Why Smriti Irani as HRD minister was a terrible choice

Should the research done by the HRD minister's advisors be taken into consideration, surely India would shoot into stratospheric heights.

 |  7-minute read |   13-11-2015
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From the mouth of some babes, pearls of wisdom and truth fall like gentle rain from heaven. From the mouth of others, idiocies pour in a torrent and are considered truth only because they occupy positions of power. We leave it to the reader to decide to which group our minister of human resource development Smriti Irani belongs. Keep in mind that she determines to a large extent the course of education, including higher education policies in India. Irani's comments on education at the conclusion of the National Seminar on the New Education Policy in Kolkata would be shocking if they were made by a mature and intelligent human being. But, as is said, from the mouth of the babes...

The minister claimed that in India "a large section of research work is done in vernacular languages, whereas global rankings only consider research in English." We are not quibbling when we say that research is never considered in global rankings but only publications, and prizes and awards in the sciences are. Of course, we can understand that the HRD minister does not know the difference. Why should she? There are enough dumb advisors to write the speeches she reads out. We are supposed to assume that this minister is able to judge the quality of research in languages she does not even know, whereas the "Republic of Letters" sadly languishes in ignorance. We are sure that there is research in Bhojpuri, which goes beyond research in superstring theory in physics; research in Braj which puts the Bourbaki programme in mathematics to shame; research in Konkani which transforms the paradigm of modern evolutionary biology; and research in Sanketi which provides an alternative to black hole physics.

Since the minister is able to appreciate the quality of research in all these domains, the puzzle before us is really excruciatingly painful. Why does she not fund a massive translation programme that will propel humankind from its current darkness towards the light shining in her eyes, instead of asking advertising agencies to write documents about the future of Indian higher education? We are sure we will hear scintillating answers to these questions in her next speech. In the meantime, however, there is one more puzzle that confronts us. There are more Gujarati-speaking people than Dutch-speaking people; there are more Hindi speakers than German, Dutch, and French speakers put together. Do you think the Europeans are not doing scientific research in their vernacular languages? Yet, they do not languish behind in the global rankings the way India does. This raises questions to ponder, as we wait for the words of wisdom from the mouth of the babes...

In the same talk, she admitted - ruefully, one would suppose - that there is a lack of awareness among Indian researchers about getting their research work published in international journals. This was supposed to explain the "achievement" of Indian universities and research institutions in global rankings. What breathtaking audacity! Scientific researchers doing fundamental work in nuclear physics in Tulu "lack awareness" of the top journals in this domain. There is a "lack of awareness" among Rajasthani mathematicians about the Fields medal and top journals in mathematics, even though they are re-designing and redrawing the structure and foundation of mathematics. There is a "lack of awareness" among the Assamese evolutionary biologists of perhaps even Darwin's The Origin of Species, because it has not yet been translated into Assamese. Indeed, such profundities, such earth-shattering insights - as they say, from the mouth of the babes...

Of course, the minister hastened to add that Indian higher education institutions not figuring high in the global rankings did not mean that the country was lagging behind in quality research. This is a profound philosophical point, as it draws a fundamental conceptual distinction between a country and her institutions. The country is being led by the HRD department so ably guided by Mrs Irani. Unfortunately, this high-quality achievement does not figure in the institutional rankings, even though, surely, the HRD ministry is also an institution. Should the research done by her advisors and bureaucrats be taken into consideration, surely India would shoot into stratospheric heights in the global rankings. If only our higher education institutions were to follow the diktats of this department and its capable leaders, they would go to places where even angels fear to tread. From the mouth of the babes...

When you are sitting in Delhi, travelling in air-conditioned cars and business-class flights, we suppose you would not see the absence of research in Indian institutions of higher learning. One hears only the whisper of sycophants and the whining of third-rate technocrats who head such institutions. Anecdotal evidence about individuals leaving research centres to go abroad because of a lack of funds, is transformed into national policy. The pathetic belief of the HRD ministry is that an increase of funding to the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) will lead to a rise in the quality of research. When you have a third-rate Sanskrit pundit as your advisor on higher education policy, why would you need to study the sociology, history, philosophy and psychology of science to find out the problems involved in generating and encouraging scientific creativity? Your Sanskrit pundit will hunt out the relevant Vedic shlokas, whereas Europeans and Americans can do empirical research into science. Thus, you can initiate a glossy E UG Shala, whereas these dumb Europeans and Americans publish book series on the history, philosophy, sociology and psychology of science. Were we ordinary mortals to say this, one would be indignant with anger. But from the mouth of the babes...

Thus we could go on. The point remains that everyone from the Yashpal committee onwards has recognised the absence of research culture in Indian institutions of higher learning. Owing to the equally breathtaking realisations of Irani's illustrious predecessors like Kapil Sibal, the Indian education system will resemble that of Africa in the 1960s in ten years' time. Most institutions of learning have inducted professors on the basis of caste certificates, not on the basis of cutting-edge research in vernacular languages. Therefore, the only thing they can teach the present and the coming generations is that the Bible according to Ambedkar, which is not even the "World" according to Garp.

Unless of course such vernacular teachings of the Gospel are also to qualify as cutting-edge research, our students will not learn anything in this and the coming decades. The secondary education system today - especially the central exams - is sustained by retired private tutors aged between 60 and 70 years. Unfortunately, old age and death do not obey the laws discovered by our cutting-edge researchers in vernacular languages, which means most of these tutors will die in a decade from now. Who then is going to teach our secondary school students?

Our minister has a solution: she inducts the most incompetent educationalist we have ever met in our lives to be part of the CABE, just because he is her favourite. So we suppose such people will do all the teaching and tuition required to bring around our secondary school students to do cutting-edge research in even more obscure vernacular languages. But then we also suppose it does not matter, because as the minister said, these cutting-edge researchers do not need to know the top journals in their fields.

This is a sad commentary on the quality of the educational initiatives undertaken by Mrs Irani. Sadder is that when Modi mouths his "development" mantra, his own government is actually busy creating underdevelopment. Even sadder than this is to sell inanities as brilliant insights and initiatives. But this is not a problem, since Indians are used to tear-jerking movies anyway. They will just dry their tears about this incompetent ministry and move on. However, this time the brakes will be applied very rudely, because this state of affairs is generating a tragedy of gigantic proportions. What about the children and the youth of today? Who is going to teach them? The vernacular geniuses, we suppose. From the mouth of the babes...


SN Balagangadhara and Jakob De Roover SN Balagangadhara and Jakob De Roover @jakobderoover

SN Balagangadhara is director, department of Comparative Science of Cultures, Ghent University, Belgium, and Jakob De Roover is research assistant professor, India Studies, Department of Comparative Science of Cultures, Ghent University, Belgium.

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