Fresh thinking: education and security reforms

Aaradhana Jhunjhunwala
18 June 2009

With one of the more stable coalition governments in recent years coming to power, the Indian media has turned its focus to analyzing which sectors of public policy require a fresh approach. The sectors that have generated most debate in the media, besides the overall economy, are education and national security. Not only do both require massive investment to expand and update infrastructure, but their governing bodies are in dire need of systemic overhaul. The new government's ability to deliver on both sectors will require perseverance and courageous decision-making.

Education: reforms to harness the demographic dividend

In an interview with the Business Standard newspaper, Kapil Sibal, Minister for Human Resource Development, the ministry in charge of drafting India's education policy, acknowledged the existing "statutory constraints along with government control to set up institutions." He said that in order to set up a countrywide educational system that is expansive, inclusive and excellent, "We need to re-energize the education system by attracting investment without diluting excellence and equity." Approximately eight million more students are estimated to seek enrollment in Indian universities by 2015. A Knowledge Commission set up by the Prime Minister's Office had estimated that 1,500 universities would have to be set up to meet such a requirement. If India really wants to harness the talent of it's youth, its policymakers will have to chart out a sustainable education policy that is implemented without being eaten away by corrupt and complacent bureaucrats. It will also have to allow private investments in the education sector, which has always been a matter of controversy.

Acknowledging the Indian government's goal to provide basic education to 200 million women in the country by 2013, Neeraj Kaushal outlines the poor performance of public education programs in a guest column in the Times of India. If the government sincerely wishes to keep its promise, then it must look at reforming current, poorly functioning programs such as the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan (Elementary Education For All) and formulate a plan to expand quality educational infrastructure through partnerships with the private sector. Along with building more and better schools, the government must address problems such as high rates of teacher absenteeism in public schools where salaries are higher than private schools, yet low risk of job loss makes teachers complacent. World Bank surveys indicate low reading, writing and math skills amongst students who do attend schools in India. A lack of accountability and poor implementation of public school programs are possible reasons for this failure and pose a grave threat to India's progress.

Raman Roy, a pioneer of the Indian BPO industry, wrote in the Wall Street Journal urging the government to not simply focus on increasing the number of colleges and universities in India. He outlines how very few Indian higher education institutions produce graduates who have the skills to be directly employed by industry. Most universities provide education and a skill set that either requires further polishing by large companies or are simply not sufficient enough to land a respectable job.  Such "paper degrees" are a serious waste of young talent and add to the grievances of the youth. Hence, the government must partner with private companies and foreign educational institutions in order to provide quality higher education to its citizens.

Setting up new institutions and formulating a new education bill will not be enough to tackle India's requirements. Pratap Bhanu Mehta outlines the institutional challenges the Human Resource Development Ministry itself faces. The ministry has to deal with the largest number of institutions in the country ranging from public elementary schools to universities and their governing bodies and it will have to engage each one of them in detail and with patience to bring a systemic change in India's education sector. Since it is in charge of appointing individuals who frame overall and individual institutional policy, the ministry must do so with subtlety and by provide an enabling environment free of red tape or cronyism.

The task cut out for the education minister and his department is Herculean and these are only few of the areas within the sector that have received comment thus far. Another major policy concern is providing equal access at educational institutions for Indians belonging to historically marginalized groups without antagonizing any others.

National security: getting it right, doing it alone

Shekhar Gupta of The Indian Express warns Indians that a lack of debate on domestic security issues may lead to complacency on the matter by the newly elected government. The previous Congress-led government neglected internal security that culminated in to the Mumbai attacks last November. India cannot afford such assaults once again as its affect would be a dilution of any achievements on the development front. To make India truly secure, the government must be watchful against any spillover effects of political turmoil in the country's neighborhood, it should increase spending on defense for the next five years in order to upgrade security systems and it must formulate and act upon an exhaustive plan to root out internal insurgent groups such as the Naxalites in central and east India.

Another worried commentator wrote in The Asian Age that the responses to terror threats and attacks have been "too slow and too soft" under previous governments, allowing militants to strike Indian cities, towns and institutions again and again. Hence, the newly elected government requires a more disciplined and active approach to national security to ensure the "nation's survival". The first task at hand would be to note the threats India is facing and then understand and acknowledge them. Secondly, the police and intelligence services need more recruits, reforms and upgrades. On the defense front, long-pending procurements must be freed from bureaucratic red tape, made transparent and prioritized. 

Both authors emphasize the need for a long-term strategic plan to ensure better domestic security and to achieve it three different ministries must work cohesively, namely home affairs, foreign affairs and defense. They also see India fighting alone for her security, in a neighborhood currently seen as hostile towards India's ambitions and in a larger world that has its immediate interests aligned more closely with countries on the other side of the Indian border. Hence, improving internal and external security infrastructure are seen as muscle-building measures that would help India negotiate better and keep its citizenry and investments better protected.

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