Higher education bill: Legacy of hostility towards progress of SCs, STs, SEdBCs needs to end

Dalits-in-TrainingLetter by PS Krishnan (IAS retired), former secretary, Ministry of Welfare, Government of India, to Prakash Javadekar, Minister for Human Resource Development on the draft Higher Education Commission (HEC) Bill from the point of view of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Socially and Educationally Backward Classes of India:

It is welcome that your esteemed Ministry has put the draft Bill in the public domain and invited suggestions from the interested public. This is a good pratice which may be extended to all legislations.

There are many aspects of the proposed legislation such as whether it is necessary and desirable to abolish the UGC; whether the proposed new dispensation will adversely impact the autonomy of Universities and other Higher Educational Institutions (HEIs); what will be the impact of the proposed new dispensation on the autonomy of Universities and other HEIs; whether it is the intention of the Government to directly take over the disbursement of funds to Universities and other HEIs adversely impacting their autonomy; and what will be the mechanism to disburse funds to Universities and other HEIs, etc.

I am not touching on these aspects because there have already been plenty of articles and comments about these aspects and you would have also received plenty of such comments, and your esteemed Ministry, I presume, will take into account these aspects, especially the autonomy issue. My remarks and suggestions are confined to aspects pertaining to Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (SEdBCs) with due attention to the Specially Vulnerable Groups (SVGs) among SCs and the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs) among STs. These aspects are vital as they constitute the majority of the people, children and students of the country. To my knowledge, nobody else has commented on these aspects on which I am giving my remarks and suggestions and the Bill is also silent on them.

In the interview of R. Subramaniam, Secretary Higher Education, by Ritika Chopra in the Indian Express dated 04.07.2018 he has rightly observed that the Government has only a five-year window to reap demographic dividend. I wish your Ministry and Government had earlier realized this limited window and acted on it. Better late than never.

The demographic dividend can be optimally reaped only if those classes of society who lag behind in all parameters, including parameters pertaining to education at every level of education, in the county as a whole and in every State in the country, get focused attention, in quantitative as well as qualitative terms.

The phrase “for facilitating access, inclusion and opportunities to all” in clause (2) of section 15 of the Bill has to be made specific and adequately detailed. The classes of people who continue to suffer from inadequate access, inclusion and opportunities, on account of the operation of the Indian Caste System (ICS), i.e., the caste system-with “Untouchability” over the centuries of our history and the decades of our Independence and Constitution, continuing to this day are the SCs, STs and SEdBCs.

These three classes account for about 3/4th of the population of India. The proportion of the children of these three classes among all children is even more for demographic reasons which I am prepared to explain if required. There are plenty of statistical data evidencing that the SCs and STs are the most deprived at every level of education, starting with the percentage of illiterates, with the SEdBCs coming between them and the Socially Advanced Castes (SACs), i.e., the non-SC, non-ST, non-SEdBC castes (NSCTBCs), usually closer to the SCs and STs than to the SACs. This is true of every State including educationally most advanced States like Kerala. In Delhi, right under the nose of the Union Government as well as the Government of the NCT of Delhi, the gap is much wider.

The position of the Specially Vulnerable Groups (SVGs) among SCs such as women, manual scavengers and communities which have been forced into manual-scavenging, and the PVTGs among STs, Nomadic, Semi-Nomadic and Denotified Tribes or Vimukta Jatis among SCs, STs and SEdBCs and persons and children with disabilities among SCs, STs and SEdBCs, is even worse. I presume that this fact will not be disputed by any one. However, if there are any doubting Thomases, I can furnish adequate data which will leave no room for such doubts.

The word “all” in clause (2) of section 15 of the Bill is not adequate to secure for these classes and sub-classes the focused additional attention they need if “access, including and opportunities to all” are to materialize in reality.

Unless the Bill recognizes these three classes and their sub-classes as social classes who suffer from greater deprivation and deficiency in respect of all aspects of education at all levels and includes among the functions of the Commission, in clauses (1), (2) and (3) in section 15 and in measures listed in clause (4), specific goals with regard to these three classes and their sub-classes, the goals mentioned in the Bill and the goal of optimally reaping the demographic dividend within the narrow time-window available, as rightly pointed out by the Secretary, Higher Education, will elude us.

For example, if an institution achieves acceptable standards by keeping out SCs, STs and SEdBCs, who form about 3/4th of our population and whose children form even a higher proportion of the child population, the demographic dividend will be far below the potential and need of the country and of its optimal development.

Therefore, the following aspects must be included in the Bill:

(a) Reference in the Preamble to the three classes and their sub-classes mentioned above and their educational deprivation historically and continuing to this day and in section 15.

(b) Inclusion among the Commission’s functions the enforcement of reservation for the three classes mentioned above with due attention to their sub-classes specifically among the functions of the Commission.

(c)   A provision specifying that academic standards to be achieved and maintained shall include securing high academic standards of students of SCs, STs and SEdBCs and their specially vulnerable sub-classes.

(d) Specifying norms and standards to be achieved and maintained by educational institutions regarding reservation in admissions in Government and Aided educational institutions covered by the Central Educational Institutions (Reservation in Admissions) Act 2006 and also in private educational institutions keeping in view the objective of the Constitution (Ninety-third) Amendment Act 2005 inserting clause (5) in Article 15 of the Constitution, and in recruitment of teachers, subject to the prescribed qualifications, taking the university or college as the unit and not each Department as the unit.

(e) Among the Chairperson, Vice-chairperson and Members of the Commission there should be provision for ensuring representation of scholars of eminence and standing and possessing leadership abilities in the field of academics, institution building and governance of institutions of higher learning and research and having deep understanding on issues of higher education policy and practice, belonging to SCs, STs and SEdBCs and those who have experience of securing high standards of education for SCs, STs and SEdBC children. Such scholars and persons of eminence do exist in the country.

Representation of SC, ST and SEdBC scholars among the Chairperson, Vice-Chairperson and Members of the Commission is not a matter of reservation, but a measure to ensure that the Commission is oriented towards that preponderant proportion of Indian population which is lagging in education at every level and which is in need of greater attention and support to enable India to achieve that level of excellence in education which is the goal of the Government and the nation. Their proportion of representation in the Commission should reflect this aspect.

(f) Among the Chairperson, Vice-Chairperson and twelve Members provision should also be made for due representation of women possessing the qualities and qualifications mentioned in the Bill.

(g) Eminent academicians of SCs, STs and SEdBCs should also be duly represented in the Search Search-cum-Selection Committee (ScSc).

(h) The compliance with the norms and standards that will be laid down by the HECI as mentioned in (c) and (d) above can be ensured only if funding of each university and HEI is subject to such compliance. Therefore, appropriate link needs to be established between the Commission’s norms, standards and directions and advice and the funding process, whatever may be the funding agency and mechanism.

Under the Bill, the Commission’s focus is on maintenance of academic standards. This no doubt is an important goal. An equality important goal is to make educational institutions including HEIs an instrument of preparing the next generation for a caste-free society based on Social Equality and Social Justice. The Prime Minister sometime back gave a call for Jati-Mukt India. Obviously India has to free itself from Caste and Caste System including caste-based attitudes and even caste affiliations and caste consciousness, so that the society may be integrated and the nation may achieve optimal progress in the modern world.

This essential goal can be achieved only if the inherited social inequalities and social injustices are eliminated. They can be eliminated only if the younger generation is informed, with data, the specific inequalities and injustices which we have inherited and which are still prevalent in society. Sufficient data are available for this. The importance of eliminating these inequalities and injustices need to be emphasized.

The instrumentalities for this, laid down by the Constitution and national policy, such as Reservation, Special Component Plan for Scheduled Castes (SCP) and Tribal sub-Plan (TsP) and various other Social Justice measures undertaken (and those which are yet to be undertaken and need to be undertaken) must be explained in perspective so that all sections of the younger generation understand the problem and the attempted solution, so that their informed cooperation can be secured for the task of social transformation based on Social Equality in all parameters of development, welfare and life – economic, educational at all levels, occupational, housing, health-and-nutrition related etc.

This is a task which ought to have been attempted as part of our education curriculum in suitable gradual doses at each level of education and professional training immediately after the Constitution of India was adopted. I have been pleading for this since a long time. In this connection please see the article of Krishna Kumar, former Director of NCERT titled “The curriculum taboo” in the Indian Express of 7.7.2018. This important socio-ethical dimension of education, which has been ignored should now be brought specifically into the curriculum and into the proposed Bill and it should be made part of the functions of the Commission to lay down norms and standards, and evaluate performance of HEIs in this regard, and make it part of the proposed robust accreditation system.

The educational progress of the SCs, STs and SEdBCs in the higher education sectors requires their progress at all levels of education preceding higher educational level, viz., school education and pre-school education. I enclose herewith the Report (dated 21. 09. 2012) of the Task Force on Educational Development of Scheduled Castes set up by the Ministry of HRD. That Report covers the entire spectrum of education from the point pre-school/early childhood stage to higher education. I was a Member of the Task Force. The Report is with your Ministry. I had also sent a copy of the Report to the T.S. R. Subramaniam Committee and also the Kasturirangan Committee.

This Report, as also the Report (2008) of the Group of Ministers on Dalit Affairs (set up in 2005), like many other Reports pertaining to the deprived classes, have not received the attention of the Government. They should now receive attention in order to secure the objective for which your Ministry has come forward with the present Bill. The linkage which will be required with school education and pre-school education can be secured by following the approach you have adopted to extend the jurisdiction of the HEFA to cover Navodaya schools also.

The fact that school education and pre-school education is under the purview of another Department/Ministry should not be a deterrent to secure inter-departmental and inter-ministerial integration required for holistic educational advancement at every level. Your approach regarding HEFA shows that given the will our system is capable of administrative innovation necessary for such inter-departmental and inter-ministerial integration. The division of governance and administration into Ministries and Departments is only intended to facilitate work and not to construct isolated silos.

The objective of your esteemed Ministry and the Government in coming forward with the Bill is laudable, but this objective of maximizing educational quality and reaping the demographic dividend will be possible only if the vast majority of the people and children and young people belonging to these three classes are also brought specifically, with the required focus, in the ambit of the Bill and the functions and the tasks of the proposed Commission.

India has fallen behind comparable countries which were at our level at the time of our Independence. This is largely because we neglected to pay due attention to ensuring progress of SCs, STs and SEdBCs to the level of Equality with the SACs in all parameters of development, welfare and life including education at all levels and there were too many powerful individuals in India’s governance and administration who expended energy and ingenuity to prevent the SCs, STs and SEdBCs from progressing towards Equality. This legacy of neglect and hostility towards the progress of SCs, STs and SEdBCs to the level of Equality needs to be terminated if India and the Indian economy are to progress optimally. The continuation of the past legacy of neglect and hostility will entail unbearable cost for India in an increasingly competitive world.

If the Government accepts these suggestions of mine, I am prepared to sit with you and those in charge of drafting or redrafting the Bill to finalise the wording of the provisions which need to be included in the Bill as suggested by me.

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