A conversation I had with Sanskrit students at Banaras Hindu University in 2014 came back to me as I listened to last week’s quota debate in Parliament. It took place just before Narendra Modi announced that he would be contesting from Banaras. The election campaign had begun and ripples of the Modi wave floated into the dusty corridors of the University’s Sanskrit department. It was in one of these corridors, amid a pile of broken desks and chairs, that I talked to these students. They were all Brahmin and the one thing they were certain Modi would do if he became prime minister was end reservations. “It’s time for all reservations to go,” they said, “because it is almost impossible to get admission in a university unless you fall into a reserved category.”
While listening to the debate in both Houses of Parliament, I waited for some MP to have the courage to say this. I waited for at least one person to say that if there was going to be a constitutional amendment, it should be to end all reservations altogether. When Scheduled Castes and Tribes were put into the reserved category by those who wrote our Constitution, it was to correct a historical wrong. Seventy years later, if this has not been corrected, then this provision has not worked.
Young Indians do not need more reservations. They need more colleges and universities. The shortage is so grave, it is almost an emergency. Indian students are often forced to go to foreign universities because the admission standards in most good colleges are impossible to meet. So it is no surprise that official figures for 2017 record 5.53 lakh Indian students studying in foreign universities. Ten years ago, when Kapil Sibal was Minister of Human Resource Development, he said in an interview for this column that India needed 1,500 new universities. I am certain that nowhere near this number have been built because the total number of universities today is just 819.
Thousands of new private universities may have been built if higher education was not controlled by a licence raj. The job of officials should be to regulate standards. In fact they have the powers to control everything. They decide fees, salaries and courses. They use their enormous powers for patronage and profit. When Smriti Irani was Minister of Human Resource Development, I went to see her and suggested that as a first reform she should abolish the University Grants Commission and as a second she should get rid of the utterly useless Right to Education law. I do not think she listened to a word. She was obsessed at the time with ridding Delhi University of a man she considered a ‘rogue’ vice-chancellor.
Education seemed not to be a priority for Modi either. Or he could have used his brute majority in the Lok Sabha to give India a new education policy that ended the licence raj and reservations. Now, with less than a hundred days left till the general elections, we will have to wait for a new prime minister to make the urgent changes that are so desperately needed.
Now let’s talk about jobs. The constitutional amendment technically reserves 10 per cent of government jobs for those who come from economically weak families. But, where are the jobs? Last year the Railways announced 90,000 new jobs and got more than 2.8 crore applicants. When the government of Uttar Pradesh announced 62 peon jobs, they got 93,000 applicants, including 50,000 graduates and 3,740 who had PhDs.
If the dream of every young Indian remains a government job it is not just because it offers permanency and perks. It is also because despite, or perhaps because of, the licence raj, most students who graduate from government colleges and universities are unemployable elsewhere. I have met students who have studied in English-medium colleges who cannot speak a straight sentence in English. It is not just their linguistic skills that are weak but their other skills as well because standards are so low. So even if there are jobs that are available in the private sector, the problem is that those who apply are in fact unemployable.
This is not a problem that has been created in the past four years. Although listening to Congress party spokesmen these days leaves you feeling that everything that has gone wrong in India has happened only since Modi became Prime Minister. It is a problem that has worsened over decades. What is sad is that Modi did not realise that he could use his massive majority to give India a whole new education system. This column has often said that the solution to many of India’s problems is ending the licence raj in education. It has in my view been more destructive than that other licence raj.
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