First off the blocks in the race to showcase some achievement after completion of the first 100 days in office by the new Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA-2) government, which was sworn in on May 22, is Kapil Sibal, the new incumbent of Shastri Bhavan, New Delhi which houses the Union HRD ministry. Within 27 days of being sworn in on May 25, Sibal rolled out a 10-point agenda for radical reform of primary-secondary education and 24-proposals for recasting higher education, raising hopes as well as eye-brows. “What the economy underwent in 1991, education will in 2009,” Sibal promised a specially convened press conference in Delhi on June 25.
Certainly by the soporific standards of post-independence Shastri Bhavan and of the past decade in particular, when incumbents Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi of the BJP and dyed-in-the-wool socialist Congress party stalwart Arjun Singh heavily politicised the ministry without initiating any worthwhile academic reforms, Sibal is moving at whirlwind speed. In school education he has announced an intent to make the school-leaving class X board exam optional; enact the long pending Right to Education Bill; devise a framework for public-private partnerships; explore the possibility of setting up an independent accreditation body for schools and constitute a madrasa board for upgrading the primary-secondary education dispensed in the country’s 30,000 madrasa schools.
In higher education as well a rain of legislative measures have been promised. They include establishing an overarching authority for higher education on the lines of the National Knowledge Commission and Yash Pal Committee recommendations, enactment of the Foreign Education Providers (Regulation for Entry and Operation) Bill; constituting a tribunal for fast track adjudication of disputes between stakeholders in education; review of the status of deemed universities; setting up National Institutes of Technology; and devising a national teacher curriculum, among other proposals. Even if partly actioned, they would radically transform Indian education.
“People have been waiting a long time for such meaningful education reforms. The minister’s statements of intent are in the right direction. But the details need to be worked out carefully with a balanced approach and attention to detail,” warns Prof. Furqan Qamar, professor of management studies at Jamia Milia University and advisor (education) to the Planning Commission.
Inevitably, not everyone is enthused, least of all leaders and acolytes of the two communist parties — CPM and CPI — which were roundly trounced in the recently concluded 15th general election. The governments of the left-ruled states of Kerala and West Bengal in particular have been quick to criticise the proposal to abolish the class X boards and to initiate public-private partnerships (PPPs) in education.
“Never in the history of India has a Union minister made so many announcements unilaterally. He should have consulted the state governments first. He is destroying education in the country without regard for the federal system and Parliament. Moreover Sibal’s heavy emphasis on PPPs will commercialise education. Thus far private educationists were only getting free or concessionally-priced land; now they will get money as well. The impression I get is that Sibal is hell-bent on privatising the 1.25 million government schools across the country,” thunders Prof. Anil Sadgopal, a member of the Central Advisory Board of Education and co-chairman of the People’s Campaign for a Common School System.
Yet while there is widespread skepticism about Sibal’s ability and clout within the UPA government to railroad his ambitious reform agenda through Parliament, leftists, casteists and vested interests milking the current dysfunctional education system apart, most right-thinking people welcome Sibal’s refreshing enthusiasm. “Human resources development minister Kapil Sibal’s proposed 100-day agenda represents a potential paradigm shift in an education system that has seen too few of them in the past six decades… The lack of an adequate number of educational institutions has created bottlenecks at every level. If India’s demographic dividends are to be maximised, the situation must change. Sibal’s proposals gain added weight in this context,” says a Times of India editorial (June 29) which sums up the national mood.
Autar Nehru (Delhi)