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THE appointment of Kapil Sibal as the new HRD minister has been greeted with considerable enthusiasm; hardly surprising since the recent past of the ministry axiomatically guarantees that its present will shine by comparison. Obsessed with fighting shadow ideological battles, ostensibly to rescue India’s endangered secular, composite culture soul from closet communalists (read Hindutvavadis) and push through a misplaced and distorted agenda of social justice (introduction of OBC quotas in ‘elite’ educational institutions), Arjun Singh had managed to alienate all except the faithful and recipients of largesse.

The distribution of patronage – a combination of grants, recognition and appointments to key institutional positions – has for long been the favoured modus operandi of the HRD ministry, be it under Syed Nurul Hasan, P. Shiv Shankar, Murli Manohar Joshi, or indeed Arjun Singh. It not only buys the loyalty of a vocal section of the intelligentsia, many of whom occupy disproportionate space in opinion moulding fora, but also ensures the marginalization of ideological opponents. Less realized, it also, unfortunately, undermines the autonomy and legitimacy of institutions and procedures. Over time, this has helped entrench a sychophantic court culture, solidify bureaucratic control and ensure the stifling of any creativity and experimentation without which no education can flower.

Kapil Sibal thus faces formidable challenges even as he begins his term with residual goodwill. His earlier stint as minister for science and technology displayed a modern mind, comfortable with handling details and technical arguments. He also appears free of the baggage of inherited ideological agendas. Hopefully thus, he should be able to take a fresh look at the three major legislations hanging fire – the Right to Education Bill as also the draft legislations for regulating the private and foreign educational providers. Moreover his formidable legal acumen should help him bring into operation laws, rules and regulations that are enabling rather than restrictive, that facilitate all those with a passion of purpose and a striving for excellence rather than overwhelm institutions and schemes with structures of control. Nothing has stifled our educational enterprises more than a desire to institute rules designed to anticipate and forestall every possible imagined misdimeanour. No surprise that autonomy and freedom, creativity and risk-taking are forgotten concepts in our educational imagination.

What we need, and urgently, is to dramatically enhance access and quality at all levels of the educational pyramid, with a special focus on all those – girls, the poor, the socially and culturally marginalized – who have so far been kept out of spaces that can help them improve their cognitive, knowledge and employment skills. And in this grand venture of social regeneration, we should seek the participation of all, public or private; the task is too huge for government alone. Seeking to keep out a set of potential players in the belief that government alone can be the guardian of public interest is woefully short-sighted.

Equally ill-advised is the tendency to micro-manage and control every aspect of the educational enterprise by fiat – what we teach and how, how we assess; who is entitled to teach, their qualifications and renumeration; who certifies quality and standards – and this list can be expanded. Why, for instance, is it not possible to institute a national testing mechanism to grade students at different levels seeking admission to higher levels, something akin to the GRE? Why should it matter what boards the students have come from, the kind of schools they have studied in, or even if they have learnt at home, as long as they all go through the same testing mechanism which can form the base, not exclusively, of selection for further education.

Similarly, while massively expanding the supply of quality public schools, why not initiate a major programme of scholarships which can enable any meritorious student who simultaneously qualifies on a means test to gain admission to any institution of choice. Surely it is not too difficult to direct additional government grants to institutions which can attract a larger number of such scholarship students.

Fortunately, the time is appropriate for a large push in education, both at the school and higher/technical levels. The demand and the hunger for learning is undeniable. And not responding to the aspirations for the millions of youth, degreed but ill-equipped for either jobs or research, can be politically explosive. All we need is the courage to break free from the culture of control and patronage – a point stressed both in the recommendations of the National Knowledge Commission and the Yashpal Committee report on the UGC and the AICTE. If Kapil Sibal can help dismantle the babudom stifling education, he might finally help India enter the 21st century with confidence.

Harsh Sethi