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Policy watch: The good, the bad and the positively ugly of the new National Education Policy

( August 17, 2020 )

Just glance through the main recommendations of the last education policy brought out by the Kothari Commission (1964-66). Then compare it with the National Education Policy (NEP) brought out recently by the Government of India.

In both policies you will find the exhortation that more (6% of GDP) should be spent on education. Yet, the truth is that government after government has spent little on education. With little vision and less learning, India has tried to push through an NEP that has many similarities with the views of the Kothari Commission, but will less vision.

In 1964, when India was still struggling with basic necessities, the inability to spend was understandable. But today, when India talks about being a world power, this poor spending on education is scandalous, even criminal.

Worse, in the NEP of 2020, you will also find a bit of dogmatism, even prejudicial approaches. And you will also discover a great way to dream and fantasize. You could even call it hallucinate.

Consider for instance (see chart) that India’s ranking on the HCI or the Human Capital Index. And then look at what the NEP’s faith in government spending. Touching indeed!

The good

Yes, the NEP has some very good parts.

It includes pre-school education into the main education structure. This allows for two things.

First, it seeks to regulate an unorganized, unregulated, and even profiteering part of education, sometimes with very unhealthy linkages to primary school admission in urban centres like Mumbai and Delhi.

Second, it allows for the mid-day meal being extended to preschool children right from the age of three. In a country where 50% of children are malnourished, this will be a big benefit. As any nutritionist knows, if proper nutrition is not provided to a child at the age of 3, brain development suffers. This measure alone will benefit millions of children across the country. But whether this will mean an upgradation of skills, certification, and salaries for the 1.2 million anganwadis remains to be seen.

Another good thing is the focus of the NEP on the all-round flexibility in course structures. But then this was suggested by the Kothari Commission as well. It talked about vocational courses even then. The 10+2+3 was devised so that children could opt for vocational course after the 10th standard examination. This author was on the sub-committee advising the Maharashtra State government on vocational courses, and it was distressing how these courses were sought to be taught at the +2 stage, in classrooms, without any exposure to workshops or fieldwork. There is no guarantee that this won’t happen again. True, the government has modified the 10+2+3 into 5+3+3+4. And it has introduced a credit system, which allows for more lateral migration between subjects and courses. It remains to be seen how the 1.5 million schools in India adapt to this new structure.

The bad

Then come some not so good parts.

The NEP is full of impressive phrases like holistic and multi-disciplinary. Yet scratch at the paint, and you can see signs of fundamentalism and prejudice.

Take the emphasis on foreign languages. Why bring politics into education? The NEP excludes Mandarin. This defies logic. Did the US ban the teaching of Russian during the cold war? Even if China is an enemy, it is good for Indians to learn Mandarin. To understand an enemy better. To understand Asian history. To explore business opportunities in a territory where China accounts for the world’s largest population.

Moreover, irrespective of whether an India works for a multinational corporation from the West, or from countries like South Korea or Japan, or whether he works for an Indian enterprise, knowledge of Mandarin would allow for better business negotiations. The NEP seeks to slam shut such doors for Indians and thus create employment opportunities for people from other nations. It is also true that while India and China have strained relations currently, both countries have peacefully coexisted for over 2,500 years. Wy confuse the long-term with the short-term and possibly transient?

The irony is that even while Chinese Universities encourage the learning of Indian languages, India prefers to do without such learning. That will give Chinese an edge over Indians in the global employment market. How chauvinistic and myopic can the makers of an education policy get?

Take another example. The Kothari Commission was emphatic that English should be the link language in higher education for academic work and intellectual inter-communication. Hindi could also be a link language. But it advocated a three-language approach. A focus on regional languages, any other language approved as an official language by the Union of India and a foreign language. There was no prescription or exclusion. The first draft of the NEP actually tried to make Hindi a compulsory language and backed off only in the face of stiff opposition from all the Southern States.

True, English is spoke only by a sliver of the population. Regional languages and Hindi account for a higher circulation when it comes to newspapers and magazines. But English is increasingly relevant for corporate and financial worlds – not just in India, but globally. That is why Germany insists on courses in English, as does China. That is why even housemaids want their children to study English. They know market realities which politicians choose to ignore. And don’\t even think of changing the language in Indian courts, because there are not enough precedents or case studies for fords in other languages. It will make judicial redress even more complicated than it is now.

Typically, India has not come to terms with the basic fact that – unlike the North – the South has enjoyed greater continuity of culture and amity. The Chola dynasty lasted over 1500 years. Yes, it waxed and waned, but it lasted longer than any northern dynasty. When it was large, it covered territories up to Malaysia and Indonesia. It was South India that brough gold in from territories controlled by Rome. Today, the South has temples which exude culture and learning. Yet, the politicians of North India appear to have got the upper hand, and have tried to re-write history, and learning.


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