NEP may appear erudite, but can it help repair a school toilet?

The NEP, which is largely a statement of intent, is different from actively intervening to rectify fundamentals of the education landscape – like dealing with illiteracy, providing access to the underprivileged, and repairing a tottering state-backed education system

According to media reports, one in four teachers is absent in government schools across India and 50 percent of teachers present in schools do not teach. Representational image: PTI

After 34 years, the latest New Education Policy (NEP) replaces the earlier New (or is it old?) Education Policy. As policies go, the latest NEP gives an insight into what an avowedly conservative Hindu-centric nationalist government is planning in the arena of education.

But, really, the issue is of what use are such policies – both the previous and the current one, besides an insight into the mindset of policy makers. If one looks at the education scenario in India, is it sorely suffering from the lack of any education policy? Or, is there something more fundamental that is at stake, which cannot be sorted out by issuing shiny documents that is then open to debate.

The NEP, which is largely a statement of intent, is different from actively intervening to rectify fundamentals of the education landscape – like dealing with illiteracy, providing access to the underprivileged, repairing a tottering state-backed education system while improving the standard of education and the lives of teachers.

One key indicator of the importance given to education can be judged by the amount of money spent on it by the government. Indian governments have generally been niggardly when it comes to spending on education. Tall promises are routinely made when the annual budgets are presented but they remain just that – empty promises.

Take the case of the National Mission for Higher Education (NMHE). This scheme is meant to improve quality of education in universities across various states, make them accessible for the marginalised besides other similarly noble intentions. According to media reports, in the budget estimates of 2018-19 it was fixed at Rs 2100 crore. In the 2020-21 budget, it has been slashed to a mere Rs 300 crore. All the altruistic plans are on hold.

Or, as a report in “News Click” points out, the NMHE funds for Scheduled Caste students were slashed from Rs 412 crore in the previous budget to Rs 50 crore this fiscal. And for Scheduled Tribes from Rs 222 crore to Rs 25 crore. And, a scholarship scheme for SC students under the mission has been reduced from Rs 39 crore in the previous budget to Rs 15 crore this budget, and similarly for ST students from Rs 19 crore to Rs 8 crore. The NEP won’t make much difference.

Government schools, in most states, are a sham. In Karnataka, for example, the government has had to shut schools as there are no students or a minimal few that makes the exercise of running them unviable. In the 2017 budget, the then chief minister H D Kumaraswamy announced that 28,847 government and aided schools would be shut down in the state for lack of students. They would be merged with around 8,530 schools. What is lost amidst the statistics is that the closure of the schools will make it difficult for students to access them as they may need to travel huge distances to reach the merged school. In rural areas with poor connectivity, it is as good as the end of schooling for many.

Even if students are present, in many cases there are no teachers, as the government has allocated minimal funds to pay them. As a report in the Times of India points out, one in four teachers is absent in government schools across India and 50 percent of teachers present in schools do not teach.

Besides this, government teachers are expected to spend time doing extraneous work that includes state-sponsored surveys, election duties and a variety of other jobs that needs foot soldiers. Obviously the primary job of teaching suffers.

As for infrastructure less said the better. A drive through India’s rural areas will give an idea of the condition of state schools. According to one report, the number of school dropouts are linked to absence of drinking water facilities and toilets, especially for girl students. Kumaraswamy, in his Karnataka budget earmarked Rs 150 crore for repairs of government school and college buildings in the state. A legislator wryly questioned if the money was sufficient to take care of 78,000 state schools which badly needed repairs.

Karnataka is just an example. Overall, from 2014-15 to the current fiscal, budgetary support has reduced from 4.1 percent of the total to 3.3 percent. The Central government’s spending on education in the budget, as a percentage of GDP, has also declined from 0.55% to 0. 44% in this period, say media reports.

In developed countries, the first preference for school admission is for those run by the government. Called public schools, they can beat hands down any private school in terms of facilities, teaching standards and reasonableness in the fee structure. Students would want to go to such schools and the result is clear: the high quality of education reflects the standard of infrastructure.

A parliamentary standing committee on human resources development submitted earlier this year pointed out a dismal progress in building classrooms, labs and libraries across government schools in India. Of the 2,613 sanctioned projects for 2019-20, only three had been completed during the first nine months of the financial year, reports quoting the panel said. And shockingly, of 1,021 additional classrooms sanctioned, not one was built.

Unwilling to spend money on education, governments have taken the easier way out – permit opening of private schools. The result is they have mushroomed over the last few decades – with many in the nooks and corners of urban India, with minimal or no facilities that students need, in most cases.

Over seven decades after independence, India suffers from mass illiteracy with no access to quality education at the primary level. According to official estimates, there are around 300 million illiterate people in the country, globally accounting for 37 percent of the total illiterate.

Though technically the level of literacy has gone up from 12 percent to 74 percent in India since 1947, the real issue is the quality of literacy. It is widely known that even those who have only learnt to sign their names are considered literate, though they may not be adept at general reading and writing. The 74 percent literacy, on paper, may actually turn out much lower when it comes to actual use.

So, how would a NEP help when the infrastructure and the political will are missing? The NEP can be likened to a well-constructed building that cannot be reached easily due to the various roadblocks that hamper access to it.

Even attempts like the Right to Education (RTE) that make it more accessible for the marginalised to get a quality education over time have been diluted. Despite a decade under RTE, a mere 12 percent of schools are reportedly in compliance with the law. The RTE, which was meant to benefit the so-called lower classes including the Dalit community, have been co-opted and defanged using convoluted reasoning and bending laws so as to keep these sections out.

As a report quoting a Delhi University-based teachers’ group put it succinctly, the NEP appears to be a policy of “tall ends with little means”.

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