Loose mouthed ministers

The UPA government has been running into rough weather due to incoherent opinion airing ministers and members. In the name of free speech, the UPA representatives have been foul mouthing about their own establishment. Of course, free speech is the hallmark of the Indian democracy. But most of the responsible people misuse their freedom and damage the government and the nation. In the cabinet system, members are entitled to differ, oppose and object to the policies and programmes proposed. Once the discussions are over and the proposal gets the cabinet nod then there is no question of difference of opinion coming from the cabinet members. This is like sleeping while on duty and shouting after the job is over. Immediately this kind of duty sleeping people should be kicked out of the government. Antara Dev Sen writes in The Deccan Chronicle on 28 May 2011 The damage control has begun. Three days after the minister of state for environment and Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) alumnus, Mr Jairam Ramesh, said that IITs and IIMs (Indian Institutes of Management) were not world-class institutions because their faculty and quality of research were not good enough, the government has protested. Yes, the IITs are world class, says Mr Kapil Sibal, Union minister for human resources development. Well, er, at least 25 per cent of the faculty is, anyway, since they are IIT alumni and Mr Ramesh says that the students are world class. And if their research work was not top international quality, it is because of the “ecosystem” — where the US spends $250 billion on research, India spends merely $8 billion. So while Mr Sibal declares that IITs are world class, his logic implies the reverse. Sure, we understand the constraints of the “ecosystem”. Though we may not accept that a quarter of their faculty is world class because they were once world-class students (which has no direct bearing on their quality as teachers). But what could the government do when the image of their top educational brand is trashed? The nation is paying an education cess, remember? This muddled, half-hearted, sarkari response characterises the attitude of the government in education. There are two issues here: the quality of our centres of excellence and the quality of education in India. First, the obvious. Are the IITs, apparently the crowning glory of our education system, world class? Depends. These are certainly excellent institutes. As Mr Ramesh said, they have some of our best students. And contrary to what he said, they do produce some remarkable research. But if the faculty is not “world class” it is because no one can fly high if tied to the apron strings of a stern yet callous government. Unless IITs — and other government-funded institutions — have the freedom to hire and fire teachers at their discretion and at better salaries, and the liberty to operate as they see fit, the best minds will escape to greener, freer pastures. Institutions may need regulation, but not crushing control. Also, the government has launched new IITs without hiring faculty, further pressuring existing IIT teachers. Besides, no government-linked institution in today’s India is truly world class, is it? Except for our institutionalised corruption, of course. According to Transparency International, India has an integrity score of 3.3, which makes it one of the most corrupt nations of the world. Happiness! A close second would be our institutionalised callousness. Take our home ministry dealing with top terror suspects from Pakistan — not exactly a low priority field. The error attacks in our attempts at cornering Pakistan with hard evidence are almost as terrifying as the terror attacks themselves. First we sent the wrong DNA sample, claiming it to be Ajmal Kasab’s. “A minor clerical error”, shrugged home minister P. Chidambaram. Then it transpired that two men on India’s list of most wanted terrorists allegedly hiding in Pakistan were in India — one in jail and the other out on bail. “An oversight”, said the minister. “A genuine human error.” Meanwhile, our investigative institution of excellence, the Central Bureau of Investigation, had reached Copenhagen to extradite Kim Davy, prime accused in the Purulia arms drop, with an expired warrant. Naturally, the Danish court refused. Yes, we are world toppers in institutional callousness. Anyway, returning to the IIT issue, it’s possible that the students make these institutes centres of excellence. Among 1.21 billion citizens, millions may be born with world-class intellect — then put into a system that meticulously constrains, limits, erodes and smothers talent and imagination. Naturally IIT students are brilliant — that’s why they are selected. And they have had less exposure to the harsh Indian social, political and cultural environment. The poor teachers have been dented, blunted, clipped and chipped by the system. This smothering of natural capabilities begins even before birth. We are killing more daughters than ever before through foeticide and infanticide. At 914 girls for 1,000 boys, this year’s census shows the worst child sex ratio ever. And criminal neglect of women also affects babies allowed to live. The mother’s health determines the health and development of the unborn child — and our pregnant and new mothers are so neglected that our future generations are born less healthy and already disadvantaged for learning. Poorer Indians grow up with less nutrition and fewer options for education, sometimes with no access to education at all. Worst off are girls and the lower castes, who face the double whammy of poverty and social discrimination. Successive governments have addressed these problems, though the education budget has rarely crossed three per cent of the gross domestic product. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan helped. The new Right to Education Act promising free and compulsory education to all children between six and 14 years offers huge hope. Integrated Child Development Schemes (ICDS) and Mid-Day Meal (MDM) Schemes certainly help in giving nutritional support and incentives for educating the future generations. And starting hundreds of new schools may indeed offer new opportunities. But these are not enough. We need to look not only at quantity, but also the quality of school education. More than a quarter of schools do not have proper buildings or drinking water. Half do not have girls’ toilets. Most do not have proper teachers. Teacher absenteeism rages. Allotments for ICDS and MDM schemes are inadequate and do not always reach students. And endemic class, caste and gender discriminations spawn systematic deprivation of large sections of society, institutionalising disparity in educational achievements. Sadly, our attitude towards excellence is to neglect schools for the masses and focus on elite institutions of higher education. Sure, we need centres of excellence, but we can’t be proud of tiny islands of well-funded distinction in a sea of hopeless, life-sapping neglect and illiteracy. If we really want to debate our educational excellence, we should stop this elitist navel gazing. And focus on good primary and secondary education for all. That social vision could change our collective future. And make us truly world class.

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