Friday, August 29, 2014

Felling the Straw Man

Having grown up on stories of Bunker Roy’s admirable work in Tilonia, I was distressed to read his article, “The Barefoot Government”. If this inconsistent, empirically flawed argument is any example of the kind of thinking he wants our educational system to encourage, there is something ‘dreadfully wrong’ with his proposed reforms.

To begin with, he sets up a straw man to attack – the “foreign returned degree-wallah” in the previous UPA government, whom he blames for all of India’s anti-poor policies, and in particular, for “almost strangling NREGA”. If he wanted to, why not just attack the troika of Manmohan Singh, Chidambaram and Montek Singh Ahluwahlia, instead of clothing it in an impossibly generalized argument?  The most elementary reflection on the origins and formulation of NREGA would have shown the leading hand of the not just foreign-educated, but foreign-born economist, Jean Dreze, as well as the role of the foreign-born Sonia Gandhi in pushing it through. There are also any number of foreign-resident scholars like David Shulman or David Lelyveld to name just two, who know Indian history, languages and culture much better than the Indian born and Indian educated “graduates who roam the streets of small town and cities by the thousands… and who practice the worst forms of cruelty, slavery and crimes against humanity.” This latter description covers not just past ministers but includes ministers of this government who have been accused of enabling communal carnage. So, the issue then is not where one is born or where one is educated, but what attitude one has towards the rest of society. It is true that the way certain disciplines like economics and political science are headed, with their over reliance on number crunching and faith in the free market, is likely to produce people ignorant of society (not just Indian society but any society). However, to blame the disciplines would itself be too broad a generalization. There is a struggle that needs to be waged over what should be taught and how, and this needs to be fought not just from outside but within the academy. Education does need to be responsive to society – not only to its immediate need for jobs, but also its long term need for critical thinking, innovation and beauty. Whole-scale uneducated attacks that do not recognize this knife-edge function, hardly help.

Roy’s diatribe against Vice-Chancellors and his description of a “Class 12 pass minister speaking as an equal to almost 120 heavily qualified, on paper, vice chancellors”, is foolish. Ms. Irani may be equal in gender terms and more than equal in power, but is certainly not equal in terms of qualifications.  Is Roy saying that we should abolish all educational qualifications? Why then is it relevant whether the Minister is even 12th class pass? When I see how hard some of our students struggle, their diligence in learning a difficult academic language, the financial problems they suffer -  and not just for the paper qualification but because they genuinely believe in getting and generating knowledge - I refuse to accept that degrees don’t matter. Our highly educated HRD Ministers may not have done much for the education sector, but to then argue that it was because of their degrees is a straightforward logical fallacy. A degree may not be sufficient for being HRD minister, but it certainly helps to have one.

The more fundamental question that Roy raises, of course, is how to transform not just our education system but also our governance system to learn from the rural poor. But neither this government nor the previous one seriously cares about this issue. I am sick and tired of bureaucrats, industrialists and others saying that ‘people like me’ – anthropologists - want to keep adivasis in museum cages. Does wanting to harness their ecological knowledge and preserve their languages while providing them the best possible education in formal biotechnology and world history, sound like keeping anyone in a museum? Does asking for peace and not war, for the acknowledgment and celebration of diversity, sound like a policy for fossilization? It is those who want to displace villagers, destroy the environment  and introduce uniformity in language and religion - thus extinguishing the very bases of deep local knowledge - who want to keep adivasis backward. Neither Narendra Modi, Smriti Irani, and certainly not Dina Nath Batra have any vision on this issue, and to claim otherwise, betrays Roy's own ‘moral and intellectual fatigue’.