From Sibal to Irani and Now Javadekar, Why Has the HRD Ministry Been So Restive?

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Although the imperatives of liberalisation already play a huge role in the changes in education, no government or human resource development minister has explicitly advocated this path of reform.

The new child labour law allows children's involvement in 'family-run enterprises'. It is worth asking how strongly the HRD ministry expressed its discomfort with this. Credit: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri

The new child labour law allows children’s involvement in ‘family-run enterprises’. It is worth asking how strongly the HRD ministry expressed its discomfort with this. Credit: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri

In the seven years that have passed since the start of the UPA’s second term in 2009, the portfolio of the human resource development (HRD) ministry has changed hands more often than any other major cabinet position.

The new HRD minister, Prakash Javadekar, is the fourth to come into the office in seven years. His predecessor, Smriti Irani, lasted just over two years. Pallam Raju, her predecessor, stayed in office for about a year and a half, and before him, Kapil Sibal lasted for three-and-a-half years. Not merely with respect to the quick turnover of ministers, the HRD ministry has also been a site of frequent shifts of attention. Education is generally, and rightly, regarded a slow-moving sphere of social policy. Why has the central ministry that looks after education been so restive?

Politicians seem to have realised that educational reforms are not like economic reforms. If ‘liberalisation’ now unequivocally denotes ‘reform’ of the economy, no one in government has openly advocated this path of reform for education. A kind of liberalisation has been occurring in education for some time now, but there is no official document that acknowledges this policy or guides it. The closest we come to the ‘liberalised’ vision of education is in the National Knowledge Commission appointed by UPA-I. But this commission was appointed by the prime minister’s office, not the HRD ministry. This is just one example pointing towards the tension that led to a paralysis in education during UPA-II. This paralysis has persisted.

This background helps us understand why the HRD ministry has experienced frequent handovers at the ministerial level. Irani’s recent transfer from the HRD ministry to textiles triggered the routine game of intelligent guessing about why she was dropped from the former. The explanations that were offered typically focused on style, especially her handling of the crises that erupted at the University of Hyderabad and Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Cases of a different kind also need to be recalled to balance this easy guesswork. The relief she gave to the University of Delhi from a wild curricular experiment was appreciated by the left-dominated teachers’ association. The memory of this episode did not last long as discontent with larger problems grew, along with the feeling that nothing much can be expected to change.

Troubles of a very different kind broke out in other central universities. As HRD minister, Irani made an unconvincing attempt to balance her party’s pressures with frequent avowal of non-interference in academic institutions. Compared to the ministry of culture, the HRD ministry under Irani tried to maintain a modicum of aloofness from her party’s known reflexes. Javadekar, her successor, may not find this approach possible or even desirable. He will surely not revisit matters like Rohith Vemula’s caste. The real challenges he faces are the ones that have been hanging since Sibal’s time. More than a dozen HRD bills have been pending since Sibal’s stint. They represent fragments of a new, necessarily incoherent policy waiting to be articulated for a long time. In all likelihood, this new policy perspective will have to wait even longer while the drafting and redrafting of policy documents continues as a public activity.

Persistent ambiguities

Contradictions continue to surface in different sectors of education, exhibiting genuine difficulties in applying a blanket perspective of liberalisation to education. Although there is no explicit guideline, market forces have moved into education at a rapid pace in every state. More than 300 universities are now private and over 60% of the total enrolment in higher education is in private institutions. On the other hand, public universities of old repute are languishing.

In the absence of federal legislation, private universities have come into existence through state legislative assembles. Their degrees are recognised by the University Grants Commission (UGC), but they do not follow UGC norms for faculty recruitment and emoluments. The highly regulated areas of technical and professional education are faring no better. Engineering, medicine, teacher education and the like are governed by national level councils. These bodies and their licensing regimes have turned professional higher education into a vast cesspool of corruption. The Vyapam scam of Madhya Pradesh offered a glimpse of this cesspool.

Relations between the Centre and the states are supposedly governed by the principle of concurrence. The only structure available for implementing this principle is a non-statutory body called the Central Advisory Board of Education. When the Planning Commission was in operation, it provided a forum for interaction between the HRD ministry and state-level directorates. Centrally-sponsored schemes and nationally-run flagship programmes performed a major role in bringing a modicum of cohesion and dynamism under highly diverse systemic conditions. That platform is no more available and the HRD ministry has hardly any leverage left to engage with the states. The only principle of coherence left is that of financial austerity, a euphemism for shifting education from long-term public investment to a self-financing, demand-driven activity. This shift leaves little room for the HRD ministry to show ‘results’.

Adverse climate

The climate in which the HRD ministry is supposed to showcase its achievements is adverse and getting worse. The latest example of an adverse policy climate for education is the passage of a new child labour regulation law. It legitimises children’s involvement in so-called ‘family based enterprises’ and opens the door wide for the entry of adolescents in the labour market. At a time when the HRD ministry is trying to draft a new education policy, this liberalised labour law curtails the space for further improvement in retention and quality. It also shuts the nice dream of taking the Right to Education Act (RTE) to the high school level. It is worth asking how strongly the HRD ministry expressed its discomfort with the new child labour law.

Now there is a proposal to bring the ‘pass-fail’ system back from class 6 onwards. It has been repeatedly mentioned in the context of the of the new education policy discussions initiated by Irani. If the RTE is amended to allow ‘failure’ from class 6 onwards, children of the poorest and most downtrodden social groups will get eased out of the system. The RTE guarantees eight years of elementary education; if interpreted literally, this need not mean that every child will reach and clear class 8. If the ‘no detention policy’ is scrapped in the name of quality, many children could stagnate in class 6, encouraging their parents to induct them into a ‘family enterprise’. At the age of 14, children are freer to join the labour market now that so many areas – where child labour is preferred because it is cheaper – have been taken out of the list of hazardous occupations and activities.

The HRD ministry’s capacities are unlikely to match the pace at which policy stagnation and contradictions are growing. This is amply clear from the smooth passage – even in the Rajya Sabha – of the new child labour law. The fact that the HRD ministry could not avert or improve child labour law shows how seriously the crude imperatives of liberalisation have curtailed the HRD’s power to protect its priorities.

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