Politicians will pose the biggest challenge to NEP
They own many educational institutions. To preserve their patronage network, they will resist reforms
The New Education Policy (NEP) presented by the government recently is being described as a progressive and forward-looking document. There is little to quibble with the broad recommendations in the document. The deeper question to pose is whose interests the reform is going to hurt, and whether this class has enough power to circumvent the reform measures.
Outside the educational hubs of Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities, it is not professional educationists, but politicians and their supporters who own and run a large segment of private schools and colleges. Thus, NEP is likely to hurt political class the most. What will happen to various recommendations of NEP when it meets political obstacles in these carefully-built fiefdoms? Will NEP become like many other documents that had the potential to revolutionise things in theory, but failed to accomplish its intended outcomes in practice?
The rapid expansion in the number of colleges and universities in India in the past two decades, as scholars Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Devesh Kapur note, was not because of some huge middle-class pressure or demand, but was driven by the entrepreneurial zeal of politicians. On an average, six new colleges were opened every day including weekends between 2000 and 2015. To put this in a comparative perspective, with way greater resources, the United States (US) was opening only one new college a week at this time. And this has happened when India has one of the most regulated higher education systems. This means that many of these colleges were opened only after the exchange of kickbacks and bribes.
For example, politicians in Uttar Pradesh (UP) have invested heavily in the education sector over the past few years. More than 30% of elected politicians in the state either own a school or a college or both. I collected this data during the fieldwork for my PhD dissertation that examines the power base of political families. The analysis suggests that a politician with 20 years in active political life is three times more likely to own a college. Many of them mention owning colleges in their official biodatas. For example, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Lok Sabha member proudly claims on his official website that he runs more than 45 colleges in his district. But this is not unique to either the BJP or UP. What is happening in UP and other north Indian states now has already happened in Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh, where politicians in the late 1990s and early 2000s invested heavily in setting up engineering and medical colleges.
Why have politicians invested so much in the education sector? First, some politicians genuinely feel the obligation to help their constituency, especially when the State has failed to deliver. Second, opening schools and colleges increases their social and political prestige. Many of the college buildings I observed during my fieldwork are on illegally occupied prime land that either belongs to the government, the gram sabha or is the disputed property of private individuals. Opening a school or college mitigates some of the bad reputation that comes with illegal occupation of the land. Third, schools and colleges function as sources of patronage for politicians. This patronage can vary from the allocation of admissions to teaching jobs to janitorial positions.
Fourth, educational institutions in smaller towns continuously supply politicians two important instruments to maintain power — money and muscle. Colleges typically function under trusts and are, therefore, not required to follow the same transparency rules as companies. Politicians often give large amounts of money and provide resources to the trusts of their loyalists. Anyone who has read Shrilal Shukla’s classic Raag Darbari will attest to this. As researcher and scholar Philip Altbach notes that politicians use educational institutions as a base for their operations. In smaller towns and poorer parts of the country, a college is likely to be the most important institution in the area. All those who receive such favours then oblige politicians by helping their campaigns by mobilising resources and manpower.
Fifth, and more importantly, these private school and college premises not only serve as examination centres for students studying there, but also as centres for various competitive examinations conducted by the state. And this is where the deep nexus of politics-crime-bureaucracy operates. Many of us are familiar with the “nakal mafia” (a nexus that thrives on providing cheating materials for a fee). Two years ago, a mass cheating incident was recorded on the cellphones in Bihar in which parents and friends of students were photographed climbing school walls to pass on answer sheets. The images captured a cruder form of the organised business of cheating in examinations, where the whole centre is designed to facilitate this illegal operation. This well-oiled business operates not only with the collusion of the local police, as was attested to by the video from Bihar, but also with the collusion of political officials, whose patronage is essential in everything from allocating the examination centre to protecting the mafia by holding off the police.
And that is why one is sceptical of this much-touted policy document, not because one doubts the intent of those who have laboured hard to design it, but because New Delhi continues to be in denial of ground realities in the education sector in large parts of the country.
Rahul Verma is a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi
The views expressed are personal