Category: Education Policy and Design

India has successfully improved school enrolment in recent decades yet failed to deliver actual learning. The ASER Survey by NGO Pratham (2020) spotlights large learning deficits in students’ foundational learning. For instance, only 50% of Class V students can read texts of Class II level. More than half the students in Class VIII struggle to do simple division. The pandemic has deepened this crisis, especially because of the physical closure of 15.5 lakh schools that has affected more than 248 million students for over a year. These learning gaps are becoming critical with the emergence of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is emphasising digital technology, artificial intelligence and other allied technologies. Thus, it is integral to redefine education and structure it to suit the evolving technological transformation.

In response to this situation, the National Education Policy 2020 sounds like a clarion call to integrate technology at every level of education. It envisions the establishment of the National Education Technology Forum (NETF) to spearhead efforts towards the use of education technology. It recommended employing EdTech through app-based learning, online student communities, and lesson delivery beyond ‘chalk and talk’. By envisioning schools as nodal agencies, through which the underserved can access internet-powered devices, the NEP recognizes artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR), and blockchain as requisites in India’s education ecosystem. Thus, EdTech becomes a crucial link between enrolment and enhanced learning outcomes


The Indian EdTech ecosystem has a lot of potential for innovation. With over 4,500 start-ups and a current valuation of around $700 million, the market is geared for exponential growth — estimates project an astounding market size of $30 billion in the next 10 years. Eg. Byju’s, Unacademy. Despite the early implementation of technologies in the education system, India still faces teething problems.

Firstly, there are institutional obstacles. The lack of a dedicated unit to coordinate digital infrastructure, content and capacity building within the Education Ministry to look after the online learning needs of both school and higher education. Institutions need to be strengthened and made responsive to the evolving trends to ensure the dissemination of quality education.

Secondly, gender bias needs to be addressed as the gendered availability and access to technology and tools such as smartphones, laptops and internet connection is very common, especially in rural areas. Girls often face suspicion if they are demanding a phone. Education technology may not reach half of the population. A ‘Gender-Inclusion Fund’ should be set up to build the country’s capacity to provide equitable quality education to all girls and transgender students.

Thirdly, a wide digital divide. In India, the biggest obstacle to education technology integration is the prevalent digital divide and associated challenges of equity. Many view technology and associated opportunities as contradictory to equity and inclusion. Only 32% of the rural population are internet users. A national study carried out at the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration showed the gaps in inclusive learning mediated by technology. A high level of urban-rural disparity in online classes was found. Not everyone who can afford to go to school can afford to have phones, computers, or even a quality internet connection for attending classes online. NSS data for 2017-18 showed that only 42% of urban and 15% of rural households had internet access. Thus, planning for education technology integration needs a broader lens of student diversity in contemporary campuses where a large share of students are from lower social strata (Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes and from poor households). Many are from government schools, under-developed regions, remote villages and urban margins. Bharat Net Project to connect all the 2,50,000 Gram panchayats in the country and provide 100 Mbps connectivity to all gram panchayats should be implemented. Opportunities provided by education technology can promote egalitarianism if access to technology is democratised and inclusion is institutionalised.

Fourthly, the pace of change & increasing cost makes it tough for marginalised communities to keep up with the rapidly changing technology. Even for private schools upgrading technology presents a major financial challenge, let alone government schools that are usually frequented by such groups. For harnessing full potential, the education curriculum and mode of instruction need to be aligned with technology tools. This requires increased governmental budgeting, planning, design thinking and improving teacher training.

Next, the resistance to change and low professional development hampering success. The lack of adequate professional development for teachers, who are required to integrate new technologies into their classrooms, are unprepared or unable to understand new technologies. Teachers and school leaders are comfortable with the status quo and often see technological experimentation as outside the scope of their job descriptions. School schedules often don’t have time for projects involving the use of technologies. Rigid learning and testing models are failing to challenge students to experiment and engage in informal learning. Integration of technology-based non-traditional classroom models, such as flipped classrooms and self-paced MOOC (massive open online course) are integral (suggested in NEP 2020).

Lastly, a very significant concern comes from the privacy risks associated with EdTechs. Since the pandemic hit, online education has replaced conventional classroom instruction. For learning customisation, apps collect large quantities of data from the learners (minor students). Private data collected can be misused or sold to other companies with no legal oversight or protection. It is necessary to formulate an ethics policy for EdTech companies. Issues of safety, confidentiality and anonymity of the user would be central to building a healthier learning ecosystem and ensuring the privacy of students.


The true potential of EdTech will require collaborative efforts between the government, private sector, and NGOs. There is a need to realise that public educational institutions play an important role in social cohesion and building relations. Therefore, technology cannot substitute schools or replace teachers. Thus, it should not be “teachers versus technology” rather “teachers and technology”. 

Thorough mapping of the EdTech arena (scale, reach, and impact) is needed to bridge the digital divide at two levels – access and skills – is required to effectively use EdTech. Moreover, EdTech policy formulation and planning must align with other schemes (education, skills, digital governance, and finance). Fostering integration through public-private partnerships, factoring in voices of all stakeholders, and bolstering cooperative federalism across all levels of government is integral. The NITI Aayog’s India Knowledge Hub, Digital India Program, Government of India’s Aspirational Districts Programme on tech-enabled monitoring and implementation and the Ministry of Education’s DIKSHA and ShaGun platforms are great steps in the promotion of EdTech to transform India into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy.

Learning from successful models as a repository of the best-in-class technology solutions, good practices and lessons from successful implementation must be curated. Some examples are:

  1. Grassroots innovation in EdTech –
    1. The Hamara Vidhyalaya in Namsai district, Arunachal Pradesh, is fostering tech-based performance assessments;
    2. Assam’s online career guidance portal is strengthening school-to-work and higher-education transition for students in grades 9 to 12;
    3. Samarth in Gujarat is facilitating the online professional development of lakhs of teachers in collaboration with IIM-Ahmedabad;
  2. International Cases –
    1. Mindspark, a computer-assisted learning software, delivers lessons through videos, games and questions on computers and tablets. The software analyses each student’s learning level, pitches content suitable for their level and adjusts the difficulty according to the student’s progress.
    2. Kenya’s literacy program Tusome, uses coaches equipped with tablets who visit classrooms, evaluate student reading skills, provide tailored advice to teachers and upload assessment data to administrators.

Author Bio:

Himanshi Bahl is a Political Science Graduate from the University of Delhi. Her research interests include emerging technologies and foreign policy.


Kant, A. (2021, June 30). The future of learning in India is ed-tech. The Indian Express.

Malish, C. M. (2020, August 21). Technology as an enabler. The Hindu.

Mohammad Naciri & Atsuko Okuda. (2021, June 24). The gender technology gap has to end. The Hindu.

Vincent, V. (2021, May 13). EdTech needs an ethics policy. The Hindu.

June 4, 2020
The current crisis has necessitated school closures, the impact of which is being felt by millions of school-going children across India. The risks associated with the same for girls, however, are likely to be heightened, especially for girls from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds. In this conversation with noted educationist Vimala Ramachandran, Shreeradha Mishra explores the nuances of the disproportionate impact of school closures on girls and discusses the role of effective policy-making and implementation to address the disruption caused by COVID-19 to the lives of school-going girls.

India’s struggle to make schools accessible to girls, and to ensure they stay in school, has been a long and uphill journey. Enshrining the right to education as a fundamental right for all children between 6 and 14 years of age through the Right to Education (RTE) Act in 2008, and the National Education Policy (currently being revisited as the draft New Education Policy), coupled with campaigning efforts on the necessity of educating the girl child have all been pivotal in earning some amount of success in bringing girls to schools. However, reducing drop-out rates among girls has continued to be a challenge. The burden of domestic chores, responsibilities in looking after younger siblings, early marriage practices and social attitudes that dictate the preference to educate the boys in the household instead of the girls have been significant roadblocks in ensuring access to education for the girl child. The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to undo years of advocacy and policy efforts aimed at increasing enrolment and literacy rates among girls. The current crisis has necessitated school closures, the impact of which is being felt by millions of school-going children across India. The risks associated with the same for girls, however, are likely to be heightened, especially for girls from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds.

Dr. Vimala Ramachandran has worked and published extensively on education, health, gender issues and women’s empowerment and has been engaged in advocacy for universal quality education and girls’ education. She co-founded Mahila Samakhya – a Government of India programme on women’s education – and served as the first National Project Director from 1988 to 1993. She is currently on the Research Council of Azim Premji University, Bangalore, and is the Managing Director at the Educational Resource Unit (now known as ERU Consultants Private Limited), which is a network of researchers and practitioners working on education. Most recently, she is engaged in researching educational needs of out of school youth, especially girls.

In this conversation with her, Shreeradha Mishra explores the nuances of the disproportionate impact of school closures on girls and discusses the role of effective policymaking and implementation to address the disruption caused by COVID-19 to the lives of school-going girls.

SM: The school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic have forced millions of school-goers all over the world and in India to stay home. This is likely to have impacted girls in different and disproportionate ways as compared to boys. Could you highlight some of these impacts and the underlying reasons?

VR: The impact on girls, especially from poor and middle class families is expected to be far more severe for a wide range of reasons – girls end up sharing a greater load of housework / farm work / animal-related work than their brothers; girls have less access to mobile phones, as we saw in the recent studies co-authored by me.1

In both these studies we found secondary school girls did not have any access to smartphones or simple mobile phones. Boys have mobile phones, even smart phones – but most girls in rural Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh in the sample villages said they do not have access to phones. Even when families have phones, they are not encouraged to use it. So online learning is practically impossible. Besides, informal tuitions are fairly common in both rural and urban areas. It is a common observation that parents readily spend on sons’ and not on daughters’ tuitions. When schools are shut down, tuitions are perhaps the only informal learning space. This would be far more acute for girls in high schools and higher secondary schools.

SM: The 1986 National Policy on Education for the first time recognised the need for girl-child specific policy to address the gender gap in education in India. This policy also saw the establishment of the grassroots initiative Mahila Samakhya, of which you were the first National Programme Director. This initiative has been evaluated to have significantly increased demand for rural girls’ education, and consequently an increase in female literacy rates in rural India. A crucial aspect of this initiative was the ability of the programme to reach out to out-of-school girls and create learning opportunities for them in alternative centres and residential camps. In the wake of the pandemic, there is a need to re-think and re-invent more of such innovative solutions albeit in the context of a completely uncharted territory. How do we bring girls back to school, and keep them in schools, when the definition of a school and a classroom is currently going through a shift?

VR: The irony is that when the BJP came to power in 2014, Mahila Samakhya was shut down as a centrally sponsored scheme. Most states were not ready to continue the programme and the states that continued it linked it to the Department of Women and Child Development’s ICDS (Integrated Child Development Scheme) / Stree Shakti / Nari Adalat and child helplines. The original idea of the programme was pushed aside and today it is seen as a delivery programme for women and girls. The education and awareness dimension is practically non-existent now.

SM: A lack of access to nutrition for girls, especially in rural households, has been a significant contributor to the existing practices of gender discrimination. The mid-day meal scheme ensured they received at least one meal a day at schools. Under the prevailing circumstances of indefinite school closures and accentuated poverty due to the extended lockdown, what can the government do to alleviate this risk?

VR: When families go through a food crisis, we know that women and girls not only eat last, but they get the leftovers. They may also not get adequate nutrition when all they eat with rice or roti is watery vegetables, dal or meat dishes. Even when schools are closed, the government should restart the mid-day meal programme so that all children have access to at least one nutritious meal a day. Equally, in the post Covid-19 period, where poverty and hunger has become more pronounced, schools need to consider providing breakfast to all children.

SM: According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), in 94.6% of cases of child sexual abuse, the perpetrator is known to the child, and is often times a parent, relative or school teacher. How does the lockdown exacerbate the risk of abuse for children, especially for girls, and what can be done to address the issue?

VR: During lockdown, when families are huddled in small spaces, the chances of domestic violence against women and children, and sexual abuse by family members of both girls and boys, is known to have increased. Newspapers report more distress calls in urban areas. Equally important is the fact that in rural areas when girls go out to graze cattle or to bring fuel or fodder, they are vulnerable to sexual abuse / violence / harassment. When men and boys have little to do and are ‘hanging around’, they are also more prone to frustration, anger and violent behaviour. This could also aggravate the situation. The only way out of this is a vibrant and strong women’s group and also a Nari Adalat in every village and urban ward that is girl-friendly and has women who would be willing to listen to girls, support them and bring the perpetrators to be booked through the Panchayat. We also need to create greater awareness at every Panchayat level to the vulnerability of women and children (both girls and boys) to violence and abuse and the importance of a safe space where they feel comfortable sharing their fears and bringing issues to the notice of persons in positions of responsibility.  We also need to become more alert to trafficking – especially of older children as labourers.

SM: What are some of the immediate challenges that the government needs to address in order to realise last-mile and equitable delivery of education in a post-COVID India?

VR: The government needs to consider the following –
(a) Sensitise all teachers to the issue of trauma and fear that COVID-19 has generated among the people and especially among children;
(b) Ascertain learning levels of children, organise them in small groups and impart teaching at the right level to each group – for instance, what good bridge programmes used to do in the mid-1990s and the kind of work we did in Mahila Shikshan Kendras. A two-three-month programme should be aimed at enabling children to reach their grade-specific level. Teachers need to be trained for this and where feasible, possible local NGOs could be involved in this process;
(c) Make story reading/ reading aloud an integral part of daily language-related school work. There is overwhelming evidence to suggest that children who are able to read with comprehension and read well have the potential to become self-learners and do better in all subjects. Ensuring all children have access to grade or level-specific story books in their own language or medium of instruction is essential;
(d) Make games, sports, art and craft an integral part of the curriculum alongside fun ways of explaining the pandemic and why children need not fear if they adopt the requisite practices to stay safe. This could be incorporated as part of the morning assembly or before or after lunch and could be a valuable addition to the curriculum.

SM: How do you see the public vs private debate playing out in the education space post the pandemic? Are we likely to see more collaboration between the public and the private education systems?

VR: I do not see it as a black and white scenario. Public education is absolutely essential for poor children and also middle-class children. We have to focus on strengthening the public education system, improving quality and bringing it at par with the high-end government schools like Kendriya Vidyalayas and Navodaya Vidyalayas. That should be the benchmark. My own work in the health sector has shown that it is the public system that sets the benchmark – low-cost and other forms of private schools will always compare themselves to the public or government schools to reach out to the poor and middle classes. If we push the quality of our government schools, this will have a ripple effect on the private sector.

Works referred to:
[1] (2019 Draft). Ramachandran, Vimala, Nagpal, Nagendra. Secondary Education in Rajasthan – quality and systemic functioning explored. Project supported by AJWS. New Delhi

(2018). Ramachandran, Vimala, Saxena, Niti. Quality and Systemic Functioning in Secondary Education in India – A study in Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand. Research commissioned by The World Bank, New Delhi.

Note from the editor: Special thanks to Nivruti Tagotra, staff writer at the ISPP Policy Review, for her inputs.

April 9, 2020
“Through a promise of holistic education at the school level, Section 12(1)(c) could provide for a way to uplift the underprivileged sections of society." Ananya Dixit in her article explores the inadequacies of the policy which has the potential to transform the lives of millions of children in India.


When the British relinquished power and India became independent, the constitution-makers envisioned the country to foster social justice and equality1. Social justice is not limited to the distribution of rights; it requires active participation by the State to bring parity in development by orienting policies towards it2. ​A serious impediment to achieving this vision of India has been the difference in educational opportunities offered to children from disadvantaged and economically weaker sections of society. ​According to the Annual State of Education Report (ASER) published by NGO Pratham in 2013, the gap between private and public-school children’s learning outcomes has been widening. 3 As a result, the number of rural students in private schools has increased steadily over the past decade, and now, more than a fourth of rural students are choosing to enroll in private schools for better education.​4 The deteriorating quality of education in government schools may have a strong correlation with the falling number of students in government schools.

As illustrated in Figure 1, private schools have been consistently performing better than government schools to improve learning outcomes. In contrast, the learning outcomes of government schools have been declining since the year 2010. A Centre for Policy Report suggests that despite their economic background, parents desire to send their wards to schools providing good quality education.6 Therefore, through the Section ​12(1)(c)​ of the RTE Act, the Government of India is providing parents with the choice to enrol their children in private schools.7 Before this provision was inserted, the choice of school was primarily governed by a family’s financial ability to pay rather than the learning outcomes. This resulted in the systematic exclusion of children from the disadvantaged sections of society to receive a good quality education. ​In light of this, Section 12(1)(c) of the RTE Act was introduced as an instrument to create a level playing field by offering equality of opportunity in education. Providing good quality education to children from the disadvantaged section provides for a way for the state to mitigate the impact of differences arising out of the socio-economic background of students. ​

According to 2014-15 data,  private schools only managed to fill 6,762 of the 96,870 reserved seats in the state of Gujarat, which accounts for 6.98% of the total reserved seats.8 With the national average of 15.2 %, the difference between the State and the National average is significant.9

Lack of Political Will

Gujarat initially implemented the policy as a pilot,  when awareness about the policy and its provisions was relatively low.10  Consequentially, this reflected in low enrolment rates during its initial phase of implementation. Apart from the mandatory advertisements before the start of the admission process each year, the State Government did not take any initiative to inform the people about this policy.11 ​In 2017, advertisements were published by the State Government only a day before the commencement of the admission process. Such short notice does not leave time for applicants to obtain necessary documents and thus may lead to students losing a year. Various NGOs and civil societies took the onus upon themselves of disseminating information and creating awareness about this policy and its provisions among beneficiaries and stakeholders through targeted information campaigns.12

Additionally, the information given by the government circulars and the website has several inconsistencies. According to the government notification, General category households who did not have Below Poverty Line cards would be eligible if their annual income was less than Rs. 68,000, and Rs. 47,000 in urban and rural areas, respectively. 13  However, the online application form did not provide for such applicants to apply. After the application process was already halfway through, with just ten days to go, the Government published a notice that rectified this but did not publicize it as much. Many potential applicants would not have applied because they thought they were ineligible.14

Another problem that surfaced was the language of communication. Even though a large number of households eligible for this policy do not speak Gujarati or English, the advertisements were widely published, and the web portal for application only supports English or Gujarati. As a result, advertisements do not reach linguistic minority groups (Hindi and Marathi). Moreover, the absence of a functional helpline number required people from disadvantaged sections of society to physically go to either the Zila Panchayat or the District Education Office (DEO) to register their grievances.15 The travel time added to the delay in the admission process. Furthermore, the timing of board examinations coinciding with the admission process led to the unavailability of most officials to address the issue of the applicants.16 Therefore, the lack of a functional and efficient grievance redressal helpline to answer the queries of applicants only exacerbates the problem.17

What about pre-primary education?

Unlike other states such as Karnataka, Gujarat implemented Section 12(1)(c) beginning with primary school.18 Students from underprivileged sections, therefore, miss out on the crucial pre-primary and kindergarten years of education, which lays the foundation for further studies. As mentioned by the director of a private school, students of the first standard learn words in private schools; however, the ones admitted under Section 12(1)(c) barely know how to write alphabets correctly.19 The ASER report bolsters the claim about learning gaps by highlighting the constantly widening inequality in learning outcomes as students advance to higher classes.20

 Complications with the Online System

Till 2017, the state had an offline procedure, the paper-based process for admission.21 Applicants were to collect forms from help centres in a government school and submit it along with other documents certifying eligibility to officers at these centres. Applicants were informed about the admission decision through SMS or via post. ​This changed after 2017 when Gujarat adopted a new procedure for filing applications on an online portal.22Applicants now have to submit their printed forms along with eligibility documents to a receiving centre. Currently, applicants check the status of their application online, reducing delays in transmission of information and declaration of results. While this was a step that helped increased transparency in the application process, the shift for the beneficiaries came with a lot of challenges. The target population of this policy is by and large, not computer literate.

For a policy directed at the disadvantaged sections, such an online application system only adds additional steps and costs in the process. Internet cafes often overcharge applicants for printouts and access to the internet.23 Most of the receiving centres that were to help digitally illiterate applicants to fill the online applications were reported to be non-functional. ​Furthermore, since the server was ill-equipped to handle heavy traffic, it crashed multiple times during the first week.24 It resulted in increased costs as applicants had to make numerous visits to internet cafes to get their application form filled up. With only allowing online applications to be accepted for consideration of seat allotment, there is a possibility of exclusion of applicants who don’t have the means to apply online.[25]

With the new system, applicants are supposed to enter their postal address, pin code, after which the system automatically drops a location pin on the map. To improve the accuracy of this service, the location pin can only be moved to a maximum of 1 km range from what the GPS picks up. However, given the large ward size, the location pin, even after adjustment, remains far from the address of many applicants. Since schools are allocated based on the distance, incorrect locations lead to allotment of schools that are far away from the applicant’s address. All this resulted in schools allotted being more than 6 km away from the house of many of the allottees26


Section 12(1)(c) of the Right to Education Act is a step in the right direction. However, on the ground, it is fraught with implementation challenges. There is ambiguity surrounding admissions, school choices, and eligibility requirements.27 The State government has done little to make people aware of the legislation beyond issuing the mandatory advertisements a few days before the commencement of the admission cycle. Gujarat has only managed to fill 6.98% of the total reserved seats.28 The need is for the State government to take a more active role in making people aware of this legislation. To reduce exclusions arising out of digital illiteracy, Gujarat should enable an offline application process. In Rajasthan, which currently accepts offline and online applications, an overwhelming majority of applicants choose to apply offline.29 This may also help resolve technical problems emanating from the exclusivity of the online application process like frequent server crashes and reduce application costs for beneficiaries. Finally, establishing a sound grievance redressal system could also ease the process of application.

Poor quality of education early on in life translates into low wages later in life.30 As a result, the second generation may be unable to afford good quality education for their children. By mandating the inclusion of underprivileged children in private unaided schools, this provision of the RTE Act makes schooling in India more integrated and inclusive while improving learning outcomes for children from disadvantaged sections as well.31 ​Through a promise of holistic education at the school level, it provides for a way to uplift the underprivileged sections of society. However, as highlighted above, the policy suffers from several inadequacies in the implementation phase. ​A good education is the cornerstone of any country’s development story. ​Section 12(1)(c), if implemented earnestly, has the potential to transform the lives of millions of children in India.


[1]“Constituent Assembly Debates.” Constitution of India. Accessed March 12, 2020.

[2] Ibid

[3] “Annual Status of Education Report 2013.” Assessment Survey Evaluation Research, (ASER), Centre/Pratham, 2013

[4] Ibid

[5] Private Schools. Central Square Foundation. Accessed March 28, 2020.

[6] “State of the Nation: RTE Section 12 (1) (C) 2017 | Centre for Policy Research.” Accessed April 1, 2020.

[7] Ibid

[8] State of the Nation: RTE Section 12 (1) (C) 2017. Sarin, Ankur, Ankur Sarin, Ambrish Dongre, and Srikant Wad. “Centre for Policy Research.” | Centre for Policy Research, September 15, 2017.

[9] Ibid

[10] Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education act 2009 § Education Department, Government of Gujarat

[11] State of the Nation: RTE Section 12 (1) (C) 2017. Sarin, Ankur, Ankur Sarin, Ambrish Dongre, and Srikant Wad. “Centre for Policy Research.” | Centre for Policy Research, September 15, 2017.

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid

[15] India, Ideas For. “Http://” Ideas For India. Accessed March 29, 2020.

[16] Ibid

[17] State of the Nation: RTE Section 12 (1) (C) 2017. Sarin, Ankur, Ankur Sarin, Ambrish Dongre, and Srikant Wad. “Centre for Policy Research.” | Centre for Policy Research, September 15, 2017.

[18] “Guj Govt Avoids RTE for Pre-School Kids” Dave, Harita. Ahmedabad Mirror, January 20, 2017.

[19] Ibid

[20] “Annual Status of Education Report 2013.” Assessment Survey Evaluation Research, (ASER), Centre/Pratham, 2013

[21] State of the Nation: RTE Section 12 (1) (C) 2017. Sarin, Ankur, Ankur Sarin, Ambrish Dongre, and Srikant Wad. “Centre for Policy Research.” | Centre for Policy Research, September 15, 2017.

[22] Ibid

[23] Ibid

[24] Ibid

[25] Ibid

[26] Ibid

[27] Ibid

[28] Ibid

[29] Ibid

[30] “Education Quality & Economic Growth,” Hanushek , Eric A., and Ludger Wößmann. 2007.

[31] “For More Inclusive Private Schools.” Narayanan, ‘Americai’ V., and Kavya Narayanan. The Hindu, June 4, 2019.

February 28, 2020
India has one of the largest education systems in the world with over 1.5 million schools and over 250 million enrolments. Despite high enrolment the quality of education suffers from certain fundamental drawbacks - the most significant of them being the imbalance in learning levels. This article explores the need for quality Early Child Care and Education (ECCE) programmes in India, and the challenges to the current policy on public pre-school education in India

India has one of the largest education systems in the world with over “1.5 million schools and over 250 million enrolments”.1 Despite high enrolment, the quality of education suffers from certain fundamental drawbacks; the most significant issue is the imbalance in learning levels. As per the ASER Report in 2018, “only half of all students enrolled in grade V (50.3%) can read grade II texts”.2 When it comes to proficiency in arithmetic, “only 28% of students on the same level can do simple division”.3

This imbalance in learning outcomes, as suggested by the ASER report, has been a factor for debate amongst the pedagogical community which includes scholars and educators. Until recently, for improving quality in education, the focus has mainly rested on infrastructure development, teacher training, curriculum development and appropriate assessments. A significant aspect which is often ignored in these discussions is the role of early childhood care and education in making the children school-ready. This article explores the need for a robust Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) policy, its impact on learning outcomes, and the key issues related to this policy in India.

Early Child Education and Cognitive Development

Research in neuroscience and psychology has shown that early years of childhood is a key stage where development of the brain is at its peak. It is argued that a “child’s early experiences have a long term and direct impact on the way the brain is structured, which further influences their cognitive, emotional and social development”.4  According to the preschool guidelines by NCERT, “there are critical stages in the development of the brain during this period that influences the pathways for physical and mental health, and behaviour throughout the life cycle”.5 The emotional wellbeing and social competence developed at this stage provides a strong foundation for other cognitive abilities required to be successful in school and workplace in the future.

The importance of ECCE is widely recognised internationally as well. The Sustainable Development Goal 2030 acknowledges children as the agents of change and includes early child development in its goal 4, target 4.2. It states that “By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education”.6,7 This further impresses the importance of astutely designed and quality early child or pre-school education (PSE) programmes.

In India, where most of the children enrolled in public schools are first-generation learners and have parents who are either illiterate or not literate enough to support their cognitive needs or are unable to provide them the right kind of environment that is conducive to their learning, the importance of ECCE programmes  becomes even more significant.

India’s Answer – the National ECCE Policy

The recognition of the problem and the formulation of effective policies for those problems is the prime role of policy makers.8 However, despite the recognition, policy formulation and implementation in India often gets caught in infirmities that are either structural in nature or miss the linkages between these two stages of policy making process.9

In the Indian context, ECCE and its importance has been significantly acknowledged in the form of the National ECCE policy. The Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) is the largest public programme providing ECCE services in the Anganwadi Centres. Through the Anganwadi Centres set up under the policy, children access non- formal pre-school education provided to them by the Anganwadi workers.

However, Early Childhood Development in India still suffers from structural and fundamental shortcomings and significant gaps in formulation and implementation stages. A large number of children are not enrolled in pre-schools or Anganwadi Centres for early child development. If they are, the quality of such programs suffers from serious challenges.

Challenges to ECCE in India

Amongst the several issues that hamper the effectiveness of the National ECCE policy, the inadequate budget allocation towards the pre-school component of the policy is a crucial limiting factor.  The overall budget for education in India has always been “less than 3%, in any given year till now”, but the financial sanctions for the Pre-School Education (PSE) have been even lower. The budget allocation of 2017-2018 reveals that less than 1% of the total education budget is allocated to the early child development and the ECCE policy.10, 11

The lack of political will to prioritise and mobilise budget for ECCE further impacts the effectiveness of the policy.  An analysis of the monsoon session of the Parliament in 2019 reveals that “only less than 3% of the questions raised were related to early child development”.12 Further, one should also note that the Right of Children to free and compulsory education (RTE) Act 2010 that guarantees children their right to quality elementary education still fails to recognise Early Childhood Education (ECE) as a compulsory provision.

In terms of human resources, the policy completely depends on the Anganwadi Workers (AWW) for the provision of pre-school education to children. A detailed analysis of the educational and skill competencies of these workers indicates that they are only required to be high school graduates to be eligible for this job. Additionally, the AWWs are often the voluntary ‘social workers’ from the local community who render their services as an Anganwadi Worker on a “part-time” basis. This suggests that the policy lacks in targeting individuals who are educationally competent to provide quality early childhood education from the very start.

A lack in key competencies and skills are not the only challenges for an Anganwadi Worker on ground. She (the AWWs are only women) is also underpaid and overburdened with work which is outside the ambit of the ICDS such as Booth level officer (BLO) duties and surveys, to name a few.13 Operating under innumerable constraints, with extra work and little income, the Anganwadi Worker then, limited in her sense of rationality takes decisions that suit her immediate needs. They take up tasks that involve lesser risks and those that can be done with less effort. Due to little or no support to undertake ECE activities in the centres, the Anganwadi Worker, under her “bounded rationality” then believes that “nutrition and health services are more important than ECE. This then makes them pay less attention to Early Child Education or may cause them to ignore it almost completely”.14,15

The way forward

Developing an efficient, skilled and empowered cadre of Anganwadi Workers is crucial to improving the pre-school education conditions. They need to be made professionally capable and skilfully trained in order to execute the program and bridge the gap between pre-school and formal education to positively impact the learning level outcomes in school. Targeting experts on ECCE for imparting the age appropriate skills to children or a specialised training component for the AWWs could ensure that quality Early Childhood Education is imparted.

The fact that most parents are still ignorant about the need for effective early childhood education and its importance in the development of their child highlights gaps in the communication and campaigning framework (Information Education and Communication – IEC) of the National ECCE policy. Till now, the ICDS and its related IEC has only focussed on the health and nutrition of the child and the mother. The education, especially foundational learning phase of the child continues to be ignored.

Incentives also play a role in the success of any policy. Therefore, provision of scholarships, easy access to formal schools after pre-school, take–home learning kits and worksheets, could be another way to invest in and incentivise parents to send their children for pre-school education. Inter-Anganwadi activities and competitions, ECE community fairs could be some of the strategies to incentivise the workers to deliver effectively while incentivising children and parents to attend these centres.

Can Public-Private-Partnerships transform ECE?

The implementation of the ECE policy could also benefit from exploring new avenues currently making their way into governance systems. Public-Private partnerships in education, for example, are a new breakthrough. Several private organisations are tackling the issue of ECE and its importance in different communities. The government can collaborate with such organisations that could help lead the Anganwadi Centres to transform the way ECE is imparted.

Organisations that are creating a remarkable impact in the ECE include several NGOs. Pratham, an organisation started in 1995 provides pre –school education to children in the slums of Mumbai. Its Balwadi (pre-school) programs have been successful in creating a sustained impact in these communities. Their model has been emulated all over India by various other organisations.16

Similarly, Meraki Foundation, a non-profit in Delhi, works to empower the parents from the disadvantaged communities in order to reverse neglect, attune them to a child’s developmental needs, give them the tools to address those needs, and help build support systems for them.17

One could argue that Public Private Partnerships in Education will not only enhance the existing system but also develop innovative solutions in areas the government has had difficulty in transforming, so as to fill the gaps in this sector. With the government’s ability to scale and the acumen of private players to innovate new solutions, this could ensure that their work is scaled-up effectively and efficiently at a larger level and is not restricted to selected pockets or communities.


Early childhood is an important stage in the child’s learning and development. The early years help the child build skills that are not just cognitive in nature, but also crucial for social interaction skills and awareness. This period requires key stimulations in the form of right education and learning methods to establish neural pathways for optimal development. Therefore, a positive environment that includes the required learning techniques facilitated by trained professionals could help a child learn better in the foundational years.

To this effect, the National ECCE policy plays a fundamental role in ensuring that every child has access to quality ECE programs. Considering the drawbacks in the current policy, there is a need for us to revisit the policy and improve its framing and incentives to ensure proper implementation through trained Anganwadi Workers. A well-formulated and implemented ECE policy which provides a stimulating environment for a child to grow and function in, can be the new silver bullet for improving learning outcomes in school education in India.


1. Government of India. “EDUCATIONAL STATISTICS AT A GLANCE.” New Delhi: Ministry of Human Resource Development, 2018.

2. “Aserreport2018.Pdf,” accessed February 21, 2020,

3.“Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) 2018.” ASER, January 15, 2019.

4. “Nurturing Care Framework for Early Childhood Development Launched at the 71st World Health Assembly,” Text/HTML, World Bank, accessed October 17, 2019,

5. “The Preschool Curriculum.” New Delhi: NCERT, n.d.

6. “Education – United Nations Sustainable Development,” accessed February 21, 2020,

7. “In Brief: The Science of Early Childhood Development,” Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, accessed October 9, 2019,

8. “Policy Makers | NCCPE,” accessed February 21, 2020,

9. “The Challenges of Making Public Policy,” accessed February 21, 2020,

10. “HAQ_2020-21 Budget for Children Analysis.Pdf,” n.d.

11. “Union Budget: A Window of Opportunity for Our Children? Budget for Children 2017-18.” New Delhi: HAQ: Centre for Child Rights, 2018


13. Damanpreet Kaur et al., “Workload and Perceived Constraints of Anganwadi Workers” 12, no. 1 (2016): 7.

14. “What Is ‘Bounded Rationality’?,” Economy, accessed October 18, 2019,


16. Amrita Thakkar, “Essential Guide to Organizations in Indian Early Education,” Medium, April 22, 2019,

17. Ruth Reader, Ruth Reader, and Ruth Reader, “This Organization Empowers Parents to Lead Their Children’s Early Education,” Fast Company, April 8, 2019,

February 4, 2020
The article analyses the high student suicide rate in India through a lens of what's lacking in a public policy approach to the problem. The author explores possible policy changes that will help cultivate a healthier educational atmosphere for students.

What is Academic Burnout?

Academic Burnout, or the “burnout syndrome” is characterized by a “combination of exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment caused by chronic work stress”. 1 The amalgamation of these emotions often lead to the feeling of prolonged sadness, low self-esteem, ineffectiveness, and an overall disassociation from one’s work or success over time. Studies, akin to the ones conducted by Ioanna V. Papathanasiou prove that academic burnout is an antecedent to depression and other mental health problems.2 Information from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) illustrates that depression is a precursor to suicidal thoughts and actions.

According to the latest available data from the National Crime Records Bureau, a student commits suicide every hour in India. 3 This highlights a prominent problem in student demographic. Thus, it is essential to investigate why suicide rates are constantly increasing in India as opposed to the rest of the world.4 Moreover, it is imperative to find a solution for the same. This article attempts to explore how incorporating policies aimed at reducing academic burnout in educational institutes will help lower the suicide rates in India.

To ensure effective policy change, it is essential to have a thorough understanding of the causes of academic burnout in Indian institutions.

Social and Economic Background for Academic Burnout

India spends about 0.07%of its GDP on the provision of mental health services in the country.5 6 This stands in stark contrast to developed countries like Denmark that spend at least 4% of their annual GDP on mental health services.7 By spending on mental health provisions, the State ensures that there are mental health professionals in the country- these could be in the form of counselors, crisis hotline workers, psychiatrists, and psychologists. In India, due to the lack of funding for these provisions, there is a dearth of mental health professionals and services in the country.8 The Mental Health Act passed 2017 outlines the allocation of finances for mental health professionals in the state and aims to safeguard the rights of people with mental health disorders.9 However, the Act does take into account other means of mental illness prevention like creating awareness. Moreover, the Act does not mandate educational or commercial institutions to create a safe atmosphere. This is further reflected in the education system where publicly funded universities and schools do not have mental health professionals on campus – therefore, students do not have access to these facilities when they need help.10

The language that surrounds the mental health culture in India is extremely toxic. As a result of this, people are uncomfortable while expressing their problems and this apprehends students from seeking help. Seeking mental health assistance is extremely difficult due to the social stigmas attached to the issue; if a person is going to therapy, they are called “weak or paagal”.11  Another corollary for the same is the narrative around academia in households and educational institutes, where students are meant to ‘just deal with it’.

The Indian education system is built on a punitive and test-score driven method as opposed to holistic development.12 For example, if a child is not performing well, they are often shamed or defamed in front of the class. The students can’t even find comfort at home because often parents are extremely strict and demanding when it comes to academics.

Research conducted by the World Economic Forum revealed that households are not a safe space where students can voice their concerns and apprehensions about their education.13 Moreover, due to the high emphasis that is put on a “successful career”, children are often pushed towards subjects that they are not comfortable with or even keen on doing; this is because intelligence is mostly measured through technical subjects and not music, arts, sports, etc. 14 15 This creates a discord in the student’s schemas – a schema is a cognitive framework or concept that helps organize and interpret information 16– if they are unable to perform well in subjects deemed important by the society. As a result, students start building a negative narrative for themselves. They start seeing themselves as failures and this often leads to depression, which in turn could lead to suicide.17 Countries like Finland and Denmark that focus on the core strengths of students are reported to have a happier student population.18

Lastly, one of the most important contributors to the student suicide crisis is the glorification of stress. In the Indian academic world, overworking and high workloads are often considered to be markers of “productivity”.19 Students often brag about the all-nighters that they’re pulling in order to manage the workload they have- this often comes in the forms of classwork, extracurriculars, student government, competitions, etc. The idea of being a part of everything on campus is seen as a paradigm for an “exemplary student”. Hence, students themselves refuse to take a break or acknowledge that their academic stress is unhealthy.

Thus, the academic burnout problem can be seen as a silent epidemic in India that needs to be addressed at an institutional level to ensure pro-active measures. Policy changes would allow for early and systematic intervention.

Policy Solutions to tackle Academic Burnout:

  1. Educational life is supposed to ready students for the work-life, thus, especially in universities, the teaching atmosphere imitates the work environment. One of the first policy change that needs to be addressed is the acceptance of long working hours in Indian society. This promotes the ideology of “not having a life outside work” and thus, it is common for people to go into work at 9 in the morning and not leave until 10 or 12 at night.20 This is recreated in educational institutes to prep the students for long work hours. However, data has shown that long corporate work hours also lead to depression.21 Therefore, the national policy about work hours needs to include the number of hours an employee must work per day. In light of the evidence presented above, this policy needs to account for both academic and work burnout. Hence, limiting both, educational institutes and workplaces to have an 8-hour work policy. This could possibly trickle down to academic institutions which would result in workload reduction for students and would also dispel the glorification of long working days. Moreover, this policy would have other benefits like both students and employees having a better quality of life due to an increase in leisure hours. This might also, in turn, boost productivity as happier individuals would be more keen and motivated to work. 
  2. There needs to be a national policy that mandates all educational institutes to have an appropriate number of counsellors on campus. This would allow for early intervention in a mental health crisis. Moreover, it would nudge students who don’t have a supportive background at home to seek help on campus. This could create a community in universities that acts as a safe space, allowing students to be more candid and vocal about their issues. In addition to this, the provision of counsellors and mental health aid would a) raise awareness about the cause, b) normalize feeling overwhelmed and thus, reduce stigma around workload anxiety, and c) it would disrupt the negative schemas built-in students’ heads when it comes to academics.
  3. There needs to be a national policy that mandates all educational institutes to hold sensitization workshops. These workshops should be used to address the interactions between professors, students, and work: they must delineate how professors give criticism to students about their work and the language professors use. Negative schemas are often built through constant use of negative language. For example, calling a student an idiot is not a productive critique, because it is not a qualifier for the work a student does. These workshops must highlight the negative mental health effects of defamation and educate professors on how to give constructive feedback.22 The workshops can also feature psychologists who could identify and explain the early identification signs of burnout to allow early intervention for students. This would be an expensive and ambitious undertaking. To offset some of the costs, government schools could partner up with various NGOs that provide mental health counselling for a nominal fee.
  4. The state government also needs to allocate more funds in the budget towards the mental health crisis in India and create a more holistic education pedagogy. A significant step towards the betterment of mental health in educational institutes was the implementation of the ‘Happiness Curriculum’23 in Delhi’s public schools. The Happiness curriculum encourages students to peruse and explore non-academic interests and avenues. The model is founded on the philosophy of Nagraj (1999) and O’Brien (2008), and it aims to cultivate sensory, momentary and deeper happiness in students. This curriculum reverses the punitive test-score driven narrative present in education and leads to more holistic student development.

National policy is the best avenue to address student burnout. European countries have responded to the burnout crisis through the implementation of national policies aimed at reducing burnout, as established by a study at Cornell University.24 Similarly, Australia mentions burnout as a part of the Australian Health and Safety at Work Act, and in Bulgaria, the National Health Strategy 2014-2020 aims to prevent burnout at workplaces.25 Thus, there is a case to be made that national policy is the way to instill institutional change.

Student suicide rates are not just a humanitarian crisis but it also has a significant economic cost. In his book, dying for a paycheck, Jeffery Pfeffer writes that “indirect costs from things such as disengagement, being physically present but not feeling well enough to do one’s best, and being distracted by stress are typically estimated to be about five times as large as the direct medical costs”. 26 He writes in the context of employees and company work environment, however, the same argument can be applied to students. If students aren’t present and engaged with their material, they won’t perform at their “peak”- this is supported by research that says that a human brain can only focus and be productive for 6 hours in a day.27 Moreover, there is an analogical brain drain happening due to the suicide epidemic, India is losing out on well-educated professionals which is depleting India of human resources.28 Thus, the urgency for a call for action is imminent- the discussion about burnout must enter the political discourse of the country.

The current educational environment in the country is detrimental to students’ mental health, and it is imperative for policymakers to address academic burnout. Burnout, as explored above is a consequence of unhealthy academic environments that do not consider the mental health degradation of students. Policies aimed at training and raising awareness about the cause, outlining work hours and increased public spending on mental health facilities can combat the problem at hand.


[1]  Maslach, Christina, Wilmar B. B. Schaufeli, and P. Leiter Micheal , Job Burnout, (2001).

[2] Papathanasiou Ioanna, “Work-related Mental Consequences: Implications of Burnout on Mental Health Status Among Health Care Providers,” ACTA Information Medica 23, 1. (2015) 22-28. 10.5455/aim.2015.23.22-28

[3]  Ankita Mukhopadhyay, When Will India Address Its Student Suicide Crisis? (2019)

[4]  Lakshmi Vijaykumar, Suicide and its prevention: The urgent need in India (April 2007)

[5]  Swagata Yadavar, Budget 2018: India’s Healthcare Crisis Is Holding back National Potential. (2018)

[6] Swagata Yadavar, Budget 2018: India’s Healthcare Crisis Is Holding back National Potential,  (2018)

[7] European Union, 2018

[8]  Birla, Neerja Birla,  Mental Health in Inida: 7.5% of the country affected; less than 4,000 experts available,  (The Econimical Times, 2019)


[10] New privately funded universities still have a conversation around mental health, and might even have counsellors.

[11]  Birla, Neerja Birla,  Mental Health in Inida: 7.5% of the country affected; less than 4,000 experts available,  (The Econimical Times, 2019)

[12]  Ramanuj Mukherjee, Indian Education System: What needs to change? (n.d)



[15]  Rohan Keni, Why are Indian parents obsessed with science-related degrees, (Gulf News, 2017)

[16] Schemas:

[17]  Julie Scelfo, Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection, (New York, 2015).

[18] These stats by Forbes shows the happiest student population across the world:

[19] Jodi Clarke, How the Glorification of Busyness Impacts Our Well-Being, (June, 2019).


[21] Jodi Clarke, How the Glorification of Busyness Impacts Our Well-Being, (June, 2019)

[22] Personality attacks also lead to self-fulfilling prophecy which refers to the phenomenon of someone “excepting” a behaviour based on the social label that has been given to them. People tend to assume that the social label given to them is what is “expected” out of them and thus they act in a similar manner because they start identifying with it. This is significant in educational institutes as students start behaving like the personality attacks that are expected out of them. Thus, bright students might also start to believe that they are idiots :


[24]   Aumayr-Pintar, Christine, Catherine CErf, and Parent Agnès Thirion, Burnout in the Workplace: A Review of the Data and Policy Responses in the EU, (2018)

[25] Read the document for more policy solutions. A tangent to this idea could be the fact that India needs a meticulous cross-state study to outline and understand the different kinds of burnout faced by students. As the article mentions above, students from the happiest student population situates itself in these European countries- thus, there is a clear correlation between pro-mental health policies and a happier student population.

[26]  Jeffer  Pfeffer, Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performanceand What We Can Do About It, (New York, 2018)

[27]  Travis Bradberry, Why The 8-Hour Workday Doesn’t Work, (June, 2016)

[28] Also referred to as ‘human capital flight’, brain drain is the departure of educated or professional people from one country, economic sector, or field for another usually for better pay or living conditions

February 4, 2020
Why does the fee-hike at one of India's oldest and most prestigious universities matter, and what implications will it have on public-funded higher education in India? An erstwhile scholar from JNU reflects.

The Struggle for Affordable Public-funded Education for Young India

Tertiary or higher education remains an unattainable dream for most sections of India’s one billion strong population, with the gross enrolment ratio (GER) hovering around 26.3% in the year 2018-19, as per the data provided by the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE).[i] It has been pointed out that this number remains considerably low in comparison to other emerging market economies such as China (around 48%) and Brazil (around 50%), let alone advanced economies like the USA (87%). A low GER, however, is only the tip of the iceberg — the AISHE collects no data on the ratio of dropouts in tertiary education, leaving us to wonder what the numbers might look like. To offer some perspective, the highest dropouts in school education are in the secondary level, with the adivasi-dominated state of Jharkhand topping the list with only 30 students out of 100 enrolled finishing school in 2018-19.

To offer some more perspective, also drawn from the AISHE reports (2017-18 and 2018-19): the data comprehensively highlights that there has been a considerable rise in private colleges and universities in both percentage and absolute numbers, with a corresponding rise in enrolment in the same. On the other hand, the public universities — besieged by a series of ‘reforms’, latest being the Choice Based Credits System (CBCS) and its one size fits all curriculum — have seen a marginal drop in student enrolments across disciplines, which perhaps does not deliver a stellar report on the validity of said ‘reforms’.[ii] The powers that be, of course, show little interest in slowing down to take account of the same, and have promised — especially courtesy the proposed National Education Policy (NEP) 2019 — ‘radical’ restructuring, a veritable ‘reform’ extravaganza, if you will. After all, there must be no roadblocks to the path of the inevitable transformation of the ‘offer’ made to the World Trade Organization (WTO) back in 2005, that of making higher education available for global trade as a commodity, into an iron-clad ‘commitment’.

Where does all of this leave our public universities, which, given the reputation many of them uphold as well as the considerably lower fees that they charge, remain one of the only available avenues for upward mobility in India’s caste-ridden society? What does it mean that the series of ‘reforms’, increasingly rammed in with scant public discussion or regard for material conditions in different parts of the country, mandate ‘financial autonomy’ and a reduction of the number of higher education institutions, even as it proposes pushing up the GER? And how do we reconcile with the push for fee hikes and ‘need-based’ financial support (read: loans), even as data published by Indian Banks’ Association (IBA) displays that the proportion of education loans being declared non-performing assets (NPAs) has jumped to 9%, in diverse programs ranging from medicine to business administration?[iii]

If you have spent at least some time in or around a central or a state-run university in India, you must have sensed one thing — these are spaces filled to the brim with an acute sense of financial distress.

Allow me to speak of my own experiences: I joined Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in 2006 as a student of MA English. I came from economic privilege, to say nothing of the social and caste privilege that my Bengali Brahmin origins offered me. I had two working parents who did not require any financial assistance from me, even though I had turned 20 at the time. I could spend up to 5,000 rupees per month on my mother’s debit card, since I did not have one of my own at the time.

This was not true for a large number of my friends, who had to offer tuitions to children on campus or in the Munirka/Vasant Kunj area in order to survive and to send money back home to their families. To put things in perspective, again: the Merit-Cum-Means scholarship for BA/MA students, back then, was 1,000 rupees. The mess bills in various hostels ranged between 700-1,000 rupees. Students ran back from the academic complex to their hostels for lunch and from the library for dinner. It took me a few months to understand why some students did not opt to eat the subsidized canteen food for lunch or casually pick up a cup of cold coffee, or why some (such as my roommate in 2007, an adivasi girl from Rajasthan who was the first woman in her family to enrol for a Masters’ degree) chose to wait for the evening tea to be prepared in the hostel instead of joining us at one of the dhabas. At the time, there was a facility called ‘late lunch’/ ‘late dinner’, where a plate of food could be kept for you if you were going to be late and had informed the mess authorities beforehand. Very often, this food was eaten by the hostel cats. Eventually, the administration shut down this option, and students who chose to study late or work in the labs had to make do with maggi or paratha from Ganga Dhaba. On the days we felt particularly rich, we headed to Kiechha’s or Mughal Durbar on campus, and fought over small change.

Research in Indian public universities is subsidized, not funded. My Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) amount[iv], as a research scholar, was 12,000 rupees — a princely sum at the time. My friends who did not have the JRF were recipients of something called the UGC Non-NET Fellowship[v], which offered the magnificent sum of 3,000 rupees to M.Phil scholars and 5,000 rupees to Ph.D.. scholars. The scholarship money arrived once in four or five months, leaving us with little option but to look for work. This had to be done with care, since the university administration did not approve of research scholars working but also offered no opportunity for work as Research or Teaching Assistants. I had become so desperate that I went to a random job interview for a company whose name I cannot remember all the way to Pitam Pura. My friends worked for KPOs in Okhla where they wrote rich people’s SOPs for universities abroad. I worked as a copy editor in a publishing house, I freelanced, picked up the strangest gigs even before I knew what the ‘gig economy’ was (someone for instance wanted me to write their wife’s PhD — I convinced them both that it was a bad idea and tutored her instead), just to keep some money coming in. Eventually, I took up an ad-hoc job at the University of Delhi and stopped withdrawing my JRF, which lapsed after a semester. Very conscientious, I stopped asking the university for research contingency funds as well.

Our hostels had khatmals and power cuts. There was frequently no water — in fact, having running water was a rare surprise. Once, there was no water in the women’s wing in Chadrabhaga Hostel for 14 days, so we had to go downstairs and fill our buckets with water from a tanker that was stationed outside. In summer, sometimes, my room in Ganga Hostel (I lived in three different hostels over the years) was so hot that I would wet the floor and lie down on it.

Again, I had a financial security net — in the months I had nothing, I could ask my family for help. In the months I had money, I blew it completely on indulgences. This was not true for most people on campus, including my closest friends, who simply did not have that option, who had families depending on them. My friends at the university, meanwhile, came from the furthest parts of the country, from diverse caste and community backgrounds, and they all wanted one thing — to study. To survive. To leave the university with their heads held high.

I am a taxpayer now, and so are my friends. Whatever we received, we give back. We are grateful for it. But those years as beneficiaries of the public education system instilled some important values within most of us, such as the firm belief that education at all levels must be understood as a public good, not a commodity to be sold at will among the highest bidders. Students are not ‘consumers’ or ‘users’, but the very future of our great nation.

In the past few years, a vast majority of student agitations across India’s campuses have been on the issues of fee hike and scholarship denial, on library access and hostel hours, on social justice and gender justice. It would not, in fact, be an exaggeration to state that young India — at least, those sections of it fortunate to have had access to tertiary education — is hungry for greater access to quality and affordable education, something that the ever-expanding number of private-run universities are ill-equipped to and disinterested in offering. It is important to listen to these student voices, from places as disparate as Manipur University and IIT Delhi, Hidayatullah National Law University and Punjab University. It is important to recognize the precarity that is built into the very structure of higher education in India, which remains deeply Brahminical in how it envisions ‘access’ and ‘merit’.

It is this precarity that student voices have been articulating from different corners of India, even as education policy pushes them towards further precarity — towards fee hikes, towards the world of ‘financial autonomy’ and ‘need-based’ education loans. The casual statement of absurdities such as differential fee structures within our public universities, or said public universities competing with each other in the marketplace of education — as though higher education is equivalent to car models, measurable in the same manner! — in the public sphere suggests how truly out of touch most of India’s educated elite is with the aspirations and material needs of India’s youth. In fact, the endless litany about ratings and rankings and Indian universities ‘falling behind’ in the global ‘race’ highlights a curious fallacy: we appear to truly believe that quality research and education can somehow be produced with consistency in an atmosphere of such constant financial distress, or that somehow we can ‘get ahead’ even without systematic investment in human capital, by the way of some miraculous, magical jugaad.

The promise of spending 6% of India’s GDP towards education has grown so old that policymakers themselves appear to have forgotten it. It is time they — and we, the society at large — took account of the disparity between the promise of ‘radical reforms’ and the material concerns of India’s youth, and made concrete attempts to bridge that gap.

[i] “All India Survey on Higher Education 2018-19” (Key Results of the AISHE 2018-19, Department of Higher Education, Delhi, 2019), p.II

[ii] “Minimum Course Curriculum for Undergraduate Courses Under Choice Based Credit System”, UGC, Delhi, (URL: › pdfnews › 8023719_Guidelines-for-CBCS)

[iii] Akanksha Soni, “Education Loan NPAs on the Rise”, The Hindu, January 14, 2019.

[iv] “Junior Research Fellowship in Sciences, Humanities and Social Sciences”, XIth Plan Guidelines, UGC, Delhi, page 2/15

[v] India Today Web Desk New Delhi, February 3, 2017 UPDATED: February 3, and 2017 17:00 Ist, “No Fellowship to Non-NET Candidates: UGC,” India Today, accessed December 17, 2019,

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