29 January 2007 National controversy: knowledge commission

Mortar & Pestle

Deep rifts—both petty and profound—plague Pitroda's vision team
Mortar & Pestle
Mortar & Pestle
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had enthusiastically billed it as an effort "to create a second wave of institution-building and excellence in the field of education, research and capability building" in the 21st century. But the National Knowledge Commission (NKC), constituted on June 13, '05, has had a rough run of it with one or more members constantly at war with chairman Sam Pitroda. Some call it a clash of ideologies, left-of-centre members disagreeing with those swearing allegiance to the western model—who allegedly enjoy the chairman's support.

The result of this bickering has been that a body mandated to shape national policy in crucial areas of science and education has been reduced to a petty, squabbling group of academics and technocrats. The infighting reared its ugly head once again last week with Pitroda even asking commission vice-chairman P.M. Bhargava to step down. It may be recalled that Bhargava's views on higher education were ignored in a recent report submitted to the prime minister by the NKC chairman. When contacted by Outlook, Pitroda said he "would not like to comment on the matter". Bhargava, on his part, confirmed he was asked to put in his papers. "Sam (Pitroda) is overstepping his brief. I was appointed by the prime minister and only he can ask me to quit," he said.

It's not just Bhargava who feels slighted by Pitroda's "biased style" of functioning. Professor Meenakshi Mukherjee, honorary professor at Hyderabad University, who chaired the group on languages (with the mandate to radically rethink the scope and quality of language learning in schools), wrote to the PM last week disassociating her six-member group from the final report on higher education. She even offered to resign as chairperson.

Confirming the letter, Mukherjee had this to share with Outlook: "I have written to tell the PM that we disassociate ourselves from the report submitted by the Knowledge Commission. Our comments haven't been taken into account...." Mukherjee's subtext: the final report ignored almost all their key recommendations.

Bhargava was more caustic. If the views of expert members are not to be accommodated, why not then just have a one-man commission, he asks. "Let Sam run the show, have a unilateral agenda. The NKC is anyway working in an ad-hoc, unprofessional manner."

Mukherjee's group had recommended a strong foundation in one's "first language", saying it makes the student a better communicator in English. Hence, it asked for an equal emphasis on both. The group had also suggested that in case the home language was a non-schedule language, it should be taught for the first three years of school, and then augmented by the regional language. These recommendations were ignored by the commission which has chosen to underscore the importance of English as the medium of instruction in schools.

When asked why the NKC had chosen to ignore its own working group recommendations, chairperson Pitroda said, "Our job is to integrate ideas in the best possible manner. It's neither the practice nor the convention to follow each and every word of the working group's recommendations." But almost as an afterthought, he adds, "The mother tongue will also be part of a later report." If that's the case, the working group hasn't been informed of the commission's plans.

The level of acrimony that exists is even reflected in the e-mails exchanged between the chairman and Bhargava. What emerges is a situation that calls urgently for the PM's intervention. Here's a sample. On January 5, Pitroda had this to say about Bhargava's media interaction—he apparently expressed reservations over the NKC achieving its aims—during the science Congress in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu: "I do not understand your talking to press like this. I hope you have a good explanation on this. We are constantly having issues with you. I do not know how to resolve it. Any ideas."

Bhargava's response: "We must learn to accept and respect reasoned dissent and deal with it in a civilised manner, otherwise we will be moving into the realm of dictatorship."

The vice-chairman's comments, it seems, were ignored on almost every single issue that has come to the attention of the commission. Bhargava even claims that he was asked by Pitroda to keep off from several working groups since he would "influence the discussions and their outcome". Also, the chairman made it clear that any communication from the NKC would be signed by him, "in a style that he preferred." This is true for, unlike other commissions, all recommendations from the NKC bear the stamp of Sam Pitroda and are not countersigned by other members. When asked about this somewhat authoritarian style of functioning, Pitroda retorted: "We're not like other commissions. I have a job to do and I can't do it by keeping everyone happy. I can only do what is good for India."

It is precisely this attempt to push one view as the collective stand of the commission that Bhargava and Mukherjee have questioned. "I have had to distance myself from not just one but three recommendations.... The NKC letter on National Science and Social Science Foundation to the PM, for instance, was sent off without my knowledge, let alone my approval. As the only scientist in the commission, I can't support the letter," Bhargava told Outlook.

Other left-leaning members like Jayati Ghosh, chairperson at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, School of Social Sciences, JNU, have added dissenting notes from time to time on issues concerning reservation. These too were ignored. Two anti-reservation members who resigned protesting the UPA stand, Andre Beteille and Pratap Bhanu Mehta, have also not been replaced.

Bhargava says the commission still has the opportunity and the support of the PM to suggest radical changes and bring about a true renaissance in India. He adds a rider though: "There should be room for the diaspora too." On his part, Pitroda says he has no problems with Bhargava. If that is indeed true, what's all the fuss about?

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