Slow and Steady : Abhipsit Mishra

This is a guest post by ABHIPSIT MISHRA
“The Government of India would like to bring out a National Education Policy to meet the changing dynamics of the population’s requirement with regards to quality education, innovation and research, aiming to make India a knowledge superpower by equipping its students with the necessary skills and knowledge and to eliminate the shortage of manpower in science, technology, academics and industry.
One can come to trust long sentences less; especially those which are promises made by the state to the citizens; in particular those that are interspersed with cleverly placed punctuation.

The longest sentence-long promise that comes to mind is the Preamble to our Constitution. Such a delight to enunciate! Except that if the extent of its fulfillment is considered, the text is good enough material to pass for dark comedy. Smriti Irani, Union Minister for Human Resource Development (‘Minister’) has set December as the deadline for the new National Education Policy (NEP). The quote at the beginning is the vision with which the Ministry has set out to develop the NEP. Let’s examine what has happened till now and reserve our judgment on the long sentences for Christmas.

   (I)

The Ministry is going to synthesize opinions from a wide range of people to develop the NEP. It has decided to adopt a process which involves online consultations (through www.mygov.in), grassroots consultations from villages up to the states and thematic consultations with experts.

The scale of the ground-up consultation is enormous. 2.5 lakh meetings at the village-level are intended to be held on a single day. Resolutions from all these meetings are supposed to be uploaded on the MyGov portal for consideration at the next stage. Thereafter, about 6,600 meetings are expected at the block-level. Resolutions from this stage are to be uploaded again. Along with a fresh consideration over the issues, these block-level meetings will discuss the village-level recommendations too. Then, another 676 meetings at the district-level and about 3,500 meetings with urban municipal bodies (yes, resolutions to be uploaded on MyGov).

Thereafter, the Regional Consultation Groups (different states geographically grouped under one region) will be ‘synthesizing the policy’ into ‘Status Notes’. Next, national-level consultations will take place to submit a Consultation Document to the National Education Policy Task Force which will be given the shape of the Draft National Education Policy, 2015. Ta-Da!

An absolute call on the correctness of the procedure can’t really be taken at this stage. Nonetheless, per se, the Ministry’s approach doesn’t seem to be wrong. James Surowiecki would agree. He believes that under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.However, he adds that to be effective, certain preconditions must be met. The process must include a diverse range of opinions. The opinions themselves must be independent. People should utilise their own expertise and draw on local circumstances i.e. formulation of the opinion must be decentralised. And finally, there must be some mechanism to aggregate individual opinions into a collective decision.

We have to trust that the people will be independent and draw upon their personal experiences. An honest survey across India will hardly ever be wanting in diversity. The real problem exists in the aggregation; the fulcrum on which the success of the entire process is contingent.

(II)

The mechanism for ‘data collection’ is seemingly well laid out; well-enough to say the least. There are 33 themes identified (13 in school education and 20 in higher education). For the initiated, an information booklet containing blurbs and relevant questions has also been made available.The mechanism for ‘data analysis’ however, is absent.

What are the parameters to decide which responses from the 2.5 lakh villages, 6,600 blocks, 676 districts and 3,500 urban bodies are to be recorded as resolutions and forwarded to the next stage? What are the questions that must be asked at those stages? Who should have a final word on submitting those recommendations going forward? How are we going to effectively (and since December is the deadline, efficiently) distil responses into resolutions? Who is to carefully pore over them?Is it the bureaucrat whose expertise lies in administering the government’s policies and has zilch idea about pedagogy, curriculum and teaching?Or is this all a mere catwalk on the democratic runway; something to say in panel discussions or on television channels?Over all such issues the Ministry maintains a lambi khamoshi.

Opening a multitude of tabs on a browser does not automatically lead to imbibing the information contained in them; neither does bookmarking suffice. We have to find time to read them, do we not?The entire process, while sound in principle, is reeking of how undergraduate papers are often authored in India (hopefully, something the NEP will remedy):the initial synopsis has a proposed bibliography infinitely longer than the two websites the eventual paper is going to be copy-pasted from.

And this process is headed the same way. Apparently, the NEP is likely to miss the December deadline over a consultation jam. Numerous states have still not appointed nodal officers (those who act as the intermediary between states and the HRD Ministry), let alone initiated the discussions. Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Manipur have already intimated their inability to meet the deadline owing to what has been termed a “logistical nightmare”.

One can only guess but eventually, a task force is going to be forced with the task of conjuring up the paper-work and drafts. The ministry is going to be overwhelmed by the delay and feel pressured by the media and the opposition. The minister will swing the stick and the bureaucrats will swing into action. Aren’t we all familiar with such a work ethic? Have we not all toiled a day before a deadline to just come up with something to submit?

(III)

Anjali Mody nails it when she suspects that this is all about bureaucratic inventiveness – to create a sense of purposefulness in the absence of real purpose. The Minister seems to have not a clue about what educational reforms (or even a revolution) our country needs. Ask her about the NEP and she will give you the usual “UPA decided policies top-down, we will decide down-up”. Apparently,education problems…solved!

The criticisms have not stopped there. The National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA), the think-tank of the HRD Ministry itself, recently accused it of not doing its “homework”. It has criticised the fact that the Ministry has decided to approach the experts and public with a tabula rasa. Developing a draft policy and then taking inputs and feedback would have been better they say. The objection is more fundamental than merely criticising the process but admittedly, the suggestion is more realistic.

At the heart of the matter however lies the underestimation of the herculean effort such a process is going to take. The Minister is feeling stretched to show what she has done in all her time apart from removing German which appropriately led to a German rendition of Kal Ho Na Ho.The government is anxious to celebrate the first year as an across-the-board success. For all the corporate bonhomie attributed to the present government, its capitalist best (worst?) is exemplified in its impatient calls for short-term results. Hence, the December deadline for the NEP.

The principle of hearing all the stakeholders isn’t incorrect; the timeline for the NEP is; the allocation of thought, resources and manpower is. There needs to be a substantial increase in the workforce allocated; a point raised by various states. It needs more administrative functionaries and more people with a ‘diverse’ range of experience in the field of education such as teachers, professors, Heads of Schools, consultants, parents and hey, students!Perhaps, it is time to consult global experts (like Ken Robinson, Sugata Mitra, Karthik Muralidharan, Noam Chomsky maybe?) who have worked with various countries’ education systems.Maybe, it istime to stop suspecting Indian NGOs of being a western conspiracy and engage them to facilitate consultation at every stage.

It will be key to remind ourselves that the previous policy was made in 1986 (amended in 1992); it has remained in force for about 30 odd years. Do we really want the policy for the next 30 years to be a hasty concoction or worse, a rehash?Decisive documents such as the NEP, in the manner in which it is sought to be formulated, require more pressure and more time.The problem is, the government is going to get pummeled if it so much so as squeaks ‘extension’. That will basically be its own doing since the Minister self-imposed the deadline. Such pettiness however should not come in the way of doing the right thing. Der aaye, durust aaye…

Abhipsit Mishra is a Fellow with Teach for India (2014-16).

3 thoughts on “Slow and Steady : Abhipsit Mishra

  1. Ram

    Mr Mishra, it is not clear what you want to say, except that the December deadline is too soon. Well, is it not the problem for those who set the deadline? May be, you would prefer the top to bottom mechanism, or set a different deadline, but then are you sure that another Kafila blogger will not find fault with that approach? Why not make a substantive proposal, even if of purely academic importance at this juncture, but significantly different from that of Ms. Irani, and we discuss that in this forum.

    1. naveen jankar

      Doesnt it appear that Ms. Irani has not made a “substantive proposal” herself? How can the author then be criticised for the same? Rather, if the author is justifiably blamable for such a fault, then perhaps the article is justified in critiquing the HRD Ministry for the very same fault.

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