Re-Educating Bengal: Mamata’s Solutions...
- All political appointees of the former regime to step down; no further appointments with government or party influence
- Woo back top academicians and professionals who left the state by advertising vacancies in colleges
- Admissions to higher education institutes to take place strictly according to merit lists
- Guidelines have been issued to keep campuses free from political influence and focused on academics and extra-curricular activities
- Allotment of more funds for infrastructure development, and announcement of a sound
Enter Calcutta’s Jadavpur University through the main gate, walk the asphalt path that winds past lotus ponds, lines of palm trees and departmental buildings. Then, shattering the calm groves of academe are provocative, charcoal-painted images on a wall. It’s graffiti, of course, that staple of campus art. Though the creator, Arka Alam, an undergraduate student in comparative literature, claims his depictions are not consciously political, he agrees the stark images capture students’ frustrations from the “stagnation” in West Bengal during 34 years of uninterrupted Left rule.
One image depicts a bored college girl—“a cool but clueless cat”, in the words of other students in the graffiti—who apathetically purrs, “Mao?” Clearly, the barb is on the lack of connect between realities of student life, and larger political issues facing the state, like Maoism. “I think the underlying theme of these images,” explains a fellow student, “is the youth’s desperate search for dynamism.” These murals, created long before the watershed Assembly elections ushered in historic changes, also serve as a telling backdrop to the growing buzz in colleges and university campuses across the state.
As one student puts it, “We’re waiting for the new chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, to deliver us from the present rot that has set in the education system in our state.” By common consensus, at the top of the list is what a Burdwan University student terms “political influence that affects admission to the state’s universities”. Admitting that despite the change in government he is still “afraid to speak openly about it for fear of repercussions”, he claimed “Burdwan has always been a traditional stronghold of the CPI(M) and often a student’s admission to the university depended on his or her connections with the party rather than on merit.”
Going by the initial signs and appropriate noises, Mamata is intent on totally revamping the education system. Within a week of assuming office, the new higher education minister, Bratya Basu, issued strict guidelines on admission procedures, stressing on transparency. Insisting on renewing the now defunct procedure of publishing “merit lists”, Basu went to the extent of ordering institutions which do not have websites on which to publish the lists to immediately notify the education ministry.
Echoing the students’ view that the canker of political interference has sent deep roots into the system, Basu said “political appointments” in key positions had been a central policy of the Left Front. The new government, he says, has already initiated the process of cleansing the governing bodies of various colleges of the political influence of the Left. “Already, several big names heading powerful government bodies, committees and commissions have stepped down because they were all political appointees of the last government. Similarly, I would urge the political people who are government nominees of the governing bodies of colleges to step down,” says Basu.
Students across the state agree that this would usher in the kind of accountability that they seek from their institutions. Presidency University student Sugoto Mukhopadhyay echoes the opinions of many when he tells Outlook: “We would like to see teacher-evaluation, where we as students can judge the performance of our professors.” Calcutta University student Rituparna Roy adds, “Answerability would also ensure that classes are held regularly, which is a big concern in many colleges today.” She and her friends point out that when regular classes are not conducted, it puts a strain on the students, who are then forced to take private tuitions at extra cost.
Lack of infrastructure is among the most intractable problems of the state’s education system, resulting in years of brain drain. Speaking to Outlook, the higher education minister observes, “Bengal’s youth is among the brightest in the world. It is unfortunate that they have been neglected for decades in terms of infrastructure and other facilities in spite of the country’s steady economic growth, forcing them to seek education elsewhere.” According to Basu, the new state government will take “adequate measures” to create infrastructure and policies so attractive to students they wouldn’t want to leave.
This strikes an instant chord. “Improvement in infrastructure,” says Presidency’s Deborshi Chakraborty, “is a rudimentary expectation we have from the new government. We don’t want a continuation of the terrible paucity that exists.” Dipanjan Mukherjee of Jadavpur University (JU) points out further that many students are averse to the idea of “privatising infrastructure”, which was floated by the former regime. “We welcome the new government’s policy to invest in infrastructure rather than hand over control to private players”.
Photograph by Sandipan Chatterjee
Debmala Gurung from N. Bengal Viswa Bharati University (Shantiniketan)
“In terms of education we have been really neglected. There are no medical or technical colleges up in the north.”
There’s much more to do in north Bengal, in particular, where the government would have to build colleges from scratch. In her pre-election campaign speeches in north Bengal, Banerjee had pointed to the abysmal state of infrastructure in the hills, not just in terms of roads and hospitals but also colleges and medical and technical institutions. Part of a group of social studies students from north Bengal’s Kalimpong district studying at Viswa Bharati University (in Tagore’s Shantiniketan), Debmala Gurung laments that they “were forced to study at a place so far away from home because there are very few colleges in North Bengal”.
In fact, in one of her first programmes in the initial days of assuming power, Mamata has raised funds for development of the six districts of north Bengal from Rs 60 crore to Rs 200 crore. In fact, even Bimal Gurung, leader of the GJM—which is keeping the demand for Gorkhaland alive in the hills—had expressed happiness with the new government after meeting the new chief minister (though she has categorically ruled out a division of the state).
At the heart of the many grievances against the former regime borne by college students across Bengal is the decision in the early 1990s by the Jyoti Basu government to abolish the teaching of English as a compulsory subject at the primary level in schools affiliated to the West Bengal board. The students affected by this decision, who are now pursuing their higher education in various colleges and universities claim it has “academically crippled” them for life, as they are now unable to compete with students from other boards—and other states—armed with an English education.
Photograph by Sandipan Chatterjee
Rumi Das, Dept of Mass Communication, Jadavpur University
“My generation is sort of neither here nor there—I feel inadequate and incompetent around my peers because English today is the medium of communication everywhere.
JU mass communication department students Rumi Das, Amrita Das and Debopriya Mondal belong to this unhappy group handicapped by poor English. Sitting at a little distance from the crowd gathered around Arka’s murals, they speak about their “feelings of inadequacy” because they can’t speak, read or write in English. Though the decision was subsequently reversed after it came in for severe criticism, it has cursed an entire generation by rendering them incompetent to deal with the rigours of higher education.
Mamata has stressed the importance of primary and secondary education in Bengal, saying that she wants each and every boy and girl to have access to it. When the results of the Madhyamik (class X board) examination were declared, she took time out to speak to several of the toppers (mostly from district and rural schools) in televised phone conversations, encouraging them, offering them her unstinted support, even inviting them for tea at Writers’ Building.
In Jadavpur University the graffiti on the walls reflect the simmering angst. But as you move elsewhere in the campus, there are acres left in pristine whitewash. How future students will fill them up will be determined by just how the new government executes its higher education policies.