NEP Implementation in Karnataka: An Ecosystem of Dubious Expertise

The credentials of those responsible for drafting State Curriculum Frameworks under the National Education Policy do not reflect any expertise in the domain of curriculum and pedagogy. 

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In 2021, the government of Karnataka set up a task force for the implementation of the National Education Policy (NEP) in school education. Chaired by Madan Gopal, a retired bureaucrat and former state education secretary, the 20-member task force includes an academic from Azim Premji University (who plays a major role, chairing another task force on the curriculum); a professor from Bangalore University; and two from teacher education Colleges.

Most members are designated as ‘educationists’ and some are from philanthropic, private, spiritual or other non-governmental organisations. 

Technology-controlled ‘paperless’ curriculum design

The Ministry of Education (MoE) website explains the ‘paperless approach’ for the making of State Curriculum Frameworks (SCFs) and the National Curriculum Frameworks (NCFs). States/Union Territories (UT) have been directed to set up State Focus Groups to develop 25 position papers, on themes already specified, and to prepare their SCFs.

Drawing from these position papers and draft SCFs, ultimately, four NCFs will be prepared – for the areas of Early Childhood Care and Education (EE), School Education (SE), Teacher Education (TE) and Adult Education (AE). A technology platform specially designed by NCERT, the National Informatics Centre (NIC) and the MoE has provided e-templates for consultations, surveys, position papers, and the like.

Ground reports indicate how leading questions in the surveys and the format of these ‘consultations’ have generated much of this data. The digital, paperless approach facilitates controlled centralisation, possibly with limited transparency, and leaves little room for states to make their own policy decisions in education within the federal structure. 

This extended exercise involves numerous people, and large amounts of time and public funds. Indeed, there was no need for each state to develop 25 position papers. Rather, states should have spent more time and effort, through deliberations, to develop better syllabi and textbooks which can improve teaching and learning.

In 2005, the exercise of developing focus group position papers with resource persons from across the country was undertaken to guide the NCF as well as NCERT syllabi and textbooks. The prerogative of the SCFs is meant to lie with the states; each should be free, where necessary, to work on a specific focus area within its own context, identifying its own resource persons.

However, the 135-page guidelines for position papers, sent to the states, and the e-templates with strict, question-wise word limits for each position paper, lead to an uncalled-for homogeneous structure, directed by the Union government.

Moreover, the NCERT made it clear that their expositions in the e-templated papers will be machine-read to pick up predefined categories and codes, which were not specified.

An excerpt from the e-templates for the pedagogy papers – science education in this case; other subjects have the same question – shows the stress on Indian knowledge systems:

Integrating Indian Knowledge Systems in Science Curriculum

(How will Indian knowledge systems be incorporated in an accurate and engaging manner into the science curriculum? How will local and relevant tribal knowledge systems be incorporated into the science curriculum? #9) (0-300 words) (ECCE, SE, TE, AE).

With governments competing in populist attempts at the massification of policy-making, we might apply for a record in ‘virtual global curriculum design’, with the participation of the diaspora, purportedly more knowledgeable in the knowledge of India.

The credentials of members of the NCF National Steering Committee do not reflect their expertise in the domain of curriculum and pedagogy; so is the case with several other committees, including those in Karnataka. 

The ‘thinking’ in Karnataka’s position papers 

Questioned by the media on the dubious content of the position papers, Gopal was overly defensive. He said Karnataka was ready with 26 position papers, while over 800 were being prepared across the country, but these will not be implemented immediately or even in the next academic year

Trying to absolve his task force of its responsibility, he said, “Each is a comprehensive report prepared by an expert committee, comprising experienced academicians, and these reports will be placed before the NCERT and the ministry to take the decision. The position papers show the thinking of the committee members.” 

That is the pertinent question: Were the committee members carefully chosen for the nature of their thinking? Was the task force involved in their identification and selection, or were there others doing this task? 

Is this ‘thinking’ reflected in the incorrect, biased and bizarre statements of the position paper on Health and Wellbeing, chaired by a senior professor at the National Institute of Mental Health & Neurosciences (NIMHANS)?:

“…while planning mid-day meals, cholesterol-free, additives-free, such as eggs, flavoured milk, biscuits, should be forbidden to prevent obesity and hormonal imbalance caused by excess calory (sic) and fat. Given the small body frame of Indians, any extra energy provided through cholesterol by regular consumption of egg and meat leads to lifestyle disorders. …The Gene-diet interactions indicate what is best for Indian ethnicity, and the natural choice of the race needs to be considered.”(page 30)

“Serving other recipes or foods to the same graders, such as egg versus grams, or egg versus banana, leads to a nutritional imbalance among children. Additionally, children develop complexes that result in emotional disturbances among friends; treating all children equally and with no to ‘Pankti Bedha’ is authentic Indian philosophy or Dharma.” (page 25)

“Health is a being, whereas wellbeing is a state of living healthy lifestyles.” (page 7).  

Karnataka has had major interventions by the Right to Food campaign to ensure children get nutritious food, including eggs, as part of their mid-day meals. The Akshay Patra Foundation of ISCKON, contrary to the Union government’s norms, had imposed its own religious beliefs about not including onions and garlic, resulting in high wastage when children did not find the food palatable.

Indian school children eat their free midday meal at a primary school. Photo: Adnan Abidi/Reuters/Files

A researcher, quoted in The Hindu, said that when only 15% of the people in the state are vegetarian, the fact that “the government, in its schemes to mitigate hunger, will only serve a dominant caste group’s food is terribly unfair and deeply problematic.”

“What about the cultures and food traditions of the children actually eating these meals?” the researcher had asked.

Also read: Decolonisation or Brahminisation: What’s the Thrust Behind Karnataka’s NEP Position Papers?

The recommendations by the Karnataka Committee seem to arise out of similar hegemonic beliefs.

In its position paper on Curriculum and Pedagogy, the Committee, chaired by Dr Hariprasad G.V., senior lecturer at DIET, Shivamogga. negates evidence-based thinking as ‘western’. Instead, it promotes obscure thinking about the past, and recommends age-old memorisation practices:  

“Colonial psyche dominated India and cultural apeism still prevalent shaping the thought process of the educated persons of this country. Whoever comes to be educated will think in a certain British way. They are culturally not in accordance with the existing condition of this country. There are cultural anomalies and differences like the caste system. But despite these anomalies, India has its own way of life. But west found and equated many terms which it can perceive in its own way. Indian practices are called Hinduism as religion when there was no religion in this country…. Seeking truth, Darshana practices of Budha and Jaina are viewed as rebel protest against non-existent Hindu religion. They thought and understood these practices as protestant movement against catholic religion. …In this way freedom of thought has been hampered,” (sic; emphasis added; page 8.)

“Memorization in India has a different connotation. Shruthi and sthuthi samskrithi of India produced one of the great knowledge systems. This memorization is different from rote learning. …Veda, Upanishad, Purana are all learnt through memorization techniques which did not hamper development of brain cells. One has to understand India through Indian eyes. But till date rote learning and memorization are equated in western lines and always avoided. NCF 2005 and Even NEP20 also feel to do away from memorization. Western epistemology demanded evidence based thinking and dithered Indian way of thinking,…. there needs to be a clear stand from Karnataka to adopt the age-old memorisation practices without hampering the development of brain cells”. [sic; emphasis added; page 14.]

Briefly emerging out of the past, some significant observations are made on the constructivist process of learning and assessment, and the systemic failure to incorporate children’s Right to Education: 

“Children face fear and anxiety. Assessment.. is conducted in a manner that exposes them to punitive actions of labelling and humiliation. In this context, CCE was introduced as a mandatory requirement up to elementary stage under the RTE Act with the sole intent of reforming assessment with its prime purpose of improving children’s learning to help them progress, leading to their overall development. …Still in those schools CCE is not effectively implemented” (page 13).

‘Knowledge of India’ to glorify its past, pay no attention to its present, or future

The Committee is chaired by a junior faculty member (assistant professor) at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) (BHU), Varanasi, with apparently no professional expertise in school education. The credentials to head this committee ostensibly come not from research or teaching, but from his ‘other interests’, as in the official profile: “Study of scientific and mathematical heritage of India”.

Another member, appointed chair-professor at a newly-instituted position at IIT, Madras, for the ‘study of traditional Indian knowledge and philosophy’, had taught Sanskrit at Karnataka Samskrit University. 

The phrase ‘Knowledge of India’ is meant to glorify the past, perhaps to take our attention away from the present. The NCF Guidelines (page 74) use specific ‘anchors’ or quotes from the National Education Policy (NEP), 2020 and its draft, the DNEP, 2019 (technically, not an approved policy document) to stress that:

  1. “Indian contributions to knowledge and the contexts in which they were discovered must be incorporated into the school curriculum not just for reasons of historical accuracy.. but also for the often more holistic nature of the traditional Indian approach which leads to a deeper understanding.…national pride, inspiration, and self-esteem.” (DNEP 2019, 4.6.9). 
  2. “Knowledge of India” will include knowledge from ancient India and its contributions to modern India and its successes and challenges, and a clear sense of India’s future aspirations… ” (NEP, 2020, 4.27).

The ‘Knowledge of India’ position paper harks back to an unquestioned, eulogised past through an ad-hoc, arbitrary compilation of information, cherry-picking quotes from all kinds of sources. It cites Radhakrishnan, and from the Radhakrishnan Commission Report, but does not acknowledge its seminal contribution to the constitutional framework, establishing the relationship between democracy, academic freedom and social justice with education. 

Representative image. Photo: Reuters

Without sound theoretical foundations, this position paper particularly tends to lean on innuendos and populist pronouncements. It laments the fact that female warriors Onake Obavva and queen Chennabairadevi, celebrated “for their relentless fight against the Muslim rulers”; or queens like Ahilya Bai Holkar and Rāni Abbakka Chautā, find scant mention in textbooks.

Referring to UN Sustainable Development Goal 5, on gender equality, it states that the first “step towards achieving this target is to recognise their (women’s) contribution, in the past, towards national development, thereby removing the discrimination they face in the historical narrative.”

Ostensibly, this absolves it from taking any further steps to address present challenges, including discrimination on grounds of hijab, and India’s decline in the recent Gender Equality Index.

Also read: While Upholding Hijab Ban, Karnataka HC Misconstrued Several Constitutional Principles

A critical perspective is also visibly missing in the ‘Gender Education’ position paper, which spells out – without interrogating – social orthodox beliefs found in their survey, and fails to go beyond the usual platitudes. 

Generally critical of the ‘West’, the ‘Knowledge of India’ position paper praises European countries for declaring the denial of the holocaust as a statutory crime, while “in India it is impossible to have a dispassionate narration about Hindu genocides” (page 10).

Further, using gross innuendos, it states, “It is especially a grave tragedy that as a nation, we are not man enough to face the truth in the eye. One wonders if Gandhiji’s ahimsa has been misunderstood as cowardice from seeking and speaking the truth.” (page16).

However, Karnataka, taking a cue from the deletions in NCERT books, will vehemently ward off any discussion on the killings of Muslims in Gujarat or Sikhs in Delhi.

A complete lack of pedagogical understanding of the development in even older children of the abstract concept of the earth revolving around the Sun, is apparent when ‘Indian mathematics’ is sought to be taught at the first stage (age 3-8 years). Also, isn’t it a bit early to present folkloric ‘fantasies’ of polygamy?

“As observed from any point on the Earth, mention that the Sun takes about 365.24 days to complete one apparent revolution round the Earth, while the Moon takes about 27.3 days to complete one apparent revolution round the Earth. Then introduce the concept of 27 naksatrās to keep track of the position of the Moon. This has also been encoded as a story in the Taittirīya Saṁhitā where the Moon is said to have 27 wives and that he spends each night with one wife.”

“Second stage (age 9-11 years): Aid understanding that the average period between two new Moons or two full Moons is about 29.5 days. Introduction of the terms amāvāsyā or darśa and pūrnimā, śukla paksha.” (page 23)

Another regressive warning is: “We must also be..aware that a few sections of the society are hell bent on destroying the institution of marriage, and thereby breakdown the family.” (page 17).

By an uncanny coincidence, while I was writing this piece, out of the blue I got an email (being the chairperson of the NCERT primary textbooks) from a parent in Bangalore about a chapter in the existing Class 3 Environmental Science (EVS) NCERT textbook on ‘Family’. I quote: 

“Dear Ma’ams/(Sirs),

I had been thinking about writing this mail for more than a year. I have generally found NCERT textbooks delightful. They kindle curiosity and exploration. However, when it came to the topic – Family in EVS, I have found it lacking and not acknowledging some basic definitions of families. It outright refuses any scope of discussion around families that do not fit the conservative/traditional family set up.

For example, a child from a family that came together through adoption will find no way to voice her/his experiences. Will be forced to accept the narrative given by the majority… neither the lesson is structured that way nor the teachers are equipped to handle any answer that may not confirm to what they are expecting. (While the teachers’ notes sensitises about … economic heterogeneity, there is no sensitivity around heterogeneity in the family structures)

My child has a friend who lost a parent a year ago. There is no scope for such family structures in this lesson. My personal experience is that families that have come together through adoption; a child with a single parent; a child with no conservative family structure, are already outliers. Our books should at the least acknowledge, inform, accept and normalise such realistic familial structures so that our children do not grow up narrow minded, and every child is made comfortable with his/her identity.

I referred to the Textbook Development Committee page to find some email ids to write to. I am hoping at least one of the email ids would be a relevant one. Thank you very much for your time and I hope to hear from you”.

I was highly reassured to note that these were not just esoteric debates we happened to write about, but that young parents did feel inclined to critically engage with textbooks. Promptly thanking her for her insights, I attached a later chapter (she had probably missed) called, ‘Families Can Be Different’ on the issues she had raised.

One of the recommendations of the ‘Knowledge of India’ paper, “to really empower children to become responsible citizens for a grander India in future”, is: 

“…encouraging an attitude of questioning and not merely accepting whatever the textbooks (or print/electronic/social media) say as infallible truth, with a clear foundation of how knowledge generation takes place and how fake news, such as Pythagoras’ theorem, apple falling on Newton’s head etc. are created and propagated” (page 30).

It does not need much elaboration to see through the paucity of academic integrity and the poor understanding of the history of science and mathematics in terming the Pythagoras’ theorem as ‘fake news’. This probably comes from basing one’s knowledge of India – or the world, for that matter – at the subliminal level of petty social media. 

Knowledge creation as social learning: History of humankind as ‘survival of the friendliest’

An acquaintance with the history of ideas should equip one better to know that new knowledge creation has often happened as a social collective endeavour, across different sites and civilisations. Even a suggestive fragment of a theory can grow and fructify as it osmoses, mutates or exchanges among different communities.

Attempts to aggressively appropriate or dismiss others’ knowledge is not just ungracious, but also deleterious to innovative learning. Curriculum makers need to take serious note of how ‘Knowledge of India’ is doled out in the forthcoming syllabi and textbooks. 

Anthropolgists, historians and psychologists are beginning to understand how social learning – our super ability to learn from others; to connect and cooperate with others – makes us much smarter, sharply distinguishing us from primates. In Humankind, Bregman describes human development as ‘survival of the friendliest’ and sums it up as, “This is the truth as old as the hills. Our distant ancestors knew the importance of the collective and rarely idolised individuals…”

Our recent tryst with the COVID-19 pandemic should have made us realise that it was not Indian science or knowledge of any proprietary label which saved us, but the unprecedented solidarity of scientists working with alacrity – across continents, paywalls and preprints – that ensured the fastest genome sequencing and the identification of the virus with the initial protocols of treatment.

Anita Rampal was professor and former dean, Faculty of Education, Delhi University.