SFI: A Movement of Study, Struggle and Sacrifice For a Scientific, Secular Education : Vikram Singh

THE Students’ Federation of India evolved through decades of ideological struggle and the organisation took the final shape in a four-day conference from December 27 to December 31, 1970 in Thiruvananthapuram. The Programme of the organisations was adopted on the penultimate day of the conference, and hence on December 30 this year SFI will be observing its 44th Foundation Day.

Why I said ideological debate is because after Independence there was a debate regarding the nature of the policies of the ruling class which led to a serious rift in the student movement. After Independence, the new Congress regime adopted a capitalist path of development on the basis of a historic compromise with landlordism and imperialism. As a result of which, neither economic growth nor democracy could have a stable base in the country. In the area of education also there was some progress in post-Independence time but it was limited to a privileged few and large masses were denied of education and the constitutional directive for universal and compulsory primary education remained largely unfulfilled. A section of the student movement insisted on the then Congress regime, thus making the student movement tail the government’s policies. But a section of the movement stressed on the struggles for right of education and better education facilities against the government mobilising common students. This section of the movement which become a symbol of struggles and its strategy gained popularity among students become the leadership of the majority of students of India under the banner of the Students’ Federation of India.

Our Programme explains history of the organisation – “The Students’ Federation of India inherits with pride the anti-imperialist, patriotic, secular, democratic, and progressive legacy of the Indian people’s struggle for national liberation from the British colonial rule. It carries forward the heritage of the progressive student movement of our country, which has always considered itself an inseparable part of the broader struggle for social transformation. It is this legacy that the Students’ Federation of India holds aloft in its slogan of ‘Independence, Democracy, and Socialism’!” Since its inception, SFI is amidst struggles for student rights and better education system on one hand and ideological struggles on the other as the student movement is very prone to both kind of deviation whether it is right extremism or the left adventurism. But it is the legacy of SFI to guide the country’s student movement to a right direction.

Forty-four years after SFI’s formation when we are celebrating our Foundation Day it’s our duty to identify our strengths, weaknesses and our challenges. As far as strategic and ideological line is concerned the history has proved us right. Our slogan of ‘Education for All and Jobs for All’ is still as relevant as when it was coined. Here we will concentrate only on one of the aim of the organisation narrated in our programme. Our Programme says, “The Students’ Federation of India fights for the realisation of its aim to establish a democratic, scientific, secular and progressive educational system ensuring education and jobs for all that calls for the implementation of comprehensive land reforms, elimination of the stranglehold of international finance capital and indigenous monopoly capitalism. The Students’ Federation of India aims to accomplish this by organising the student community in the struggles of the wider democratic movement of the workers, peasants, and other progressive forces”. If we analyse this objective we can identify the present challenges of the education system and direction of the student movement.

Education and Jobs for All

The slogan of “Education for All, Jobs for All” found a strong appeal with the student masses of the country, rallying them to the fold of the movement and the organisation and still has the same importance. This is because after six decades of Independence, the situation of India has not changed much. Even after continuous people’s struggles and enactment of the Right to Education (RTE) Act, millions of students still remain away from the sphere of education. Even minimum requirements of RTE have not been achieved even if we leave aside its limitations. The RTE Act had a number of requirements such as teacher-pupil ratio, teacher strength and infrastructure, which were to be achieved by March 31, 2013 but almost all of these couldn’t be achieved due to the government’s unwillingness to increase the public spending. A report in 2012 had estimated that more than 95 percent schools in the country don’t match the standards set by the RTE Act. Although enrolments have increased there is an increase in the enrolment to 96 percent for children in the age group of 6-14 years. But high drop-out rates is a problem that illustrates the ongoing inefficiencies in the system. While around 27 per cent children drop out in grade V, around 41 per cent of students drop out in grade VIII. Census data suggests that up to eight crore children are out of school (GOI, 2013).

In all these years there is massive privatisation of education and interestingly the pace of privatisation has increased even after implementation of the RTE Act. In 2005, all India rural private school enrolment was 17 percent, which rose to 29 percent in 2013. Apart from expenditure on private schools, the expenditure on private tuitions has also increased. This clearly shows the deteriorating condition of school education in the country. The situation can be understood only by the vacant posts of teachers in primary and upper primary schools, where 12.59 lakh teachers’ posts are vacant.

The story is same in the higher education sector where even more rapid privatisation and profit making is happening. India’s gross enrolment rate (GER) in higher education is 19.4 percent which is below the world average of 29 percent (as of 2010). There is an increase in the number of institutions of higher education. From 26 universities and 695 colleges at the time of Independence, we have grown to 700 universities and 35,53,912 colleges today. This is a 20-fold and 46-fold increase in the number of universities and colleges, respectively. However, as the low GER very aptly indicates, increase in the number of institutions has still remained inadequate to meet the increased demand for higher education.

There is huge faculty crunch in all the universities. Forty-two central universities with sanctioned faculty strength of 16,602 have 6,542 vacancies. Same is the case of other institutions. Fifteen IITs have 1,611 vacancies against the total strength of 5,092 faculty positions, Thirteen IIMs have to fill 111 vacancies out of 638 positions, Four Indian Institutes of Information Technology have almost 50 percent vacancy as 104 out of 224 positions are vacant, National Institutes of Technology across 30 states have 1,487 vacant of the total 4,291 positions. Even less than a decade-old Indian Institutes of Science Education & Research with five branches has been afflicted with faculty crunch - 131 vacancies out of the total strength of 518. The student-teacher ratio in India (24:1) (including IIT/IIM) is very low as compared to other countries, 9.5:1 in Sweden; and 13.6:1 in the United States. Consequently, the culture of questioning and reasoning cannot be inculcated as a part of most of universities.

With respect to GER in public, private and private unaided institutions, estimates from the NSSO highlight that 46 percent is in the public space, while over 50 percent is in the private (aided & unaided) space. While private players do bring investments in higher education, there is always the danger of dilution of quality and over-commercialisation of education. It is important to note that the higher education system in India is more privatised compared to other capitalist or market economies, for instance, the US, the UK, Canada and Australia. In the US, one-fifth to one-fourth of the total number of students in higher education, and about 30 percent of the global enrolment in higher education, are in private institutions; the remaining students go to public universities. On average, only 15 percent of the enrolments in the tertiary education system in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, and a meagre eight percent in the countries of the EU, are enrolled in independent private institutions, with a vast majority everywhere studying in the public sector. In contrast, in India, 66 percent of students in general education and 75-80 percent in technical education are enrolled in private, self-financing institutions (Planning Commission document, 2013). Higher educational institutions in the country are increasing financial burden on students. This has been mainly due to fee hike and reduced funding for higher education. Students are increasingly being made to bear the burden of rising costs of education and stagnant scholarships/fellowships. Due to rampant privatisation and inadequate public sector most of the potential youth is not able to get the strength of higher education.

India is one of the youngest nations with potential human resource available. According to International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates, by 2020 India will have 116 million workers in the age group of 20-24 years as against 94 million in China. In addition to this, the average age of Indian population by 2020 will be 29 while many developed countries will be in early or late 40s. To take advantage of the large human resource (indeed, to prevent socio-economic complications arising out of a large unemployable young population), this massive workforce would need to be gainfully employed. But employment for all is still far away from imagination. Policies adopted by successive governments resulted in jobless growth. Same trend still continues. ILO has said in its recent report that the unemployment scenario in India over the last two years has been showing a rising trend. If we analyse the unemployment trend of last three years only we will find that unemployment rate in India is showing an increasing trend since 2011 when it was 3.5 percent. The same rose to 3.6 percent in 2012 and climbed to 3.7 percent last year. This year, jobless rate is expected to rise to 3.8 percent, according to the report 'Global Employment Trends 2014'.

The biggest worry is the growing informal employment which counts for 94 per cent of the workforce and is growing faster than formal employment. According to the ILO report only 21.2 percent of working men (aged 15-59) had a regular salaried job (in 2011/12 period). The unemployment rate is also very high among educated youths of India. According to Labour Bureau's “Third Annual Employment & Unemployment Survey 2012-13”, one out of three graduates is unemployed in India. In spite of all its limitations and corruption, MGNREGA is giving some relief to the unemployed youths but the BJP government is trying to subjugate it. So the slogan of ‘Education for All, Jobs for All’ has to be championed among students.
Democratic, Scientific, Secular and
Progressive Educational System
This objective has always attracted me personally. To ensure a democratic, scientific, secular and progressive educational system is our aim. These words ‘democratic’, ‘scientific’, ‘secular’ and ‘progressive’ are very important and should be understood in totality. In the present scenario when the NDA government led by RSS is doing all sort of ‘Manuvadi’ and ‘Hinduvadi’ experiments with education, these words become all the more important.

The education system should be democratic in the sense that participation of students, teachers, parents and community should be there in teaching-learning process and the teaching-learning process should encourage democratic values among students. But Indian education system runs only on the principle of pass percentage and grades. Mechanical cramming is there to gain high scores in this age of cut-throat competition. Intersects and potentials of the students don’t have any role to play. Nowadays even choice of courses is done on the basis of its market value but not on the interest of student. A big coaching industry is growing which ensures high percentage, admissions and success in competitive exams. In this market-run economy, parents are seen only as source of fees and they have only this limited role to play. Even in government schools assessment of teachers is done on the basis of merits and teachers are also involved in innovations to improve pass percentage, instead of innovations related teaching methodologies.

Meaning of ‘scientific education’ is to inculcate a scientific outlook and values among students to encounter the real life situation. But this aspect has always been ignored in our schools and higher education. Interestingly on many instances teachers and our educational leaders encourage unscientific attitude. When we are teaching a student that moon is satellite of earth and at the same time encouraging him to celebrate ‘Karva Chauth’ or inspire them to pray to god for good results from where this scientific attitude will develop. There have been efforts to introduce astrology as a science and the present government is also working on this aspect. When our Prime Minister is saying that Ganesha is creation of surgery and Karna of genetics and the same PM is addressing schoolstudents on various national days, how these growing minds can understand scientific values.

There are various incidences of caste discrimination in our schools and on many instances teachers are involved in these incidences. Recent incident of Rajasthan is still fresh in our minds. When students are witnessing all this feudal values in their families and schools how progressive education can be ensured. We are teaching them caste discrimination, gender bias, area biasness, colour discrimination, etc and hoping to develop a progressive society which can solve problems of inequality of our society!

There was a discussion in Parliament on the ownership of ‘Taj’- the symbol of love. Love doesn’t have any religion. And people, our MPs are claiming that it belongs to the Hindu community. There is an advocacy to teach part of the Gita in all classes and recently to declare it as a national holly book. Persons like Dinanath Batra are deciding the syllabus of our kids, which will be telling them that all Muslims residing in Hindustan are Hindu. In this scenario, how we can hope that education is imparting secular values to the younger generation. In the last six months, a series of developments are there which can be cited here but it will take space of another full article.

To conclude the objective of SFI to ensure democratic, scientific, secular and progressive educational system is very important to build an India which can resolve problems of all type of discrimination and feudal values. Only the citizens having democratic, scientific, secular and progressive values can lead to an egalitarian society and can contribute to national development. Mere beating the drums of glory of our past can’t serve the purpose.

SFI is always in struggles to achieve these objectives. Be it the attacks on education system or the attack on the national integrity out brave soldiers are in the forefront in the struggles. Our history is the history of sacrifices. It is only SFI, whose leaders are martyred in struggles of students in independent India. We dare to call upon our enemy after each sacrifice ‘you can kill our comrades but you can’t kill our ideas’. But a lot has to be done.

With the changes in the political and economic scenarios, challenges of student movement are also changing. It’s duty of our brave comrades to analyse the concrete condition and prepare for new struggles with new approach. With a government at the Centre which is committed to make big changes not only to further commercialise education but to communalise it also, then its need of the time to do extra efforts to organise students in campuses, where more aggressive attacks will be there on democratic rights of students. We hope on this 30th December, when we celebrate the Foundation Day of this progressive student movement full of sacrifices, we will take a vow to carry forward the legacy of study and struggle in all campuses across the length and breadth of the country.