Big Idea for 2014!

More than one political commentator has lamented over the fact that no big idea has emerged as yet to set the poll debate for the 2014 general election. This writer has reiterated two issues that one thought could have become big ideas for the election. But there were no takers.

First, there was the proposal to create a South Asian Union to reclaim India’s cultural identity. It is conceded that this would be at this stage only a declaration of intent because Pakistan would have to be brought on board to give it teeth. The second idea was related to reinterpreting the Constitution in the light of its written text to change the prevalent political system and culture. Since this entailed in large part a pro-active role for the President as the ultimate custodian of constitution and law critics seemed incapable of separating systemic reform from political reality. The current President is very much the creation of the prevalent political culture, elected by the prevalent political class. This proposal too failed to elicit support.

I present a third idea that is feasible and eminently achievable. It can create a paradigm change in the present political situation. It could rubbish the existing flawed notions about delivering social justice. It could generate enormous employment. It could exploit India’s most precious natural resource which is human talent.

I refer of course to a pledge to deliver free universal primary education. In 2004 the Right to Education Act became law. But it still remains largely a paper declaration of intent. Surprisingly no political party has seized the opportunity to concretize this right by offering a specific time bound programme that would change India’s social and political context. It could change Indian politics.

The World Bank is contributing to the Sarva Sisksha Abhiyan, a project to deliver free universal primary education to all children in India aged between 6 to 14 years. The project started in 2001 during the NDA regime. The total expenditure on the project to date is 30 billion US dollars. The average on this project up till now works out roughly to an annual expenditure of Rs. 16240 crores. This amount is less than the subsidy paid by the government for food, fuel or fertilizer. It is less than various items of government expenditure that can be pruned or spiked. And yet, astonishingly, not a single political party has pledged to deliver free universal primary education and informed the public how it can be practically achieved by presenting facts and figures. Should not politicians advocate a spectacular programme to achieve total primary education throughout India? Instead every party to propitiate the less privileged segments reiterates commitment to caste-based reservation as a sop. Can politicians anywhere be either so unbelievably callous or disgustingly dishonest?

There are over 3000 recognized castes among the Other Backward Classes (OBC) alone. The promise of job reservation to the vast majority is so hollow that even in India’s capital Delhi job quotas for the Scheduled Castes (SC) often remain unfilled because of insufficient applications. There are simply not enough educated and qualified applicants. What would conditions be in the rural interior? Yet it suits heartless and cynical politicians to dangle the promise of employment to unlettered and ill-informed poor masses by offering caste-based job quotas. It is like someone throwing a few coins among a large group of beggars and then enjoy seeing them fight over the money.

Delivering free universal primary education would not only exploit India’s richest natural resource of human talent presently grossly under utilized. It would not only create a more level playing field for under privileged children and deliver genuine social justice. It would at the same time create enormous increase in employment. Teachers are possibly one of the largest, if not the single largest, vocational class in the organized sector. Universal primary education would lead to employing teachers, training more teachers, and even building the infrastructure for creating schools. All these are included in the costs incurred in the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan project. Doubtless results achieved can be bettered through more efficient governance. That is what the chinless wonders who lead our political parties should focus on. They should summon the courage to promise universal primary education and at the same time declare an end to the divisive and destructive caste-based reservation.

They lack the courage of conviction to confront caste prejudices assiduously nurtured by politicians to create vote banks. How different they are from the architect of caste based reservation! Babasaheb Ambedkar introduced reservations for SC and Scheduled Tribes (ST) for only a period of ten years. This was necessary to overcome the initial impediments created by untouchability. He did not include any caste that did not suffer from the pernicious taint of untouchability. He knew this was a strictly temporary measure and the solution lay through education. Ambedkar himself became one of the earliest untouchables to obtain a college degree in India. He went on to earn a law degree and doctorates for his study and research in law, economics and political science from Columbia University and the London School of Economics. He overcame great obstacles to achieve all this. He knew therefore where salvation for the underprivileged lay.

One can only speculate how Ambedkar would have reacted when ten years of reservation for SCs and STs had ended in 1960. Would he have persisted with a policy that did not deliver adequate results or opted for a radical education policy? He knew what had helped him reach his stature of eminence. Ambedkar died in December 1956. He was already greatly disillusioned by the manner in which the Constitution which he helped draft was being implemented. Discussing the role of Governors in parliament on September 2, 1953 he said with disgust that as far as he was concerned the Constitution which he had helped draft could be trashed.

It is unfair to expect current politicians to emulate Ambedkar while making their decisions. But to specify and pledge delivery of free universal primary education to voters would be a practical and credible election pledge. Properly articulated and honestly implemented it could be a game changer. It requires merely the courage of conviction for politicians to make this pledge. As all political parties in India presently flounder in confusion and despair, their leaders should know that fortune favours the brave.


More by :  Dr. Rajinder Puri

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