Why should it surprise us that Indian children have yet again been punished for the criminal incompetence of officials paid to provide them a decent education? It has happened always. But this time, the injustice was so barefaced, it brought students onto the streets in angry protests. The minister of Human Resource Development tried to cover up for the carelessness of his officials by announcing inquiry commissions and special task forces into the leak of examination papers. Not good enough, minister. The official in charge of the Central Board of Secondary Examinations (CBSE) must be sacked if she has not already been persuaded to resign by the time you read this.
She is personally culpable for those examination papers being leaked, but has behaved as if nothing of any consequence has happened. She was working, she said sweetly, to ensure that whatever was done would be in the interest of the children, and dates were announced for students to retake the exams they have just given. She seemed not to notice that this amounts to students being punished for something that was no fault of theirs. As usual, officialdom failed to hear what the students were saying.
For decades children and their parents have pleaded with officials to do something to improve the abysmal standards in government schools. Their pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Officials could not care less since their own children usually go to expensive private schools. The schools they bestow upon the people are so bad, especially in rural India, that ‘English-medium’ private schools have sprouted everywhere. They are often better than government schools but many were forced to close because the Sonia-Manmohan government gave us the Right to Education law. It is a useless law that has served only to increase official meddling in the working of private schools, while doing nothing to improve government schools.
As a supporter of Narendra Modi, I had hoped he would begin his education reforms by ridding us of this law. This did not happen because his first HRD minister spent her time quarrelling with university vice-chancellors, while allowing semi-literate Hindutva types to interfere in academia. When she was given the chop, she was replaced by someone who has proved to be equally ineffectual. But the real problem lies with the BJP chief ministers. They now govern most of India and yet not one of them has come up with the sort of drastic reforms needed to make a real difference.
As things stand, most Indian children, whether they go to government schools or ‘English-medium’ private ones, enter universities and the job market severely handicapped. On my travels in our fair and wondrous land, I regularly meet young adults who have been educated in rural ‘English-medium’ private schools but who are unable to speak a coherent sentence in basic English. This would be acceptable to a degree if they were fully literate in their own languages, but sadly this is not the case.
So we continue to produce generations of young Indians who are supposedly educated but in fact not educated at all. The Prime Minister often boasts about India’s youthful population, and it is true that with most countries ageing rather than growing younger, this could be India’s greatest advantage. But only if these children have the educational skills needed to compete in a world in which you are considered illiterate if you cannot use a computer.
Congress spokesmen have been eloquent in recent days in their censure of the Modi government for allowing the leak of examination papers. They have chosen not to notice that the horrendous standards of India’s education system did not come to happen in the past four years. BJP chief ministers inherited an educational infrastructure that was virtually defunct. Government schools and colleges were really just buildings, not centres of learning. The question is why have the PM and his CMs done so little by way of reform? Why have they continued with policies that should have been trashed long ago?
What the leaked examination papers prove more than anything is the total absence of even minimal reforms. Fine schools and colleges need not just fine teaching standards but fine standards of administration, and what we have seen in this case is an administrative failure of monumental proportions. There is no point in announcing inquiry commissions and special task forces to investigate which officials were responsible for what happened. We know who they were, so what we need to see urgently are heads rolling. After this, what the PM needs to do is call his CMs for a special conclave on education to find out from them what they have done by way of improving educational standards in their states. If there have not been improvements, we have the right to know why.