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‘Jo Padh Sakta Hai Woh Hi Padega’: NEP, Social Hierarchy, And Labour In India

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After the government unveiled the new National Education Policy (NEP), the discourse has centred around positive steps suggested in the document to overhaul the rigidity of the education system. Many doubts raised have been surrounding the government’s implementation of the NEP. However, a closer reading of the document reveals its focus on ‘vocational training’ and ‘multiple exit points’ which merits a critical overview and discussion.

This article attempts to understand the terms in the NEP and what they mean for the class, caste, and gender divide in the country. The following are excerpts from conversations with a student activist, professor, and trade union activist to better understand what the NEP really means.

NEP 2020
“Whose family will be able to afford higher education and a four-year degree?”

Shambhavi, an M.Phil student from AUD and a student activist at Collective Delhi says, “They have formalized dropping out through an ‘exit option’, allowing people to exit and do a specialized vocational course from ITI [or Industrial Training Institute]. The formalizing of people dropping out and getting technical and vocational training in the form of an exit option. It says we are not even bothered to educate people till class 12, we will just give them an exit option.”

She points out that while these choices to drop out might be seen as choices of free will, the picture, in reality, is different. She asks, “Whose family will be able to afford higher education and a four-year degree? The government has now stopped even keeping up the facade of caring for public education.” According to her, the situation is now “jo padh sakte hai, padhe (only those who can study, will study)” while the rest are pushed into the labour market.  

There has been a lot of pushback regarding the NEP by student groups and teachers ever since the draft NEP came out in 2016. The document was seen as a way for the government to commercialize education and make it unattainable for a large percentage of the population.

A statement from Delhi University Teachers Association (DUTA) on 3rd March 2020 perfectly summarizes the feelings among teachers about the NEP. It reads “ teachers across the country have been unanimous in their opposition to the NEP as its imposition will lead to the destruction of public-funded education. The DUTA categorically rejects NEP as it will categorically destroy DU and DUTA by facilitating fragmentation, privatization, and commercialization.”    

From the perspective of an educationist, Dr Abha Dev Habib, the treasurer of DUTA and a professor of Physics at Miranda House, while agreeing to the possibility of a class divide, brings another angle to the fore. She raises the point that making every Higher Educational Institute multidisciplinary and offering vocational courses will only lead to a dilution of the quality of education and the ability to critically think cultivated at these institutes. 

“We have to think about the fact that we cannot ape the situations which remain in the USA and European countries and implement it here. People through their vocational training, through skilled labour, can earn enough wages for a suitable life in those countries.

What money does an electrician or plumber get in India? So extensive vocationalization will only lead to the availability of a cheap labour force in the market. 50% of the population is under 25, and people have two options, either you can put in input in higher education or research and there is knowledge production from the human resource, or you will be converted into a market of cheap labour.

This regime [referring to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party-led Union government] is the same which hasn’t filled 10 thousand empty posts in universities. 10 lakh post in schools are empty. And if this is the model which they propose to follow with ‘multidisciplinarity’, I don’t get charmed.”

“The small choices that are offered will not materialize on their own if there is a lack of teachers or professors. When you open the system, when there are too many choices, unless there is mentorship people will end up making the wrong choices, something which looks very comfortable today which because it might ease out your pressure might not be an intelligent decision.” 

Prof. Abha further explains her statement with an example of students choosing Generic Elective (GE) in DU. A GE is a supplementary course taken from outside the discipline one is enrolled in. She points out that many students take a simple or high scoring GE which eventually does not help their careers.

The professor also equates this to many choosing Physical Education at the higher secondary level simply because it is high scoring. “You might think you are cheating the system but the system is cheating you. Eventually, all of this will lead to students making or being forced to make the wrong choices under NEP which will lead to a dilution of the rigour and course work in higher education which will eventually lead to a lower standard, an unemployable and vulnerable workforce, and a loss of the ability to think critically.”

“There is a huge portion of [students from] SC, ST, OBC in every college, from marginalized sections, who will be pushed towards vocational courses but it will be at the cost of your pure sciences, humanities, social sciences. There is only a limited amount of things that can be done in the duration of a course” she adds.

According to an AIFRTE report in 2016, out of all children who get admitted in class 1, only 6% SCs, 8% STs, 9% Muslims, and 10% OBCs actually finish schooling till class 12. Keeping in mind these figures, and that women also struggle to complete schooling and apply for higher education, there appears a clear-cut view of who will actually move into vocational courses and who will go into higher education. 

Before attempting to understand the perspective in terms of the labour force, there is a need to understand the nature of vocational training in India. The route to a certificate or diploma in vocational training is two-fold. Firstly, one can go to an Industrial Training Institute and enrol in a course, getting their certification upon completion.

The second, and more prevalent, form under the current regime is the apprenticeship. Programmes like National Employment Enhancement Mission (NEEM), a skilling programme launched in 2013 and ramped up by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, sends applicants straight into a factory to ‘learn’ for 3-36 months, get a fixed stipend, and certification at the end of the program. While on paper this seems like a great way to alleviate the problems of labour scarcity, the reality surrounding vocational training and apprenticeships is different.

Amit is a trade union activist working in the Gurgaon-Manesar belt with the Workers Solidarity Centre. He stresses on the need to view the NEP’s push for vocationalization with the weakening of labour laws in the country. “Firstly, what I feel as a trade union activist is that, in the last 5 years, the regime has brought a lot of changes to labour laws. The Labour Code brought in the idea of ‘Fixed Term Employment’ and allowed contract workers to work in ‘core’ production. The basis of permanent jobs in labour has been ended by this policy move. This trend of contract work has been happening for the past 15-20 years in the Gurgaon-Manesar belt but now it has been formalized.” 

“Second, after regime change in 2014, there began a discourse around Skill India. At that time, National Skill Development Corporation, Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana, [and] the idea of giving people jobs as apprentices and attaching them to the labour force started increasing, and from there a category of NEEM trainee or student trainee developed. The idea was that someone would work, and along with that also get a certificate after a period of time [3 to 36 months].

The person will not be able to claim that job after apprenticeship, Sounds good doesn’t it, that someone can study till class 10 and get into an apprenticeship? [After] changes in the apprentice law, their stipend is less than that of the minimum wage of skilled labour. They are not treated as workers, because as an apprentice, they won’t come under the purview of labour laws. The apprentice is therefore exploited, socially vulnerable, not allowed to unionize, can’t dispute if they are removed, and they are also not guaranteed employment after their course is over.” 

He points out that because of these reasons, industrialists have started moving towards NEEM trainees as an alternate form of cheap labour. “The government also pays half the stipend, so the industrialists are getting already cheap labour at a subsidized price without any bargaining capacity. Combining the NEP with vocational training, while it sounds good on paper will only lead to companies getting a cheap workforce for which they are not liable, who they can replace with a new batch every 3 years. Fokat ka mazdoori (free labour) in a sense.”

college students
Fees are being increased in ITI too, as in the case of Haryana, where ITIs are going to get privatized and the fees are to be increased from Rs 480 a year to Rs 28,000.

Coming to what will happen to the labour market when you link dilution of labour laws with the push for vocational training in NEP, Amit points out, “Contract and permanent workers will get weakened and their ability to bargain and mobilize will be reduced even more. In the last 5 years, workers’ rights and trade unions have been immensely weakened by the regime. The long history of the right to the 8 hour day, social security, ESI [Employees’ State Insurance], PF [Provident Fund], gratuity, collective bargaining… all get a serious blow. If the same kind of work is done at a cheaper rate [then] the salary bargaining power of the worker will go down.  In the current climate of unemployment… a lot of these apprentices will be willing to work somewhere else at a lower rate. Despite rising productivity and accumulation of profit, the real wage of the worker will go down, and the transformation has come concretely in the last 5 years.”

It may be argued that the government will safeguard workers’ interests and employers will not resort to these measures. However, Amit points out that in December 2019, the Honda factory in Manesar was allowed to shut down a contract staff uprising for fair wages by hiring 800 trainees to keep the production lines moving.

The NEP and the influx of apprentices and trainees will only make this more common. Another argument that could be raised is that those looking for vocational training can go to an ITI instead of being ‘exploited’. Fees are being increased in ITI too, as in the case of Haryana, where ITIs are going to get privatized and the fees are to be increased from Rs 480 a year to Rs 28,000.

In conclusion, after observing the vocational training aspect of the NEP from multiple perspectives, it seems to serve a few purposes for the BJP-RSS regime.

Firstly, it transforms the workforce into a cheap, docile, and powerless entity for industrialists the world over which cannot collectivize and fight for their rights.

It makes the caste, class, and gender divide deeper by pushing the disenfranchised into low paying and exploitative work.

Finally, it dilutes Higher Educational Institutions by making them ‘multidisciplinary’ and adding ‘vocational’ courses, eventually weakening the ability to think critically.

The NEP, when viewed alongside other policies carried out by the current regime, paints a sinister picture of what is to come for the labour market and education in India.

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Find out more about her campaign here.

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