilities. In a medical emergency people have no choice but to sell their land at a throwaway price in order to rush to the cities where such facilities are located. One does not have to repeat that land is central to most conflicts in the region.
That is where one can question the focus of the draft policy. Inclusive education is much more than big institutions. The institutions have respond to every citizen’s right to a life with dignity which is how the Supreme Court has interpreted Article 21 of the Constitution on right to life. Education has to protect this right for example by changing the processes that cause land alienation, impoverishment and ethnic conflicts. One has certainly to build prestigious colleges in big cities but one has go beyond them and shift focus to villages and small towns. Unless good colleges are uilt in each district people will continue to sell their land in order to send their children to other States. Primary and high schools are as important as colleges. In this context one can accept the policy focus on public-privatepartnership (PPP) but PPP cannot be limited to industries and big institutions. It should become real in villages and small towns. North Eastern States ensure free education only in government-run schools most of which are of poor quality. The voluntary sector provides good quality education also in villages and small towns but the State does not fund them. So their students have to pay for their education. It means that the children who cannot afford their fees are condemned to low quality education in government schools.
To make Article 21 and the right to education real to the poor, PPP has to reach every public and private school. The State should pay the salaries and maintain all the schools coming under the State Board. This is not a dream because this system has been implemented in the Southern States, Maharashtra and a few others since the 1960s under the grant-in-aid scheme. The State pays teacher salaries and pension and even maintains the buildings owned by private agencies. It has changed with liberalisation basic to which is privatisation of services. Private schools founded after 1992 are not entitled to the grants. If the North Eastern States believe in the Right to Education Act and in inclusive education and want to prevent land alienation and the conflicts caused by it, they should demand a policy in which the Government enters into PPP with the agencies that impart good quality education. The State should pay the salaries, ensure mid-day meals and pay for the buildings and other facilities run by voluntary bodies under the State education Board. Those who can afford to pay high fees have CBSE and ICSE schools. Children who do not have money to buy education have a right to good education in schools and it should be provided under PPP.
One can go beyond education to health services. The draft policy speaks of the need to build more medical colleges and of PPP in them. Such institutions in big cities can provide specialised services but priority has to go to the villages where most health centres exist only in name and rarely have medical persons to take care of them.
Many private agencies are providing good services but they get no assistance from the State. Health is a basic human right and the agencies providing such services deserve all support. Of equal importance is transport whose focus today is on six lane roads and Asian and National highways. They are required but they do not reach the poor because good transport is neglected in the rural areas. It is needed to transport agricultural produce to the market, for children to go to school and for patients to avail of health centres in the neighbouring towns. In other words, for education to be inclusive one has to go beyond the present form of development whose benefits tend to remain with “Shining India”. The policy should steer education and its support mechanisms of health care and transport towards small towns and villages and to the needs of the poor. In order to respond to everyone’s right to health, food and education the policy should move towards ensuring that its benefits become real to every Indian citizen particularly in the Northeast.
The author works at North Eastern Social Research Centre, Guwahati.