Wednesday, August 19, 2020

New education policy and erosion of states’ powers

While its academic merit is being debated, the national education policy (NEP) is contentious for another reason — it is not in sync with the Constitution. It stands on an anti-democratic foundation laid down by the Emergency which took away five concurrent subjects out of the state’s jurisdiction.
Schedule VII of the Constitution defines the allocation of law-making powers between the Union and the states. Until the 42nd amendment to the Constitution in 1976, education remained on the State list. It was shifted out subsequent to the recommendations of the Swaran Singh Committee in 1976 that paved the way for centralised policymaking in the field of education. The 42nd Amendment saw subjects such as education, forest, weights and measures, protection of wild animals and birds, and administration of justice being whisked away from the state list to the concurrent list.

This glaring encroachment on the rights of the state took place during the time of Emergency; considered to be the darkest era of Indian democracy. Prior to the 42nd Amendment, the Kothari Education Commission that was set up by the Government of India in 1964 to examine the education sector in the country did not ever mention such a transfer.

The country’s first ever National Educational Policy that was unveiled in the year 1986 radically transformed the education sector. Regulatory mechanisms were introduced in a bid to make education a tool to achieve national integration. This similar idea is evident from a cursory reading of the NEP, 2020. The NEP carries a lot of features that are in raging conflict with the federal scheme of things as envisaged by the Constitution. For instance, the proposal to establish a Central Regulatory Authority by the Union government for higher education institutes including all the state universities is clearly violative of Article 246 (3) of the Constitution. Further, the proposal for the merger of special schools (for differently-abled students) with regular schools in a forceful effort to emphasise inclusiveness blatantly violates Article 14 of the Constitution.

Constitutional practitioners across the country feel most of the changes, as suggested in the NEP 2020, will require extensive amendments to various Union and state legislations notwithstanding the Constitution as well. This bargain will give the Centre an undue advantage for further swallowing of subjects from the concurrent list.
There is one other major fault in the NEP. It does not promise secular education which is a departure from the constitutional guarantees under Article 28(1) that categorically states that "no religious instruction is to be provided in any educational institution wholly maintained out of state funds." Again, categorising socio-economically disadvantaged groups (SEDG) and separating them from the socially backward or the deprived group is a conscious attempt to negate the social realities and defeat the spirit of social justice mandated by the Constitution.

If one were to dissect history and look closely, the now falsely-derided education model formulated by Thomas Babington Macaulay was and is still a strong cementing factor that holds much of our country together as a multi-lingual federal and democratic nation. English as the lingua-franca does not override linguistic nationalism by any stretch of imagination. The central agencies tend to overlook the socio-economic disparities prevailing in our country. In a country like ours, education as a subject cannot be alienated from the linguistic and socio-cultural context. Doing so will entail a false sense of standardisation. The framers of our Constitution knew this very well and that is why they strived to retain education in the state list.

There is no denying that there has been a constant dilution and usurpation of the state’s rights by the formulation of several centralised policies. The result of it is that the state’s role has been reduced to implementation. The NEP, which has the ability to have large-scale ramifications on the relationship between the Union and the states have not even been deliberated in the Parliament. Not a single state has had the opportunity to discuss the likely impact of NEP 2020 over its laws. The ruling dispensation’s insatiable urge to push through reforms without the need for consultation or discussion has come at the cost of democracy. Rajya Sabha member from Tamil Nadu, Vaiko, made a couple of attempts in 2001 and 2019 to introduce a Private Member’s Bill to restore education back to the state list. Contrarily, many other regional parties that have been part of the previous coalition governments have done nothing except including it as a poll promise in their manifestos. 

In S R Bommai vs Union of India, Justice B P Jeevan Reddy said, "Let it be said that federalism in the Indian Constitution is not a matter of administrative convenience, but one of principle — the outcome of our own historical processes and recognition of ground realities." Another warning came from K Santhanam who in one of his famed constituent assembly debates said, "We may take it that in 10 years or 15 years time, the entire concurrent list would automatically become Central list".
In a strange case of premonition, this could very well turn out true in the shadow of NEP 2020 if the Union government overrides constitutional maturity and the state governments remain lax in asserting their rights.   -By R S Raveendhren

(The writer is an advocate at Madras high court)

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