Ronald Reagan: "Can't we plan our lives better ourselves?"


I'm not a fan of former US president Ronald Reagan or his policies in general or his party or anything, but something he said in an election speech in 1964 struck me as very relevant:
"This is the issue of this election: whether we believe in our capacity for self government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves."
If this statement is true for the USA which is a country which pales in comparison with India in linguistic and cultural diversity, is it not more true for India? If it's true for the USA where both the "little intellectual elite in a far distant capital" and "ourselves" are basically English speakers from more or less the same culture, how true must it be for India where that "intellectual elite in a far distant capital" and "ourselves" share neither a common language nor culture?

Why should any Kannadiga (or any Tamil or Telugu or Malayali or Marathi or....any Indian) believe that a little intellectual elite (made up mainly of actually well-meaning Hindi folks like Kapil Sibal) sitting in a far distant capital called New Delhi can plan our lives better than we can plan them ourselves? Are Kannadigas incapable of planning their lives themselves? Must we abandon the Indian Revolution which culminated in freedom in 1947?

And then, if Ronald Reagan could ask this question and get voted to power in the USA, why is it that anybody who asks this question in India is often regarded as parochial and unpatriotic?

Innovation in mother-tongue education is the need of the hour

Talking about the need for India to look at new and low-cost development models in education and health, Sam Pitroda posed a rather simple but profound question earlier this week:
“If Bangalore can become back-office of America, why can’t our rural areas become back-office of urban areas?”
Note that Sam's question is of employing rural men and women where they are, without needing them to physically relocate from rural areas to urban areas. Hence, the fact that migant ruralites get manual jobs due to urban development is besides the point.

So, why have urban areas been unable to employ rural men and women without requiring them to physically move to urban areas (as drivers, construction workers, maid-servants, etc)?

The answer is, of course, fairly simple. Minds can perform their function where they are, but bodies have to move physically. And urbanites consider ruralites as bodies, not minds. Ruralites themselves do, too.

And this is, of course, a problem of education in rural areas. The problem is not so much that there isn't a sufficient number of schools in rural areas; there's a good number of them. The problem, really, is of quality.

Good quality education can never, never ever be given in English in the rural areas. It has to be given in the language of the people. It has to be given in Kannada in Karnataka, in Tamil in Tamil Nadu, etc.

Isn't it already being given in Indian languages? Yes, of course. Here again, the question is not about the existence of education in Indian languages, but the quality of that education.

Currently, it is only the government - the least capable and most corrupt set of human beings ever in any time or clime - which is doing anything that's being done on education in Indian languages.

And that is at the root of the whole problem. It's time for private parties - you and me - to realize the inalienable link between good education and mother-tongue. It's time for you and me to innovate in mother-tongue education.

There's a lot of cleaning up to be done, a lot of re-branding to be done. Our languages have to be re-girded as vehicles fit for carrying secular knowledge, not just leisurature (yeah, leisure-literature) and folk songs and folk dances and spiritual texts.

I believe the time has come for private philanthropists to take this seriously. The Murthys, the Nilekani's, the Mallyas, the Gopinaths, the who's who - it's time to focus on innovation in mother-tongue education, sirs.

'Right to Education' from a centre-state relations perspective

As promised, here's a follow-up post on the details of the Right to Education Bill, which is based on the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009.

My focus in this post is on federalism and centre-state relations. I've ended up making statements about linguistics and pedagogy, but they're limited to the main ones which affect centre-state relations in this whole issue.

I do not mean that everything in the Act is bad. There are good things in the Act, but the negative impact on centre-state relations and the proposed slow dismantling of democracy and federalism in India are unpardonable. In the wake of that disaster, the good things in the Act are nothing to be happy about.

I've structured this post as a set of questions and answers since that seemed the most logical way of going about it. Please refer to the full text of the Act to get to the actual wordings of the Articles referred to here.

Question 1: Who decides how much money is required for implementing the Act?
Answer: The central government. See Article 7(2).

Question 2: Is it right for the central government to decide it?
Answer: No. It is outright undemocratic, since mostly people from outside each state will decide the money required for education within that state. The people of Karnataka, for example, have lost the right to decide for themselves how much money should be invested in elementary education in Karnataka. Even disregarding the fact that Karnataka speaks a language unique to it, this is undemocratic. Bringing in that fact to the equation, it is all the more easy to see that it's undemocratic: only the states themselves have the ability to decide how much money is required to make their languages "fit carriers of knowledge", and only the states themselves have the ability to decide how much money is required to implement their own languages in schools. As a simple example, languages which have more non-phonetic characters in their alphabet will need more money and effort and innovation in order to achieve good education; but New Delhi is unfit by definition to even be aware of these crucial subtleties which characterize the diverse languages of India. Even if New Delhi were aware, or if Washington D.C. were aware, there is no reason to ask state governments to give up their power over education to either of them unless we're in the process of dismantling democracy in India.

Question 3: Who is responsible for coughing up that money?
Answer: The state governments. See Article 7(5). Although Article 7(1) makes it seem as if both the state and central governments have this responsibility, the final responsibility rests with the states, since the centre may decide not to provide any grant-in-aid. It is left to it to determine how much that grant is; it could well be zero rupees. The centre can simply decide that particular states have the money required (in complete ignorance of state and language-specific requirements as explained in the answer to Question 2 above) and refuse any money from its own funds. Given the corrupt equations of power at the centre, there is no guarantee that distribution of funds to the states will be based on actual requirements; it will in most cases be based on the need to appease coalition partners in order for the central government to stay in power. Even if it were to be miraculously based on actual requirements following a sudden de-corruption of the central government due to a meteor storm, it does not have any source of funds other than taxpayer money from the more affluent states, and can at best retard further progress in education in the affluent states by draining their money towards the less-affluent states. The decision to set aside any money for less-affluent sister-states must be optional and dharmic for the affluent states, not mandatory and governmental. Also, free funds flowing into less-affluent states is apt to be mis-used; free money is always misused (I am even against taking any grants from the IMF or other international bodies for improving education in India; we don't need it, and we must strive to improve without it; what would we have done if we didn't have that source of money?).

Question 4: Isn't it all okay if the Act only prescribes what is good for the people of the states?
Answer: First of all, it is none of the central government's business to make decisions about education in the states. I'm not talking about constitutional provisions; the constitution needs to be amended according to what is right; what is right cannot be derived from the constitution. What the central government decides as good is not necessarily good. State-governments are more apt to take the right decisions, since they are closer to ground realities (which include the language factor). Washington D.C. may be more capable than New Delhi of prescribing what is good for the states simply because it can respect India's internal diversity more than Hindi-heavy New Delhi. But that doesn't mean the states should give up decision-making authority to Washington D.C. That power must lie with the states from the first principles of democracy and federalism (which is but an extension of democracy). Of course, the central government is welcome to put in selfless effort to provide financial guidelines which may or may not be adopted by the states. Such prescriptions are also made by organizations such as UNESCO and NGOs such as Pratham, but they rightly don't possess any decision-making authority. The central government, similarly, cannot and must not assume any decision-making powers here. That would be undemocratic.

Question 5: Is it fair, moral or ethical for the central government to decide what is right and ask states to cough up money?
Answer: No, it is not fair or moral or ethical. The Act basically betrays the imperial air with which state governments are being treated by the central government. In the days of the British, the British Government of India decided how much money is to be paid by the states for its projects, and the states had no option but to cough up that money out of fear of military defeat. But today, state governments are democratically elected governments of different linguistic peoples who are free citizens, and have the right to a roadmap for becoming more responsible and more efficient if at all India is considered as a democracy. Today, the Government of India is a democratically elected government and must behave like one; it cannot make unilateral decisions about education (or anything else, for that matter,) and impose a mandatory payment on the states. The fundamentals of democracy dictate that power should not be moved away from the people, but this Act does exactly that by moving power from the states to the central government. Pardon the simile, but state governments are being regarded as dispatch clerks and asked to lick the boots of the central government, British imperial style. The states too, must discontinue behavioural traits developed under the British and get out of the assumption that military action will follow any non-payment of money ordered by the central government. No, we're a free country today, and no state needs to lick the boots of the central government to remain in power.

Question 6: Who decides the curriculum for schools under this Act?
Answer: Article 7(6) states that the central government shall "develop a framework of national curriculum". Although it seeks help from academic authority specified by the appropriate government (which is the state government in the case of schools run by it), the final decision-making authority is the central government. Remember that all help is optional, and that the central government can do what it thinks is right whether that help is available or not. While the Act is carefully crafted to not explicitly give the central government the authority to force that curriculum framework in any state, it is anybody's guess as to what will happen to the grant-in-aid to states which don't follow the framework or dare to innovate themselves. Thus, the power granted by Article 29(1) to the appropriate government to "lay down the curriculum" is actually all set to be usurped by the central government itself, with the carrot of the grant-in-aid hung in front of state-governments. The "laying down" must be understood as the dry job of dispatching diktat flowing in from New Delhi, like clerks.

Question 7: Isn't a common national curriculum good for all the states?
Answer: Educationists are divided on this point, and there is no consensus. Even assuming that only science and mathematics are covered under such a curriculum (adding others would be a disaster), there are pedagogical considerations which can make such a curriculum bad for the country as a whole. For instance, such a curriculum would subject children with very different abilities to the same system - something which is regarded as a criminal offense by many educators. Besides, such a national curriculum would be a sure way of stifling linguistic and pedagogical innovation in the states. While the central government is simply incapable of driving the former variety of innovation, there is no proof that it has any better abilities than the states themselves when it comes to the latter. Who said New Delhi has more intelligent people than in Bengaluru, for example? Some do not understand what lingusitic innovation is required in science and maths education. First of all, such people need to understand that science and maths have to be taught in Kannada in Karnataka, and in Assamese in Assam, and that these languages still need to develop the right kind of linguistic registers to be able to fitly carry such education (this is true of Hindi also, by the way -- it, perhaps, needs it more badly than any other Indian language). There is a whole lot of innovation and hard work required to get Indian languages in shape, and a national curriculum can do nothing to help. Sure, the technical support and resources that the central government is slated to provide to state governments as per Article 7(6)(c) are good, but technical support and resources for innovation, research and planning are not what, for example Karnataka, lacks. What state-governments lack today is the feeling of being fully responsible for elementary education, and the Act as a whole only harms the prospects of any such feeling emerging.

Question 8: Who decides and enforces standards for teacher-training?
Answer: The central government. See Article 7(6)(b). This is a major diaster waiting to happen, since there is an infinite disconnect between the central government and teachers in the states. Besides, the central government neither speaks the language of those teachers, nor has it ever worked in those languages. Thus teacher-training is best handled by the states, but the central government has usurped this power by the provisions of the Act. The states are expected to only provide the "facility" for the training (See Article 8(e)): real-estate, timely coffee and lunch, and working fans in summer. Everything else - the content and delivery of the training is retained by the central government which has not the slightest ability to decide what they should be. This also stinks of British imperialism with the all-knowing white babus arriving by train on one hot summer day to decide local matters in the states which are assumed to be filled with brown fools. Today it's not white babus and brown fools, but Hindi babus and Kannadiga fools (in Karnataka); that's all.

Question 9: There seems to be an underlying assumption that the central government is more capable of handling education for the whole of India. Is it correct? What are its implications?
Answer:  There is no doubt that this assumption informs the Act in letter and spirit. This too, is nothing but a continuation of British imperialism wherein the British assumed that they were better suited to decide what is good for India (including in education). Now, it's the central government which is making that assumption. If this assumption weren't there, there would be no reason for the Act to give the power over curriculum and teacher-training to the centre; the states would have had it. In politics, assumptions spawn reality. Hence, the assumption that the state-governments are less capable actually creates less capable state-governments. Why governments, the very existence of a higher body which has implicit decision-making powers with respect to the curriculum will attract mediocre talent in the "academic authority specified by the appropriate government" to "lay down the curriculum", and that mediocre talent will simply copy-paste the framework, however inapplicable and inappropriate it may be to the respective state.  Slowly, this Act will make the states wash their hands off educating their own populations -- which is disastrous, because New Delhi cannot do as effective a job as the states (nor is it capable of doing so, as argued above). Even if New Delhi could do an effective job, it is not good at all that power is moving away and away from the people due to the Act. That is a deadly blow to democracy, and is only ensuring that India is slowly becoming a dictatorship run from New Delhi.

Question 10: There seems to be an underlying assumption that Indian languages should soon be replaced by English as the medium of instruction in schools all over India. Is this right? What are the implications of such an assumption?
Answer: Yes, that assumption informs the Act, and a preview of that assumption is seen in Article 29(2)(f) which declares that medium of instruction shall be in the mother-tongue "as far as practicable". As far as practicable to whom? Kapil Sibal? His team of yawning Hindi speakers in New Delhi who don't have a clue of what it takes to make education in Kannada practicable in Karnataka? How can New Delhi decide how far the mother-tongue is practicable when it has never spoken that tongue? Of course, Article 29 is written for the appropriate government (which includes state governments), not just the central government, but I've argued above how it is only on paper and not reality because of the grant-in-aid carrot, and because of the overpowering statement in Article 7(6)(a). Besides, the central government does not have what it takes to ensure mother-tongue education all over India, just like the British did not have. This neglect of Indian languages will end up legitimizing the creamy English-speaking layer created by Macaulay and bolster it with governmental force, at the cost of most of India struggling to keep up with that layer forever.

Question 11: Will this Act legitimize Hindi imposition all over India?
Answer: Yes. There is nothing in the Act which prevents it from happening. Kapil Sibal has already made statements to the effect that Hindi should be taught all over India. This, again, is a disaster because it legitimizes the crime and takes away the right of the states to resist it simply because the central government is all set to make all decisions about the curriculum.

New Delhi Assumes Right to Education, Moves Closer to Dictatorship

The Right to Education bill spells death for federalism and democracy in India

It's the talk of the town these days: "right to education". From television channels to newspapers, websites to blogs, everyone is busy contemplating the consequences of the Right to Education bill.

The contemplation - be it about the intent of the bill or its implementation or its implications - is primarily centered around the poor versus rich question and the effective implementation question which manifest themselves in questions such as: "Will the poor be really benefited by this?", "Will the rich object to the poor flooding their children's schools?", "Can private schools which provide premium education at premium prices just remain out of this whole thing?", "Can this bill actually improve the quality of education in India?", etc.

However, much to the disappointment of anybody who upholds democracy and federalism, all the discussions about the bill have missed the single most important facet of this whole thing: the complete usurping of power by the central government and the complete neglect of state governments in the matter of education. I haven't seen a single voice raised against this decadence of India, and must do my part.

While the people of India are busy discussing trivial details of the bill, they've forgotten that it is none of the central government's business to assume the exclusive 'right to education' (as in the right to the portfolio of education) in the first place. Even in the center-heavy constitution of India, education is a concurrent-list subject, but this bill makes it clear that the central government would rather have it all for itself - be it however anti-federal, be it however anti-democracy.

While India discusses the bill in letter, it misses the spirit of the bill which is simply designed to help the central government at New Delhi move one stealthy step closer to becoming a total dictatorship, with state-governments being moved one stealthy step towards becoming dispatch clerks.

The bill delivers a deadly blow to the future of India as a truly federal polity. State governments, which actually run most of the schools in India, are now being told to act as dry implementers of dubious (nay, outright fatal) diktat flowing in from New Delhi. The power to decide the constitution of the education system, all research, and indeed everything related to the quality of education is now unilaterally assumed by the central government. The states now have no say in what constitutes a good education of their people. They're just being asked to be clerks who shell out money for programs decided by Kapil Sibals sitting in New Delhi. Who is Kapil Sibal, and what  does he know about what constitutes a good education for Kannadigas, for Tamils, for Marathis, for Odiyas, for Malayalis, for Telugus? Can he even enumerate all these languages?

Any move which takes power away from the people is a move away from democracy. By moving the site of power from the states to the center, India has demonstrated its preference of dictatorship over democracy, of government over people, of centralism over federalism. The people of India have lost the power to have any say in the education of children around them. The real educationists and social reformers of India have suddenly become objects of neglect, and now have an infinite disincentive to advise the governmental machinery on matters of education - simply because they now have to travel to New Delhi to even look at that machinery. Earlier, it was atleast to the state-capital.

I urge India to look at this bill from this perspective - the perspective that India is slowly moving towards a dictatorial form of government. And that is not good. Period.

Note: I will follow up with a closer analysis of important clauses in the bill. Stay tuned.