Last year, as a panel member for HSBC's annual scholarships, I (with my co-panelists) was struck by the brilliance of a young boy from a village near Delhi. A farmer's son, he had pulled through his academic career almost entirely through scholarships. And here he was applying for the big one, perhaps the biggest.
There was no debating his sheer grit and raw intelligence. And yet, the boy had had an advantage. He had, somewhere in his first few years of school, applied and enrolled for the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyala. These are not schools some of us living in cities are likely to see while driving into work. For the simple reason, they are not to be found here.
The residential Navodayas are another model of excellence, like the IITs and IIMs. They aim to create a class of bright, young students, mostly from rural and small town India. They give the opportunities that the current schooling system does not. And allows some of them to compete on equal footing from the (snobs !) from St Stephens in Delhi and St Xaviers in Bombay. Notably for scholarships like this one.
Rajiv Gandhi's Idea
The Navodayas were a brainchild of Rajiv Gandhi. I will admit I didn't know about their existence till that day. And two members of the panel, Business Standard editor T N Ninan and author/writer Ramachandra Guha subsequently entered into a lively but furious debate about Rajiv Gandhi's contribution to India. Two sparkling lines I recall from that exchange were, "The problem with you economists is that you forget history." And the retort, "And the problem with the historians is that they don't understand economics."
Lets accept that this model of excellence works, whether for Navodayas or IITs/IIMs. And the fact is that it has stood the test of time and delivered. Actually, much more than it was perhaps ever envisaged. But that's the true test of any great model, in business or otherwise. Im pretty sure the Navodayas will deliver too, to greater heights. They already are. But possibly they escape the attention of people like me.
And yet, we are intent on destroying this model. By adding even more reservation to our premier institutions of excellence. Its plain shocking to see the government pushing through reservation in the IITs and IIMs. The recent constitutional amendment allows the government to add another 27.5% for OBCs for a host of other institutions as well. These include AIIMs to FTII and NIFT, as I learn from the Indian Express this morning.
That takes total reservation to 49.5%. Wow !
More Seats Not A Solution
HRD minister Arjun Singh's (the architect of this plan) response to the protests is that the institutes should increase the number of seats to allow for the reservations. Theoritically okay but practically disasterous. An increase in seats should be driven by the economic models of demand and supply. And capabilities. Not by fiat. As is the case here.
But a HRD minister running educational institutions cannot think like a Railway Minister. Announce more trains whenever a constituency grumbles. When he should be thinking of a brand new railway system. What's worse is that in doing all this, the Congress government seems to strike at the very Nehruvian model of excellence that has brought so much of equity to India. And to themselves. At least in the past.
I compared (in my previous post) the Indian School of Business with the Indian Institute of Managements. That comparison reflected some familiarity and bias in favour of the number two. As opposed to the entrenched number one. It also assumed that the IIMs are more or less on an equal footing when it comes to developing world class teaching systems, getting the best professors and creating the best learning environments. And finally, taking in the students they WANT to take in.
How An Institution Goes To Seed
Arjun Singh wants to change the rules of the game. Halfway. I cannot now make a fair comparison between an IIM and an ISB or a AIIMS and lets say, the Manipal Institutes. Because the model of excellence that these fine institutions represented is being taken apart. In addition to diluting their present and past equity. I should know. I belong to a south Bombay college which once boasted the best and finest this country has produced.
I would once count the number of alumni from my college whose statues adorn various streets and corners of south Bombay. Incidentally, that includes a gentleman by the name of BR Ambedkar ! Whose statues of course are to be found all over the country. Anyway, all this is truly history now. And one key reason I would think is that Elphinstone College one day was taken over by the state government. Nothing wrong in that per se. Except that there was no model of excellence applied. And all attempts at meritocracy went downhill.
Which is why I think Arjun Singh's move must be opposed strongly. With all the vehemance at the command of every existing and past student of these institutions. The quiet manner in which its been pushed through is menacing, to say the least. And the fact that all political parties support it, is sad.
Protest And Offer Solutions
There is a larger problem here. Of our inability to understand what is going or has gone wrong with our education system. Of how there is a very large India out there that is reaching out to the politicians to do something for them. Possibly because they are alienated from the great IT/BPO story that we write about everyday. Or the live images of Lakme Fashion Week on all-time television.
But that's no excuse for the politicians to respond with such terribly unimaginative moves. The politicians seem to have guaged an undercurrent of discontent in the polity. As they often do. Their solutions to address this discontent are retrogade. While we oppose the moves, we must offer solutions as well. Even as we acknowledge that India is not about what you and I see everyday, with the booming stock markets and glitzy malls. That's how Nehru would have thought.