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 All quiet on the MHRD front

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The government promptly announced its abandonment as its suggestions were deemed too radical for the BJP government. In June 2017, over a year later, the government formed a new nine-member committee under space scientist K Kasturirangan  which is said to be working on the new draft. 

As for opening of new IITs, IIMs, NITs, IISERs and IIITs, it is a continuous process started by the Congress government and blessed by the present regime. Thus the achievements of the MHRD during the Modi rule can be summed up in a simple statement : two deliveries and a miscarriage. 

In fact in the last quarter of a century, the Supreme Court has done more for the reformation of Higher Education -- including medical education, technical education and higher education per se -- than the successive governments in power. NEET, to take a recent case, is a glaring example of successful judicial activism and blissful administrative laziness. 

The Ministry had, in the last quarter of a century, political giants like Arjun Singh, Murli Manohar Joshi and Kapil Sibal as ministers. They have now been replaced by political pygmies, by default or design but one thing is sure : the period will go down as the zero progress period for the ministry – a disgrace to the concept of welfare state in 21st century.

Past Editorials  

Ushering in a new medical education regime
With the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test finally set to execute a new regime in medical college admissions from 2017 - and in all its glory at that - and the Modi government and the Supreme Court firm to overhaul the Medical Council of India, the coming years may usher in a new system for the new age.

The proliferation of engineering colleges in 1990 had necessitated setting up of the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), and now, 25 years later, the Judiciary and Parliament have tacitly concurred to change the medical education set up in the country. With the Opposition in favour for a change and the Judiciary favourably inclined, the proposed National Medical Commission Bill, 2016 may be a reality during the winter session of Parliament.

The draft Bill has no place for the Lodha committee so the short-lived committee which has raised more questions than it could answer, would have to wind up or may perpetuate in its new avatar like the oversight committee for medical admissions or fee structure adjudication/arbitration authority under the new regime.

With the Supreme Court order dated April 28 and May 9, 2016 specifically signifying that all private institutions must necessarily pick students from the NEET merit list and even casting aspersions on the authenticity of claims by the private players the NEET management and execution will have to be significantly elaborate and credible in order to avoid frequent judicial interventions. The Lodha committee may come in handy here.

Now the state governments cannot shy away from the responsibility of maintaining and administering a credible medical education system by saying that since NEET is a Central government's initiative the states have no role in it. The state of Uttar Pradesh has shown the way in the matter. The state government has, under pressure from the chief minister, undertaken counselling of all government and private medical college seats under its domain. A welfare state cannot throw the public at the mercy of the profiteers.

The NITI Aayog has, in the draft Bill said that the "idea is to create a world class medial education system that ensures adequate supply of high quality medical professionals, greater emphasis on research, provides for objective periodic assessment of medical institutions, enforces high ethical standards and is flexible to adopt to the changing needs of transforming nation." This may indeed sound a high-flying ideal, said in a typically Indian style -- pompous and flamboyant. But if the new system delivers even half of what has been claimed by the Aayog, the job is done.

The Committee on the Reform of the Indian Medical Council Act, 1956 chaired by Aayog's vice chairman Arvind Panagariya has sought comments/suggestions/feedback on the draft bill latest by August 31, 2016. The Chairman of the Academic Committee of Medical Council of India (MCI) Professor Ved Prakash Mishra has suggested that the National Medical Commission Bill 2016 be named the National Medical Education Grants Commission Bill 2016 so that there could be parity of medical education with the higher education per se in so far as availability of grants for developmental needs was concerned.

How the government goes about it would depend a lot on the pressure groups in and outside Parliament. And I must say, with the huge quantum of money involved, particularly in medical education, the pressure groups will fight to the last for their survival.

NEET is finally here to stay
Supreme Court’s order of April 28 in Sankalp Charitable Trust & others vs Union of India & others case and its reiteration on
May 9 stunned the medical education stake holders country-wide, particularly private players, who were eying big money in the coming admission tests. Each stake-holder has, naturally, reacted in his own unique way depending upon the side that he is on. The Apex Court order, needless to say, was primarily aimed at alleviating the problems of the students and the prime beneficiary in the whole episode will, indeed, be the students.

Damage if any by the Apex Court order has been fixed by the promulgation of the Indian Medical Council (Amendment) Ordinance, 2016 and the Dentists (Amendment) Ordinance, 2016 on May 24.

On May 27 a vacation bench of Justices P.C. Pant and D.Y. Chandrachud further settled the matter by refusing to entertain a plea for stay on the two ordinances. Obviously the NEET is here to stay -- and stay with grace and strength that is deserves.

The Apex Court has, by a judicial order, brought order in the chequered medical admission system – something akin to what Mr Murli Manohar Joshi wanted to do in higher education when he was the Minister for Human Resource Development. What is remarkable about the Apex Cout order is the firmness and promptness with which it has been delivered and the wisdom with which the Executive welcomed it.

The SC orders triggered a spate of reactions, some subdued and grudging, others loud and aggressive while some preferred to maintain a benign silence. Telangana has been particularly noisy saying they would challenge the order citing Article 371 (D) of the constitution, a privilege provided to Andhra and Telangana. To douse anger in some states the Union government brought in two ordinances to provide relief to students in various states.

In the north, Punjab has scrapped its own medical admission test while Haryana and Rajasthan are quiet because medical admission process is at an incipient stage in the two states. Uttar Pradesh is grappling with the problem and the Chief Minister Akhlesh Yadav is too busy with the Assembly election worry to decide on the issue. Bihar has decided to accept NEET while West Bengal is going ahead with its own common admission test. Assam too is planning out its own test. 

The end-result at the end of the day is that most stake-holders will fall in line because they have gauged the tone and tenor of the Supreme Court order and the fate of the grudging lamentations made by the Attorney General post facto. Twenty years of disorder in medical admissions has come to an end at last.

Is Smriti a proxy?
Smriti Zubin Irani, 38, the youngest minister in the Modi cabinet has been allocated the Ministry of Human Resource Development. The move has surprised many political observers who have given vent to their views and venom on social media as well as in private gatherings.

Irani, a higher secondary passout, with a soap entertainer background, was pitted against Rahul Gandhi in Amethi and, indeed, gave him a tough fight, loosing by just a few thousand votes. Obviously this does not qualify her for the august Ministry of Human Resource Development which was, in the recent past, graced by giants like Murli Manohar Joshi, Arjun Singh and Kapil Sibal.

Higher Education experts and political observers are at their wits end to solve this mind-boggling riddle behind Modi's ministry-making exercise.

Smriti is a sitting Rajya Sabha member who was elected from Gujarat in 2011 and hence doesn't need a bye-election route to Parliament till 2016. But then what prompted Narendra Modi to award the high-profile MHRD portfolio to her?

Is she being used as proxy, a stop-gap arrangement, till a political heavy-weight --may be Dr Murli Manohar Joshi -- agrees to step
in ?

Awarding a 38-year-old youngster a cabinet rank could be a part of a win-win political quid pro quo between Modi and Irani. By this clever move Modi would get time to subdue as well as cajole Dr Joshi to don the MHRD which he did over a decade ago. Smriti, in the bargain, would get a cabinet berth which she could not have aspired for otherwise. She would, it goes without saying, move to a minor arena whenever asked to.

Second possibility can be a situation in which the MHRD is to be administered from the prime minister's office as was the case during Pallam Raju's tenure in the MHRD, particularly the fag-end period. In such a situation it would be worth watching a novice Smriti Irani chairing the next meeting of the Central Advisory Board for Education where experienced and aggressive state education ministers from hostile states like Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal et al simply refuse to toe the Central government line.  

The third remote possibility could be that Modi plans to follow the policy of rigorous administration in basic and secondary education, giving higher education a sumptuous dose of autonomy.

Guesswork and political speculations apart one thing is certain : Smrity Irani is the biggest gainer of the 2014 BJP/Modi wave and Mr Modi, an astute politician will have to answer many questions for making a mountain out of a molehill.

History, we must remember, is a ruthless prosecutor.

15th Parliament did little for Higher Education
The 15th Parliament, the last session of which concluded on February 21, 2014 did little for Higher Education. In fact it did little justice to the country’s parliamentary democracy – which is to say that the political parties showed little political maturity to keep the house in order. 

The 14th Parliament did pass some bills that the ruling Congress Party thought, would reform the higher education system in the country but their cumulative result has been far from satisfactory. In retrospective it is prudent to say for sure, that it was Dr Murli Manohar Joshi’s term in the Ministry of Human Resource Development that indeed, did some concrete ground work for country’s human resource development. His decisions were mature, pragmatic, apolitical and lasting. 

Arjun Singh, in the UPA 1 government, opened a can of worms – the deemed university imbroglio, Muslims’ appeasement, OBC reservation et al that eventually boomeranged on him. Kapil Sibal who inherited the legacy in the UPA 2 had to bear the brunt of Arjun Singh’s political game plan. The spectrum scam precipitated a cabinet reshuffle which brought in M M Pallam Raju, so to say, “a poor player”, eventually leading to the cul-de-sac in the MHRD.

Looking back to the early days of UPA 2 an enthusiastic Kapil Sibal announced the 100-day agenda for the HRD ministry in June 2009. He promised to fast-track radical reforms in higher education, including a law to check and punish ‘malpractices’ in higher education institutions. 

He also proposed setting up of an overarching authority for higher education and research. The MHRD, under Sibal, formulated over a dozen bills, most of them aiming at bringing greater transparency and accountability in the education sector. Five years after most of the plans still remain a far-fetched dream. 

Then came Pallam Raju. Defining the broad contours of his policy at the 60th meeting of Central Advisory Board of Education in Delhi on 8th November, 2012 M M Pallam Raju promised to toe the legacy line. However, within days it was obvious, on Akash issue, that Sibal days were over. Sibal left with 13 MHRD bills stranded in Parliament – and poor Raju couldn’t muster enough political backup to see them through. Helpless, as he was, Raju instead found solace in Telengana politicking, leaving the ministry to its Secretary Ashok Thakur. The only bill that Congress bigwigs were interested in to squeeze through was a bill to set up a Central university for women in Rae Bareli, the constituency of Congress president Sonia Gandhi. 

The riddle of another important bill, to regulate entry and operation of foreign institutions in the country which got tenaciously entangled in Parliamentary rigmarole, was solved by a cue given by Kapil Sibal. MHRD implemented the spirit of the bill by an executive order and formulated rules for setting up of foreign universities’ campuses in the country. The Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion and Department of Economic Affairs backed up the move and gave their nod to the idea. The matter is now, unfortunately, struck up in the Law ministry. 

Technical Education took a stride in UPA 2 but it brought more pain than pleasure to the stakeholders. Eight new Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), 20 National Institutes of Technology (NITs), seven Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), 16 Central universities and five Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs) were set up. As the bills for Indian Institutes of Technology, the NITs and the IISERs were delayed in Parliament many students passed out without valid degrees which were, fortunately, revalidated later on. In IISERs the problem reached a gigantic proportion with numerous protests and hartals by the passing out students.  

The smooth conversion of the University of Roorkee to an eminent IIT and that of BHU-IT to an IIT make a monumental study in contrast to understand the modus operandi of the MHRD under Murli Manohar Joshi and the later entrants – Arjun, Sibal and Pallam Raju. 

Similarly take a look at the move to streamline the entrance/ admission tests in the country. Dr Joshi roped in the CBSE to organize AIEEE to facilitate admissions to engineering colleges in the country, leaving the IITs and the various states to have their own corresponding state entrance exams. The Congress government clubbed the AIEEE with the IIT-JEE and made a hash of the two distinct systems. State entrance exams, they couldn’t dare to touch. 

As for Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA), only time will tell where it will lead us to. 

The moral of the story is that the Ministry of Human Resource Development is too important a field to be left with the novices like Pallam Raju or the hardboiled, conceited politicians like Arjun Singh or Kapil Sibal.


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