Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Teachers: The Biggest Impediment to Education in India

A small portion of the Indian population is experiencing unprecedented prosperity levels as a result of the new globalization wave and the economic reforms of the Narasimha Rao government. These forces have led to India being catapulted into a "knowledge economy". The press, both Indian and foreign, often cite figures comparing the number of engineering graduates from India favourably in comparison to Western countries. There is a general sense of optimism, a feeling that our educational system is at par with or superior to the Western systems.

However, the truth is that the economic prosperity is masking the mess into which our educational systems are devolving. The Indian educational system at all levels (primary, secondary and tertiary) is worse off than it was a decade ago. The reasons we are not seeing immediate effects are manyfold. Perhaps the two biggest reasons are: 1. there is always a lag of a decade or two in the manifestation of the effects of such a lapse; 2. globalization cushions the effect, providing easy access to skilled workers from elsewhere.

However, the devolution is real. The scientific advisor to the Prime Minister, esteemed scientist C. N. R. Rao, has in his official capacity advised the Prime Minister that Indian science education has been on the decline for almost two decades, and that the effects will be felt soon. (See, for example, this article.)

At the primary and secondary levels, India's education programme has been a failure. Although literacy levels have been creeping upwards gradually, the rate of progress was far lower than what was envisioned when the constitution was adopted (free compulsory education for all children upto 14 years by 1960; see Constitution of India, Part IV Article 45). Often, the government is blamed for not providing teachers with sufficient resources, not paying them enough or for not monitoring them well enough.

However, an alternate viewpoint is that the teachers are themselves responsible for aggressively demoting the status of education and making education subservient to politics. Teachers in India are overwhelmingly unionized and political, and resist positive change in an organized fashion. Politics is endemic to the teaching profession. These views from the book The Political Economy of Education in India by Geeta Kingdon and Mohammed Muzammil are explained in detail in this article by Swaminathan S. Aiyar, consulting editor of The Economic Times. I think this viewpoint might explain the reason why, despite struggling against illiteracy for so many decades, we have failed to make inroads into universal education in India.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Sycophancy in the Congress Party

The Congress party's least attractive feature is its heavy culture of sycophancy. There are many parties in Indian politics that are based on sycophancy towards individuals: examples include the DMK, AIADMK (under both Jayalalithaa and M. G. Ramachandran) and the Telugu Desam during the NTR years. But the Congress party is, I think, the only one where dynastic sycophancy plays such a strong role.

The Congress party formed two entirely different entities before and after independence. Soon after independence, the towering Nehru successfully transformed the Congress into a dynastic hegemony (possibly; some say it was Indira and not Nehru who did this). Amazingly, this hegemony has now become self-sustaining, almost religious. The dynasty itself no longer has to expend energy to maintain it. It has persisted through the deeds as well as misdeeds of Indira Gandhi, through the Rajiv Gandhi years, through the "dark ages" when no Nehru-Gandhi family member was at the helm, and seems to be growing in zeal even now, during the Sonia Gandhi years.

The years without a Family member leading the Congress were a time when alternative leadership could have taken hold, but the Congress party workers had the religious zeal of converts. No one other than a Gandhi family member, any Gandhi family member, could satisfy them. P. V. Narasimha Rao, the true architect of India's financial reforms and successful party caretaker during its hardest period, was sidelined, refused a place in Delhi (though Rajiv Gandhi -- having accomplished much less than PVR -- was given a samadhi) and his body was ignobly returned to Hyderabad after he passed away. The Gandhis are famously jealous of merit; while claiming great laurels for their own family (naming various national and state institutions and monuments after themselves) they deliberately keep similar merit awards away from other deserving leaders.

In current times the toadyism has reached new heights. The most senior and accomplished politicians in the Congress willingly submitted themselves to the absolute will of Sonia Gandhi, a political neophyte. Nay, they begged her to rule over them. Sonia Gandhi is much more powerful than even the Prime Minister of India, whom she had the total liberty to choose. While there is nothing wrong with a strong person leading a political party, the amazing thing is that Sonia Gandhi did nothing to assume such absolute power. She has no political or governing experience or accomplishments; indeed she has no experience of any sort whatsoever. The power was handed to her on a platter because she was the only viable deity in the Congress party religion.

Already, other heirs apparent to the Congress monarchy are treated with nearly apotheosized reverence. Look at the picture at the top of this post, from this article on Rahul Gandhi's birthday. Rahul Gandhi is not even in attendance!

In another example of this deification of the Gandhi family, Congress workers have put up a poster depicting Sonia as the goddess Durga in Moradabad; see the picture at top.

Some argue that this is a fault of the lower level Congress workers and not the main leaders; however, the leadership reinforces this kind of behaviour by doling out perks to Gandhi Family loyalists. For example, it is well known that the Congress's current candidate for the post of president, Pratibha Patil, is a long-term Family loyalist who stood by Indira Gandhi even through the Emergency. (According to this report, she even added her own touches to the Emergency, including forcible sterilization.)

While the Congress party itself is fairly functional, the idea that the ruling party should be so staunchly monarchic, and so anti-democratic, is disturbing. If those are the ideals they hold, how can they be trusted to rule the country?