The immediate provocation comes from Prof. C.N.R. Rao's outrage at the way six new IITs started academic programs this year. Here's Krishnakumar (Director, NCERT):
As one of the architects of India's science and technology policies, Rao is rightly concerned [about the haste in launching new IITs] and one must respect his candour. What one finds sad and difficult to accept is the manner in which he has argued for better planning for their expansion. He has pointed out that it has taken India 50 years to take IITs where they are today, and then he says, according to newspaper reports: "After all it's not like opening primary schools."
Krishnakumar then gives us a summary of all the ways in which this sort of callous-dismissive attitude has affected policy-making in primary education:
Both these remarks offer us valuable insight into India's failure to provide education of an acceptable quality to all children. The attitude these remarks signify is quite common. No one needs to doubt the genuine validity of Rao's anguish over the importance of maintaining IIT's high standards. But his comparative frame, in which primary schools rank so low as to symbolise a hastily established IIT, deserves critical attention. His remarks have come at a time when public policy seems to be waking up from a century-long sleep. [...]
The pejorative reference Rao made to primary schools is not just offensive to those of us who serve children in our formal capacities; it also reveals a huge mental block in the mind of India's highest-level development planners. The idea that primary schools can be established and run cheaply has been central to educational planning since independence. The idyllic myth of the village schoolmaster under a tree persisted for several decades after independence.
It was as late as the 1980s when a scheme to equip every primary school with basic minimum amenities and at least two teachers was mooted under the name 'Operation Blackboard' (OB). The modest gains of OB and other initiatives taken in the years following the National Policy on Education (1986) were supposed to get consolidated under the auspices of the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP), but the opposite happened and contradictions multiplied.
Enrolment increased, but the status of teachers and the quality of their training declined. During the 1990s the axe of fiscal rationalism fell on India's children and their teachers. State after state recruited para-teachers, and Madhya Pradesh went to the extent of declaring career teachers a 'dying cadre'. Those who objected to such changes were told that insecure, meagrely paid teachers produced better results than qualified career teachers.
One also heard that multi-grade teaching had virtues that one-teacher-per-class policy somehow missed, and so on. The net result was that primary schools lost whatever little right to dignity they had acquired over the first three decades of independence. Thousands of them could be set up without prior planning, exactly as Rao has indicated in his comment.
A plea for comprehensive and sophis-ticated policy for children and their education sounds like asking for the moon these days. We feign ignorance of the complexity of the demands that little children make on the state, and not just on their malnourished mothers. If they are to be nurtured to live and participate in a vibrant democratic order, India will need to pay the same meticulous attention to the needs of a primary school as it does in the case of IITs.