Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

The first issue that will confront universities is to match the expansion of seats with a requisite increase in the number of teachers and expansion of classrooms, laboratories, library facilities, hostels and other infrastructure.

Towards an Achieving and Just Society

Education reform is perhaps India’s greatest challenge. Now the Supreme Court weighs in.

By B G Verghese

Sahara Times /New Indian Express, 22 April, 2008

The Supreme Court has struck a blow for progress by ruling that while 27 per cent  reservation for admission to higher educational institutions is in order for Other Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (SEBC), a category that goes beyond mere caste, the creamy layer must be excluded. A section of the political class led by the Union Education Minister had instinctively thought fit to question the exclusion of the creamy layer, but the Government has wisely decided not to challenge the Court, at least for the moment so as not to disrupt admissions to the forthcoming academic session which are due to commence very shortly. This offers a practical via media and some time to sort out what remains a powerful muddle.

Basically, reservation can now extend to 49.5 per cent, adding 27 per cent reservation for SEBCs to the existing 22.5 per cent reservation for SC and ST categories. However, in order to ensure that the number of seats available for the general category does not shrink by virtue of the new 27 per cent SEBC reservation, a 2007 Act pertaining exclusively to Central institutions provides that an equivalent number of seats will be added to the general category.

While matriculation has been held not to end educational backwardness, a majority of Judges have agreed that graduation may be taken as a cut-off point. This, however, leaves indeterminate the status of post-graduate admissions to institutions of excellence and higher learning. This lacuna needs to be addressed though several Central medical institutions have been officially prompted to announce that they will go ahead with SEBC reservations in accordance with the new ruling.

Be this as it may, the first issue that will confront universities is to match the expansion of seats with a requisite increase in the number of teachers and expansion of classrooms, laboratories, library facilities, hostels and other infrastructure, taking into account the space available, as many institutions are already tightly packed. The threefold expansion in educational expenditure committed under the 11th Plan may ensure that funds are available. But translating funds into material and human assets has a lead time that cannot be wished away. Therefore it is vital that haste does not precipitate a fall in standards, which would be self-defeating and inimical to the country’s best interests in a growingly competitive world.

Another contentious issue relates to the definition of the so-called creamy layer. A 1993 order had suggested an annual income limit of Rs 1 lakh, subject to revision every three years. By this yardstick, a revised ceiling of Rs 2.5 lakhs was fixed in 2004 since when there has been no revision. Accordingly, some are of the view that this limit be now raised, the DMK pegging the ceiling at Rs 10 lakhs, excluding agricultural income. Such overly generous thresholds would be tantamount to an open door policy that would make nonsense of any attempt to prevent unbridled reservation.

Other criteria prescribed under the Supreme Court’s Mandal judgement in 1992 would exclude wards of constitutional functionaries, Class I and II officers of the Central and State services and public sector employees, subject to a five yearly review. This is a fairly liberal criterion and offers a reasonable basis on which to start.

There is no reason why these same criteria should not apply to the SCs and STs sixty years after reservations or affirmative action came into force. There has been an assiduous effort to skirt the issue of the many gradations of disability and discrimination that continues to prevail below the creamy layer. There are layers of underclass within the SCs and more and Most Primitive Tribes among the STs. It is scarcely just and proper that the benefits of reservation have not percolated down and remain the exclusive preserve of the more privileged among the disadvantaged castes. This matter was the subject of a parliamentary report decades back but was quietly buried. This is an untenable situation and demands correction and periodic review to ensure true social justice and equal opportunity for all.

Those who would gloss over this issue argue that the answer lies in enhancing schooling among the more deprived groups. The argument is unexceptionable but holds equally true for society as a whole. Justice Dalveer Bhandari went along with his brother Judges in upholding 27 per cent SEBC reservations but rued the fact that the fundamental right to free and compulsory education under Article 21A of the Constitution had been so cursorily pursued. This is absolutely central to the upliftment of the disadvantaged and backward communities as well as for  social justice, equality of opportunity and laying the foundations for a truly inclusive society. True, provision has been made for the universalisation of primary education through the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and other measures. But this still carries little political weight because it has few champions among the political and social elites.

While therefore moving purposefully to implement the 11th Plan and Knowledge Commission targets of educational expansion at all levels as part of an integrated package, two caveats are in order. First, quantitative expansion, as envisaged, must go hand in hand with qualitative improvement so that declining standards at all levels of education are arrested and reversed and excellence comes back into its own so that Indian education, research, manufactures and services are globally competitive. Excellence will do much to enhance standards and aspirations at every level and in every field. Secondly, if affirmative action is not to remain a creamy layer preserve and become a debilitating crutch, all reservations, not excluding those for SCs and STs, need to be phased out within a 20 year period with a regulated top-down exit policy that leaves behind a steadily diminishing residual category of preferential beneficiaries. A wide pool of scholarships, concessional student loans and distance learning and workers’ education facilities must also be built up to provide for the deserving poor and extra-curricular, own-time learners. Foreign universities and training institutions could be carefully licensed to make good requisite numbers and fill gaps in specialized areas of knowledge and skills. And private educational initiative must be encouraged and not kept on a tight leash, subject to maintenance of standards.

The negative hold of unionized teacher lobbies, whose narrow interests scarcely extend beyond feather bedding, has also to be broken and structural changes brought about in bodies like the UGC and unmanageably large universities, whether central or affiliating. Let there be experimentation and competition. Equally, the political stranglehold, Central and State, over institutions of higher learning and excellence must be relaxed. Minority institutions may claim their constitutionally guaranteed rights but must also operate within the given national educational framework and discipline, especially as long as they seek state funding.

Educational reform is perhaps India’s greatest challenge and opportunity today to build a better, more achieving and just society. We dare not go wrong.   

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