By Manas Chaudhuri
The new education minister of MDA 2.0 Rakkam Sangma, is relatively a new entrant to state politics. His first press statement after assuming office indicates his focus is going to be on ushering in a paradigm shift in the state education scenario. As one who has travelled the road Sangma promises to take, I wish to share my thoughts on the humongous task that lies ahead of the new minister and suggest possible ways out.
When I was handling the portfolio of Higher and Technical Education in 2008-2009, I had the opportunity to have a closer look at the way the system works. It did not take me too long to realise that the Department, in spite of having efficient officers, was stagnating for want of fresh ideas and initiative. Our first task was to engage the stakeholders for formulating a comprehensive Education Policy. That it was the first such exercise in the last fifty years tells the story of how Education suffered due to alarming indifference at the top.
We also undertook a tour of the length and breadth of the state—another first for the state—to see for ourselves the state of our government schools. These tours were a veritable eye-opener. The deplorable conditions of the institutions spoke of the official apathy at all levels. Institution after institution were caught in a bind. Dilapidated class rooms, leaking roofs, sorry state of toilets and the absence of girls’ toilets, lack of inspection, inter alia, caused me and the accompanying officials unmitigated embarrassment. The long and short of it is that barring releasing salary to the staff, the system had almost become dysfunctional.
To refurbish the scene is a daunting task. Only bold and radical steps can lead to a course correction. The question is: Are we up for it? In my considered view, it cannot be left entirely at the doorstep of the government. The thinkers, policy makers and the political class ought to get their act together. There has to be a fresh beginning bearing in mind the stark challenges of today. Meghalaya will continue to falter in today’s business with yesterday’s technology. We need to think out of the box.
In this backdrop, I venture to offer my road map for a long-term approach towards Education reforms in Meghalaya:
Radical change in teachers’ training
To say that teachers are the most critical factor in the chain is like stressing the obvious. Everybody realises that in their hands lie the future of our next generations. These teachers then, need to be accorded training in modern methodologies. Delhi is a perfect example of how school education can be reformed through quality training. The Delhi government initially sent 350 cherry-picked teachers for an effective training to a university in Gujarat set up for training teachers. And the rest is history. Meghalaya must follow suit. Let us concede that it’s not ministers or bureaucrats but essentially the teachers who can make the critical difference. Our state should identify promising young serving teachers as well as the young aspirants who seek to make teaching their passion, and send them for such advanced training. This should become an annual exercise, preferably state sponsored. When we have a trained and motivated lot of teachers, half the battle will be over. No doubt, such crucial reform can only show results over a long period.
The state government has been caught in a perpetual funds crunch. Almost 90% of the department’s budget is guzzled up by the fat salary bill, leaving no elbow room for infrastructure development. Obviously, the state needs to find alternate means for supporting the system. I strongly recommend that we impose an “Education Tax” to mobilise resources. Deducted at source, the state may levy 5% from the salaries of ministers, MLAs, government officers and staff, as also deduct from the payments made to contractors, suppliers or service providers. MLA funds could also come under its ambit.
On a thumb rule calculation, pegging the annual government expenditure at Rs 6000 crore, a flat 5% deduction on all government transactions will accrue to no less than Rs 300 crore annually. This modest kitty can have a multiplier effect, if utilized solely to bag myriad central projects on the 90:10 ratio. Indeed, Rs 300 crore can multiply into projects worth Rs 2,700 crore for infrastructure development at the school level. It is for everybody to see that our school going children deserve playgrounds, stadiums, libraries, better classrooms and furniture, besides exposure to digital education facilities, not to speak of learning music and honing the sports skills latent in our youth. They are missing out on these fundamental amenities since the state is simply unable to provide them!
I believe no right-thinking person will mind making this small sacrifice for the sake of our children. Obviously, it would require a huge political will, not to speak of societal pressure.
Wanted Education Service cadre
The administrative edifice for overseeing the education sector needs to be revitalized by creating an exclusive cadre of officers under “Meghalaya Education Service” along the lines of the civil services, judicial service and the like. This singular step should be able to attract talents seeking to make an administrative career in this sector. Like all other cadres, there should be a process in place for eligibility tests. Once the cadre is created, there should be better continuity of policies and programmes with a dedicated IAS officer at the top of the pyramid to oversee the system.
Let’s lease out Government schools
In this country, there is something rotten about the government institutions, and Meghalaya is no exception. The government-run schools by and large have been on a downhill race and there is no plausible remedy. The teacher: student ratio and the return on investment are hugely disproportionate. Therefore, it’s a fit case that these schools should be leased out in a phased manner to private bodies on a win-win formula. Only those having proven a track record, local or otherwise, should be allowed to make a bid.
Recruitment of teachers
If we are honest with ourselves, we will concede that teaching cannot be another job per se. During the last fifty years, recruitment of teachers has been driven largely by employment generation for the local degree holders. To what extent has this impacted the school education is hard to quantify. All the same, going by the level of general performance of tribal students in all India competitive examinations, it will become apparent that the system has left much to be desired. The decade-long drought of local tribal students’ inability to crack the UPSC examination is a glaring case in point. The recent hue and cry over introduction of CUET underlines the point I am trying to make.
It is my conviction that nothing will change unless we muster courage to break the stereotype. In this context, I would stick my neck out to suggest that when it comes to recruitment of teachers, the Reservation Policy needs a revisit. With a view to attracting fresh talents to the profession, let there be 50% reservation for the local tribal candidates while the remaining half be picked on merit alone. I am aware that the issue might raise hackles among the votaries of status quo. It may also sound politically incorrect, but isn’t that an investment on our children? Perhaps, it would also offset the propensity for spending time and money on private tuitions and coaching classes.
Attract investment from outside
If Meghalaya has to become the one-stop education hub; the state will have to create a conducive climate for attracting investments from outside. If education has to thrive, there has to be competition for better education opportunities at the doorstep. What better than inviting the big players to invest in Meghalaya and making Shillong a one-stop Knowledge City of the sub-continent.
I am sanguine that none of these propositions will work unless we are prepared to look ourselves in the mirror. The bottom line is: For heralding reforms, we need to have all stakeholders aboard. Parents, teachers, bureaucrats, opinion makers, pressure groups and the political class must be on the same wavelength. Meghalaya has to redeem herself merely for the sake of enabling her children. If we fail to see the writings on the wall, we will be letting our children down. There is no soft option.
(The author is the former Higher Education Minister of Meghalaya. He can be reached at [email protected])