Monday, May 22, 2006

P. B. Mehta's letter of resignation from the knowledge commission

Today (21 May), P B Mehta resigned from the `National Knowledge Commission'. This is his open letter of resignation.

Honorable Prime Minister,

I write to resign as Member-Convenor of the National Knowledge Commission. I believe the Commission's mandate is extremely important, and I am deeply grateful that you gave me the opportunity to serve on it. But many of the recent announcements made by your government with respect to Higher Education lead me to the conclusion that my continuation on the Commission will serve no useful purpose.

The Knowledge Commission was given an ambitious mandate to strengthen India's knowledge potential at all levels. We had agreed that if all sections of Indian society were to participate in, and make use of the knowledge economy, we would need a radical paradigm shift in the way we thought of the production, dissemination and use of knowledge. In some ways this paradigm shift would have to be at least as radical as the economic reforms you helped usher in more than a decade ago. The sense of intellectual excitement that the Commission generated stemmed from the fact that it represented an opportunity to think boldly, honestly and with an eye to posterity. But the government's recent decision (announced by Honorable Minister of Human Resource Development on the floor of Parliament) to extend quotas for OBC's in Central institutions, the palliative measures the government is contemplating to defuse the resulting agitation, and the process employed to arrive at these measures are steps in the wrong direction. They violate four cardinal principles that institutions in a knowledge based society will have to follow: they are not based on assessment of effectiveness, they are incompatible with the freedom and diversity of institutions, they more thoroughly politicize the education process, and they inject an insidious poison that will harm the nation's long term interest.

These measures will not achieve social justice. I am as committed as anyone to two propositions. Every student must be enabled to realize their full potential regardless of financial or social circumstances. Achieving this aim requires radical forms of affirmative action. But the numerically mandated quotas your government is proposing are deeply disappointing, for the following reasons:

First, these measures foreclose any possibility of more intelligent targeting that any sensible program should require. For one thing, the historical claims of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and the nature of the deprivations they face are qualitatively of a different order than those faced by Other Backward Castes, at least in North India. It is plainly disingenuous to lump them together in the same narrative of social injustice and assume that the same instruments should apply to both. It is for this reason that I advocated status quo for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes until such time as better and more effective measures can be found to achieve affirmative action for them.

Some have proposed the inclusion of economic criteria: this is something of an improvement, but does not go far enough. What we needed, Honorable Prime Minister, was space to design more effective mechanisms of targeting groups that need to be targeted for affirmative action. For instance, there are a couple of well designed deprivation indexes that do a much better job of targeting the relevant social deprivations and picking out merit. The government's action is disappointing because you have prematurely foreclosed these possibilities. In foreclosing these possibilities the government has revealed that it cares about tokenism more than social justice. It has sent the signal that there no room for thinking about social justice in a new paradigm.

As a society we focus on reservations largely because it is a way of avoiding doing the things that really create access. Increasing the supply of good quality institutions at all levels (not to be confused with numerical increases), more robust scholarship and support programs, will go much further than numerically mandated quotas. When you assumed office, you had sketched out a vision of combining economic reform with social justice. Increased public investment is going to be central to creating access opportunities. It would be presumptuous for me to suggest where this increased public investment is going to come from, but there are ample possibilities: for instance, earmarking proceeds from genuine disinvestment for education will do far more for access than quotas. We are not doing enough to genuinely empower marginalized groups, but are offering condescending palliatives like quotas as substitute. All the measures currently under discussion are to defuse the agitation, not to lay the foundations for a vibrant education system. If I may borrow a phrase of Tom Paine's, we pity the plumage, but forget the dying bird.

Second, the measures your government is contemplating violate the diversity principle. Why should all institutions in a country the size of India adopt the same admissions quotas? Is there no room at all for different institutions experimenting with different kinds of affirmative action policies that are most appropriate for their pedagogical mission? How will institutions feel empowered? How will creativity in social justice programs be fostered, if we continue with a `one size fits all' approach? Could it not be that some state institutions follow numerically mandated quotas, while others are left free to devise their own programs? The government's announcement is deeply disappointing because it reinforces the cardinal weakness of the Indian system: all institutions have to be reduced to the same level.

Third, and related to diversity, is the question of freedom. As an academic I find it to be an appalling spectacle when a group of Ministers is empowered to come up with admissions policies, seat formulas for institutions across the country. While institutions have responsibilities and are accountable to society, how will they ever achieve excellence and autonomy if basic decisions like who should they teach, what should they teach, how much should they charge, are uniformly mandated by government diktat? As you know, more than anyone else, the bane of our education institutions is that politicians feel free to hoist any purpose they wish upon them: their favorite ideology, their preferred conception of social justice, their idea of representativeness, or their own men and women. Everything else germane to a healthy academic life and effective pedagogy becomes subordinate to these purposes. Concerned academics risked a good deal battling the previous government's instrumental use of educational institutions for ideological purposes. Though your objectives are different, your government is sending a similar message about our institutions: in the final analysis, they are playthings for politicians to mess around with. Nations are not built by specific programs, they are built by healthy institutions, and the process by which your government is arriving at its decisions suggests contempt for the autonomy and integrity of academic life. Your government has reinforced the very paradigm of the State's relations with educational institutions that has weakened us.

In this process, the arguments that have been coming from your government are plainly disingenuous. It is true that a constitutional amendment was hastily passed to overturn the effects of the Inamdar decision. At the time I had written that the decision was property rights decision that was trying to unshackle private institutions from an overbearing state. But since the state had already displaced its responsibilities to the private sector it decided that the ramifications of Inamdar would be too onerous and passed a constitutional amendment. One can quibble over whether this amendment was justified or not. But even in its present form it is only an enabling legislation. It does not require that every public institution have numerically mandated quotas for OBC's. To hear your government consistently hiding behind the pretext of the constitutional amendment is yet another example of how we are foreclosing the fine distinctions that any rigorous approach to access and excellence requires.

Finally, I believe that the proposed measures will harm the nation's vital interests. It is often said that caste is a reality in India. I could not agree more. But your government is in the process of making caste the only reality in India. Instead of finding imaginative solutions to allow us to transcend our own despicable history of inequity, your government is ensuring that we remain entrapped in the caste paradigm. Except that now by talking of OBC's and SC/ST's in the same narrative we are licensing new forms of inequity and arbitrariness.

The Knowledge Economy of the twenty first century will require that participation of all sections of society. When we deprive any single child, of any caste, of relevant opportunities, we mutilate ourselves as a society and diminish our own possibilities. But, as you understand more than most, globalization requires us to think of old objectives in new paradigms: the market and competition for talent is global, institutions need to be more agile and nimble, and there has to be creativity and diversity of institutional forms if a society is to position itself to take advantage the Knowledge Economy. I believe that the measures your government is proposing will inhibit achieving both social justice and economic well being.

I write this letter with a great deal of regret. In my colleagues on the Knowledge Commission you will find a group that is unrivalled in its dedication, commitment and creativity, and I hope you will back them in full measure so that they can accomplish their mission in other areas. I assure you that the Commission's functioning will suffer no logistical harm on account of my departure.

I recognize that in a democracy one has to respectfully accede to the decisions of elected representatives. But I also believe that democracies are ill served if individuals do not frankly and publicly point out the perils that certain decisions may pose for posterity. I owe it to public reason to make my reasons for resigning public. I may be wrong in my judgment about the consequences of your government's decisions, but at this juncture I cannot help but concluding that what your government is proposing poses grave dangers for India as a nation. On this occasion I cannot help thinking about the anxieties of a man who knew a thing or two about constitutional values, who was more rooted in politics than any of us can hope to be, and who understood the distinction between statesmanship and mere politics: Jawaharlal Nehru. He wrote, "So these external props, as I may call them, the reservations of seats and the rest - may possibly be helpful occasionally, but they produce a false sense of political relation, a false sense of strength, and, ultimately therefore, they are not so nearly important as real educational, cultural and economic advance which gives them inner strength to face any difficulty or opponent." Since your government continues to abet a politics of illusion, I cannot serve any useful purpose by continuing on the Knowledge Commission under such circumstances.

(And here is Andre Beteille's letter of resignation).

1 comment:

  1. Hi Sir,

    Its quite a shame that we as a country always (and now by rule) stifle innovation, be it in the field of finance, technology and now ofcourse the mother of all, education. Thinking heads are either dying out of frustration or are leaving this country. A pity really.

    --
    Ravi Purohit.

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