The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The Constitution had envisaged a flexible education system

Last time I wrote for you I was basically trying to draw your attention to one interesting exchange that had once taken place nearly sixty years ago on the floor of India's new constituent assembly. B.R. Ambedkar was replying to two amendments to an article in the Draft Constitution in the chapter on the directive principles of state policy. His replies, short as they were, told us something about what lay in the minds of our Constitution-makers that the document itself, and the commentaries on it, did not reveal.

The article in question directed the state to provide compulsory and free education for all the children of India up to the age of 14. This, many of you would remember, was going to get as famous as Article 45 of the Constitution. This, probably the most frequently discussed article in the Constitution, had reigned but not ruled until 2002. That year the 86th amendment lifted out part of it (providing for free and compulsory education for all children between six and 14 years of age) and included it among the fundamental rights, thus making this provision justiciable for the first time. The right to education bill that the government of India now proposes in order to activate the 86th amendment has been hotly debated at the level of the Central Advisory Board of Education. Slowly the media and the general public too are catching up. Today I want to add to the debate, throwing in my own speculation on what could have been in Ambedkar's mind when he was responding to those two early amendments.

Briefly, two questions seemed involved, one explicit, the other by obvious implication: First: was it only primary education (classes I to VIII) that we were talking about when we directed the state to provide free and compulsory education for all the children up to 14 years of age' Second: why 14 years'

Ambedkar had given an unexpected answer to the first question: an unequivocal 'No'. To the second, his answer was not absolute, only contingent. The cut-off point had to be 14, because the Constitution was going to ban child labour up to the age of 14 as a matter of a fundamental right of the child. Ambedkar's position on the second question implied the answer would have to change with time, since the legal and societal definitions of 'child' kept changing in civilized societies ' this broader second question I would like to bring up before you another time.

Ambedkar's response to the questions was both fair and farsighted, and the new CABE would have done well to ponder it when it last met in mid-July, 2005. The seven CABE committees had all sent in their reports.

While six (on girls' education, secondary education, higher education and so on) went through, as I understood, 'smoothly' (that is, without a hitch and practically without much discussion), the important one (some say the all-important one) on the proposed education bill did not. Only the more contentious issues that looked important to the members of CABE were taken up, and the avoidable bickering around some of these ate up, comfortably, almost all the available time. This was disappointing. However, the two old questions I 'flagged' will not go away easily; their modern counterparts will keep on staring unblinkingly at the builders of 21st century India.

CABE willing, eventually their time will come too. In fact, now that M.A. Jinnah's mind has been thoroughly analysed over the last month and pronounced completely inscrutable, Ambedkar will now hopefully get his share of attention too.

Now going back to the first question (education or primary education'), my conjecture is that what Ambedkar really had in mind was this: any amended version of Article 45 must keep open the possibility of a fast track for the better-than-average children who could finish primary and move into secondary school even before 14 years of age. Hence education, not primary education. Today we must look at this with an even broader perspective.

The truth is, deciding what society wanted for children by way of education had always been a little more complex than we would let ourselves believe. There were actually two social objectives linked to the two questions, not one. We somehow got them mixed up right from the beginning. To take the second question first, clearly the objective was to fix, for our times, an upper age limit of childhood (we began with 14 years); and then, on a completely different logical plane, the objective was to relate one-to-one, if possible, the age of a child to the class she will go to in school. For no obvious reason we had tried to bring the two social objectives under one umbrella.

The system, not the Constitution, perhaps shaken by sheer numbers, went for decreeing a rigid one-to-one relation: six years of age to the beginning of Class I'14 years to the completion of Class VIII. I am not sure whether this relation between the two sets was ever useful except for its brute administrative simplicity (not convenience). But clearly it was a highly contrived relation, at best, that needed to be re-examined in a democratic society that entertained global academic ambitions.

Which slice of society would accept the one-to-one fit as reasonable' I actually tried to think up an example, but could not go much beyond 'children of average abilities from at least second generation educated middle class families in the urban sector'. But this did not seem quite right even for this insignificantly small set to which, over seventy years ago, I and some of my friends had belonged. We, none of us particularly gifted, could finish Class VIII well before time. So I had to opt out and add another rider: 'who joined school at Class I at the age of four and went up one step at a time, no double promotions'. In the Earlier Iron Age (that was before my time) people were actually made to wait at Class X if they had arrived there too early. We were spared. But Free India conjured up the 'system' and the Later Iron Age with it. Whom did it benefit'

First think of the rural child from a background of farming activity who comes to school at a slightly higher age, class for class. So does the girl child in almost all rural and most urban communities ' for another set of social compulsions. Then think of the child with special needs. She must have free education at least till she can get into the work force, maybe at 18' These are the 'overage' children in class who, some educationists still feel, are the blemishes of the system. Finally, think of the fast track that we can provide for all achievers who we know can cover the first six years of elementary education in four (by allowing them to take first admissions in higher classes), and then the gifted children who, having joined, may not top every class but can comfortably skip a few on their way up. Modern India cannot live and prosper without special care being taken and provisions made for all these denominations. I hope CABE would have the nerve at least to revive the systemic flexibility we once had; indeed, even to think up newer ways of adding to it as people in all progressive countries are prone to do.

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