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28 June 2009

Kapil Sibal Loves To Be News

Otherwise, there is little that has merit in his hastily proposed new education policy
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Surajit Dasgupta
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The then Science & Technology and Ocean Development (ST&OD) Minister, now the Minister for Human Resource Development, Kapil Sibal unknowingly made my transition from a teacher to a journalist a smooth affair. Hardly three days into what was then my new vocation, as I was still asking my colleagues for tips on journalism, came an invite from the ST&OD Ministry in The Statesman office. The subject matter for the press conference to be held at, no prizes for guessing, Shastri Bhawan, seemed inconsequential. So much so, I am unable to recall the subject now. When I asked my boss if it was needed that I be there, he asked me to hang around in the corridors of the Press Information Bureau nevertheless... to develop some contacts if for nothing else.

With little pathbreaking research happening in India, and with a discovery or invention happening in Delhi making the rarest of rare cases, reporting in the science beat for a Delhi-based journalist is boring. Kapil Sibal made it banal and comical.

There would be at least two press conferences every week, if not more. After most such conferences, the whole bunch of journalists would leave, wondering what to report from the proceedings. Once he called us to discuss biotechnology but, quite unmindful of the astonishment writ large on our faces, spoke at length on his visit to some member nations of the CIS; how beautiful the streets of Belarus were, how India missed the opportunity of hiring Georgian civil engineers cheap when the Soviet Union disintegrated, etc.

The only press conference that was charged up and was hence newsworthy was the one called just four days after the 26 December 2004 tsunami, in response to a hoax threat of yet another tsunami, issued by a Portland-based firm called Terra Research on 30 December. The firm had claimed to have predicted an earthquake in the Pacific region which, in turn, could cause another tsunami. The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), having received the message from Terra Research, passed it on to the ST&OD Ministry. The ministry sought confirmation of the 'threat' from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) branch office in the US. The ISRO told the ministry that Terra Research stood by its report. The Home Ministry's Disaster Management Cell was then informed of the possible eventuality. It was quite early in the morning. The cell raised an alarm, alerting the chief secretaries of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry, Kerala, Lakshadweep and Andaman & Nicobar Islands. It was only after issuing the alert that the two ministries met at about 11:15 am where earth scientist and cabinet secretary Harsh Gupta said there was no science known yet that could predict an earthquake and that tsunami could happen only due to tectonic shifts. Meanwhile, Terra Research conceded its technology of 'earthquake prediction' was not perfect!

When journalists cornered Sibal, flanked that day by science stalwarts like Gupta and RA Mashelkar [then Director General of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)], both of whom strangely chose to remain silent during the press conference, the minister first lost his sense of weight an uttered word of a government functionary carries. He called the prediction of earthquake "hogwash", forgetting that it was another ministry of the same government which he represented that had raised the alarm. When journalists asked why there was lack of coordination between two wings of his government, Sibal lost his temper. He thundered at the assembled scribes, "To understand what I say, you must be a science journalist!" Curiously, that evening in that hall in Shastri Bhawan, it was he who was the odd man out as a lawyer by education and past profession; most journalists were indeed from the science beat.

Barring the instance above, if Sibal's enthusiasm and penchant for thinking aloud were to be set aside, nothing else announced in his press conferences would be news. For, nothing was concrete. They were all proposals. And so is his announcement that Class X Board examinations will be scrapped: a proposal.

An invariable, repeat performance by Sibal in all the places he took our journalists' junket to, deserves a mention before the introductory section of this article is concluded. Whenever there was an inauguration of a new science facility, rising to speak on the occasion after all scientists in the panel had spoken, the minister would say, "I couldn't quite make out what these learned gentlemen said. But this is what I think about this issue." This man is now 'thinking' about our education system.

The easier a computer application is for the end users to handle, the more difficult it is for the software engineers to programme it. In all spheres of life, similarly, it is difficult to turn a difficult concept easy. It is much easier to do away with it. That is what the minister of HRD has proposed to do with his announcement of the scrapping of the Class X Board exams for students who don't need it or don't want it. This act of dropping what appears difficult does not need second thoughts; it does not need deep thinking; it does not need research. There may be a hundred administrative things the new UPA Government needs to do in its first 100 days to show its noble intentions to perform. Why should fiddling with the prevalent education system, one of the trickiest of propositions, be one of them?

Yes, the Indian education system needs reform. But in no way can it be accomplished in haste. And there are ample indications that Sibal's interview with The Indian Express was given in a hurry. The Class X Board exam, in fact, is the least of a teenage student's worries; the test is, broadly speaking, just a quiz on the student's general knowledge. In physics, for example, putting values in the equation F = ma, derived from Newton's Second Law of Motion that states that the force experienced by a body is directly proportional to the acceleration given to it, can hardly be called difficult. In chemistry, the path of an electron around the nucleus is shown to be as easy to follow as the orbit of a planet in the solar system, with the difference being that the electronic path is shown as circular while the planetary one is elliptical (orbit in chemistry is a wrong concept, replaced by the idea of an orbital in Class XI, but that will come later). In mathematics, every figure is simply two-dimensional. In history, what is taught in the lessons on the two World Wars and India's struggle for independence is just a bit more than what most people discuss about these affairs at home. In English, these days, there are no essays to be written; most responses solicited by the exam paper are single sentence answers, which explains how students have been managing to score above 90% in the subject for the past 15 years.

It is the Class XII exam, laden with technically heady stuff, that makes students tense a lot more. So, identifying the former as a 'traumatic' experience certainly lacked research.

No minister or educator seems to be thinking about the huge leap one has to take after Class X in the science stream. The mathematics, physics and chemistry taught at the higher secondary level have hardly got any link with what is taught in the first ten years in school. In fact, a whole lot of concepts are discarded outright. There is no gradual process of introducing any module, be it calculus, vector analysis or three dimensional geometry. Neil Bohr's theory goes for a toss in physical chemistry, almost all the 108 elements are present in the inorganic chemistry syllabus while the organic chemistry part has a dozen new types of isomerism and scores of new techniques to be learnt for IUPAC nomenclature. In physics, they use calculus — which students have yet to master as it is their first year of learning this lesson in mathematics — in derivations and solving of numerical problems.

Even the best physics textbooks available in the market for the +2 level are not good enough. Chemistry textbooks clearly show that their contents are copied from each other. Mathematics is the only subject in which some authors are fast catching up with the current GCSE standard (conceiving a problem from every possible angle). American school standard (making all sums intelligible to even the weakest student in the class) is still a far cry.

Therefore, if the little stress that is exerted on a 15-year-old by the Class X exam is eased off, it must be compensated through a link course to initiate the student to the tougher concepts that await him/her in the next two years. Life is not a cakewalk, and one who is 15 is old enough to take this lesson.

Educators and political heads must also do some introspection on what this proclivity to make everything user-friendly has done to our new generation. For one, one-word answers in English have killed the art of articulation and the red, crooked underlines of MSWord beneath wrongly spelt words have ensured that today's generation has developed a horrendous sense of orthography; they are handicapped without a software-aided 'spell check'. No child writes a letter to his/her granny now. For, the child cannot write with a pen and the granny cannot log on to a PC. And Hindi, which foreigners think is India's national language, is actually dead in India; it's true at least for the written form of the language. If not dead, Hindi has metamorphosed beyond recognition, affecting English as well. In any event, those who scored 65% in English and Hindi in the 1980s or before have a better command over languages than those who score 95% in the same subjects today.

Next come the political and administrative aspects of the proposal. On 28 June, Prof Yash Pal clarified that Sibal's proposals were not entirely based on the findings of the committee on the National Curriculum Framework (2005), which the professor had headed. Getting rid of the respective state education boards was not his idea. Here, however, it is difficult to support either the minister or the professor entirely. On the one hand, it is true that a migrating student finds it difficult to be accepted in a university that considers the secondary education board in its own state superior; a classic case is that of the University of Calcutta that deducts up to 20% marks of Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) students while comparing them with those of West Bengal Council of Higher Secondary Education (WBCHSE). On the other, it is not necessary that a country appear like a monolith in terms of education. For example, there is no such thing as a British standard of university education. Oxford University and Cambridge University have their own respective standards. Similarly, there is a Harvard University standard and there is an MIT standard; there is no yardstick typical of the United States. Now, when it comes to high schools, should equivalent, distinct standards remain? Put bluntly, should a high school graduate from Punjab be considered to have undergone less intellectual rigour than his counterpart from Chennai? Put all the more bluntly, does a Bengal-bred Bengali have a right to snigger at the education of a Punjab-bred Punjabi? Also to be questioned is the parameter. On what precise calculations does the University of Calcutta, for example, decide that a CBSE student's 90% is equivalent to a WBCHSE student's 70%?

That is to say that if the distinguishable characters of the various regions of India must reflect in the mark sheets of students hailing from the respective regions, then Prof Yash Pal's objection is in place. But if Sibal's intention is to rein in the arbitrary conduct of certain universities, it is a noble intention indeed. In fact, I would support Sibal more in this regard. The importance of maintaining certain disparities in the system in the name of preserving regional culture and aspirations is overhyped; it's an indulgence of the pseudo-intellectual. A comparable habitual behaviour is of those social activists who argue against urbanisation in the name of preserving village art and culture. It cannot be helped but noted that the bourgeoisie actually fear the idea of having to compete with rustic folks for such resources of the country that are at present out of the poor man's reach. One wonders why scientist Yash Pal, a student of a definitive subject like physics, is speaking like an 'expert' on sociology, a subject of abstractions, on this issue.

Then there are school management issues involved. Once Sibal clarified that the Class X exams will be optional and not dropped altogether, the question of how one school will assess students of another has been put to rest. But admission to Class XI without a central agency evaluating the merit of the student in question is still not going to be as trouble-free as the minister would have us believe. When at the press conference, which succeeded his announcement of scrapping the Class X Board exams to The Indian Express, Sibal agreed that he needed to talk to the states to arrive at a consensus, the question arose: What kind of politics is making a virtual proclammation first and negotiating its terms later?

Ascertaining the trouble awaiting the proposed system, one notes that in terms of behaviour of different high schools, they may be classified under two broad categories: those that behave like a family each, comprising about two dozen teachers and 2000 students, and those that put a premium on performance that is assessed on nothing but percentages scored by students in annual written exams. A school of the second kind wants to sell its students' mark sheets as the level of performance of its own to grow richer in the market of admissions. If the school is of the first type, it can be presumed that, without appearing for the Class X Boards, most students will turn up at the principal's cabin, cutting a sorry or silly face, and the school administration will oblige on the premise of a 10-year-old relationship with all those students, admitting all its Class X students in Class XI. If it so happens, where will there be vacancy for students from other schools? If the school is of the second type, the predicament of students not so good at academics will remain. A student scoring 60% — or Grade D of the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) — in the school's internal assessment tests will be disowned by the institute where he/she spent the last 10 or 12 years, on the one hand, and not embraced by a school to which he/she is both an 'alien' and 'non-performer', on the other. The revocation of Class X Board exams does not address this issue.

Finally, our society must be taken to task. This is something both a politician and a journalist are wary of doing. The first is worried about angering his constituency; the second is concerned about piquing his readership; hence, neither criticises the people.

What is all this talk of 'trauma' about? Who is causing it? "The system" is an over-simplistic answer. The careers Indian parents have traditionally pushed their children into have never actually been as rewarding and guaranteed on a mass scale as they were made out to be. Let me not begin a moralistic lecture that one must enjoy learning and not scurry for higher scores in written exams; for, no one will take it with the seriousness it deserves. Let me rather point out how 'unpaying' some of the most celebrated and seemingly assured professions are.

Till some 20 years ago, India was obsessed with doctors and engineers followed closely by IAS officers. Specially gifted children, who showed promise in the fields of art and sport, were told that there was no guarantee of success if you aspired to be a singer, painter or athlete, and that academics would at least ensure a clerical job; you wouldn't be unemployed. There used to be a halo around the heads of doctors, engineers and IAS officers not because they contributed immensely to the growth of the nation but because a certain above ordinary lifestyle was associated with these professions.

If researched, that notion would prove a myth. If most painters are failures, so are most doctors. Nobody calls an MBBS graduate a specialist. One among thousands of MDs in a given city is known in the neighbourhoods outside the one he lives in. If most singers are unknown, so are most engineers. For 15 to 20 years, mechanical, electrical and civil engineers must slog in the remotest of villages, for infrastructure is left to be developed more in rural areas than in the urban ones. If most athletes never make it beyond state-level meets, most civil servants too lead depressed lives in their formative years, trying to make a mark in vain while posted in little known blocks and tehsils, not cities. And everywhere, less educated heads would boss over them. So where is the high life parents thought their children would lead on becoming doctors, engineers or IAS officers? If this is called the age of the MBAs, their collective fate is a gross disappointment too. Like most Indians practising various professions in India, MBAs have hardly innovated and given business new directions in the country. Every other year, when Indians come to know of a new business model, it turns out to be an import from the West. Having observed this for more than a decade, most companies are now disillusioned with MBAs, unless the degree is polished further by years of experience and a track record of considerable performance.

Most importantly, Class X or Class XII marks have little significance in the pursuit of medicine, engineering, civil services and business administration as the colleges where you are trained in these respective fields admit you on the basis of your performance in entrance exams, not on the basis of how much you scored while graduating from school.

Therefore, marks are important only insofar as admission to university is concerned. Here, the highest in demand is the commerce stream. Why commerce? Because science loses its charm for an Indian after he fails to get through the JEE or the Pre-Medical Test, and there is not much scope of research in India that a BSc and an MSc equips you for. As for the humanities, the notion than an MA is good for nothing other than becoming a teacher in some school still holds ground. Young aspirants and their parents rarely conduct a market research to know the variety of options available to those who hold MSc and MA degrees.

Now for commerce, how many achievers can one count even in this field? Why do people not get discouraged by the meagre percentage of candidates who pass the CA exam or even the one that selects cost accountants? Other than chartered accountants and cost accountants, where is the good life that ordinary accountants working with millions of prominent as well as small-time firms lead? And, therefore, why to obsess with marks even for commerce?

A comparative study of every Indian’s education and the subsequent profession he got into will most probably reveal that those who were mediocre in academics later became more successful than those who had beaten them by handsome margins in every subject at school! Moreover, as said earlier in this article, a less educated vice president will boss over more educated managers and executives in office, and that will be a psychological disaster for the latter.

When will typical Indian parents stop being typical? When will they look around to realise the changed truth? When will they behave normally with children who are not achievers in academics? When will they be normal also to children who score in their 90s and stop pushing them to score as close to 100% as possible? When will they see that there is a life, which can be made brilliant, that exists after one is denied admission to St Stephen's College of Delhi or the Presidency College of Kolkata? When will the parents, under-achievers in academics that most of them are, learn from their own lives? When they will, disconcerting news of some exam-distressed students committing suicide every year will stop pouring in.

It follows finally that much needs to be done in a number of areas in education.

  • Class XI science comes as a bolt from the blue; make the graduation from Class X to Class XI a smooth process, aided by a link course. If another year cannot be added to academics in this large country of people impatient for jobs, then rewrite the syllabi of both Class IX and Class X; make them tougher so that Class XI appears easier.

  • Explain to the country why doing an MSc or an MA makes sense; make well-paid research jobs in the subjects of physics, chemistry, astronomy, zoology, botany, economics, history, archaeology, anthropology, linguistics, etc prominently visible with the help of the media. Increase the number of research jobs too; much of what is taught to us in universities is more than 40-year-old archaic, obsolete education.

  • Recruit professionals from various fields not only as teachers but also as textbook writers; there has got to be a connection between school education and real life.

  • In the long run, do away with textbooks; they are making less and less sense when little children too have access to the Internet; the teachers may just tell them which websites are reliable sources of information.

  • Open more credible centres to impart education on fine and performing arts for budding talents; at the moment, the gathering of students from all over the country at New Delhi's art schools raises the question why they could not be provided with equally good schools in the respective states from which they hail.

  • Make the job of a school teacher a respectable option of employment for those who love the idea of learning and imparting education; it's time children stopped being tutored by wives of affluent men, for whom the salary from school serves as pocket money.

  • Let the government not rush with the sanctioning of private universities. They are yet to emerge as a credible alternative to state-funded autonomous universities.


The efficacy and sanctity of private universities is a related debate. Pro-market journalists — I am one of them, almost — cannot deny that capitalism does not work to its full potential in domains where there cannot be direct competition between the players.
If a situation like this were possible, say, I join a Private University X, complete a semester and don't find it satisfactory, I have the option of getting direct admission to another Private University Y in its second semester, only then will private players feel the need to pull up their socks. But this model will have a hell lot of administrative issues and, hence, it cannot be implemented.

Also, if a capitalist works only for profit, what profit is left to be extracted from you after you have paid the whole non-refundable fee upfront? One may say, well, a capitalist cannot afford bad word of mouth for his business. But how many businessmen, particularly Indian businessmen, work with such foresight and not eye quick and easy money?

When it comes to education and health, we must trust the government despite all its ills. If a government clerk does not give me good services and products in other fields because he earns nothing from it (unless bribed), then for the same reason, I shall pass or fail an exam based on my performance alone, as passing me or failing me will not turn the government university or the examiner appointed by the state or the clerk passing my papers richer or poorer. In contrast, if I fail a semester in a private university, and if I happen to be rich, I can stuff a big wad of currency notes in the mouth of the university’s owner and laugh my way to the next semester. This is no hypothesis. This writer has both first hand and second hand information of private education institutes where students have passed several stages of a course not by virtue of merit but that of money.

Back to the central topic, all prescriptions that have been sent to the Ministry of Human Resource Development by Prof Yash Pal Committee and the National Knowledge Commission and those that are reaching the ministry through newspaper columns, television talk shows and blogs must go through more meticulous research and feasibility tests before being implemented. But nothing can be less sensible than the idea that "easy" means "getting rid of the difficult", which is what Kapil Sibal has proposed. Revamping of the Indian education system cannot be accomplished in 100 days.

What is worrisome is the post-1950 history of the party that heads today's government. It is notorious for proposing — and then adamantly sticking forever to — quick fix solutions to some of the most complex problems this country has faced. Virtually permanent reservations guaranteed to SCs, STs and OBCs in education and employment — instead of detailed affirmative actions aimed to uplift specific underprivileged candidates — to address the caste issue is a glaring example. One hopes the Congress does not take congratulatory coverage by a section of the media for public opinion in the case of secondary education.

It must go as a caveat that when Rajiv Gandhi had forced on the whole country the 10+2+3 system under the package called National System of Education, 1986, furthering the 1968 National Policy on Education, some newspapers had hailed the step as a "revolutionary" measure to step out of the outdated British education system on which the Indian system was modelled. Overnight, a new chapter was introduced in social studies to sing paeans to Rajiv's ‘vision’ (though it was not the conception but only the political will to execute the idea that he could be credited with). This writer remembers his class being asked to write an essay in Hindi — CBSE had long dropped essays from its English syllabus — justifying what was then a new system. As I was writing the essay that day, I was wondering what was so revolutionary about the then prime minister's idea. More than 20 years ever since, I still do not have the answer.

Mercifully, the scrapping of the Class X Board exams is not a vote-catching proposition. Nor is India anymore the country of Doordarshan, All India Radio and a teaching class that collectively patronises the Congress. Any idea that originates from New Delhi is more difficult to be sold to the whole country now. Hence, better sense is more likely to prevail.

When Kapil Sibal indulged in a soliloquy on 25 June, saying he would do away with Class X Board examination, The Indian Express's decision to carry the 'news' as the day's Page 1 flier was a case of the news editor's overzeal. The minister in question has a habit of thinking aloud. Like science journalists did between 2004 and 2009, journalists in the HRD beat will realise this soon and not rush to follow up such pronouncements.

In November 2004, as the then ST&OD minister, Sibal had told me that "soon" the country would have the technology and a law in place for real-time recording of an accused's confessions in front of senior policemen, which would be admissible in a court of law. Should I have taken him seriously? Should I have filed it as a story on coming back to office? Would The Statesman have made it a Page 1 flier?

The writer is a journalist, maths teacher and linguist

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Surajit Dasgupta treats no individual, organisation or institution as a holy cow.