Education News

Maharashtra: Creeping controls

The Maharashtra state government’s education department is hyperactive and gaffes prone. Obviously driven by populist provincial considerations, on August 7 it announced a 20-point programme to regulate all of Mahar-ashtra’s 86,400 primary-secondary schools, including 262 schools affiliated with pan-India CBSE and CISCE (and presumably foreign) examination boards.

Under the 20 point charter, all schools will be obliged to adopt the syllabus of the state government’s Secondary School Certificate (SSC) board for classes I-V; compulsorily teach Marathi as the second language; make “any information” available to the state government; pay teachers and staff salaries prescribed by the state government, and include a government official on the staff selection panels of all private schools.

Comments Vasant Purke, spokesperson of the committee which toured Tamil Nadu and several other states before finalising the state government’s 20-point education policy: “The main objective of the new policy is to ensure that children in Maharashtra acquaint themselves with the Marathi language. It will help them communicate with the local people better and since they are in Maharashtra, Marathi should be compulsory. The rest of the features are specified after keeping the progress of the schools in mind (sic). We want the best for everybody.” Moreover if any (CBSE, CISCE and international) school fails to follow the guidelines, the government will revoke its no-objection certificate to it.

Behind this public interest statement, educationists in Mumbai detect a spirit of animosity towards the 262 CISCE and CBSE “elite schools” which recently humbled the state government in the courts. In July the Bombay high court struck down the education department’s decision to reserve 90 percent of junior college seats for SSC school students. Earlier in 2008 the department lost another case over the implementation of a “percentile” formula for junior college (class XI-XII) admissions. The Bombay high court, in both cases, excoriated the state government’s anti-CBSE/CISCE orders, using strong words such as “illegal”, “defective” and “unconstitutional”.

Unsurprisingly “creeping controls” and the host of regulations imposed on non-SSC schools have shocked parents of children enroled in CBSE/CISCE schools which by common consensus offer superior K-12 syllabuses, curriculums, infrastructure and learning outcomes. The proposal to force non-SSC schools to follow the SSC curriculum from class I-V has particularly outraged some citizens. “Everybody supports the state government’s stated intent to upgrade the SSC curriculum, but we cannot countenance the imposition of the less demanding SSC curriculum on CISCE schools,” says Jonathan Frances who filed — and won — the percentile admission case against the state government in March 2008.

Amin Joseph, principal of Palak Vidyalaya, Mumbai, a CBSE affiliated school with an enrolment of 1,700 students, is also sharply critical of the new rules which she describes as “ridiculous” and “partial”. “There is some justification for the state government to prescribe minimum salaries for teachers. But it’s outrageous for government officials to get involved with teacher recruitment. It will lead to nepotism, corruption and employment of sub-standard teachers,” says Joseph.

Although the state government claims that these changes recommended under the 20-point programme will be implemented gradually, CBSE and CISCE school managements and parents aren’t prepared to accept them and a new round of courtroom battles is in the offing. Amazingly, instead of raising the abysmal teaching-learning standards of the state’s 61,708 government primaries, and unmindful that India’s most industralised state ranks No. 13 on the Educational Development Index (EDI) of the Delhi-based National University of Educational Planning & Administration, extending control over the 262 CBSE and CISCE schools seems to be the focus of the education ministry’s officials.

Neha Ghosh (Mumbai)

Onus shift

With the industrial city of Pune (pop. 5 million) having emerged since early July as the epicentre of the dreaded swine influenza pandemic caused by the H1N1 virus sweeping the nation, and the state and municipal government health authorities having exhausted the option of closing down the city’s 248 schools and colleges, the onus of fighting the pandemic has shifted to the managements of education institutions.

With 25 deaths reported till August 27 and more than 800 people testing positive for the flu, on August 20 Mahesh Zagade, commissioner of the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC), unfolded a multi-pronged strategy involving educational institutions and students to create awareness for counteracting the virus. The programme, dubbed ‘Swine Flu: Quit India Mission’, was put into execution from the first day of re-opening of schools and colleges on August 24, after a 14-day blanket shutdown ordered by the PMC.

The programme requires all schools, colleges, universities and private coaching classes to follow good  hygiene practices for keeping swine flu at bay, and enlists them to propagate a “reverse education” campaign to enlighten parents and the general public. “We have conceptualised this programme to tackle swine flu which is not the sole responsibility of any particular agency, but has to be a collective societal effort. The mission is guided by the need to check the spread of the H1N1 virus, to be fully prepared against the likelihood of a virulent second wave, and ensure that there is no more shutting down of educational institutions,” said Zagade.

Medical experts in Pune trace the emergence of the city as the epicentre of the swine flu epidemic to the typically lethargic response of the state’s health department and the PMC. They should have been alerted to its first manifestations when 40 school students returned to Pune from an exchange programme in the US via Mumbai on July 4, where despite a two-month global alert of the flu having spread from Mexico into the US, they were not checked for symptoms. Later, five of them tested positive for swine flu. Of those five, an index case spread it to his younger brother, a student of Abhinav Vidyalaya. Soon it spread to other children in neighbouring schools.

The PMC’s health department manned action stations only after the death of 14-year-old Reeda Shaikh, a student of St Anne’s School on August 3. Thereafter, civic officials declared a week’s closure of schools which was extended by another seven days when there were no signs of abatement of the epidemic. In response to a question about whether the epidemic could have been contained if the PMC and state government had acted swiftly, Ashok Ladda, joint director of the state’s health department, was unwilling to admit to any tardiness on the part of gover-nment. “Its spread was helped by the climatic conditions prevailing then — a mix of rain, humidity and low temperature,” he replied.

However, it’s a lame excuse that Shireen Shaikh, Reeda’s mother, is unwilling to accept. “Despite the fact that swine flu was making headlines every day, Pune’s officials and the medical fraternity arrogantly assumed that nothing of the sort would happen in this city. In fact, my daughter’s death is due to an inefficient medical and administration system,” she says. The Shaikh family has served a legal notice to Jehangir Hospital where Reeda had been admitted for treatment.

Independent medical practitioners too, despair about the casual attitude of immigration and health officials in Mumbai and the PMC. “If all the 40 students and their associates had been quarantined soon after the first student tested positive, many of the subsequent tragedies could have been prevented. Now without putting its own house in order, the PMC has shifted the onus of combating swine flu to school and college managements,” opined a city medical practitioner, requesting anonymity.

Nevertheless Ajit Pawar, the “guardian minister” of Pune, is convinced that the reverse education campaign will check the spread of the pandemic. “Since younger people are more susceptible to the virus, we thought it best to drill the best practices into the minds of students. They will, in turn, educate their parents,” he stated. But the fact that almost every person in the city goes about their daily routine with flu masks firmly strapped on, indicates that the citizens of Pune don’t share the minister’s quick-fix optimism.

Huned Contractor (Pune)