National Education Policy 2020: A prescription without diagnosis

By Martin Macwan*

“Education is fundamental for achieving full human potential, developing an equitableand just society, and promoting national development”. This is the opening line of New Education Policy (NEP) 2020 of India. This is a positive statement which underlines the fact, though not clearly articulated, that India is still at a distance from developing an equitable and just society.

Unfortunately, critical analysis of the present status of education, which can be the basis for planning interventions in India, does not follow in the 62 page document of NEP 2020. Let us imagine presenting budget without economic survey!

Constitution of India attached importance to education.

Article 46 of Indian Constitution as part of the Directive Principles of State Policy says: “The State shall promote with special care the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people and, in particular, of the Scheduled Caste and the Scheduled Tribes and shall protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation”.

This article was adopted without discussion in the Constituent assembly barring a single suggestion on 23rd November 1948 which reflected unanimous agreement of the reality and the need to ensure a program of protection against social injustice.

UNICEF report on out-of-school children in South Asia, 2014, finds in relation to India that the number of out of school children in at the primary and lower secondary school India is 11.9 million. It finds that, in rural India, older girls are more likely to be excluded than older boys. Girls in rural areas, particularly those from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in India, also have higher rates of exclusion.

The study also finds that, in India, school exclusion is considerably more prevalent among Muslim children, and among older children from socially disadvantaged groups. The average rate of exclusion for primary school-age children from Scheduled Castes is 5.6 per cent and Scheduled Tribes 5.3 per cent compared to the national average of 3.6 per cent. Girls from SCs have the highest rates of exclusion at 6.1 per cent. The study estimates 12% children as child labourers in India.

While the NEP does not present detailed analysis of ground reality such as this, it does mention the following:

“However, the data for later Grades indicates some serious issues in retaining children in the schooling system. The Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) for grades 6-8 was 90.9%, while for Grades 9-10 and 11-12 it was only 79.3% and 56.5%, respectively, indicating that a significant proportion of enrolled students drop out after Grade 5 and especially after Grade 8. As per the 75th round household survey by NSSO in 2017-18, the number of out of school children in the age group of 6 to 17 years is 3.22 crore” (3:1; page 10).

UNICEF and National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) bring forth the social divide in the context of education which is found in other sectors such as income, landholding, wages, employment etc. NEP sounds hollow about its final goals in the absence of raising basic questions such as: Who are these children who drop out? Why do they drop out? Which social group these children belong to? How many of these are girls? This apart, the question of presenting analysis on the quality of education remains.

NEP, importantly, consciously avoids naming the backwardness based on social Indicators such as caste, tribe and gender and the religious indicators, even though India is confronted with these social realities. Critical analysis requires naming of the problem, especially in the context of the fact that this is not the first education policy of India after Independence; rather this is the education policy of 2020 and first education policy of 21st century, as the document self-introduces (page: 3).

The policy further says: “The new education policy must provide to all students, irrespective of their place of residence, a quality education system, with particular focus on historically marginalized, disadvantaged and underrepresented groups” (page 4). There is something that the policy is consciously does not mention and avoids to be specific. How will the policy set goals without accurately naming the areas of challenges?

NEP has a noble aim that no one in the world will disagree. It says: “The purpose of the education system is to develop good human beings capable of rational thought and action, possessing compassion and empathy, courage and resilience, scientific temper and creative imagination, with sound ethical moorings and values. It aims at producing engaged, productive and contributing citizens for building an equitable, inclusive and plural society as envisaged by our constitution” (pages 4-5).

Debate, diverse views, critique, alternative studies, raising questions would be the preconditions for the mind to develop a scientific temper. Culturally, educational institutions and the management of educational institutes to the extent will have to develop far more tolerant conditions in their campus for this to happen.

Looking at our experiences of the past year, especially the times when the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was introduced, how did we handle the intellectual discourse in our educational institutions? Or, during the abrogation of Article 370? Or, how have we as a country have handled tensions around reservation in higher educational institutions?

Undoubtedly, without conducive, democratic conditions, noblest ideals turn meaningless, as has happened in the case of abolishing untouchability practices or manual scavenging practices in spite of having the best laws and required constitutional guarantees. 

Some countries have tried to implement policies of non-tolerance under the belief that in the absence of dissent, one has a clear road ahead to boost development. India, too, is a model in the context, where it has succeeded in ensuring co-existence of growing development and inequity.

What, however, perplexes the logic of NEP which aims to be a ‘Vishwa Guru’ and it wants to invest all its intellectual capital for the same to happen on its cultural past.

NEP says, “The rich heritage of ancient and eternal Indian knowledge and thought has been guiding light for this policy. The pursuit of knowledge (Jnan), wisdom (Pragyaa) and truth (Satya) was always considered in Indian thought and philosophy as the highest human goal. The aim of education in ancient India was not just the acquisition of knowledge as preparation for the life in this world, or life beyond schooling, but for the complete realization and liberation of the self…. The Indian education system produced great scholars such as Charaka, Susruta, Aryabhata, Varahmihira, Bhaskaracharya, Brahmagupta, Chanakya, Chakrapani Datta, Madhava, Panini, Patanjali, Nagarjuna, Gautama, Pingala, Sankardev, Maitreyi, Gargi and Thiruvalluvar among numerous others.” 

Of the 18 scholars, luckily two of them at the end of the list have been women. After all in ancient India, women did not have the right to learn, as Dalits, Tribal or the Sudra. It is natural not to find Dalit-Tribal-Sudra scholars on the list.

Besides the fact that the quest for scientific temper would require constant learning, mutual learning and relevant research, no knowledge can be held ‘eternal’, as the world can be seen with the best of the scientific minds struggling to contain ‘coronavirus’ with a vaccination, an upheaval task due to challenging pattern of virus mutation. While the traditional knowledge do have a prominent place in the history, to propagate it as ‘eternal’ would make journey to the 21st century, certainly more difficult and limit it to being ‘swadeshi’. It is difficult to often understand whether do we have faith in the striking capabilities of the Rafael Jets or the chilly and lemon that we tie around it? 

Knowledge is always encompassing, inclusive and empowering. As NEP mentions, ‘World-class institutions of ancient India such as Takshashila, Nalanda, Vikramshila, Vallabhi, set the highest standards of multidisciplinary teaching and research and hosted scholars and students from across backgrounds and countries’.

These institutions flourished primarily because they drew inspiration from the teachings of Lord Buddha, the great revolutionary teacher of the time who liberated knowledge from the confinements of Caste and gender. The learning was mutual, bereft of proprietorship and it found spirituality across faith. Before they were destroyed, they did witness intense struggle with socio-religious forces of the region who wanted learning to be enslaved in the boundaries of caste and class. The destruction of these great institutes were by power hungry political forces and expansionists whether they were Muslims or others. It has to be remembered consciously that our present discussion is on the National Education Policy of India, and not the Education Policy of a particular political party.

What is missing in the NEP 2020 is the debate-synopsis in India on education between the ancient times and now. There is no mention of the Zakir Hussein committee. There is no mention about the most revolutionary work on education, especially its access to both women and the Sudra, by Jyotiba and Savitri Phule. It ignores contribution in the arena of education by exemplary kings such as Sahu Maharaj and Sayajirao Gaekwad. There are many other scholars whose contribution can help us learn to plan for the future. Being selective can only strengthen subjectivity confining ‘plural’ to merely symbolism.

Note: NEP 2020 requires in-depth discussion and it is not possible to cover all aspects in a single write up. Hence, there will be more articles on the subject to follow.

*Founder Navsarjan Trust, Ahmedabad

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