No other country has done it. When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh set up the National Knowledge Commission (NKC) in June 2005, he blazed a new trail. He expected the NKC to produce a recipe, in three years, that would make India the (first?) knowledge-based society in which governance would be people-oriented, transparent and efficient, and which will, by its structure and nature, act as a watchdog to prevent exploitation of one by the other in the development process.
A utopian dream, given our numerous failings? No. I felt we could do it because of our unmatched assets: natural, man-made, historical and cultural. Indeed, India has the potential of becoming the world leader in 15-20 years, provided we play our cards well. And NKC was to tell us how to do so.
In the NKC's very first meeting in August 2005, it identified 13 areas to be looked at in depth: education, agriculture, science and technology, governance (including e-governance), traditional knowledge, social sciences, health, industry, civil society, innovation, entrepreneurship, Intellectual Property Rights, and patents.
It didn't require extraordinary intelligence to recognise that in education we must look at school, college, vocational, university (including undergraduate) and professional education. And we needed to worry about access, quantity, quality, and funding, in addition to the question of democratising fluency in English without undermining the status of mother-tongue/regional languages, making inter-language translations available widely and ensuring quality in libraries and in research.
Except a fragmented discussion on university education and reports on e-governance and translations, the full commission has not yet discussed in depth any other area, or sub-area in education: not even school education which should have been top priority. The NKC has not yet discussed in-depth modalities of its functioning. My own view has been that it should have by now prepared a draft of its basic and important recommendations in most if not all of the 13 areas and made a plan to put it to the scrutiny of the people before finalising it and handing it over to the government.
In view of the relatively little progress towards meeting its mandate and the lack of an agreed procedure for arriving at its destination, the NKC needed to be circumspect about going to the press on any issue not discussed adequately within, as was the case with the proposed reservations for the OBCs. The reservation issue is a part of the larger problem of access to education to all sections of society and at all levels of education, and it would be outside the intellectual mandate of the NKC to comment on it publicly on a stand-alone basis.
It is surely important to recognise the deprivation and lack of opportunities which the SC/STs and OBCs—the small creamy layer apart—have experienced; they are the ones who will in all likelihood bring India its future Nobel Prizes. Should the less-than-20 per cent of us who have been privileged in ways more than one and have in the last four decades increasingly made a virtue of every sin in human dictionary, leave this marginalised, voiceless but genetically no less (if not more) talented majority of more than 80 per cent to their fate and continue to exploit them as we have for centuries? Don't we need a long-term policy to end reservations? One way would be to have all children have equal opportunity to go up to at least class X (if not class XII) in good schools. This can be achieved by having enough (say, 4,00,000) high schools of the calibre of Central Schools in and having these funded by the central government but run by the local self-government as neighbourhood schools.
However, instead of deliberating on these issues internally, and finding out why the PM also supported OBC reservations, two members of the NKC publicly condemned the OBC quota proposal on the day it was announced. Two of us who supported the proposed reservations in principle then had no option but to make our opinion also public, when asked. Even then the matter could have rested had the NKC not officially announced on May 8 a 6:2 division in respect of the reservation proposal. I must emphasise that this announcement was made virtually without any discussion within the NKC, and in spite of my repeatedly saying orally and in writing that NKC should not go to press. If asked, we all should have just said that we would comment on it after we have discussed all aspects of education (including access) and come out with our recommendations in this area.
Nevertheless, I respect the NKC chairman's prerogative to do as he considers appropriate. However, as I had expected, the statement he made to the press in Bangalore on May 8 apropos the NKC's fractured view on reservations led in the following weeks to a considerable erosion of credibility.
But all is far from lost. In fact, this is a superb opportunity for the NKC to do some introspection and more than recover lost ground. The NKC hasn't looked at systematically, professionally and creatively, 95 per cent of its mandate even though nine months have passed. It needs to do so quickly, within a framework of reason and sensitivity, and without bias in favour of or against individuals or views, within or outside. Some of the issues, besides those that have already been mentioned that need to be looked at are:
Education: Shouldn't we pass a law banning commercialisation of school, college or university education—be it de jure or de facto? How do we have vocational education take care of all our rural, urban and industrial needs? Must a high school certificate be required for all of such education? Do we need to shift to internal assessment and to course systems in colleges and universities to increase choice and decrease examination stress?
The country needs 3,000 good universities. How do we get to that number and achieve high standards? Should we convert the better of the over 16,000 undergraduate colleges into autonomous universities, and eventually wind up the rest? Shouldn't we insist that every university (and the best in it) teaches undergraduate classes as is the norm everywhere else? (Isn't it inexcusable that none of the 13 universities in Andhra Pradesh has undergraduate classes?)
What kind of medical education system do we have that has no course on medical ethics and that doesn't produce quality family physicians? What is the use of engineering education that produces unemployable engineers as is the case with numerous engineering institutions? Do we allow a system of accreditation of professional colleges that employ event managers to organise, against payment, teachers, equipment, patients and what have you for the day of the visit of the accreditation committee?
Science And Technology: What short-term/long-term steps do we need to make the quality of scientific research better and technological research more relevant? Do we permit directors of research labs to have their names on almost all the papers published? How do we bring in ethics in doing, administering, communicating and using science?
Agriculture: Thanks to the series of brainstorming sessions initiated by the Indian Council for Agricultural Research at our suggestion last year, we already have precise recommendations in areas such as post-harvest technologies, organic agriculture, integrated pest management and biopesticides, and energy use in agriculture; if followed, these can help transform agriculture. We need to make this happen.
Traditional Knowledge: Again, the NKC already has detailed recommendations in regard to use of traditional knowledge in the areas of plant-based drugs, water-harvesting, tourism, our unmatched repertoire of fruits and vegetables and their use, and our numerous creative and cultural traditions ranging from handloom and handicrafts to dance and story-telling. The NKC must give this area priority as it has the potential of employing at least a 100 million people and generating a revenue of over Rs 6,00,000 crore.
Governance: Do we need to professionalise our civil services? And how may the government make use of the enormous professional talent in the civil society?
Civil Society: We have an abundance of never-ending soaps on television that revolve around the question, who is who's child, an issue which could be settled in one episode by DNA fingerprinting. How do we give housewives better options so that they may spend their afternoons fruitfully?
Industry: How do we introduce ethics in industry and break the MNCs-government-bureaucracy nexus?
Health: When over 90 per cent people suffer from less than 0.1 per cent of known diseases for which standard cures are available, can we provide reasonable medicare in our villages with appropriately trained personnel who do not have an MBBS degree?
Patents: Must we continue to be a victim of trips and gatt that are loaded heavily against us? If not, what strategies must we adopt?
Innovation: We have an inadequately funded yet reasonably efficient National Innovation Foundation and we will soon have a National Agriculture Innovation Foundation. How do we help these foundations to optimally utilise the tremendous innovative abilities in our unorganised sector, including agriculture? Remember, a large number of the world's most widely used innovations (such as the zipper or the shoe-lace holes) were not made in the organised sector.
If the NKC looks at the questions such as above—which are only illustrative—keeping in mind the larger interests of the vast majority of the people of our country, if it gives voice to this majority and doesn't become the voice of the spoilt, insensitive but privileged minority of less than 20 per cent that seeks alliances elsewhere to continue to exploit the voiceless majority, it will go down in history as a unique agent of change. If it continues to bungle as it did on reservations, there would be no one even to write its requiem.
(Vice-chairman of the Knowledge Commission, the author is one of the two members who wrote a dissenting note against NKC's majority decision to oppose quotas.) Click here to read PM Bhargava's letter to the Prime Minister