The poor status of education in India continues to exist despite the otherwise high growth rates the country has achieved. One of the most important reasons for this has been the continuing apathy and unwillingness of successive central governments in committing more resources to the education sector. The UPA I also did not make any serious efforts to overcome this problem. The small increase in spending, which was done under pressure from the Left Parties was also far from sufficient and reached nowhere near ensuring the promised spending of 6% of GDP and 10% of the budget on education. Attempts to further the neo-liberal agenda of commercialization also continued in various forms. The UPA II, which does not even have a Common Minimum Programme, has waged a renewed offensive in the field of education. This constitutes the twin attacks of commercialization and centralization of education. These attempts being made not only seek to push for increased commercialization and opening up of the education sector to foreign players, but they are aimed at fundamentally changing the structure of education sector in the country. To put it in simple terms, the thrust is to fundamentally curb the democratic values in the realm of education policy and make it subservient to the whims and fancies of the market. The most dangerous step in this direction is the proposed NCHER draft bill which has been brought by the government. The defining feature of this bill is that it takes away all rights of policy and decision making in education from democratically elected bodies like the parliament and state legislatures and gives sweeping powers to a seven member body. Such steps can also be seen in the field of school education where attempts are being made to undermine the autonomy of state boards by talks of uniform syllabi and curriculums. All this is being done in the name of “reforming and rejuvenating” the education sector in the country and is being presented as a drastic reform of the otherwise inefficient education system, which prevails in the country. While the government is not showing any inclination to increase resource allocation for the education sector, it wants to acquire all powers to implement its own size fits all policies. This is yet another classic replication of the neo-liberal paradigm which tries to seek legitimacy for most undemocratic and regressive proposals in the name of reforming the delivery mechanism.
Education, especially in a country like ours, which is marked by large diversities, cannot be straight jacketed. It would require a participatory and democratic attitude, where diverse sections can both relate to and benefit from attaining education, to improve the sorry state of affairs which prevail today. A top down approach which is the hallmark of the NCHER bill or making all state boards alike can never address the problems in an effective manner. It is indeed absurd to think that some “enlightened” individuals sitting in Delhi can decide upon what policies should be undertaken to address the problems of providing quality education to students studying in a remote village in the north eastern part of the country as well as the urban poor in our big cities. It also fails logic to argue that a clique of some individuals, who will have no accountability whatsoever to the common people unlike elected legislative bodies at the centreand the state, would get rid of all the problems which are facing the education system today. It is important to understand that the driving force behind all these measures is not some drastic expansion of the education system and strengthen the fundamental objectives of providing education in the country. The primary motive is to cater to the needs of the market and undermine the progressive content of education in the country. To take an example, the HRD minister recently gave a statement stressing on the need for having identical syllabi for science and commerce streams at the higher secondary level across all states. One might ask why there is no felt need to include humanities or social sciences as well. The answer is clear. Science and Commerce streams have a direct relation to the needs of the market today. The ruling elite in our country needs supply of a skilled labour force to compete in the world market. That is not the case with social sciences or liberal arts which have no direct contribution to material productionin the country, and in fact pose a challenge to the imperialist hegemony which would want us to interpret our society in a particular manner. The former education minister Kapil Sibal and his government want to provide in our country today is one which will discourage people to question the fundamental divide and dichotomy which marks the uneven and unequal growth process neoliberal policies over the last two decades.
Such designs constitute a concerted attack on the very idea of our country, which is known for a deep rooted democratic consciousness among the mass of the people. They seek to demolish all the earlier recommendations and suggestions by committees appointed by the central government itself. They seek to undermine the federal aspects of our constitution even though it has always been unitary in practice. As far as the education sector is concerned it means that there will be a fundamental divide between the stakeholders and policy makers if such policies are pushed through. There is an urgent need to understand the threat these policies pose to our society.
There is an urgent need to expose these intentions of the government which are being justified in the name of “radical reforms”. A thorough and painstaking campaign must be waged to explain the dangers which such policies pose to the education sector at large. Also we must wage militant struggles to pressurize the government to commit more resources to the education sector and stop its dilly dallying on our long pending demands and withdraw all plans which seek to further the agenda of centralization and commercialization of education. All such moves like scrapping multiple regulatory bodies like the UGC and AICTE, pushing for common school boards and curriculums, and other regressive provisions in the draft NCHER bill are not only against the interests of the student community, they also constitute an attack on the democratic spirit of unity in diversity of our country. We must resist all these attacks on the very spirit and grain of diversity which the SFI and democratic movements have always upheld and cherished.
Given the larger stakes involved, which pertain to the very character of the education sector there is also an urgent need to mobilize the student community along with other democratic sections in the society against such moves
While the struggles have to be strengthened and radicalized, the SFI also believes that we cannot be oblivious of the events which are unfolding in the world today. Neo-liberalism stands discredited as it is trying to cope up with the biggest capitalist crisis since the great depression of the 1930s. The biggest imperialist power United States is faced with increasing unemployment and economic distress. Countries of Europe are faced with a slump and high levels of unemployment and increasing distress. The governments, caught in the neo-liberal dogma are making things worse for the people by pushing austerity measures and cutting on public spending. Mass protests have erupted in different countries in Europe with millions joining in protest actions. The proposed cutback in spending on education has resulted in massive student protests across Europe. Thousands of students have taken to the streets with the slogan of “NoIfs, No Buts, Say No to Cuts”. The SFI stands in solidarity with all these movements and holds that international solidarity and unity must be built among students fighting against privatization and cut in spending in education.
In our country also we are seeing a sordid tale of crony capitalism unfolding itself. Massive scandals are surfacing indicating the brazen loot and plunder of the country’s resources. Starting from top ministers in the government to bureaucrats and corporate houses everyone has joined in the loot, while the common people are struggling to make their ends meet and being denied basic amenities like food, health and education in the name of dearth of funds by the government. Such large scale corruption has also demolished the moral high ground of neo-liberal proponents who advocated neo-liberalism as a regime being one where there would be “free and fair competition” and free from corruption and malpractices of the “license raj”.
As the canvas of capitalism and imperialism is getting dirtier by the day, owing to the internal contradictions unfolding themselves it is important to mobilize students in a big manner on the streets. Never before in its history has the neo-liberal capitalism been so discredited. But such struggles must be waged with broad solidarity with the working classes. Only a democratic and mass approach can help the progressive forces challenge the powers that are responsible for inflicting misery and destitution on the majority of earth’s population. Any sectarian or anarchist attitude would do more bad than good to the cause.
As SFI has been in the forefront of struggles the attack on our comrades are intensifying throughout the country. In the last few years eight SFI activists have been murdered. They were murdered because they directly challenged the authority of the ruling classes and their agents. Our comrades have been slained. These brilliant flames have been put out. But these six flames like many others earlier have generated hundreds and thousands of sparks that continue to glow with determination. Spreading like wild fire they are conveying the message that we shall advance to a better future and those who are obstructing this will be consumed by the raging torrents of history. Our enemies have succeeded in killing six of our comrades but they cannot kill their ideas. The ideas of Comrade Abhijit Mahato, Partha Biswas, Tilak Tudu, Swapan Koley, A B Bijesh and Anish Rajan remains to be the dominant ideas of most of the campuses in our country. They have proved once again like our innumerable martyrs that Rivers in spate cannot be held back by straws.
The challenging task of organizing and uniting the millions of Indian students who continue to remain outside the ambit of organised student movement awaits us.
Charles Dickens in his celebrated novel – A Tale of Two Cities – had noted `this is the best of times, this is the worst of times; this is the spring of hope; this is the winter of discontent’. We are confident enough that from the very womb of challenges, the process of a forward movement will emerge and carry the glorious legacies of study and struggle and its spearhead – the SFI - forward.