NEP 2020 ignores crisis in education among the marginalised majority in rural India

Written by A R Vasavi

Updated: September 15, 2020 8:43:44 am

Although the NEP claims to “bridge gaps in access, participation and learning outcomes’’, it overlooks the fact that poor quality education marks and mars the lives of rural citizens

In its orientation and strategies, the National Education policy 2020 (NEP) is a layered document that recommends significant structural changes to the education system, dips into the constructed imaginaries of a past glorious India that can be retrieved via education, co-opts some progressive ideas for elementary education, and overall acts as a guiding star for the aspirations of the urban middle-classes. But either deliberately or by the limited understanding of the committee members, the NEP overlooks the complexity of contemporary rural India, which is marked by a sharp deceleration of its economy, extant forms of distress, and pauperisation of a majority of its citizens.

Although the NEP claims to “bridge gaps in access, participation and learning outcomes’’, it overlooks the fact that poor quality education marks and mars the lives of rural citizens. Neglecting to engage with any idea of fostering equality of educational opportunity with equality in quality education, the NEP fails to address the growing school differentiation in which government schools are now primarily attended by children of disadvantaged castes and Adivasi groups, while a mushrooming of private schools caters to the aspirations of the more advantaged castes and classes. That such school differentiation defies the idea of education as a leveller and the possibility of schooling acting as a shared experience that forges social coherence is an issue that the NEP committee seems to be oblivious of.

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Growing privatisation of education along with no assurance of quality is placing a huge burden on citizens and the report takes no cognisance of such trends. The fact that rural candidates are finding it increasingly difficult to gain entry into professional education and the lack of fit between their degrees and the job market means that several lakhs of them find themselves both “unemployable” and unemployed. These are issues that find no mention in the report.

Overlooking the general adverse integration of the rural into the larger macroeconomy and into poor quality mass higher education, the report calls for the “establishment of large, multi-discipline universities and colleges” and places emphasis on online and distance learning (ODL), without paying attention to the fact that correspondence courses and distance education degrees have become a source of revenue generation for universities and institutions and are run without guarantees of quality. The report fails to take into account the impact of poor-quality higher education on rural youth who, in many ways, are manifesting signs of alienation from their roots, are disaffected and amenable to being recruited into violent anti-social activities.

Recent reports of increasing suicides among youth are another indicator of the deep distress that they are experiencing. The NEP calls for higher education institutes to promote and support the teaching of “lok vidya” and it highlights the importance of yoga, AYUSH, and Sanskrit, which can be taught along with Artificial Intelligence, machine learning and digital learning, so that youth can be prepared for a global economy. In this narrow perspective, there is no scope for considering the establishment of smaller regional learning centres in which the youth can be taught a range of revamped older knowledge systems along with newer skills and knowledge.

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The possibility of forging and promoting environmental studies for local ecological restoration and conservation, agro-ecologies that can draw on the varied sophisticated regional agricultural knowledge and practices, reviving local health and healing traditions from the vast repertoire of medical knowledge, or recognising vernacular architectural traditions and skills, and a range of artisan and craftsmanship to use local resources and thereby generate both employment and revive regional economies finds no mention at all in the NEP.

Such measures can create a pool of skilled and employable youth who may make meaningful lives in the rural itself rather than become part of the tide of migrant labour whose insecure and precarious lives were all too evident during the lockdown return migration. The NEP draws on its neoliberal economic ideas and moots the possibility of establishing “Special Education Zones” in disadvantaged areas and in “aspirational districts”. But the report provides no details as to how such SEZs will function and who will be the beneficiaries of such institutions. Will such institutions be based on the models of Kota’s entrance exam coaching industry or will it be like the way in which Challakere, a pastoral region 120 km from Bengaluru, was carved out by displacing local pastoralists and fauna, and establishing a “Science City” that combines a solar energy field, a nuclear processing site, and a campus for undergraduates of the Indian Institute of Science?

Although the report claims that the purpose of education is to achieve “full human potential, develop an equitable and just society and promote national development”, it fails to cater to the needs of rural India’s marginalised majority, who in so many ways are rendered into being subjects rather than citizens.

This article first appeared in the print edition on September 15, 2020 under the title ‘Missing in NEP: Rural youth’. The writer, a social anthropologist, is based in Karnataka

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