The National Education Policy, 2020 has been projected and applauded as the government of India’s resolve to expand and vitalise equitable quality public education. The document emphasises interventions in early childhood education; foundational literacy and numeracy; rearrangement of curricular and pedagogical structure of school education; reorganisation of teacher education; and a new institutional architecture for higher education.

On close scrutiny, the policy does little to address specific, well-known and endemic problems that plague India’s education system. Most of the proposed interventions appear well meaning. But because they are based on shallow understanding of the ground realities of education in an unequal society, they could suffer deep infirmities in execution. Several innovations proposed by NEP 2020 could exacerbate existing educational challenges and perpetuate inequality.

Universalising school education via privatisation?

The Right to Education Act, 2009, established the “duty of the state’’ to provide elementary education for all children of India. As a result, the number of out-of-school children (aged 6-14) fell from 13 million in 2006 to six million in 2014, according to UNICEF. The NEP 2020 was expected to extend the Right to Education to include children from preschool years to the age of 18, as was stated in the 2019 draft NEP.

NEP 2020, however, is silent on the Right to Education and its relation to Article 21A of the Indian Constitution which provide free and compulsory education of all children in the age group of six to 14 as a Fundamental Right.

It sets aside the Right to Education as an initiative of the past, “which laid down legal underpinnings for achieving universal elementary education” and contributed to “attaining near-universal enrolment in elementary education”. NEP 2020 emphasises the need to provide “equitable and quality education from the Foundational Stage through Grade 12 to all children up to the age of 18”. But it does not state what “suitable facilitating systems” could be.

By rearranging the curricular and pedagogical structure of school education from 10+2 to 5+3+3+4, the policy confounds the fact that the Right to Education has not been extended. The fact is that the Indian state has not been able to deliver on implementing the Right to Education over the last decade. Only 13% of schools across the country complied with the Right to Education norms in 2016-’17. This dropped to a mere 8% in 2018-’19 with most schools lacking separate toilets for girls and boys, drinking water facilities and required pupil-teacher ratio.

In its studied silence on the Right to Education, NEP 2020 misses the fact that the share of India’s state schools has dropped to 65% since the implementation of the Act.

A boy in Kashmir attends open-air classes. Credit: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP

Apart from poor public investment over the years, a critical reason for the sharp decline in state schools is the practice of merging those with low enrolments in the name of “consolidating” resources. NITI Aayog’s education project, SATH-E, has alone led to the merger of about 40,000 schools in Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Orissa in 2018.

Shutting down schools in disadvantaged areas has led to limiting access for girls, a setback for gender justice – a major achievement in several states. NEP 2020 legitimises the practice of school mergers by recommending the rationalisation of small schools that are considered “economically suboptimal and operationally complex to run”.

NEP 2020’s silence on the Right to Education brings down the curtain on multiple attempts of the government of India to dilute the Act. Critical past Right to Education amendments have allowed children to be detained at the primary stage of education, increasing the risk of early drop-out. The Right to Education has been reduced to a mere “right to learning” by introducing “learning outcomes” as its central objective.

The Indian state’s inability to provide elementary education of equitable quality to all, has encouraged a tsunami of low-fee paying schools to fill this vacuum. Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation data suggests that close to 50% of students in private schools pay less than Rs 500 a month. A large number of these private schools do not fulfil Right to Education norms.

By making “requirements for schools less restrictive” in order to augment “non-governmental philanthropic organizations” and “to allow alternative models of education”, NEP 2020 encourages further privatisation of elementary education.

In doing this, the policy makes way for regularising low fee paying schools with poor infrastructure and untrained teachers, and legitimises one teacher schools. Both of these are in violation of Right to Education norms, but could provide the basis to mainstream over one lakh “one-teacher” Ekal Vidyalays spread across the country. As a result, states that have made considerable progress in fulfilling Right to Education norms and doing away with one teacher schools – for example, Himachal Pradesh – will be pushed back into institutionalising educational inequity.

NEP violating constitutional categories?

The Constitution of India established the categories of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and later Other Backward Classes with the aim of providing social justice for the most disadvantaged. These provisions have been repeatedly upheld by the Supreme Court of India and a cap of 50% placed on these reservations.

There are several sections of society, including women, minorities, people with disabilities and the poor, whose needs require policy redressal. NEP 2020 mixes all these categories of disadvantaged and deprived groups into a single category: Socio-Economically Disadvantaged Groups. Not surprising, when put together, the disadvantaged groups make up over 80% of India’s population.

In doing this, NEP 2020 effectively camouflages the idea that these are separate Constitutionally-mandated categories. Institutionalising this could accelerate the Indian state’s abdication of responsibility and accountability towards its most vulnerable and socially disadvantaged. In short, it could lead to the undermining of the foundational principles of social justice on which the Indian Republic was founded in 1950.

By proposing the creation of “Special Education Zones” for Socio-Economically Disadvantaged Groups, NEP 2020 effectively proposes to establish a segregated national school and teacher education system. One educational system for the 20% more privileged “general” population and another for the majority (80%) of members of Socio-Economically Disadvantaged Groups.

Students on the outskirts of Kolkata wearing protective masks listen to their teacher as they maintain social distancing in a classroom of Central Model School during a demonstration session for the students, parents and teaching staff before the reopening of the school. Credit: Rupak De Chaudhuri/Reuters

Informal education measures recommended for Special Educational Znes include short-term training courses for teachers, peer-tutoring, community-led voluntary efforts to support learners. This proposed institutionalisation of a segregated education system with poor teaching-learning and poor quality teachers, if implemented, could lead to a deep retrogression in Indian education.

With over 10 lakh teacher vacancies in India’s schools and a large cadre of poorly qualified teachers, NEP 2020 was expected to implement the Supreme Court’s Justice Verma Commission recommendations. This included enhanced public investment in teacher education, strengthened institutional capacity in states and curriculum redesign to teach for diversity and inclusion. NEP 2020’s proposed single model of teacher education disregards the specific needs and concerns of diverse states and of different levels of education. It imposes a homogenised and standardised system of preparing teachers and an over-centralised regulatory structure that is sure to exacerbate centre-state conflict.

The primary Constitutional mandate to deliver education lies with state governments. NEP 2020 effectively abrogates this by proposing a heavily centralised system of regulation, funding, accreditation, curriculum and course design. India is a linguistically and culturally diverse nation. Taking power away from states that are organised on linguistic grounds, to develop and execute appropriate educational policy, amounts to weakening their educational mandate.

Diluting state government’s ability to address the linguistic and cultural identities of their people could sow seeds of deep discord in the national fabric.

NEP 2020 is based on a relatively shallow understanding of the ground realities of education in an unequal society. It does not provide a coherent perspective of the means of providing quality and equitable public education. It blurs the boundaries of core Constitutional values of equality, fraternity and justice, essential to the education of democratic and secular citizens.

In paving the way for enhanced privatisation of the school system, and abrogating the rights of India’s linguistic States to define educational policies and priorities, NEP 2020 could potentially betray the Constitutional vision of education for equity and social justice.

Poonam Batra is a Professor of Education at the University of Delhi’s Central Institute of Education.