Quotas, Exceptions and Exemptions: India's Education Space: Right from school admission woes to Delhi University cutoffs

posted Oct 14, 2018, 11:51 PM by Prashant Bhattacharji   [ updated Nov 10, 2018, 9:32 PM ]
Though this site (or blog, or data dump or whatever one may call it) have mostly been a clumsy repository of data and tutorials, it is not possible to contribute to the Indian education space without clearly discussing the most fundamental layer of noise and distortion: the legal regime of the Indian education space which is split into multiple dimensions; by religion, caste, language and region; approximately in that order. 

This post heavily borrows from the musings of Pratap Bhanu Mehta (whom I've been following since the time of the OBC quota) as well as an anomymous but super-insightful Tweeter (Reality Check India) which is perhaps one of the top 5 Twitter accounts in terms of erudition and astuteness in dissectiing the woes afflicting India. The main theme of this post is uniformity and consistency of rules and laws. Exceptions and exemptions based on identity should be made only in the most extreme cases. We have unfortunately dissected ourselves to the extent that exceptions, exemptions and quotas have become the norm rather than the exception.  What scholarship amounts you avail, what cut-offs you need to gain admission to premier colleges or government jobs, what degree of autonomy you have while running a college or a school: all of these are now a function of your identity (decided by religion or caste). 

So we now have a situation where the Indian state deals with groups rather than individuals, empowering the group-leaders, rather than the individuals. This of course is an ideal arrangement for political powers who now have to work in a B2B manner instead of a B2C manner; as everyone knows, the former is much easier to handle once you get the ball rolling. What ends up happening is, that parties end up pitting groups against other groups. The most egregious behavior of this kind, in recent times, was demonstrated by the UPA govt between 2004-2014. India is largely an impoverished country. And while there are legitimate greivances in terms of some groups being oppressed by others, it is preferable to stick to identity-free tools of social justice, such as tax, which flows from the rich to the poor. One could also learn from the light-touch affirmative action model of the US and the HBCU model where blacks get institutional control.

There are specific pre-matric scholarships based on your religion (awareded only to "minorities"). These are higher than pre-matric scholarships determined on the basis of caste, which in turn are higher than scholarships available to general category students. Such scholarships create extreme resentment between youngsters, specially those from poor families, who spot this anamolous teatment based on identity. We're just getting started. 

Then come the government schools themselves. Ideally, a lot of our legal anamolies wouldn't have mattered as much as they currently do, if we had a functional government school system up and running. Kendriya Vidyalayas, JNVs and Army Public Schools do an okay job. We all agree. But unfortunately, other than the JNVs which have a filtered intake,  these are more a case of schools run by the government, (mostly) for kids of the central government employees. These are not public schools. What makes it particularly egregious is that KVs are run on public money. The government schools in India, which are open to the public, have several problems. The teachers are unionized, there are quotas in the teaching body leading to groupism and parochialism, the pay is needlessly high, the teachers are unionized and it is impossible to fire the underperformers without creating ugly scenes such as mobs and unions creating a havoc. Majority of these schools are often affiliated to the state boards where the goal is often to indoctrinate young minds and to swing opinion in favor of ruling incumbents in the state. The pass rate of UP board has fluctuated all the way between 40 and 80 percent, depending on the party in power. West Bengal has seen a capture of textbooks by the left parties and Tamil Nadu has seen a capture of textbook content by Dravidian parties. Absured ideas like the hidden contintent of Lemuria have been given space in TN textbooks. 

So India's government schools are doomed, not necessarily because they are run by the govt (public systems have flourished elsewhere) but because our constititonal and legal provisions make it extremely hard to expect any semblance of performance from the teachers in these schools. The political nexus of teachers also runs deep and they carry significant clout as many MLAs are ex-teachers. Teachers are also the ones who end up with election duty and political parties try to please them, with the hope of swinging public opinion in their favor. Add to this a teacher cadre divided along the complex faultlines of caste quotas, and we have egregiously created a molotov cocktail which is most focussed on social engineering, indoctrination and the promotion of political agendas; instead of academic excellence. People look at the public schools in the US and wonder why we can't replicate their success. The public schools in the US are run on locally collected taxes and they are accountable to local bodies. There is frequent testing to assess the performance of students as well as their teachers. In our case, there is no trace of any accountability from govt school teachers. 

The only reason I gave government run schools so much space is, to illustrate how hard it is to have any expectations from this system. Unless of course, we have a bold and focused political party, which is ready to change the laws as well as the constitution, at the risk of inviting the wrath of unionized teachers. As things stand, government schools are a lost cause. The sooner this clarity dawns on those in power, the better it'll be for the students and their parents and for the country at large. This leaves us almost solely reliant on private schools. And this is where another pandora's box opens up. 

First of all, private schools can only exist as non-profits in most states. This itself restricts the entry, primarily to philanthrophists and religious trusts. It discourages any major "investment" despite all evidence that companies like FIITJEE, Vidyamandir Classes, Resonance and Allen could very well be running large schools delivering quality education at scale. The fact that only a handful of schools are directly run by any of these companies is an indicator that they find it easier (and lucrative) to educate kids as coaching companies, rather than schools. Keeping in mind our failed system of government schools, a lot of capacity has never really been created, simply because quality players have found it hassle free to educate kids in the form of coaching chains. Philanthrophists: there can only be a very small number of such schools. Religious trusts are the only "scalable model" and over here, we run into the sectarian foundations of India, where many major Hindu temples do not really have much control on their old funds (while other places of worship do) and are unable to start schools in the name of the temple trust. It is also much harder for them to get an NOC to run schools, while other religious trusts, can get NOCs within 90 days, by using the NCMEI which is another egregiously arbitrary and sectarian body, meant to speed up NOCs specifically for "minority" institutions. 

Secondly, within the private schools, the major divide is the "majority-minority" divide. Religious minority communities (Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Parsees) and linguistic minority communities (based on language: Gujarati in Maharashtra, Keralite in Bangalore and so on) are practically exempt from all major regulations such as the RTE. We now have an absurdity where a so-called secular nation recognizes madrassa certificates as equivalents of grade 10-12 certificates and in states like Kerala, funds the clergy of the Church and provides them aid to run "minority" school beyond the domain of regular laws. Given that there is practically no restriction on the minority schools, restricting their intake to (mainly) minority students, we now have a situation where many mission schools as well as Church run schools, not only have less than 5 or 10% Christians - but even most of their teaching body and staff is non-Christian, and increasingly, even the Principals!  I know of a school run by the Catholic Church where not only the Principal, but even a major fraction of the teaching body, are active RSS members. I have reasons to suspect that there are many more cases like this. 
Now, what kind of a minority instution is this. 

So effectively, the legal regime is partitioned without partitioning the markets they are permitted to cater to. This kind of a partitioned regime, also sets up a perverted incentive for players with protection, to 
choke off other players by heaping more and more laws onto them.  I could go on, but one has to stop somewhere. For India to take one last shot at modernity, rules with "exceptions" need to be the exception rather than the norm. Some sort of light touch affirmative action is fine. But this regime of  minority exemptions, quotas and identity-based scholarships, needs to go. It is also necessary to unshackle the tempes and allow them to setup trusts which can get NOCs and run schools and colleges with the same degree of autonomy as those run by the Church. Theological education of any sort (madrassas) should not qualify for grade 10 or grade 12 level certificates. 

This partitioning of the population into multiple groups, has channeled all the energy of various groups, in a negative direction as groups clamor and compete for schemes and laws and programs specifically favoring them. 
Only when the concept of group-wise laws breaks down, will the state start to deal with individuals rather than pandering to groups. This social engineering by splintering Hindus into disparate groups is dangerous as is evident by the continuous protests such as those seen by the Marathas, Jats and Lingayats for which the state does not have any principled response: what is the objective criteria by which group X is treated differently grom group Y. 

Why haven't people risen up against this remime? The reason is very simple: all power players who can push paperwork, find solace in some sort of linguistic minority status. The Ambani School in Mumbai, the school run by the Bombay Dyeing group (Singhania), various branches of DPS and Poddar; are all exempt and protected via Article 30. As one moves north, Jains and Sikhs are in any case the power players running much of the top tier capacity. Boarding schools, such as Doon and Welham and Sanawar are exempted from the RTE quota of 25%. Let's be careful here: there is nothing wrong in what these institutions are doing. They are just exempting themselves from a crushing legal regime which makes it nearly impossible to run institutions. 

So, are we dissing the need for social justice? Not at all. This posts merely flags the dangers of identity-based tools of social justice. It is safer and it is far more principled to stick to time-tested identity agnostic tools of social justice such as taxation (and spending on infrastructure or public health or education; or voucher systems for those) which automatically redistributes wealth by taking from the richer groups and helping uplift the poorest groups. Even communist regimes adhere to the basic principles stated above (not that it's a route I'd be comfortable with) so this should not be misconstrued as a "right" wing issue as it does not get into left-right issues at all. Extrapolating global trends, the most logical extrapolation from our current legal regime, will be the rise of violence from multiple extremist far-right groups, each with their own set of interests. The time to pull the rug on the current identity-based legal regime, is now. 
I am not even completely opposed to quotas, as long as it doesn't go to more than a tenth or a quarter of the total number of seats available. And in such cases, quotas should be very tightly monitored and they should go to groups which sociographic data clearly flags as relatively "backward" in terms of HDI metrics.