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NEP 'fails' to answer: Why is there higher school dropout among Dalits, tribals, girls?

By Martin Macwan*
The opening line of New Education Policy (NEP) 2020 says, “Education is fundamental for achieving full human potential, developing an equitable and just society, and promoting national development”. A positive statement, though not clearly articulated, it agrees that India is still at a distance from developing an equitable and just society.
Unfortunately, NEP, a 62-page document, does not attempt a critical analysis of the present status of education, which alone could be the basis for planning interventions in India. This is like presenting a budget without an economic survey!
No doubt, the Constitution of India attached importance to education. Article 46 of the Constitution, in the Directive Principles of State Policy, says: “The state shall promote with special care the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people and, in particular, of the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and the Scheduled Tribes (STs) and shall protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation”.
This article was adopted without discussion in the Constituent Assembly, barring a single suggestion on November 23, 1948, which reflects unanimous agreement of the reality and the need to ensure a programme of protection against social injustice.
The UNICEF report on out-of-school children in South Asia, 2014, finds that the number of children out-of-school of primary and lower secondary schools in India is 11.9 million. In rural India, older girls are more likely to be excluded than older boys. Girls in rural areas, particularly those from SCs and STs, also have higher rates of exclusion.
The study also finds that, in India, school exclusion is considerably more prevalent among Muslim children, and among older children from socially disadvantaged groups. The average rate of exclusion for primary school-age children for SCs is 5.6 per cent and for STs it is 5.3 per cent compared to the national average of 3.6 per cent. Girls from SCs have the highest rates of exclusion at 6.1 per cent. The study estimates 12% children are child labourers.
While NEP does not present detailed analysis of ground reality such as this, it does mention that “the data for later Grades indicates some serious issues in retaining children in the schooling system. The Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) for grades 6-8 was 90.9%, while for Grades 9-10 and 11-12 it was only 79.3% and 56.5%, respectively.”
It agrees, this suggests “a significant proportion of enrolled students drop out after Grade 5, and especially after Grade 8. As per the 75th round household survey by the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) in 2017-18, the number of out of school children in the age group of 6 to 17 years is 3.22 crore” (3:1; page 10).
However, NEP fails to take into account the fact that both UNICEF and NSSO also bring forth social divide in the context of education, which is found in other sectors such as income, landholding, wages, employment etc.
Indeed, NEP sounds hollow about its final goals in the absence of raising basic questions such as: Who are these children that drop out? Why do they drop out? What social groups these children belong to? How many of these are girls? This apart, there are serious questions related to analysing the quality of education within this framework.
Importantly, NEP consciously avoids naming backwardness based on social indicators such as caste, tribe and gender. It also does not mention religious indicators. This despite the fact that India is confronted with these social realities. Critical analysis requires naming of problems, especially because this is not the first education policy of India after Independence. Rather, this is the first education policy of the 21st century, as the document self-introduces (page: 3).
No doubt, the policy says: “The new education policy must provide to all students, irrespective of their place of residence, a quality education system, with particular focus on historically marginalized, disadvantaged and underrepresented groups” (page 4). However, the policy consciously avoids to be specific. How can policy goals be achieved without accurately naming the areas of challenge?
NEP claims to have a noble aim. It says: “The purpose of the education system is to develop good human beings capable of rational thought and action, possessing compassion and empathy, courage and resilience, scientific temper and creative imagination, with sound ethical moorings and values. It aims at producing engaged, productive and contributing citizens for building an equitable, inclusive and plural society as envisaged by our constitution” (pages 4-5).
There is nothing to disagree here. However, the fact is, debates, diverse views, critiques, alternative studies, and raising questions are the preconditions for the mind to develop a scientific temper. But for this to happen, educational institutions will have to develop tolerant conditions in campuses.
Recent experience, especially after the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was introduced, or abrogation of Article 370, suggests the manner in which we tried to handle intellectual discourse in our educational institutions. This is equally true about how we as a country have tried to handle tension around reservation in higher educational institutions.
Takshashila and Nalanda witnessed intense struggle against socio-religious forces which wanted learning to be enslaved in the boundaries of caste and class
Without conducive, democratic conditions, noblest ideals turn meaningless, as has happened in the case of abolition of untouchability or manual scavenging in spite of having the best of laws and required constitutional guarantees.
It is perplexing that NEP aims to be a ‘vishwa guru’, seeking to invest in intellectual capital by resorting to India’s cultural past. It says:
“The rich heritage of ancient and eternal Indian knowledge and thought has been guiding light for this policy. The pursuit of knowledge (jnan), wisdom (pragyaa) and truth (satya) was always considered in Indian thought and philosophy as the highest human goal.
“The aim of education in ancient India was not just the acquisition of knowledge as preparation for the life in this world, or life beyond schooling, but for the complete realization and liberation of the self…
“The Indian education system produced great scholars such as Charaka, Susruta, Aryabhata, Varahmihira, Bhaskaracharya, Brahmagupta, Chanakya, Chakrapani Datta, Madhava, Panini, Patanjali, Nagarjuna, Gautama, Pingala, Sankardev, Maitreyi, Gargi and Thiruvalluvar among numerous others.”

Of the 18 scholars, luckily, two in the list are women. In ancient times, women did not have the right to learn, just as the Dalits, the Tribroals or the Sudras. It is natural not to find Dalit-Tribal-Sudra scholars in the list.
The quest for scientific temper would require constant learning, mutual learning and relevant research. No knowledge can be held ‘eternal’, as can be seen from how the best of the scientific minds are struggling to contain coronavirus with a vaccination, an uphill task due to challenging pattern of virus mutation.
While traditional knowledge does have a prominent place in history, to propagate it as ‘eternal’ would make the journey to the 21st century more difficult and limit it to being ‘swadeshi’. Is it difficult to understand whether we have faith in the striking capabilities of the Rafael Jets or the chilly and lemon that we tie around it?
Knowledge is always all-encompassing, inclusive and empowering. As NEP mentions, “World-class institutions of ancient India such as Takshashila, Nalanda, Vikramshila, Vallabhi, set the highest standards of multidisciplinary teaching and research and hosted scholars and students from across backgrounds and countries.”
These institutions flourished primarily because they drew inspiration from the teachings of Lord Buddha, the great revolutionary teacher of the time who liberated knowledge from the confinements of caste and gender. Learning was mutual, bereft of proprietorship, and it found spirituality across faiths.
Before these institutions collapsed, they witnessed intense struggle against socio-religious forces of the region which wanted learning to be enslaved in the boundaries of caste and class. The destruction of these great institutes by power hungry political forces and expansionists, Muslim or others, should have been recalled in NEP.
What is missing in the NEP 2020 is the debate in India on education since ancient times. There is no mention of the Zakir Hussein committee. Nor is there any mention about the most revolutionary work on education, especially its access to women and Sudras, by Jyotiba and Savitri Phule.
It ignores contribution in the arena of education by exemplary kings such as Sahu Maharaj and Sayajirao Gaekwad. There are many other scholars whose contribution can help us learn to plan for the future. Being selective can only strengthen subjectivity, pushing ‘plurality’ to merely symbolism.
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*Founder Navsarjan Trust, Ahmedabad. An earlier version of this article was first published in counterview.org

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