An Open Letter To Smriti Irani


Dear Ms Irani,

Congratulations on being the Human Resource Development Minister of this nation – which has no deficit of this remarkable renewable resource. I was 11 years old when my family watched you on television portraying the trials and tribulations of Tulsi with ease and flawlessness. Now you have taken up a real role as a policymaker with equal gusto and enthusiasm. Your story is no less inspiring than that of Mr Prime Minister’s. And the fact that Mr Prime Minister has reposed his faith in you is testament to your abilities, talent and vision. Hence, it becomes imperative that you make solid decisions and introduce easily implementable policies in your tenure as a Union HRD Minister.

Focus on Primary Education

Your first step, Ms Irani, ought to be your focus on improving the primary education system. You ought to be aware of the real status of the primary education sector and not just rely on numerical data. Numbers are not everything. You need to take a strong view of this existing trouble. Numerous studies and reports point to the fact that there is hardly any increase in the learning levels of children when they’re promoted to higher classes. Many of them cannot read a simple text in Hindi or English or perform a simple mathematical task like division.

According to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2013, which is an assessment brought out annually by the NGO Pratham, enrolment in schools remain very high, around 96%. Yet, that does not translate to quality education. ASER points out that among Class V children enrolled in government schools, the percentage of children able to read a Class III text has decreased from 50.3% in 2009 to 43.8% in 2011 to 41.1% in 2013. Moreover, only 20.8% of these children could solve a three-digit by one-digit division problem – a Class III level math problem – in 2013.

There is no focus on developing skills in students and there is no proper infrastructure in schools. Scarcity of teachers and their inadequate training to impart quality education are the other critical aspects which need immediate attention.

According to the same report, 15% of government schools still lack a provision for drinking water, 7% of schools do not have a usable toilet, 23% schools do not have libraries. Also, according to a MHRD presentation before Parliament’s Consultative Committee in 2011, there are vacancies for 12.59 lakh teachers in primary and upper primary schools in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar alone.

In other words, public education is in shambles and nobody is willing to fix it.

Primary education is that significant foundation on which the future of a country is built. If the foundation of a structure is weak, there is always a perpetual fear that it might fall. If we won’t take decisions soon enough to improve and further our children’s primary education, I’m afraid to say there is a strong possibility that the nation might fall due to its own foundational deficiencies.

Higher Education

The scenario in the halls of higher education, Ms Irani, is equally disturbing. Unmindful proliferation of institutions coupled with faculty crunch, insufficient infrastructure, rampant plagiarism and infrequent regulation and checks has severely dented the quality of higher education. Moreover, your determination to establish new IITs has given me some sleepless nights. Is this decision based on sound reason and analysis? Or is it just to make your party’s foothold stronger? Whatever it is, it not justified to have more IITs in the country. As an IIT alumnus, I’ve experienced the facilities and the shortcomings of the prestigious IITs first-hand. And it is from this experience that I tell you not to go any further with your commitment.

What is more, I would like you to notice the concerns and recommendations of the Kakodkar Committee which was set up by the previous government in 2010 and submitted its report (Taking IITs to Excellence and Greater Relevance) to the MHRD in April 2011. The committee outlined some extremely pertinent issues which I quote here verbatim:

“the sudden increase in the intake and the effort of mentoring the new IITs has strained the established IITs. All the IITs are suffering from infrastructure deficit and inadequate administrative systems and staff.”

“the current state of infrastructure at the established IITs is not in tune with what is expected of a world-class institute.”

“as it is, IITs are currently facing an acute shortage of faculty when it comes to coping with the increased admissions and needs of the new IITs”

The report also highlights the need for the IITs to enhance research and to lead and strive to bring quality among other technical institutes. It also raises deep concerns about the absence, or thin presence, of the alumni among the new IITs and their track record in bringing funds from the industry. It also makes a note of the rigid and inflexible curriculum at IITs and about the issues of scaling up the number of faculty as well as PhD graduates.

To quantify the concerns, the IITs would need to produce 10,000 PhD graduates in 2020-25, up from the 1000 PhD graduates they produce now. The scaling up of faculty will be an equally effortful task. IITs would need a total of 16,000 faculty members in about 10 years, up from the 4000 faculty members that they have now.

Moreover, according to the reply by the then Minister of State, Human Resource Development, Shashi Tharoor to a question in the Rajya Sabha in April 2013, approximately 42% of the faculty positions are vacant in the IITs. Almost half are vacant in the NITs.

All this paints a very grim picture.

With the existing IITs short of faculty and resources, the new ones will be nothing but a name on paper. The ones started by the UPA government are still struggling to grow and make their mark. The President has repeatedly expressed his disappointment at the inability of any of our institutions to figure within the top 100 ranks in the global rankings. Why don’t you nurture the existing ones? Make them stronger and better? Why don’t you focus on improving their research output, faculty appointments and trainings, international collaborations etc? Why don’t you make them grow to a stature which allows them to effectively mentor other educational institutions? The best idea would be to ask the students about what they find wrong with the existing practices. After all, they are the ones who will shape the future. And, I believe, it’s possible to strengthen the existing institutions given your forté for action and vision.

For many people in this nation, the only road to a good future for their children begins with a good education. You hold the key to that future, Ms Irani. Put in the right key and unlock the potential of this nation willing to make its mark on globe.

With my good wishes,

Manas Gupta

This article originally appeared in NewsLaundry, written by Manas Gupta

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