Education is a slow moving area of public policy, and setbacks in its progress demand considerable effort and patience for recovery. In all three states of the Hindi belt, where the recent assembly polls brought in a change of regime, education has suffered a long and steady neglect. The systemic capacity is low, both for introducing new solutions and for sustaining their pursuit. What is worse, these and other states of the Hindi belt have been vulnerable to the attraction of quick fixes. Myopic perspective sits well with political opportunism, so successive governments have pursued populist priorities. While gimmicks like free laptops do not last and tinkering doesn’t help, radical solutions don’t work either, simply because the system is too sick to allow a drastic treatment.
The Vyapam scam was a manifestation of this wretched situation. On the surface, it looked like a story of corruption, but deep down, Vyapam reflected a hollowed out system. Corruption in education seldom hits the heights it did in the Vyapam scam. Both its scale and modus operandi were unprecedented. Although its nerve centre was the state capital Bhopal, its roots and fruit were spread out in almost every district. Vyapam was a case of rampant fraud in entrance tests for professional courses. Cover up of the fraud brought in a series of mysterious deaths. More than 40 people, including students, touts, journalists and academics, associated in diverse ways with the Vyapam story, vanished inexplicably. Investigation proved difficult and remained sluggish. No death has so far been found to be a suspected murder worth a criminal inquiry. That a fresh inquiry is being ordered in one of the many exams for government jobs arouses little hope that the larger contours will be traced with rigour.
Inquiry into past mishaps may be useful, but fresh beginnings are more important. Distress in villages has played a major role in the political change these states have witnessed. The burden of loans and poor recovery of investments are among the more widely known features of rural distress. Education and health infrastructure are in appalling shape in the countryside. The gains made in enrolment in primary classes have proved to be of limited value because of serious shortage of worthwhile secondary and post-secondary education. Indeed, many of the gains made under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan have been frittered away. In Rajasthan, the provincial textbooks have been used to promote bigotry and hatred. In Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the same goal has been pursued by informal means introduced in schools through executive orders. The new governments will have to proceed with cautious despatch towards substantial readjustments in policies. A crucial readjustment needs to be made in teacher recruitment and service conditions. MP and Chhattisgarh have a vast army of vulnerable, underpaid teachers. They will expect the new regimes to address their justified grievances before the start of the next academic session. In Rajasthan, too, vacancies have mounted to hurtful levels. The previous government ignored all criticism and protests, including one launched by the children themselves. The new dispensation can hardly afford a delay in showing sensitivity.
Public universities and colleges across all three states, where new governments have taken over, need immediate attention on several fronts, starting with faculty appointments and revamping of admission procedures and pedagogic routines. MP’s Vyapam scam was not merely a story of pervasive corruptibility, it also reflected incompetence. Conducting mass entrance tests has become technically routinised in our country, creating the impression that all is going well. The fact is that the process of admission to professional courses is now fully compromised in favour of students who undergo private tuition. The convenient multiple choice question (MCQ) method of testing has drained what little room there was in our education system for recognising genuine interest in a field. Having suffered the ignominy of Vyapam, MP can steer itself in a new direction, paving the way for the rest of India. This new direction will allow diverse kinds of talent, including those specific to underprivileged rural students, to be factored in for selection for higher learning.
Restoring dignity to higher education in the humanities and social sciences is another priority all the three states must attend to. Subjects in these areas nourish the qualities that a vitiated social ethos has lost. MP had started a major project of this kind at Sanchi University. Although it was set up to create alternative learning spaces, this ambitious project never took off. Let us hope it now serves as a nursery of redemptive seeds.