The Indian Express,  February 15, 2004

Why Joshi is Vajpayee’s weakest link
 IT is when you look at the Indian education system through rural eyes that its monumental absurdities become painfully evident. Only when seen from the vantage point of less privileged Indians do you begin to understand just how urgent is the need for the state to stop meddling instead of stepping it up as Murli Manohar Joshi is doing. It happens that even as our Minister for Human Resource Development was embroiling himself deeper and deeper in the utterly unnecessary IIM (Indian Institute of Management) controversy I was in a Bihari village discussing education with a group of elders.

The village was predominantly Dalit and the discussion started because I asked if Dalit children still faced discrimination in the village school. The elders, sunning themselves that morning on the village chaupal were mostly upper caste and began by emphatically denying that there was discrimination and then one of them admitted that discrimination had lessened because it was mostly poor Dalit children who continued to attend the local government school. The education offered was so abysmal that those who could afford private schools (naturally only the upper castes) preferred to send their children to them even if it meant sending them to the nearest town. They would rather pay full fees than pretend that the village school offered anything that could be remotely described as education. In these days when jobs are increasingly hard to find they were acutely aware of the importance of proper education if their children were going to to compete in the highly competitive new job market.

The village school suffered the usual problems. Teachers, despite being very well paid these days, came and went when they liked and nobody could remember a single day when they were all present. This kind of capricious behaviour meant that children were lucky if they could learn to read and write at the end of their school education.

Would it help, I asked, if the panchayat had more control? ‘‘No’’ said the most articulate member of the group ‘‘what would help is if we could build private schools that would find it easier to get government recognition. In fifty years the government has not built enough good schools so the answer is to allow us to open more private schools but without recognition which college will the children go to afterwards’’. How ironic that ordinary villagers can see what our HRD Minister cannot.

Anyone who has bothered to inspect village schools in India will confirm that what they offer is a literacy programme, if that, with almost no attempt at understanding the wider idea of education. So those who can, send their children to private schools but there are not enough of these because the state, despite its hopeless record in the education field, wants to continue controlling everything and so restricts licenses to private schools. At the village level what you have then is a reflection of the Murli Manohar approach to education: control, control, control.

Someone needs to ask Joshi why he believes that a bunch of semi-educated officials in some government department are in a position to decide educational standards or fees. But, trying to engage our HRD Minister in discourse is so futile a task that nobody bothers. Fortunately, someone has cared enough to take him to court over the capricious, despotic manner in which he is trying to force IIMs to lower their fees to what he considers an appropriate amount. He should not have the right to decide but having grown up as we have with the idea of a bossy nanny state Joshi has been able to get away with interfering dangerously in our best institutions while at the same time being unable to come up with a new education policy that would reduce government controls enough to build the schools we desperately need.

Joshi looks at life through such a restrictive set of blinkers that at no stage has he shown any ability to see the big picture or he would have noticed that the very students he is trying to help — the poorest of the poor — are the ones that are most affected by his inability to think his policies through. Unless the poorest of the poor have access to decent school education there is no chance ever that they will get admission to the IIMs and IITs so it is school education that needs the most attention.

Keep in mind that the best Indian schools are still those that teach in English and you realise how serious the problem is. English speaking Indians are at the upper end of the upper middle class and they do not need the HRD Minister’s concern or help. Ironically, even at the village level what is required is not more government schools but better quality schools both government and private. If Joshi had not spent his five-year tenure pursuing his own bizarre agenda we should by now have had a new education policy that decolonised and Indianised education in the real sense. There are several private organisations that are working towards this but the HRD Minister has apparently been to busy to pay attention. What the IIM controversy has drawn inadvertent attention to is the weakest link in the Vajpayee government: Murli Manohar Joshi. If Atal Behari Vajpayee becomes Prime Minister again he needs a full time Education Minister and, unless there are ideological or RSS constraints, he would do well to give Joshi another job. Education is much too important to be left in his meddlesome hands.

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