In end July 2020, the union cabinet approved the National Education Policy 2020, which seeks to completely overhaul the Indian education system. Many educationists have criticised the policy and termed it as casteist. Among other reasons, critics have pointed out that the policy does not mention reservation for historically marginalised communities even once.
Some of the most vocal detractors of the policy are from Tamil Nadu, who argue that the state has a model of education that is far more inclusive, and has already achieved many of the NEP’s targets. Dr Ezhilan Naganathan, a social activist and physician based in Chennai, is one of them. For over a decade, Naganathan has worked to make education—particularly health education—accessible to Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and Backward Class communities. He is the founder of YouthOrg, a non-profit that works on adequate representation for marginalised communities in the colleges of 13 districts in Tamil Nadu.
In an interview with Abhay Regi, an editorial fellow at The Caravan, Naganathan explained his view of the NEP and its pitfalls. He said that the policy makers have overlooked successful examples of inclusive education in India. Pertinently, the Bharatiya Shiksha Mandal—affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—claimed that the NEP reflected 60 percent of its suggestions. “Dr Ambedkar clearly placed public education as a directive principle of the state,” Naganathan said. “The state is moving away from this at all levels.”
Abhay Regi: Critics from Tamil Nadu are saying that the NEP is a regression from the education system the state has built. Why do you think that is so?
Ezhilan Naganathan: The NEP, as a plan, is blind to policies before it that have succeeded in bringing about the equitable, affordable and inclusive education that it aims to give. Take for example, gross-enrolment ratio for tertiary or college education—the NEP targets a GER of 50 percent by .
Currently, India’s GER is [26.3] percent, while Tamil Nadu has already [crossed] 45 percent. In two years, Tamil Nadu is due to cross that 50 percent target. The current GER for women is [above] 45 percent. The GERs of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities are [near] 40 percent, which is far better than anywhere in North India. A similar difference is noticeable in the GER for primary schools. The NEP target is reaching 100 percent for this by 2030. Tamil Nadu reached this target [in 2013].
This was a model that recognised that there are deep inequalities in our society, and thus, in education. There is an urban-rural divide, within which there is a class divide, within which there is a rampant caste divide, within which there is a gendered divide, when it comes to educational access. Tamil Nadu dealt with these divisions head on. India, as a union of states, should explore the most successful state and implement that model if it wants real results. That is common sense, right? But it has completely failed to do so.
AR: Tamil Nadu had a different approach when it came to structuring education policy. Why?
EN: The Dravidian view is always from the grassroots, unlike the NEP which is a very top-down approach. We have the representation of people from the grassroots in policy-making formulations. The first step of the success of the Dravidian movement was the social and political empowerment of marginalised communities. So, when they came up, they understood the ground realities much more than the policymaking bodies of Delhi.
I’ll give you a simple example. [In the early 1950s, the chief minister of the erstwhile Madras state, Chakravarti Rajagopalachari—informally known as Rajaji—introduced the Modified Scheme of Elementary Education. The scheme’s critics dubbed it as Kula Kalvi Thittam, or the hereditary education policy.] When the Kula Kalvi Thittam was introduced, it was immensely opposed by Periyar. In the Kula Kalvi Thittam, children would go to school in the morning and in the afternoon, they had to take up their ancestral professions. The NEP tries to do the same thing. [The policy states that internship opportunities to learn vocational subjects may be made available to school students through standards sixth and twelfth.] It just uses the term employability as an excuse.
Periyar opposed this completely because it was again revamping, reinstating the Manu Dharma system of caste-based professions. After Rajaji’s exit, due to the Kula Kalvi Thittam, [the Congress leader Kumaraswami] Kamaraj was picked by Periyar to become the next chief minister. Kamaraj, even though he was a Congress man, had the Dravidian ethos. He was the one who passed the constitutional amendment for reservation, as well as [he was] a part of the social justice movement. When he came to power, Periyar advised him to put ND Sundaravadivelu as the higher education secretary [officially, the director of public education.] The higher education secretary formulated a plan for mid-day meal based upon the Justice Party’s similar scheme in Madras corporation schools back in the 1920s.