In end July 2020, the union cabinet approved the National Education Policy 2020, which seeks to completely overhaul the Indian education system. Many educationists have criticised the policy and termed it as casteist. Among other reasons, critics have pointed out that the policy does not mention reservation for historically marginalised communities even once.
Some of the most vocal detractors of the policy are from Tamil Nadu, who argue that the state has a model of education that is far more inclusive, and has already achieved many of the NEP’s targets. Dr Ezhilan Naganathan, a social activist and physician based in Chennai, is one of them. For over a decade, Naganathan has worked to make education—particularly health education—accessible to Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and Backward Class communities. He is the founder of YouthOrg, a non-profit that works on adequate representation for marginalised communities in the colleges of 13 districts in Tamil Nadu.
In an interview with Abhay Regi, an editorial fellow at The Caravan, Naganathan explained his view of the NEP and its pitfalls. He said that the policy makers have overlooked successful examples of inclusive education in India. Pertinently, the Bharatiya Shiksha Mandal—affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—claimed that the NEP reflected 60 percent of its suggestions. “Dr Ambedkar clearly placed public education as a directive principle of the state,” Naganathan said. “The state is moving away from this at all levels.”
Abhay Regi: Critics from Tamil Nadu are saying that the NEP is a regression from the education system the state has built. Why do you think that is so?
Ezhilan Naganathan: The NEP, as a plan, is blind to policies before it that have succeeded in bringing about the equitable, affordable and inclusive education that it aims to give. Take for example, gross-enrolment ratio for tertiary or college education—the NEP targets a GER of 50 percent by .
Currently, India’s GER is [26.3] percent, while Tamil Nadu has already [crossed] 45 percent. In two years, Tamil Nadu is due to cross that 50 percent target. The current GER for women is [above] 45 percent. The GERs of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities are [near] 40 percent, which is far better than anywhere in North India. A similar difference is noticeable in the GER for primary schools. The NEP target is reaching 100 percent for this by 2030. Tamil Nadu reached this target [in 2013].
This was a model that recognised that there are deep inequalities in our society, and thus, in education. There is an urban-rural divide, within which there is a class divide, within which there is a rampant caste divide, within which there is a gendered divide, when it comes to educational access. Tamil Nadu dealt with these divisions head on. India, as a union of states, should explore the most successful state and implement that model if it wants real results. That is common sense, right? But it has completely failed to do so.