Recently, the AICTE, an agency of the Ministry of Human Resource Development, which regulates engineering education in the country, came up with a new scheme to support the writing and production of engineering textbooks in 21 regional languages. There is the usual downloadable application form and scoring sheet to be filled by active or retired professors from AICTE-approved institutions. The support offered is about Rs 2 lakh.
But there are two catches. The first is that the textbooks should preferably be for a course in the AICTE national model curriculum. Now, it is well-known that the model curriculum is not very relevant. In fact, it has no place at all for any regional content. Thus, the nuances of irrigation in Maharashtra, for example, the basic planning framework, the schedule of the patkaris (canal operators) and the workings of the paani wapar sanstha (water user associations) are all lost. The same story repeats itself in other areas of engineering. This perpetuates the disconnect between what is taught and what is practiced and has led to the employability crisis in the Indian economy. The scheme could have been an opportunity to address this lacuna if it were to relax the adherence to the model curriculum. That would allow the inclusion of regional content, and that too in the local language, the use of local formats and documents, and linkages with practitioners and local agencies. This would achieve a closer connection with the practice of engineering.
The second problem is that higher education departments of the states are nowhere in the picture. This jeopardises the success of the scheme, even if good textbooks do come out. Firstly, universities have their own curricula which affiliated colleges follow. These are usually vetted by peers within the system. Most universities and state higher education departments would welcome a systematic development of textbooks in the regional language for a selected set of basic courses. The current scheme does not ensure that this will happen. Thus, a better strategy for AICTE would have been to request the states to make a proposal, to set the guidelines and to monitor their progress. A sum of Rs 1 crore per year, for five years, would have allowed the states to come up with a rotating panel of writers, supported by a professional team which works to a plan.
So why did AICTE not think of this?
The fact is that such obduracy is routine for MHRD, and also the Department of Science and Technology (DST). Grants are made to individual faculty members and sometimes, institutions. The state departments, from education to industries, cannot convey their priorities or interests. Moreover, most of the open-ended funds are available at the Centre. For example, the annual funds with DST exceed Rs 4,000 crore while Maharashtra operates an S&T budget of about Rs 60 crore. Thus, the agenda for higher education and science is set at the Centre and has little to do with problems which the states face or the innovations needed there. Moreover, many grants go to faculty members in the elite centrally funded institutions who have little understanding of or interest in the regional problems. As a result, professional practices in most state departments such as irrigation, transport, or public health have been stagnant for decades. The people in the states, which is most of us, continue to suffer. And yet we continue with this regime.
Perhaps, the seed of this was sown at the time of the birth of India as an independent nation. It was then that science was cast as a national project and not as the living practice of a community. It created a dichotomy — the centralised state, it’s scientists and professors working in elite institutions on the one side, and the people on the other, as recipients of the benefits of science but not as participants. But there also was a social narrative. Science was but one part of the broader project of modernising India which was to be guided by a well-intentioned, internationally connected elite situated in Delhi. The states were seen as swamps of vested interests, parochial in thinking and highly unequal and exploitative in social relations. They could not be trusted with the welfare of their own people, let alone deliver the benefits of science. This logic permeates many central programmes as they find ways to reach the so-called ultimate beneficiary while bypassing the state apparatus. Such bulldozer thinking is also evident in the National Education Policy 2020.
The fact is that several states have proved themselves to be quite capable of delivering welfare to their people. Most developmental innovations such as the anganwadi, mid-day meals, water management, consumer and producer cooperatives, have come from the states. And they have done this through their own political, social and cultural institutions, without the big-ticket investments in science from the Centre or the support of its elite higher education institutions.
It is the elite central institutions and scientific agencies which have uniformly become the centres of mediocrity and decay. Bolstering them is a moribund bureaucracy and a narrow intellectual class incapable of honest work. Witness the absence of any study of most public aspects of the pandemic — from the number of hospital beds required, or the safety of rail travel to counting the actual number of deaths. The lack of study has led to chronic informality, poor wages and widespread hardship. What has emerged is a regressive politics of centralisation of good intentions and handouts for an ever-increasing number of projected beneficiaries. The AICTE scheme is merely an illustration of this overall decrepitude.
What is to be done? We must accept that states were neither born equal, nor are their developmental trajectories similar. Next, the centralised system of science is broken. It has been a severe drag on the development of many states while providing little systematic guidance to the others. The embedded hierarchy is sucking out the creativity of our youth and causing stress and disaffection. We need a more accountable and decentralised system. An immediate first step would be to devolve much of the powers of MHRD and its institutions and the funds available with DST to the states. This would actually be in line with the spirit and intent of our original Constitution.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 25, 2020 under the title ‘Fallacy of central model’. The writer a faculty at IIT Bombay is currently on deputation to IIT Goa.