NEP is casteist, self-defeatist; centre should learn from Tamil Nadu: Dr Ezhilan Naganathan

29 August, 2020

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 [2035]. 

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. 

AR: Tamil Nadu had a different approach when it came to structuring education policy. Why?
EN: The Dravidian view is always from the grassroots, unlike the NEP which is a very top-down approach. We have the representation of people from the grassroots in policy-making formulations. The first step of the success of the Dravidian movement was the social and political empowerment of marginalised communities. So, when they came up, they understood the ground realities much more than the policymaking bodies of Delhi.

I’ll give you a simple example. [In the early 1950s, the chief minister of the erstwhile Madras state, Chakravarti Rajagopalachari—informally known as Rajaji—introduced the Modified Scheme of Elementary Education. The scheme’s critics dubbed it as Kula Kalvi Thittam, or the hereditary education policy.] When the Kula Kalvi Thittam was introduced, it was immensely opposed by Periyar. In the Kula Kalvi Thittam, children would go to school in the morning and in the afternoon, they had to take up their ancestral professions. The NEP tries to do the same thing. [The policy states that internship opportunities to learn vocational subjects may be made available to school students through standards sixth and twelfth.] It just uses the term employability as an excuse. 

Periyar opposed this completely because it was again revamping, reinstating the Manu Dharma system of caste-based professions. After Rajaji’s exit, due to the Kula Kalvi Thittam, [the Congress leader Kumaraswami] Kamaraj was picked by Periyar to become the next chief minister. Kamaraj, even though he was a Congress man, had the Dravidian ethos. He was the one who passed the constitutional amendment for reservation, as well as [he was] a part of the social justice movement. When he came to power, Periyar advised him to put ND Sundaravadivelu as the higher education secretary [officially, the director of public education.] The higher education secretary formulated a plan for mid-day meal based upon the Justice Party’s similar scheme in Madras corporation schools back in the 1920s.

Kamaraj, because of his grassroot activism, gave free uniforms, free books, but no one came to the school—poverty was still the main factor holding them back. So, he thought, we’ll provide food. For fund generation for the mid-day meal plan, he went to the planning commission and made a presentation there. The Brahminical-hierarchy lobbies, in the central planning commission insulted Kamaraj. They asked, ‘What is the role of a teacher in a school, to teach or to cook? Why are you turning school into a food-delivery system?’ The planning commission members went and complained to Nehru. But Nehru replied that ‘Kamaraj is a pragmatic leader, he is a ground-level man so don’t underestimate him.’ 

As central funds were turned down, with local philanthropy [among other sources] Kamaraj floated this mid-day meal programme as a state government policy. Mid-day meal, of course, greatly increased enrolment. And after [almost] fifty years, the central government implemented this programme. So, regarding education, India and the centre is 50 years behind us. 

AR: How has the mid-day meal scheme helped transform Tamil Nadu?
EN: If you see the evolution of the mid-day meal programme, it was upgraded to the nutritional meal programme by MGR [who was the chief minister of Tamil Nadu for many years between 1977 and 1987]. This was a policy built on solid science. [Between 1989 and 1991, the chief minister M Karunanidhi, popularly known as] Kalaignar, even put in the reference of the World Health Organization [and added eggs to the scheme]. According to the WHO, one egg will provide all types of protein, fat and calories requirement for a child. Jayalalithaa [popularly known as Amma, the chief minister for fourteen years between 1991 and 2016] further expanded this by bring in the morning breakfast programme in schools.

The Dravidian ethos in policy making aimed at eradicated malnourishment and stunting among children in Tamil Nadu. If you compare, the [percentage of] upper-caste children in Gujarat with grade one malnutrition [mild malnutrition] is the equal to the grade-one malnutrition of SC, ST in Tamil Nadu. They nearly eliminated malnourishment and stunting in the state with one small intervention. 

This is what I meant when I said the approach is from the grassroots. The NEP makes no reference to nutrition or how they are going to implement any plan to deal with children who are too hungry to study.

AR: Could you describe the Kula Kalvi Thittam’s similarities with the vocational education framework of the NEP a bit more?
EN: Tamil Nadu has done all types of experiments that are described as a reform in the NEP—most of these have been done almost fifty years back. If you travel across the state, you are able to see some vestigial or closed down institutions or vocational training institutes. 

Various vocational training institutes were started in soft skilling and a lot of diploma training colleges in electronics and electricals were developed—polytechnic institutions, basically. This was especially for people from rural areas who were able to cross tenth standard but failed in English. If they repeat, they would have to lose a year. So, rather than having their studies be limited to tenth they would usually opt for polytechnic courses. Then, after two years of polytechnic, there was the possibility of a bridging course to mainstream bachelors of engineering course in Tamil Nadu. This had been going on for over forty years here.

This type of bridging improved the employability and becomes an alternate route for struggling rural students—from tenth standard to a bachelor degree. It opened up the gates for marginalised communities to take bachelor of engineering degrees and this is clearly reflected in employability. 

People [from] most of the states will go for labour jobs, but Tamil Nadu people will go for skilled and semi-skilled jobs. If you see the employment migration in Tamil Nadu, especially among marginalised communities and rural areas, people move out as a professional requirement rather than as an unskilled labour force.

AR: How does the NEP’s vocational training differ from this?
EN: Unlike this, the vocational training in NEP starts at a very early level—at the school level itself, at [sixth] standard. See, they say their objectives are to give an equitable, affordable, inclusive education. But the implementation directly contradicts all of these objectives. 

Introducing census exams at third, fifth and eighth standard is a filter for those in early schooling. [According to the NEP, states will be encouraged to conduct their own census-based state-assessment survey for developmental purposes; public disclosure by schools of their overall and anonymised student outcomes; and of the school education system.]

They say “won’t detain children if they fail these exams,” but they will say that “you are not fit enough to go into the main curriculum.” It instils a failure concept into the kids mind as well as the minds of rural parents. Parents will think that my child is not good enough in formal education. So, naturally, they’ll be pushed towards vocational education. 

Very cleverly, the NEP says that for vocational education the local context will be considered. What are the local factors? In a village, the local need is agricultural labour—especially in a state like Tamil Nadu, because all of the communities which were previously labourers are graduates [who have left villages]. So, they want to put back marginalised communities into that system again. 

If there is a government school in a rural setting, and they conduct a census exam in third, fifth and eighth, they’ll have two batches of students, those who have cleared the census exam and those who have not. And the vocational training will be given to those who are not performing well in regular schooling. So, a village headman will come in and pick up kids for his land or for local manufacturing units as training. You are again reinventing this Kula Kalvi Thittam. 

They also said that [they] will get teacher trainees. They don’t mention what the criteria for this is. In Tamil Nadu, vocational training was given by experts in vocational training, and when the demand fell, these institutions were closed down, because the market supply simply was not necessary. The NEP does not advocate any type of graduation or training for a vocational trainer. The vocational trainer will be from the villages, from the community. The parents and grandparents of the Bahujan classes are agricultural labourers, and these are the local factors, so you’ll be picking up children for agricultural labour activities or agriculture allied labour activities. This is bound to drastically increase dropout rates. 

AR: Does it follow the same system for secondary education too?
EN: Ninth standard to 12th standard, the NEP brings in the semester system and they say that you study all subjects. In the present system, in tenth the cohorts get divided into arts, commerce and science. Now, NEP doesn’t identify that division, it merges all. They will be taking two semester exams for each subject throughout these years. They say that this is multiple-exit and multiple-entry system. For example, if in ninth, the student fails to clear one subject, he will be given exit and can switch over to vocational training. And via vocational training he can clear the subject and come back into the system. 

This is not a reform. When we see children from marginalised backgrounds, particularly girls, who walk out of the school system, they never come back. We have an innumerable amount of studies from the country that prove this. For example, in Tamil Nadu, they introduced 11th-standard public exam three years ago. The people who failed there never came back. In Tamil Nadu, the data is evident. Especially girls, in 11th if they fail, their parents are ready enough to take them away from the school system and get them married. When you give multiple exits, that is obviously very counterproductive to the GER targets that they have said is an objective. They are fighting against their own targets. With exams in third, fifth, eighth, they are going to reduce the GER in primary school, when you introduce this many multiple points of exit from ninth to 12th, naturally this will reduce GER. 

AR: What did Tamil Nadu do to stop children dropping out of the formal education system? How are its GER numbers high?
EN: In Tamil Nadu, the Dravidian [movement] encouraged governments to address the specific socio-economic issues that make people leave the system. The entire anatomy of the schooling system, the relationship of the school to the village makes this clear. Primary school is within one kilometre of [every] village, high school within three to five kilometres, all higher-secondary schools within seven kilometres of every village in the state. Then, we gave free bus passes to children. Then, we gave cycles to all high school students. Then, we gave laptops to students. These revolutionary interventions retained the children in the school system. 

At the age of ten, a child who is going to leave the system will try to stay if they can get a laptop or a cycle. Rural parents are so proud that they can see their child operating a laptop, where computers were previously unimaginable. I regularly conduct rural health programmes and I used to ask parents why they vote for AIADMK [the ruling party in the state, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam]. The simple answer they give is “I have never seen a computer in my life. We [would] have to go all the way to the collector’s office to even get a glimpse of one. We would have to stand from outside and see it. We wouldn’t even know what it was. Now, my child is operating a laptop, she is studying on it. Who gave me this honour? It was Amma.” 

They say we feel empowered, especially in Dalit hamlets, as well as in ST areas. I have visited ST areas in Kalvarayan Malai and the Nilgiris. Government school teachers have done a phenomenal job. They have created excellent computer labs which are comparable to anything you can find in private schools. That type of changeover [has not] happened in any Adivasi area in North India. 

These elites used to say, “Why laptops? Why freebies?” It’s not freebies, it is restoring their self-respect. The NEP does not talk about any of the incentive programmes to retain a kid within a school. Rather, it talks about merit and standardisation. The goal of the Dravidian education system was to bring absolutely everybody in, even if you were from the most marginalised backgrounds, from the most rural hamlet. The NEP instead tries to weed as many people out at every stage of the system as possible. It basically tries to filter people out rather than understand their issues and bring them in.

AR: How does the NEP try to deal with the socio-economic situation of students?
EN: It simply doesn’t. The state-assessment surveys they will use to make decisions, just blankly assesses students at fifth or fourth standards. They don’t look at affirmative action or from what situation children are entering the system. From what households do they come? What distance do they travel to reach school? Are their parents educated or not? Is their home environment conducive to study or not? Do they have electricity and lights? Those scores should have been added to these surveys. But this NEP says, take these SAS surveys without understanding the situation of students. And they say we should improve foundational literacy—boss, you have not taken any step to improve the societal conditions that cause this. 

You want to assess the child by a SAS survey, put impediments in the form of merit, in the form of quality, at a very young age. It is a Brahminical upper-elite view that they can use for assessing an elite child in a private school or in an urban environment. How can you equate them to a rural child from a struggling background? 

Tamil Nadu’s Dravidian model has considered that difficulty score, the socio-economic positions. If you look at the marriage-allowance scheme—where they give financial aid for marriages—they say that it’s only applicable for girls who have studied past eighth and tenth standard. It is named after a Dravidian fighter [Ramamirtham Ammaiyar]. If you look at the incentive programmes given to first-generation graduates, where the state gives a complete fee waiver for college education. It ties the importance of education into every scheme. The NEP fails to address that completely. The NEP never talks about trying to retain students. 

AR: If the NEP fails to recognise socio-economic divisions, do they have any other system of recognising deprivation?
EN: The NEP has clubbed all socially disadvantaged sections into one group—women, BC, SC, ST, physically challenged as well as transpeople, as one group called Socio-Economically Disadvantaged Groups. Each section faces their own kind of discrimination and the way you address each is obviously completely different. There is no way you can equate the form of discrimination an Adivasi faces to one which a physically challenged person faces or a woman faces. The measures needed to give educational access to a transperson is obviously different from one meant to address a Dalit. The NEP says it is the purview of the schools or universities to provide some provisions to deal with these disadvantaged sections but does not specify. 

Regarding representation of marginalised sections, there isn’t a single mention of reservation in the NEP. It says some type of privileges, some type of interventions—it is very vague throughout. It is moving away from the constitutional application of providing affirmative action to the backward classes and depressed classes. That is their aim here.

They say they are [recommending] to start zones for socially, economically disadvantaged people. Everyone is part of a society. This is completely against humanism. They should be opening institutions in the mainstream through a process that open the doors to marginalised communities. You can’t put a line. This continues the perpetuation of untouchability—just like we have separate upper-caste villages and Dalit colonies. This is not a reform; this is a regression. Dr Ambedkar clearly placed public education as a directive principle of the state. The state is moving away from this at all levels. 

AR: Much of the opposition to the NEP in Tamil Nadu has come because of the three-language formula. How will the three-language formula, which is for school children, impact the state as a whole?
EN: Take an anganwadi in a rural setting, in Madhya Pradesh, or an Adivasi village in Jharkhand, where they will try to forcefully educate three languages. First is mother tongue, second [will be] Sanskrit or Hindi, third will be English. Would children struggling with this at an early age even want to come to school when they don’t even have enough nutrition? It is a very myopic top-down view. 

Why do you want to impose language in an indirect way? They do it an indirect way because it will cause a lot of resistance. For a Tamil speaker to crossover to another language like Sanskrit or Hindi, from a different language family, is very difficult. 

If you see Nirmala Sitharaman’s 2019 budget, 50 crores were given for teaching Hindi in non-Hindi states. That is the amount of importance given to it. The NEP says it will educate in all Schedule Eight languages, that is all 22 languages. [The policy says there will be a major effort “to invest in large numbers of language teachers … in particular, for all languages mentioned in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution of India.”] The practicality and implementation of this is an issue. 

AR: How does Tamil Nadu’s language policy work?
EN: The Dravidian concept is of a two-language formula that starts after the level of preschool. [The former chief minister CN Annadurai] Anna, clearly said: To interact with my culture, to speak to my nature, to my brethren, I have Tamil. To interact with the world, when I have the option of Hindi or English, English is a bigger door to the outside world. Why should I need a much smaller door like Hindi if I have the option of a bigger door? 

We are reaping the benefit of that as South Indians now. When the IT revolution came in post-globalisation, the employability of South Indians, especially from Tamil Nadu, [was] much stronger when compared to similar Bahujan communities in the north. Particularly, among marginalised communities, the effect of the two-language policy is most evident. 

When you study the effects of the social-justice intervention of the Dravidian movement including the two-language formula, you find a better representation of BCs, SCs, STs and women working in software or IT or private companies. Again, Bahujans of the same social milieu in the north, still struggle to cross tenth standard or 12th standard. Many are working as migrant labourers here in Tamil Nadu. That difference is very noticeable. 

AR: What do you think of the NEP’s plans for ancillary systems for early nutrition, like Anganwadis? 
EN: The NEP says that anganwadis will be merged with large school complexes. See, an anganwadi is the place where the toddler comes out for the first time, to understand what is his or her position in this world. How she should interact with teachers, with other children. How to get nutrition, to get vaccination. 

Pre-schooling is very common among the urban elite, but in rural areas pre-schooling is about nutrition and well-being of the child. It is about vaccination programmes rather than education. It is a play area to prime the child to schooling. But education shouldn’t be pushed at the age of three. 

Now what has happened, the NEP wants to give this three-year-old child a multi-language formula. They want to teach many languages to children at the age of three. I have no idea what research paper they have come across to justify this. [The head of the drafting committee on NEP] K Kasturirangan says that at the age of three the multilanguage abilities of the child are very active, it opens up to a lot of language learning. 

I think this is bullshit. There are no studies that back up these statements from anywhere in the world about teaching three languages this early. That is just three-language imposition on hapless toddlers.

AR: How are government colleges going to be affected by the NEP?
EN: They say that colleges with less than 3,000 students will be merged with universities. With such merging they are removing accessibility of education from rural areas. 

I’ll take the example of a women’s arts and science college in Karur. Karur Women’s College serves Karur’s population as well as the surrounding districts and rural hinterland. When you close that down in the name of a merger, you are killing the whole of higher education for women there. Many rural parents or even urban ones, if their girl needs to take two busses to go for college, they’ll simply stop them from going and get them married. The NEP kills any accessibility for women and marginalised communities.

This interview has been condensed and edited. 

Correction: An earlier version of this interview incorrectly stated that eggs were introduced in the mid-day meal programme during MGR's tenure. The Caravan regrets the error. 

Abhay Regi  is an assistant editor at The Caravan.