Imagining alternative futures

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Why the Young India Adhikar March calls for greater civic solidarity The caricaturing of scientific inquiry at the recent Indian Science Congress (ISC) is only symptomatic of the larger ideological thrust through which institutions of higher education in India are now sought to be governed. Further, the choice of venue for the ISC this year — a private university in Punjab — highlights the boost that investors of private capital in higher education receive even as funding cutbacks at public universities have threatened the closure of 167 centres for women’s studies and 35 centres for studies in social exclusion. That a proposed Jio Institute was granted the ‘Institute of Eminence’ status much before it could even open is a grim reminder of state support now being unambiguously willed upon the private model. It is the same political imperative that is directing public­funded institutions towards ‘graded autonomy’ — duly recognised as a covert entry  point for privatisation. The threat to autonomy is writ large in the recent moves to scrap the University Grants Commission (UGC) as a funding body for higher education, in keeping with the World Trade Organisation’s mandate that views education as a tradable commodity, not as a right that every citizen can demand of the state.

Right versus privilege In 2015, the UGC, citing a fund crunch, resolved to scrap the nonNET fellowship altogether. After student protests across universities (hashtagged on social media as ‘Occupy UGC’), articulated how research fellowships were not state doles but instead sought to incentivise knowledge creation, the government was forced to retract the move. But soon after, the release of similar non­NET fellowships for Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes and minority students — namely, the Rajiv Gandhi National Fellowship and Maulana Azad National Fellowship — came to be stalled, pending a new set of guidelines that severely curtailed eligibility. The Ministry of Human Resource Development’s All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) Report 2017­18 notes that the Gross Enrolment Ratio across institutions of higher education has risen to 25.8% from 19.4% in 2010­11. The GER is an index of the proportion of citizens between 18 and 23 years — in every sample size of 100 — who have structurally secured entry into tertiary education, while exit figures (dropouts) are left unaccounted for. The inflationary tendencies of AISHE figures notwithstanding, the report points out that the GER is 21.8% for SCs and 15.9% for STs “as  compared to the national GER”. However, deeper scrutiny shows that though the standard formula for calculating GER must take the population census in the relevant age group as the base sample size, the GER for Dalit­Adivasis is produced by altering the methodology. Instead of taking the Census total as base figure, it is the fractional enrolment count that is used to produce fictions of inflated SC/ST GER. When population data (Table 38 of the report) is read in consonance with enrolment data (Table 14), the arithmetic shows a GER of 3.72% for Dalits and 1.35% for Adivasis. But in an identical age sample of 100 students, a minimum of 17 are from Dalit backgrounds and nearly nine from Adivasi communities. In actual terms, therefore, less than four out of 17 SC students and one out of every nine ST students appear to have entry­level access to higher education. The GER for minority students from  non­Hindu backgrounds is a meagre 1.87% (against the official 7.2%). Analysed against Census 2011 data, less than two out of every 20 minority students move to tertiary education. Ironically, the enrolment ratio for Hindu upper castes is 8.47%, implying that more than eight out of every 10 caste Hindus access higher education. The government’s recent electoral gimmick of enabling 10% reservation in educational institutions for “economically weaker” upper­caste sections only performs a complete

inversion of affirmative action policies, especially when documented data point to an entrenched legacy of caste­based discrimination. The withdrawal of non­NET fellowships for the socially marginalised (accompanied by reservations for dominant caste groups) is informed by a policy transition from a public­funded model of inclusive economic planning to a private userpay principle. It follows from the reform measures proposed by the Ambani­Birla Report on higher education (2000), and subsequently vindicated by the National Knowledge Commission’s emphasis on  “need­blind admissions” in higher education. The assumption behind a near­complete withdrawal of research funding begins by linking the quest for higher knowledge with an illusion of proportionately higher employment opportunities. But the reality is that with unemployment rates soaring to a 45­year high, the government’s disinvestment from the higher education sector can only end up creating a highly skilled, lowly paid, indebted workforce. The AISHE report contains traces of more statistical falsification — adjusting “growth” in the number of teaching positions by changing the base year for comparison (to 2010­11 from 2013­14). As the report shows (Table 51), there is a sharp annual decline in the number of teachers employed since 2015­16. In the past three years, teaching strength in higher education institutions has fallen from 15.19 lakh to 12.85 lakh, with most of the losses reflected against reserved permanent posts. The move to a 13­point roster in appointments will only aggravate these losses, till teaching becomes an exclusively upper caste profession. Alarmingly, through this period of reduction in teaching jobs, 104 new universities have been instituted, 66 of which are “privately managed”. It is no surprise that many of the brightest minds from the best public institutions are now lapped up by elite private universities “equipped with world­class infrastructure”. A pushback It is clear that a nationalist crusade is only mortgaging public education systems to transnational capital. This is also articulated in the “impatience” that Amartya Sen spoke about in the context of the recent ISC, an impatience that is fomenting student unrest in campuses. It is the same impatience — in the form of anger at being sidelined by iniquitous government policies that are upplanting the vision and promise of the public university — which is fuelling the student­led ‘Young India Adhikar March’ (to be held on February 7). In the last year or so, one has seen collective rights assertions in the form of well­publicised rallies by farmers, the marginalised and women — all signs of the anger of different constituencies reeling under the policies of an indifferent government. The ‘Young India Adhikar March’ is a representation of over 40 youth organisations demanding, among other things, an end to fee hikes, gender discriminatory laws, a syllabus free of “saffron” taints, alongside the guarantee of employment and academic, intellectual freedoms of teaching and learning. If the ‘publicness’ of public education must come to occupy our idea of the ‘nation’, it is time we march with our youth and demand the right to imagine alternative futures

Imagining alternative futures 1

A booster dose for consumption, investment

Focus must now be on relentless implementation of the reforms announced in the Interim Budget The Interim Budget should spur consumption that, in turn, would impel the private investment cycle. After three years of prudence, the NDA government slipped on the fiscal deficit target in fiscal 2018, and then again in 2019. For fiscal 2020, in the Interim Budget, it has pencilled in fiscal deficit at 3.4% of GDP, or 30 basis points (bps) more than envisaged under the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management (FRBM) Act. No surprise there, because persuasions of a battle of hustings typically preclude fiscal rectitude. In the milieu, the Interim Budget’s focus on rural India and agriculture was expected. The pension and personal tax proposals come as the icing. This should push up consumption, especially in the social strata that has a higher propensity to consume, and in the process, animate a slothful privatesector investment cycle. That is important because the government, which gamely drove investments in the past couple of years, will have to take a back seat with the fiscal slippage showing. What will be helpful here is that capacity utilisation has ticked up and the corporate deleveraging cycle is progressing well. The Interim Budget also promises to leave more money in hinterland hands. The PM Kisan scheme alone could inject ₹95,000 crore into the farm economy in the current and next fiscals. CRISIL estimates this would boost profit from farming by 22%. Add the impact of proposed interventions on insurance, credit and calamity relief, interest subvention on animal husbandry and fisheries, and agriculture, the economy already looks reassuring. Tax rebate Then, there is something for the middle class, too. The tax rebates for those earning up to ₹5 lakh, the ₹10,000 increase in standard deduction, and the hike in the TDS threshold on interest earned on deposits up to ₹40,000 are also consumption triggers. The focus should now be on relentless implementation of announced reforms by getting the State machinery moving at full tilt. Sectorally, the consumption boosting measures augur well for low­value consumer durables, fast­moving consumer goods and select automobile segments. Sales of mobile phones, smallersized television sets and entry­level two­wheelers should be positively impacted. Higher rural income will also spur demand for packaged food items such as biscuits and bakery products. Focus on road building under National Highway Authority of India and Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana will spur demand for commercial vehicles and tractors, respectively. Construction of roads has payoffs as it is highly labourintensive and in addition to job creation, is productivity­enhancing. Without doubt, consumption would be on a firm stead if these measures are pursued in the post­election budget as well. As the Finance Minister indicated, the Budget is best read in the context of India’s development journey. So what does all this mean for India’s growth next fiscal? Coming after two years of slowing private consumption, continuing sluggish rural demand and wage growth — both on and off the farm —the measures in the Interim Budget can help re­invoke demand from middle and lower strata. That would be opportune because the global economy is witnessing weak and asynchronous growth, with risks tilted to the downside. Export growth, which had made a comeback in 2018, faces risks of weakening lobal trade growth owing to escalating trade wars, this year. Next fiscal, therefore, India’s growth will have to be driven largely domestically. At this juncture, India needs good luck on crude oil and monsoons as well as relentless execution of budgetary proposals to fire growth. Private consumption, which accounts for over 55% of GDP, can be that domestic driver. If the monsoon urns out to be adequate for the fourth straight season, and crude oil prices remain leashed as now, India’s GDP could grow at 7.3% in fiscal 2020. With higher growth comes higher inflation. Higher demand will maintain the pressure on core inflation which continues to hover around 5.5%. Food inflation too is expected to move up from a very weak base of fiscal 2019 as global food prices move up and efforts to improve the realisations of farmers bear fruit. CRISIL estimates indicate inflation could move up from 3.7% in fiscal 2019 to 4.5% in fiscal 2020. The focus of the full Budget in June­July next, irrespective of political outcome, needs to be generously on the lower­ and lower­middle income strata. The next leg of growth can then be materially inclusive and therefore more sustainable

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