Not about rights and equity

Pushed during the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Education Policy 2020 does not address the urgent concerns of millions of students.

School girls

The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic with a harsh and prolonged lockdown across the country has impacted the lives and livelihoods of millions of people while the economy was in a severe decline. Educational institutions have been closed for several months and large numbers of children have faced dehumanising disruptions, anxieties, hunger, violence and dislocation. Yet, 34 years after the last national policy in 1986, and over five years in the making with several committees and an almost 500-page draft in 2019, the National Education Policy (NEP; GoI, 2020) 2020 was quietly approved even without a parliamentary debate. How do we begin to look at this policy through the perspective of rights, especially of those for whom it matters most?

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The indelible images of three young girls represent the poignant struggles children waged recently when heartlessly left to their own resources. Jamalo Makdam, 12, from a tribal village in the state of Chhattisgarh, was the only child of her parents who barely survived on the forest produce they collected. She had gone out for work for the first time with some women of her village to a chilli farm 150 km away in the state of Telangana. During the lockdown in April, when work, wages, food and transport completely stopped, she walked back through forests for three days but unfortunately died a few km short of home, of suspected 'exhaustion and electrolyte imbalance' (Verma, 21 April 2020, The Indian Express).

Jyoti Kumari Paswan, the indomitable 15-year-old, cycling her injured father 1,200 km to their village.
Jyoti Kumari Paswan, the indomitable 15-year-old, cycling her injured father 1,200 km to their village. Footage S. Mohan Bharadwaj credited on

In May 2020, Jyoti Kumari Paswan, a 15-year-old Dalit (Scheduled Caste) girl, was in the news. She had gone to Gurgaon from her village in Bihar to nurse her father, a migrant auto-rickshaw driver in the city for two decades; he had been injured in a road accident (Ray, 21 May 2020 The Wire). As the lockdown left them with no money, food or accommodation, Jyoti bought a second-hand cycle and carried him on it for more than 1,200 km to her village. Undeterred by passing taunts to her father for sitting on the carrier behind a girl, she cycled over a hundred kilometers a day for 10 days to reach home. She had earlier dropped out of Class 10, but now wants to start again. She was offered support after media highlighted her indomitable spirit, but has not yet managed to get re-admission. Significantly, public recognition helped reduce the social exclusion they normally faced owing to their ‘low’ caste status. “Those who never visited us now visit our home and have tea. This is a big change we have witnessed in the past five months,” said her mother who works in an anganwadi (early childhood care centre) as a cook. “Parents belonging to upper castes earlier used to raise objections to my cooking food for their children. But now, there is no such complaint,” she added (Anwar, Newsclick, 29 September 2020).

Aishwarya Reddy, the tragic victim of an uncaring system and a crushing lockdown.
Aishwarya Reddy, the tragic victim of an uncaring system and a crushing lockdown. Photo: Twitter/@SurajKrBauddha, republished from The Wire

It is impossible to take one's eyes off 19-year-old Aishwarya Reddy's face, glowing with hope and confidence. Against all odds, hers is a truly exceptional case. A girl from a small town in Telangana, she secured 98.5 per cent marks in the Class 12 Board examination and got admission to study mathematics in one of the most prestigious colleges of New Delhi. Aishwarya's father, a motorcycle mechanic, and mother, a tailor, mortgaged their modest house for a small sum to help her follow her dream, but could no longer pay to keep her younger sister at school beyond Class 8. The pandemic took a devastating toll. Digital classes dismembered social solidarities, deepened existing divides, while the system callously continued business as usual. Aishwarya told the college students' union that she could not do practical assignments on her phone and afford a second-hand laptop or better connectivity, and had yet to receive her scholarship, ironically named INSPIRE, for a year. Her voice like many others went unheard, uncared for. The college sent deadlines to vacate her hostel room (for the next batch) during the pandemic. Pushed to the end of her tether, she hanged herself. Her heart-rending note (translated from Telugu) said: "My family has been spending a lot of money on me....My studies are a burden (on them). But I cannot live without my studies." (Jha, 10 November 2020).

Arriving curiously in the midst of traumatic times (as with other contentious laws on labour and agriculture), the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 does not address the urgent concerns of millions of students unable to continue their studies. Estimates from the northern states show that almost 40 per cent girls from poor households may not be able to return to school (Ghatak,  Yareseeme and Jha, 2020, Centre for Budget and Policy Studies and India Champions for Girls’ Education). In addition, the loss of parents' livelihoods and children's entitlements including the hot cooked mid-day meal (in government schools and early child care centres), has seriously impacted their nutrition levels (Sinha, 24 December 2020; Bordia, 11 September 2020), which had already been alarming in 2019 when India ranked 102 of 117 countries in the Global Hunger Index, below Pakistan and Nepal in South Asia.

Right to Education Act and after

The pandemic can cause a major setback to some of the gains made in the last decade, after the Right to Education Act (RTE) 2009 (RTE; GoI, 2009) was enacted. There was a significant increase in enrollments, though children's actual participation in school remained poor, without the environment that can ensure meaningful good quality education as mandated by RTE. Implementation has been tardy and less than 10 per cent schools in the country are compliant with the RTE norms. Moreover, in the past few years the government closed and merged thousands of schools ostensibly for 'low enrollments', even as it tacitly allowed substandard low-cost private schools to mushroom without basic requirements or adequate qualified teachers. In December 2020, over 14,000 schools in Odisha, 5,000 in Bihar and 5,760 schools run by the tribal welfare department in Madhya Pradesh have been ordered closure, which takes away access to schooling for children from tribal communities living in remote habitations. Among those who do manage to get to school, large numbers get pushed out before they complete elementary (Class 8) or secondary education (Class 10).

Girls from Scheduled Tribes (ST), as 12-year-old Jamalo, from Scheduled Castes (SC), as 15-year-old Jyoti Kumari, and from poor Muslim families are the most vulnerable to such policy changes. Their lower participation and completion rates reflect the complex socio-historical markers of disadvantage they carry to school, further exacerbated by the stratified, discriminatory and poor education they get. The policy, however, remains in denial of the underpinnings of disadvantage, deprivation and exclusion. It forges the acronym SEDG – socio economically disadvantaged groups – to blur the identities shaped by the realities of caste, class, gender, religion, region or ethnicity. What it means to be a Dalit or a Muslim child today, how teachers and other students look at a physically challenged girl or a poor tribal boy, is mirrored in the expectations the system has from them, while it stamps and traces their trajectories within and beyond school.

Despite the deep anxieties of the impact on education, NEP 2020 mentions the word pandemic only once in passing in Section 24 on digital education, calling for a greater focus on integrated modes of traditional and online learning. Unlike past policies that provide a socio-historical analysis with the challenges to be addressed through the transformative vision of the Constitution, this policy hastily states its aim for an education system 'rooted in (the) Indian ethos', to make India a 'global knowledge superpower' with 'truly global citizens'. The rhetoric of elite schools in India producing 'global citizens' usually translates into comfortably aligning with 'distant' global issues, such as global warming, maintaining a deliberate disconnect with the immediate local, often more 'messy' scenarios. This, along with its call for education rooted in the 'Indian ethos', unravels deep contradictions, especially when the immense diversity of its people, cultures and knowledges, is summarily subsumed under the traditions of a dominant religion.

India's founding vision of democracy and education for equity and inclusion

India’s founding vision for education continues to be provided by the framework of equity and social justice embedded in the Constitution. In 1950, its adoption of universal suffrage was a revolutionary move, overriding doubts about the feasibility of largely poor non-literate voters in a deeply hierarchical society being able to create a participatory democracy. This was when western democracies had just begun to selectively open their doors to women, poor and people of colour. Despite having been devastated by a brutal partition causing massive migrations across the borders at the time of Independence in 1947, the founders of India's democracy had boldly framed the Constitution as a pedagogical project (Khosla, 2020), to educate citizens to live together and forge a just and empathetic society. Universal franchise was at that time tied to the commitment to provide universal free and compulsory education, within 10 years, to all children until age 14 years (Article 45).

Even before the constitution was finalised, the first University Education Commission (1948-49) of independent India chaired by Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, who later became the president, took forward the commitment for equity and inclusion and warned of intellectual arrogance that looked upon "‘practical courses, especially those calling for manual craftsmanship, as suited to inferior minds, while professional courses are for intellectuals. This separation of skill of hand from skill of mind has greatly retarded the mastery of the physical world and has been a major cause of poverty, especially in India” (GoI, 1949, p.498). It further stated that in a democratic society, the opportunity of learning must not only be for the elite but to all who have to carry the privilege and responsibility of citizenship. Education is a universal right, not a class privilege. “Freedom of individual development is the basis of democracy. Exclusive control of education by the State has been an important factor in facilitating the maintenance of totalitarian tyrannies....We must resist, in the interests of our own democracy, the trend towards the governmental domination of the educational process....Intellectual progress demands the maintenance of the spirit of free inquiry. ...Professional integrity requires that teachers should be as free to speak on controversial issues as any other citizens of a free country. An atmosphere of freedom is essential for developing this ‘morality of the mind’” (p. 42). Seeing the current state of our universities and educational institutions, we can only ask where is that promise, seventy years later?

‘Learning Outcomes’, denial of inputs: Failure of the system or the child?

The NEP 2020 speaks with a forked tongue, regressing to the term 'universal access' in place of rightful entitlements, and aggressively using the cost benefit argument of 'efficiency of scale', not equity, for ‘consolidating’ and closing schools while promoting low-input privatisation. It plays down the Right to Education by calling it ‘too restrictive’, assuring all kinds of ‘philanthropic’ private players of placing less emphasis on ‘inputs’, in the ‘alternative models’ and ‘multiple pathways’ they could choose to offer. This even includes the national/ state Open School at the primary stage, where children are expected to learn by themselves using books sent to them, and sit for the examinations mostly based on memory recall. Worryingly, the Open School option is already being used to circumvent the minimum requirements for RTE or affiliation to the Boards, by low-cost private schools, including a large conglomeration of single-teacher schools supported by right wing organisations, and also state governments. For instance, the Delhi government discriminates and segregates children it labels as ‘slow learners’ into separate sections, and ultimately relegates them to the Open School examination, so that its Class 10 Board results are not sullied with their low marks, when showcased with much media publicity.

The prevailing focus on ‘learning outcomes’ is a discourse of denial, especially for the disadvantaged, as it deliberately plays down the essential ‘inputs’ – a congenial learning environment, good learning resources and qualified teachers who understand disparities and diversities and can nurture children's construction of knowledge. This damaging shift allows the system to abandon its responsibility, as it unjustly places the onus on the individual child (and her family), problematically identified as ‘slow’ or ‘deficient’, unable to produce those ubiquitous 'outcomes'  (Rampal, 2018) or marks in centralised tests.

According to the rights or humanist perspective on education, it is the responsibility of the system to engender an inclusive, culturally responsive education, which addresses the lives of all and ensures the full development of every child. Significantly, when the RTE was framed, the ministry of human resource development had given an important rationale for not holding back or detaining a child, till the completion of Class 8. It had said that examinations are used for eliminating children who obtain poor marks; failing and forcing a child to repeat a class is demotivating and causes the child to abandon school. "A ‘slow’ learner or a ‘failed’ child is not because of any inherent drawback in the child, but most often the inadequacy of the learning environment...(thus) the failure is of the system, rather than of the child" (GoI, 2009b).

Consolidation and centralisation impact equity and inclusion

The thrust on ‘consolidation’ along with centralisation can serve to be detrimental to equity and inclusion. As per the constitutional federal structure of governance, education is on the concurrent list, where states too make their policies, including their curricula, rules and norms. The centralised focus of NEP 2020 through the National Research Fund, the National Assessment Centre, National Testing Agency, National Educational Technology Forum, Higher Education Commission of India and many others, tends to undermine the role of states. Pedagogically education is meant to be rooted in the cultural context of learners, and centralised examinations as early as Class 3, Class 5 and Class 8 in addition to the Board examinations in Class 10 and Class 12 run contrary to the RTE, which banned children being subjected to a centralised Board examination till Class 8. In fact, RTE had mandated rigorous comprehensive and continuous assessment to support better learning and allowed only regular school examinations. The NEP mandates state curricula and textbooks to contain "the essential core materials deemed important on a national level, but at the same time contain any desired nuances and supplementary materials as per local contexts and needs". The notion of deciding ‘essential core content’ at the national level and  allowing states to only garnish with ‘local flavours’, seems condescending while impinging upon their constitutional role to develop their own curricula.

The policy reconfiguring of the school structure needs to be seen in light of its ambiguous commitment to equitable quality. The Foundational Literacy and Numeracy Stage of the first five years (age 3-8) makes minimalist expectations for education with no logic for the clubbing of primary Classes 1 and 2 with the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programme run in government anganwadi centres, whose workers are not professionally trained teachers, and simultaneously in elite pre-primary schools. It worryingly opens the space for minimally trained volunteers, community members and also child-tutors from the same school, relegating or outsourcing the most challenging task of educating children needing the best professional ‘inputs’. Not only is the term ‘tutoring’ out of place in a national policy document, but also making a ‘bright’ primary school child ‘tutor’ others is violative of their rights.

Similarly, clubbing Class 9 - Class 12 allows an early diversion into vocational courses of those not considered ‘able’ for the sought after academic courses. While there is need for credible post-secondary courses that integrate work and education, the present vocational courses are based on low-level employability skills designed by the industry, and traditional vocations continue to be tied to caste. Crafting newer hierarchies of ‘ability’ – sorted and stratified through channels of skill versus knowledge – the policy projects half the students in school and college to be in vocational education, further channelling the disadvantaged into multiple exit options.

At college level Open and Distance Learning (ODL) is claimed to be the “natural path to increase access to good quality higher education”, while consolidation requires a college to have minimum enrolment of 3,000. Official statistics show that (AISHE, 2019) only 4 per cent of around 40,000 colleges have that level of enrollment. The significant increase in aspirations for higher education during the last few years was not matched with good quality institutions and 11 per cent enrollments were channelled into open learning. There is a heartening increase in gender parity in higher education but channelling women students into home-based learning or low-skill vocational courses undermines their critical agency, leaving them more vulnerable to early marriage or falling prey to the dominant demands of regressive patriarchy.

Pedagogical theories show us the importance and effectiveness of culturally responsive curricula and texts connected to learners’ real life experiences, transacted through the social process of meaning making, not by solitary individuals staring at a blackboard or screen. In fact, such collaborative and constructivist ways of learning help build the confidence and motivation of the disadvantaged, specially girls who feel ready to face daunting challenges, when supported by the collective agency of a community of learners. The National Curriculum Framework 2005 had focused on these issues and the national textbooks brought real life women as protagonists into the classrooms, engendering them closer to life, while inspiring millions of others in similar conditions.

The following image is of Kiran, a young junk seller who, in a chapter in the national primary mathematics textbook (NCERT, 2008, 2020), confesses that she dropped out early from school and hated mathematics, but today it’s part of her life and work. She started a junk shop in Patna, despite the taunts about it being a ‘dirty business’, and challenged the norms of a highly feudal society. Expanding into recycling of junk, she transformed the family's condition; her husband joined her enterprise and she ensured that her children got education. A year after the textbook came out, she told the author that she was proud that people came specially to see her shop, which had made her a textbook heroine. In fact, her chapter is now famous across continents, when mathematics educators share inspiring examples of how education has to be from life, for life.

‘The junk seller’ Kiran in the NCERT textbook and the everyday mathematics she uses in her shop
‘The junk seller’ Kiran in the NCERT textbook and the everyday mathematics she uses in her shop. Photo Credits: Nitin Upadhyay, from project ‘Girl Stars’ created by Going to School with support from UNICEF.


This article was prepared with the support of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung. The views and analysis contained in the publication are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the foundation. Heinrich Böll Stiftung will be excluded from any liability claims against copyright breaches, graphics, photographs/images, sound document and texts used in this publication. The author is solely responsible for the correctness, completeness and for the quality of information provided.


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