Like Gandhi’s India, it must keep its thousand windows open.
Delhi Education Minister Manish Sisodia’s pronouncement on the state of higher education in the National Capital Territory of Delhi was a controversy waiting to happen. Not that all is well with this aspect of life in Delhi. We have witnessed, year after year, the panic of parents and wards — victims of the mismatch between demand and supply — each time the dreaded admission season approaches. Aspirants to colleges of some repute living in torment of the ever-ascending cut-offs is painfully familiar.
If, as the education minister laments, of the 2.65 lakh students who graduate from schools in Delhi only 90,000 manage to get into Delhi colleges and the remaining 1.75 lakh fall by the wayside, it is admittedly not a happy, or acceptable, state of affairs. The magnitude of the problem is amplified by the compulsion to demonstrate a change for the better almost overnight, especially in a context of long-suppressed but newly awakened expectations. Reservation is a palliative, not an antidote.
The proposal to reserve 90 per cent of the seats for Delhi residents in DU colleges which are “fully funded by the government” cannot be claimed to be a huge leap, in quantitative terms, for the young people of Delhi. Only about 12 institutions — a small percentage of the total number of colleges in Delhi — belong to this category. The government intends to start new colleges as well as enhance the delivery of education. Sisodia does not appear to be seeing this single step as an alternative to addressing the grievances that crowd the ground. The proposed reservation, a relic from the previous Congress government, is more a means to mollify than to remedy.
The “sons of the soil” concept, which underlies this proposal, is nothing new. The dissonance that the minister’s approach provokes in certain quarters stems, perhaps, largely from the dual status of Delhi, which is not only a Union Territory but also the nation’s capital. It is therefore meant to be a kaleidoscope of the variety and diversity of India, a vignette of its unity-in-diversity. Who are the residents who pay for the educational facilities in Delhi, assuredly superior to what most other cities afford? Are they not — in their tens and thousands — people who have moved in from the four corners of the country and made Delhi their home?
A key value could be collaterally imperilled in pursuing this measure of good intent. Parochial reservation in higher education could militate against the goal of promoting national integration. The purposive movement of people across regional and linguistic boundaries as well as the intermingling and sharing of experiences that enable individuals to outgrow parochial mindsets are valuable in consolidating our sense of oneness as a nation. This aspect is of particular significance to institutions which have, as their core vision, the goal of transcending differences and forging a sense of belonging together, despite outward differences, by living and learning together. It is impossible to imagine, for example, a St Stephen’s College without its national clientele. The richness of life the college embodies and imparts is derived, to a large measure, from its being a mini-India, drawing its students from every state and Union Territory.
Delhi, more than any other city, cannot afford to embrace an insular outlook. It belongs, and must belong, to the whole country. That does not mean the cosmopolitan, pan-Indian flavour of the city has to thrive at the expense of local aspirations. The perceived tension between these two goals — welcoming outstation aspirants and empowering domestic ones — issues from the failure of governments, especially in the last two decades, to address the educational needs of the people of Delhi. Also, of the rest of the country. It is good to remember that the people of Delhi pay not only regular taxes but also educational cess. So do people all over the country. Why is it that the thousands of crores of rupees, accruing on account of educational cess, remain a dead asset with the ministry of human resource development? Why are they not turned into educational benefits for citizens, in Delhi and the rest of the country? The state has failed the people. The idea of reservation helps, so to speak, to shrug off the blame for it. It is as though Delhi-ites are facing some sort of “external threat” in the form of an educational invasion from beyond the city borders.
The idea of reserving seats for Delhi domiciles could even be counter-productive for the people of Delhi and for the Aam Aadmi Party. By reserving a few thousand seats, a measure of appeasement may be achieved. This could, however, blunt the urgency to develop additional educational facilities commensurate with ever-increasing needs. The moment the influx is capped, the focus could shift, somewhat plausibly, to the desirability of merit-driven competition. So long as only the locals are slugging it out, the sense of grievance about failing to make it could be dulled. It is the resentment of “food meant for one’s own children” being snatched away by more enterprising “aliens” that provokes the grievance. As for the AAP, given its ruddy national aspirations, the “sons of the soil” advocacy in Delhi, where it made its dream debut, could prove a liability elsewhere. It could take a heavier toll on its image as a robust pan-Indian alternative to the Congress and the BJP than may be realised right now. That need not happen, but it could well happen; especially if the AAP’s political adversaries choose to milk its potential for adverse propaganda.
It is not necessary that every student who passes Class 12 be admitted to a college. It is beyond argument that the model of education followed today is not conducive to the empowerment of a vast segment of students. Four or six years in the university system has the potential to cripple a young person’s ability to work. An approach to education that is congenitally indifferent to the promotion of vocational skills and a robust work culture, implanted in an economy with an abysmal track record of employment generation, cannot be an unqualified blessing for everyone. It is time we promoted, in a well-planned and systematic fashion, vocational education of a high order. For this to succeed, however, we need to look at the livelihood aspects of vocational training. If vocational training is only a strategy to filter out young men and women from mainstream education and consign them to life-long deprivation or under-privilege, it is discriminatory and unjust. Skills have to be valued and amply rewarded. Skills are in daily need. But they are becoming rarer and rarer. All the while, the chase of college seats gets hotter and hotter.
We live in a rapidly changing, and already vastly changed India. Regional divides have blurred. Religious barriers are being regularly and wholesomely breached through inter-religious marriages. The old parochial mindset is now quaintly outdated. “Delhi-for-Delhi-ites” may ring popular in pockets of transient zeal. But the idea sounds retrograde in the larger context. Delhi, like Gandhi’s India, must keep its thousand windows open. The fresh air that the AAP promises should not grow stale. The nation’s capital should enhance, not diminish, its image as the Gangotri of education.
The author is the principal of St. Stephen’s College, Delhi