Originally a star of the soap opera Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, Smriti Irani, is now in charge of what ideally should be considered an important cabinet portfolio — the human resource development ministry. Narendra Modi’s appointment of the 38-year-old, a greenhorn in governance as HRD minister, however, raises serious concerns about the priority (or the lack of it) accorded to a critical subject like education. Its not just that Irani is a novice in the art of governance. The equally, if not more, pertinent question is does she possess adequate knowledge of the multiple challenges awaiting her in this sector? The answer is not necessarily a reassuring one.
Consider the broader framework of Irani’s appointment. Designating education at a lower pecking order of governance is by now a well-established Indian ‘tradition’. In fact, systematic slighting of the social sector — particularly health and education — have skewed India’s development paradigm. Welfare economist Amartya Sen has consistently argued in favour of a strong social sector based economy as against the exclusively growth centred thesis advocated by Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya. Modi’s model of development appears to draw from the economic framework prescribed by the latter.
One of the strongest critiques of the Gujarat model under Modi is his failure to strengthen the social indicators in the state under his thumb for more than a decade. Irani’s appointment further strengthens the apprehension of low priority to the education sector. For instance, the Prime Minister could have gone with an experienced leader — well grounded in the debates around pressing questions related to education — to head the ministry. Recall that higher education is in the throes of crises triggered by the former HRD minister Kapil Sibal’s disastrous experimentations with education reforms. With Sibal’s backing, Delhi University Vice Chancellor Dinesh Singh rammed through the controversial semester system followed by the Four Year Undergraduate Programme (FYUP) — both opposed doggedly, though unsuccessfully by teachers and sections of students. Sibal and Singh studiously ignored the valid objections raised by the critics about the tectonic shifts in higher education. During the Lok Sabha elections and in its immediate aftermath, the BJP had signalled its wish to reconsider those university ‘reforms’ once they were in power. The moment has now arrived. At this juncture, the HRD ministry could undoubtedly have done with an experienced hand at the deck. It could possibly have been wiser to have in charge a minister with a sound understanding of education-related matters to deal with the complexities of the issues on hand. After all, it’s not just higher education but also primary and secondary education sectors that require informed intervention by the top leadership.
Like ministries of finance and commerce do surely benefit from having a leadership possessing knowledge of economics and trade, the HRD ministry too can legitimately lay claims on a minister who understands pedagogical issues. Consider in this context the judicious appointment of the ENT surgeon Harsh Vardhan — also a pioneer of India’s pulse polio programme — as the Union health minister.
For far too long the governing classes have ignored the imperatives of quality education. The standards of education (reading, writing, teaching) in primary schools continue to be shocking despite an impressively high enrolment rate. As an agent of change, the Narendra Modi-led government should have prioritised education in its governance agenda. The appointment of Smriti Irani in the top ministry position, unfortunately, does not signal any hope in this direction.