An artificial shortage of facts

Steeped in elitism, our educational institutions discourage case studies. Government programmes remain unrelated to ground realities.

Written by Milind Sohoni | Updated: December 22, 2017 7:48:05 am
Data tells us that rural households are spending their hard-earned money on English medium CBSE schools, that is, on a curriculum designed for a salaried urban class and its metropolitan imaginations.

The Cambridge economist, Joan Robinson, is supposed to have said “Whatever you can rightly say of India, the opposite is also true”. While we may see in it a recognition of our diversity or skills of argumentation, the paradox of two realities has an inimical side to it.

For most material arguments, an important step which should precede discussions or the expression of dissent, is a systematic uncovering of the facts. Thus, before we argue about privatisation of water supply systems or better wages for anganwadi workers, we must answer more routine questions. What is the current water supply schedule? Where are the zones of low pressure? What exactly is the job description of anganwadi workers? The absence of such factual documents allows for multiple ideological “realities” or narratives to emerge, while on the other hand, a wider availability of facts will enhance the quality of discussion and lead to better development outcomes.

But who are to produce such “factual” documents? The natural answer would be the university, in the form of case studies. Encoded in their production is a methodology of sifting through data and documents, understanding the role of agents, the logistics and the scientific basis of procedures, the measurement of outcomes, the creation of social value, and finally the cultural skills of reporting. Moreover, the student may choose a problem of her liking and a situation of her interest, perhaps in her own locality. An undergraduate student of sociology, for example, may produce a report on the performance of PDS in her taluka and a BSc (Chemistry) student analyse the foods and condiments in her town. Thus, for the student it will bring scientific temper, social comprehension, agency and employability. It will also transform the university into a regional knowledge resource — and not a failed provider of employees. For our scientific funding agencies, it will be the very mechanism of connecting to the people. A suite of such case studies will create pathways for better run anganwadis and improved weighing scales, yielding both jobs and better development outcomes.

Why, then, is the case-study not popular in Indian universities? Before we blithely blame the “political economy”, we should examine the academia. There, we encounter another paradox : The lived reality versus an aspirational reality presented in the textbook. This happens at all levels — right from primary schools to postgraduate education. Data tells us that rural households are spending their hard-earned money on English medium CBSE schools, that is, on a curriculum designed for a salaried urban class and its metropolitan imaginations. It is also the board of choice for preparing for national competitive examinations. For example, in the standard XI-XII curriculum 50 pages are devoted to the structure of the atom, of which 20 are on its nucleus. There are no pages on water — in which the lived reality has become increasingly difficult.

The same persists at the college level, where the curricula followed is largely what is taught in the elite IITs or IISERs in the physical sciences and engineering or Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University in social sciences. This is accomplished through various national and state regulatory bodies, funding agencies, faculty selection committees and “quality improvement” programmes. The curricula reflect the same disconnection. The IITs and IISERs have firmly plugged themselves into global science, that is, an overarching frontier and excellence model of science, where the hum-drum of case-studies is seen as a diversion and dilution of their core pursuit — the service of science.

In elite Indian social science, it is scholarship of international standing and intellectual rigour which has dominated the training, and subsequently, the areas of interest. For both, there is an uncritical acceptance of a post-vernacular metropolitan modernity wherein, for example, there is no room for chulhas or drinking water, two very material problems for women in India. Finally, there is a tendency to regard the university as a theatre for self-expression or the practice of democracy and expression of dissent. Actually, this aspirational “science” was never designed to achieve full employment or improve development outcomes. It was constructed in colonial times to establish a knowledge bureaucracy. The belief in such a system remains intact. Thus, our wise men are unlikely to support this democratisation or “provincialisation” of knowledge.

From where then is the practice of case study to emerge? A natural site would be the state university and its network of affiliated colleges. But these have been brought to their knees through decades of neglect. These now serve as gateways for the youth to procure certificates to apply for government jobs and for state and national ministries to achieve bureaucratic targets like Gross Enrollment Ratios. In fact, this is a part of a broader decline in the delivery of development services. The government job itself is now a much sought after development outcome and an object of intense discussion, rather than an analysis of the practises of the service. This has further compromised the connection between salaries, value creation, and outcomes. An easy response for any state would be to slowly retreat from delivery of services, that is, a creeping privatisation. This is exactly what is playing out in Maharashtra and many other states.

While there is a great demand for development services, there are few empirical systems to measure it at the granular level that is required. Such systems should have been the basis not only of higher education but of new and viable professions and forging an informed agreement within society. Instead, we have chosen to continue an elaborate, expensive and divisive system of two realities, of rewards and rents for a chosen few and a sullen acceptance for the others. How long can such a corrosive system last?

The writer teaches at IIT, Bombay.

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