A few weeks ago, there were media reports of mass copying from a large number of Class X examination centres all over Bihar. As one saw the TV screen, it appeared to be a sort of a training session in a rock-climbing course somewhere in the foothills of the Alps. As one focused on the picture of the six-storeyed building, one saw scores of relatives and well-wishers of the examinees perched in precarious positions, trying to pass on paper slips to assist their sons or brothers or friends to cheat in the board examination. This scene would probably have been visible from a low-flying aircraft, or with a binocular from a satellite, or with a telescope from the moon, but the remarkable fact is that this spectacle was missed by the district magistrates, superintendents of police, examination invigilators, beat policemen—in short, anyone in authority in a hundred centres. Actually, the state’s education department had earlier written to all the districts, and the district authorities had in turn dutifully passed on the instructions to take ‘severest’ action against copying—a measure of the hypocrisy and doublespeak of administration. In every hall where mass copying was going on, TV shots focused on armed guards moving from room to room, reading from a text, promising dire action on offenders—while right in front of them the students were imperviously and peacefully found copying en masse. Here and there, the hall superintendents were obligingly reading out the correct answers to be further helpful. Can one imagine a more degrading and disgusting spectacle?
The very next day, the state education minister made a statement that he was not in a position to prevent mass copying—is that not sufficient reason for him to instantly resign and leave his post? This was followed by a statement from Lalu Prasad, carried by most TV channels, that if he were in charge, he would have merely provided books to the students for copying openly in the hall—in other words, declaring copying as a legitimate and acceptable process. The catch of course is that most Class X students may not have known where to start copying from—three hours is too little to copy a whole book. It is shattering to think that Nitish Kumar, who ostensibly proffers to be ‘honest’, plans to tango together with Lalu to capture power in the forthcoming elections. Is there no shame? Is this what our founding fathers conceived of when they ushered in democracy years ago?
Even more astonishing and dispiriting was the silence from the Union education minister. Was this due to ‘political correctness’, as primary education is a state subject, or that she conveniently washed her hands off because it is a law and order matter, or even, heaven forbid, because elections are due later this year in Bihar, and ‘public sentiment’ should not be adversely affected—if this is so, nothing more tragic can be imagined. The most distressing aspect of all is that the issue seems to have dropped out of the public psyche. The media is no more interested—it’s business as usual. Can greater tragedy befall our education system and democracy?
One can visualise people elsewhere in India chuckling that after all, this is Bihar. It used to be said that whatever happens in Bihar moves to Uttar Pradesh within five years (apparently mass copying has already reached Jhansi division). Whatever reaches Uttar Pradesh moves to Delhi within the next five years! Gresham’s law is inexorable—Delhi, the capital, spreads in quick time the issues all over the country. What we saw last fortnight in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and the political response is highly disturbing—it is even more frightening if in the name of ‘democracy’ and the ‘students’ wishes’, such appalling behaviour is allowed to spread all over the country. Kapil Sibal did great dis-service by not just ushering in a hollow meaningless Right to Education but also by eliminating annual examination in lower classes on the ground of ‘strain on the children’. The same logic can apply at Class X and university levels. The Bihar politicians have let down the people of the state.
The Prime Minister has rightly stressed the concept of Digital India; basic literacy is an essential prerequisite for handling information technology tools. The whole world, including the least developed countries, is moving to improved education and higher literacy. The demographic dividend that the Prime Minister rightly refers to can very quickly turn into a demographic nightmare if millions of semi-literate and unemployable youth start roaming the country—that can impose a serious threat to security. Even skill development, imperative in Indian conditions, will fail if the primary education systems fail to do the basic job. Year after year, the ACER annual report gives increasingly depressing accounts of the state of primary education in the country. For instance, an average Class V student cannot handle Class II material; or since basic language and numerical skills are not taught well in earlier classes, the drop-out rate is unacceptably high. There is a crying need for major reforms. On the contrary, what we are unbelievably witnessing is further deterioration. These are alarm signals which are being hoisted; apparently nobody is watching.
Subramanian is a former Cabinet Secretary