Dialogue  April-June 2007 , Volume 8 No. 4

Aspects of Education in the North-Easttc

Dr. B D Sharma

Some of the distinctive features of the NER that are relevant for education, both in positive as also negative terms, can be summarized as in the following:-

        (i)    Cultural Diversity: Culture is the living school of education in life. The diversity can, therefore, be a great asset for right education from the very beginning, for example, by rooting the teaching in the living tradition of the concerned community.

       (ii)    Small Communities with Different Languages: Language can be said to define the world of a community.

     (iii)    Small Habitations: The NER, especially the hilly region, comprises dispersed small habitations. This fact proves to be a great handicap in the quality of education at the elementary school level.

      (iv)    Diverse levels of Literacy & Spread of Education: Some regions in the NE like Mizoram have attained highest level of literacy in the whole country, while some others, for example, in pockets of Arunachal Pradesh may be at the other end of spectrum. Even this statistics may not tell the whole story because in many cases ‘education’ may end up with ‘attaining Bible Literacy’. This initial handicap tends to have multiplier effect with adverse implications for standard of education, especially in science and mathematics.

        (v)    An Extensive Educational Infrastructure especially in Higher Education : Educational infrastructure is quite extensive notwithstanding some gaps in the school system in remote areas. It may be noted that Shillong has earned the reputation as a ‘Town of Excellence in Educational’ in the NER.

      (vi)    Student Discipline and Motivation: The student community in the NER is highly organized, politically conscious and disciplined. The students have a special flair for music, cultural activities, sports and such like which is imbibed by them in their respective communities. This potential has not been systematically harnessed.

     (vii)    High Esteem for Teaching Community: A unique feature of the NE educational scene is the highest esteem for the teachers in the society. It is duly reflected in the deference, which the political leaders and even the bureaucratic system, which after all is a part of the community at large, shows to the teachers in dealing with them. This tremendous good will can be used for attaining excellence in education in the NER.

Aims of Education

Education is a life-long continuing process of learning and thereby achieving optimum potential of one’s innate capabilities as a man, in diverse facets of one’s personality. This exalted objective of education, for operational purposes, has to be spelt out with reference to different facets of a man’s life, especially in the early phase when (a) learning can be selective depending on the objective goals of the learner and (b) the innate qualities of a person may impact on the nature of his learning. The discourse on ‘Aims of Education’ can be broadly related to the following themes:-

(i) Citizen Education :

The aim of teaching and learning in all traditional communities was ‘primarily to induct the child and the adolescent into the way of the life of the community.’* The community-centric view of human existence has been moving “in two widely divergent directions, viz., (i) in the direction of the individual; and (ii) in the direction of the universal or the global: the individual human being and humanity:”* There is an intermediate stage in the form of nation states which have their respective frames of reference embedded in their ‘legal regimes’ with a Constitution, if any, at the apex. The community life in the NER is an experienced reality of every person. The community continues to occupy the commanding position in social life.

The Indian Constitution envisages provision of free, compulsory and equal education for every child up to the age of 14. In this long span of about a decade devoted to education, there has to be a kernel comprising the universal component of education that is compulsory and equal, besides other objectives, which a child might like to pursue such as excellence in music, science, art or agriculture. Every child, as a part of his education up to the age of 14, must learn and imbibe certain attributes that are necessary for

        (i)    enjoyment of community life with grace and ease,

       (ii)    partaking in the affairs of the State as a responsible citizen with honour and dignity, and

      (iii)    due appreciation of his role and responsibility as a member of humankind in the spirit of vasudhaiva kutmbakam (world as a family) and as a inheritor of the Mother Earth with all living being as coparceners, and NOT ITS SOLE MASTER.

It is a pity this aspect has been totally missed in the present day education. It has resulted in senseless rise of individualism and denigration of community life and its disorganization.

(ii) Art and Culture :

The most spontaneous expression of a child or even the early man has been in artistic forms which together comprise the abiding part of cultural life of a people. The present educational system has totally neglected this aspect. At best, it may be attended to in some institutions for the sake of form. As the influence of tradition in waning, the quality of life is nose-diving. Nay, the vacuum so created is being filled or is being aggressively occupied by the Market. It has assumed menacing proportions especially after the advent of TV which is vulgarizing human life and shattering cultures of all vintages. As man gets increasingly isolated, the Market, which has acquires virtual command over the State, will become inviolable and supreme. The Play may conclude with oracular pronouncement of the ‘Death of Humanity’ by the Market-cum-State and the formal take over by the ‘human robots’ under its absolute command.

(iii) Training for Participation in Economic Life :

Education as a training ground for participation in ‘Economic Life’ has gradually become a malefic obsession with an innocuous beginning as training for the babus in Macaulay’s scheme. As the differential in terms of emoluments, perks and power between traditional pursuits/ vocations/ occupations and the modern sector of national economy has been increasing, the pressure for moulding education in a frame that ‘manufactures’ the ‘educated’ according to the specifications thereof has been mounting phenomenally. In the NER, in the absence of a significant secondary sector, the rush, for obvious reasons, is for the tertiary sector. In this frame, the needs of the primary sector of the economy and even the new avenues in a variety of vocations in the secondary sector have been totally neglected. The goals of education in this segment of NER economy will relate broadly to the following:

       (a)    agriculture and allied sectors including forestry, fisheries, animal husbandry and such like;

       (b)    vocational streams of the new economy such as electricians, electronics, motor-mechanics etc;

       (c)    higher professional streams including engineering, medicine, mining, management etc; and

       (d)    humanities, social sciences, physical sciences, biological sciences, liberal arts and such like.

A Review of the Present Status

(i) General

(a) Dissonance at Elementary Stage:

As we review the educational scene of the NER, there is a mixed picture. There are some centers of excellence, but there are vast tracts in remote regions that are victims of utter neglect. The greatest dissonance is at the elementary stage. The most serious dissonance can be traced to the inapposite national and also State policies. For example, the formal elementary education starts at the age of 6. The presumption is that the child before attaining the age of 6 gets early grounding in a pre-primary school, balwadi and such like, beginning at the age of 3. Such facilities are luxuries for the common man which, by and large, only the elite can afford. There may some random spread of such institutions in some areas with questionable quality. Thus, a large section of children is ‘denied’ access to the school before the age of 6 on the technical ground that she is ‘under-age’. Therefore she begins her school with a serious handicap.

(b) Mother Tongue at Initiation:

Similarly, there is no concern about the significance of early learning in child’s mother tongue. The very initiation of learning on an Alphabetic Chart itself in a language other than the mother tongue becomes a serious handicap for a vast majority of children in their sojourn in concept formation, which begins with Day One of rendezvous with that Chart, as they move up the educational ladder. Obsession with English is another deterrent for the vast majority of children whose informal personal circle at home is largely ignorant about that language. He is terribly handicapped in the school, learns by rote and is robbed of the real joy of learning at a stage when the creativity and passion for learning is at its peak, simply because he is unable to measure up to the grand universe of school compared to his humble family setting. Finally, the children, in vast majority of single-teacher schools in small habitations, are denied the great opportunity of developing and nurture of their innate faculties in diverse fields because there may be no one there even to identify the same, let alone their nurture. Learning for many is reduced to drudgery because they may be forced to learn by rote what may be of no interest to them.

(c) Incongruous Phase Hierarchy:

As we move up in the school system, there is not much realization about the needs of the child in different stages of learning. There are broadly three phases in school education, viz., (i) mother care phase (elementary), (ii) companionship phase (secondary), and (iii) rebellious phase (higher secondary). Each of these phases is well recognized in the theories of education as a distinct stage which has to be handled with due sensitivity and proper training. There cannot be a hierarchical relationship amongst the three phases. In fact, there is a strong case for inverse hierarchy. The mother-care phase is the most crucial and the most difficult. Yet the teachers in this group are placed at the bottom of the hierarchy of the teaching community. The training of teachers for this group is also the most neglected. The irony is that those trained for higher levels, such as those holding bachelor’s degree in education, are thrust on the elementary schools simply because they are supposed to have ‘higher’ qualification. This is without even due realisation of the fact that the training in B.Ed. is irrelevant for elementary classes and, in practice, may prove to be dysfunctional.

(d) Whither ‘+2’ :

As we move up to the apex of the school education, the higher secondary (or in brief ‘+2’), the national pattern still remains to be adopted in the NER. In many States outside NER, ‘+2’ is now an integral part of the school education. Nevertheless, in the largest State of the country, Uttar Pradesh, the tradition of treating this two year segment, the intermediate, as a totally separate entity continues. The Intermediate College is a prestigious institution in U.P. This ‘College’ has nothing to do with College education. In the NER, however, the ‘+2’ part of the school system continues to be a part of college education. This mix up of school & college is a big hurdle in improving the quality and attaining requisite standard in college education. As the student moves from school to college beyond the ‘+2’, a quantum change is a must, both in the method of teaching and the student-teacher relationship. This crucial fact is not even acknowledged, let alone being duly attended. The change covers certain vital areas such as the very perception about education, preparedness of the college and its teachers to accept the challenge of youthful inquiry and behaviour The result is that the youth in general, barring a few, passing through this critical phase, are prone to be misled, misguided and alienated.

(ii) Preparation for Life :

The very concept of ‘preparation for life’ is missing from education, as in the rest of the country, in the NER as well, but with a difference. The extreme centralization in various facets of education, notwithstanding a bevy of institutions devoted to autonomy, has resulted in virtual uniformity from ‘n’ (nursery) to ‘u’ (university). This is responsible for the great dissonance between education and the real life situation in general. But this dissonance in the Region is much sharper compared to the rest of the country. The modern education, from the very beginning, inculcates values alien to the traditional culture such as individualism, competition and profit, the hall-mark of capitalism. The sense of pride in one’s own culture, in the alien milieu engendered by the antithetic educational values, is hurt, albeit unknowingly, which finds expression in abnormal behaviour. A sense of being poor in a virtually ‘want-less community with benevolent nature around’ has been crudely implanted in the unseemly political parlance for petty gains, unmindful of its dreadful social implications. Last but not the least, as stated earlier, the child is not prepared for life in the community. This leads to estrangement on a significant scale. As the tender fabric of community life wears off under the innocent-looking exotic assault, disorganization and degeneration is bound to set in.

The scenario of education for livelihood is also dismal. Education can be, and should be one step ahead of the prevailing economic system of the concerned people. It should, therefore, have the twin objective of and resilience for achieving (i) a state of consonance between the needs of economy and skill endowment of its people and (ii) advance preparation of the people to meet the challenge of incessant change in the dynamic economy of the Region. This incessant change can be a part of planned process or may also be induced by the national and also the global forces in the nascent ‘global village’ paradigm. The first major handicap in the NER in this regard is the ambivalence about the path of development of the Region itself. The ambivalence is relatable to the following:

       (i)    the basic difference in the resource-population matrix of the NER and the nation as a whole,

      (ii)    the basic difference between the social and legal parameters, which are important determinants of growth paradigm,

     (iii)    total ‘isolation’ from the rest of the country. 98% of the border of the NER is shared with other countries, having ‘fluctuating’ uncertain relationships, and

     (iv)    disturbed conditions in many parts of the Region on account of above mentioned factors and other unresolved issues.

(a) Primary Sector:

Let us begin with the primary sector, which sustains the vast majority of people in the Region. But the ‘primary sector’ in the NER is not the same as the primary sector of Green Revolution tracts of many States notably Punjab, Maharashtra, A.P. and Karnataka. It is this green revolution paradigm that has dominated the national thought about agricultural development, both in terms of support to, as also extension and research in agriculture at the national level as also in the States. The ‘primary sector’ of the NER, however, is qualitatively different from this dominant paradigm, with ‘jhoom’ as the real ‘agricultural’ practice of the Region. The term ‘jhoom’ (swaying together in unison with nature) itself gently affirms the regional ethos about working life of the people. There is no ‘drudgery of labour’ in this system. On the contrary, there is celestial joy of moving together that makes it the very foundation of their social system and also a way of life.

The reality of such a system cannot be captured in any frame of dry statistics. The irony is that even the ‘dry’ statistics collected for the NER is purposeless. It is collected mechanically as a part of national surveys. It is in a format that is designed with reference to important features of the agricultural scene of the nation as a whole, such as state of irrigation, major crops grown, inputs used. The unimaginable wide diversity of the NER in respect of crops grown has no place in this format. This diversity is tightly ‘packed’ in an omnibus term ‘others’. To cap it all, the details of ‘major’ crops inconsequential for the Region like wheat or cotton are presented in countless charts with full flurry of ‘0s’ unending, or a series of single or double-digit figures.

Even special institutions like Agriculture College, at Mezdiphema in Nagaland, established for attending to the needs of agriculture in the hill areas, has not made a difference. These institutions have not been able to liberate themselves from the iron-jacket of academic discipline in agriculture at the national level. This is not to say that nothing has been done in the NER. Those aspects of education in agriculture and allied sectors that are consistent with the national frame, have no doubt claimed some attention. But they relate largely to the plain areas in the NER. In fact, even the critical issues of ‘agriculture’ in the extensive hill areas have not been adequately defined. For example, take the case of shifting cultivation. This practice continues to be variously described as ‘a way of life’, ‘a distinctive stage in the progression of mankind’, and even ‘destructive and baneful’. The academic content and even the perspective for future of education relevant for primary sector of the NER economy, therefore, is a far cry.

Similar is the situation with regard to the response of the educational system in other allied sectors of agriculture such as animal husbandry, pisciculture, poultry, piggery, tissue-culture, forestry, tussar and silk culture plantations and such like. It is a pity that education has hardly any role to play even in the conventional agriculture practiced in the hills.

(b) Secondary Sector:

 As we review the secondary sector of the NER, it has not developed as a major sector in keeping with its ’lead’ sector role envisaged for it in the national economy and to serve as its ‘Engine of Growth’. Nevertheless a vast variety of micro, mini-micro ventures besides some small scale industries have mushroomed in the NER as well in the wake of extensive flow of plan and non-plan money and spurt in associated activities. There is, however, no systematic review of the situation, let alone advance planning for preparing the youth for the new opportunities. No economic system allows a vacuum to remain unfilled. Other adventurous groups joined in on their own or under the cover of some local names. The situation in ‘petty tertiary sector’ has been slightly different. For example, the Mizos in general and even Lothas amongst Nagas, have succeeded in making use of the new opportunities in small business. But the noteworthy part of even this success story is that educational system did not rise to the occasion in enlightening or guiding the concerned people. The overall situation on the entrepreneurial front in the Region remains unchanged even today.

The above narration may not be taken to mean that nothing has happened in the NER in the field of vocational/technical education. A number of programmes have been taken up for technical training. Many institutions have been established in almost all State such as ITIs as a part of the relevant national programmes. But their role in promoting and establishing local entrepreneurship has remained nominal. It may be specially underlined here that the Region has tremendous potential for major industrial and mining activity. Some institutions of higher technology have also been established in anticipation of the potential demand for technical manpower. But a comprehensive long term perspective remains to emerge. Accordingly this sub-sector has remained a non-starter for a variety of reasons. Unless this aspect is attended right away, the events under the shadow of global forces may overtake the NER, the opportunity of a harmonious blend between people’s development and Regional Development (or Regional Development with focus on people’s development) may be missed in this Region as well, notwithstanding its lead in education in general, as is already happening on a massive scale in the extensive resource rich central Indian Tribal tract.

(c) Tertiary Sector:

It is a pity that our educational system is largely dedicated to serve the tertiary sector of the national economy. But the dedication of education to that sector in the NER is much higher, almost exclusive. It is so far the simple reason that ‘the primary sector in the NER has remained weak; the secondary sector is inconsequential; and the tertiary sector is over-sized.’ Even in this limited frame, there is virtually no direction in terms of man-power planning and its training. The reason is simple. The growth of tertiary sector in the NER has been largely in response to the ‘plan-impulse’ from the national level. The recipient-States of the NER have had no significant role to play in this except to accept the schemes sponsored by the Center and implement the same mechanically. The pity is that there has been phenomenal mismatch between the ideal prescriptions of job requirements in these institutions, started with big fanfare, and the qualifications and training of the personnel.

The Flawed Perspective of the National Educational Policy, 1984 :

The growth of institutions of higher learning in the NER has been ubiquitous, as we will discuss in detail later. The location of these institutions may not always be on rational considerations. There is rampant duplication in disciplines at the under graduate as also post graduate level even when they are already over-subscribed. The National Educational Policy 1984 was dedicated to improvement of quality in education. This policy envisaged two distinct streams in education —vocational and academic— after class 10, that is, at the ‘+2’ stage. Bulk of the students was expected to opt for vocational courses. This would imply substantial reduction in the intake in the academic stream. The Policy aimed at attaining academic excellence for the reduced numbers by adding one year to the degree course.

The North- Eastern Hill University did not find this scheme suitable in view of the local situation. Firstly, the basic premise of the Policy that a large number of students will branch off to vocational stream after class 10 that would reduce the load of the academic stream was unrealistic. Therefore, it was clear that the load of academic stream in the colleges was not likely to wane. ( NEHU adopted an alternative scheme of a vocational-cum-professional course for the ‘+2’, as we will discuss later.) Secondly, the degree colleges, especially in the remote areas, neither had the requisite facilities nor adequate faculty to use the added time fruitfully. Accordingly NEHU decided not to adopt the three year degree pattern.

A bold decision was taken to introduce an alternative hybrid course structure comprising two-year degree and third year honours course. It aimed at shedding the load of academic stream after the pass stage and concentrate on quality improvement in third year honours in selected colleges. Such a selective approach was expected to enable the colleges to develop academic excellence in a few subjects of their choice. This innovative approach in response to the special conditions in the Region found a special commendatory mention in the Policy notwithstanding the differences in principle with the general frame of the Policy. The System continued for about a decade. It is a pity the obsession for uniformity by the higher authorities, with no consideration for the local situation, forced NEHU to fall in line with the general three year pattern.

The result is that the general run of the colleges in the Region, which are saddled with ‘+2’ part of school education, are now further handicapped by added numbers in the third year. The infrastructure in the colleges in terms of libraries, laboratories etc is far from satisfactory. In sum, the degrees awarded are devoid of the expected standard. On the other hand, the ‘inflated’ tertiary sector virtually represents a classic case of ‘growth without content’ because of lack of matching support from the academic world. This dissonance has serious debilitating implications for the NER economy.

The educational infrastructure for professional needs of the nascent modern sector falls miserably short of the present and potential needs of the NER.

The Task Ahead–I : School Education

The ideal and the real discussed above should lead to the framing of suitable plans of action, both in the immediate context and also in the long run. It may be stated at the very outset that ‘the ideal’ is always indicative of the direction, towards a ‘final’ goal, which perhaps can never be achieved. It, however, provides the necessary stimulus and creates the motive force for the onward journey in that direction. We will present a possible outline for different stages of education as also a holistic frame.

(i) Early Schooling – The Constitutional Obligation:

Let us begin with the crucial issue of the nature and content of universal education up to secondary level. It is a matter of deep regret that this aspect has not been considered in its totality even at the national level on account of the continuing ‘national obsession’ for the tertiary sector related education. It is this inflated concern for the tertiary that has determined the structure education in its entirety, evincing no concern for its implications for the vast majority. The ‘neighborhood school’, the foundation of an egalitarian society and the avowed national objective for at least two decades after independence, disappeared from the national agenda like the grin of Cheshire cat. The elitist apology in the form of ‘Central Schools’, ‘Navodaya Vidyalayas’ etc has erased from public memory even the need for a dialogue on this vital issue. The irony is that in a nation ‘committed’ to the establishment of an egalitarian social order, education has divided the ‘innocent childhood’ itself into inviolable and impregnable social ranking. This ranking is directly relatable to the school a child attends. It leaves an indelible mark on the psyche of the child.

This contrived social ranking is potentially the most explosive element in the NER wedded to egalitarian social life. It is a serious issue with long term implications, especially vis-à-vis the Vision of the People about the political economy of the NER. It is high time that that ‘Academic Community of the NER’ may suitably come together for defining and guiding the future tasks in education in the North-East. It must specially attend to the tasks in Elementary Education (up to the age of 14) for achieving the Underlying Constitutional Objectives.

(ii) Elementary Education with reference to Small, Remote Habitations and Smaller Linguistic Groups:

We have already discussed some of the problems relatable to size of the school, remoteness of habitation and mother tongue of the child in Part II. An important point about early schooling, especially in remote areas, that needs to be appreciated is that a tribal child in his natural setting is used to the freedom of unbound expanse. He, therefore, abhors the intra-mural prison-like setting of the class-room. This early incongruity creates deep psychological imprint and adverse implications for his development. An imaginative solution to this riddle is necessary. For example, the disadvantage inherent in small habitation-institutions can be overcome by designating a group of five or six habitations as one ‘educational complex’. A purposive selection of teachers for this Complex can ensure that all the schools in the complex as a collectivity can have a group of teachers with complementary attributes that would make the group a viable and vibrant academic entity. The Complex may set aside one day in a weak for sports and cultural activities.

(iii) Schools, Teachers & Infrastructure:

When a strong foundation is proposed to be laid for all round education at the school level, it will be necessary to have a quick appraisal of the state of schools in the NER by all member States. This appraisal may cover teaching community as also school infrastructure. The assessment of teaching community should be both in terms of its strength and competence, especially in science and mathematics in elementary schools.

Training of Teachers in Science and Mathematics:

The arrangements for teaching mathematics and science, which is now a compulsory subject in primary classes, are extremely poor throughout the country except in elite institutions. The situation is much worse especially in the remote areas of the NER. The opportunity a child misses in these basic subjects becomes a life-long handicap in his development. In my view, a crash programme for training of primary school teachers in science and mathematics may be taken up immediately.

Location of Schools:

An inapposite, if not odious, aspect of educational scene through out the country is the location of schools. These institutions are generally located on ‘road side’. This was a preferred site where ‘roads’ were not ‘highways’ but wider ‘walk-ways’ for people to move about. One wonders how teachers and students can have a meaningful dialogue when they are continuously distracted by the deafening roar of heavy traffic. It may be ensured that all new educational institutions are located, and if possible existing institutions are relocated, at least a couple of furlongs away from the highways of all descriptions.

(iv) Beyond the ‘Basic’ in the Primary:

We have noted earlier that the primary sector in the NER with its fabulous natural resources holds the key to its development in the immediate context. The paradigm of development for optimum results has to be in consonance with its social milieu. The critical limitation in this regard is that the rich resources ironically have not been harnessed or are being harnessed in a millennium old technological frame. And yet, this aspect has been totally missed in educational planning in the Region. We have discussed the issues relating to basic school education under ‘Early Schooling: The Constitutional Obligation’. The impact of corrective measures, if pursued assiduously, can be expected only in the long run. However, advantage can be taken of the fact that spread of education in the NER through elementary and secondary school has been quite extensive. Thus, a channel of communication between institutions of learning and practitioners in the primary sector of regional economy is now feasible. But there are no plans for harnessing this tremendous potential for development.

Link between Practicing Farmers and Academic Institutions :

We may turn to the pages of history of European Renaissance for learning from their experience. A variety of practitioners in different fields of specialization’ were organized in the form of ‘guilds’. These guilds were absorbing the benefits of technological break through that was taking place as a part of nascent Industrial Revolution. A noteworthy feature of this period was that Institutions of higher learning that were being established for imparting formal education in the relevant fields, had to measure up to the standards set by the relevant Guild. This convention still continues in many branches of technical education including medicine. For example, the academic degrees in engineering are equated with AMIE and not the other way round.

It is a pity that virtually no value is accorded by the academic establishments especially in agriculture to ‘practitioners in field’. It is high time that a living relationship is established between practicing agriculturists, that is, the farmers and formal institutions of education in agriculture. One such frame was prepared by the North Eastern Hills University in the form of a mix of correspondence course-cum-institutional-training and on-the-farm work as a farmer. Any practicing farmer who has passed class VIII examination could join this course. He could earn a high school certificate in 3 years time, ‘+2’ certificate in another 3 years, and the degree of B.Sc (Agriculture) in two parts in two sessions of 3 years each, or 12 years in all for a 8th pass farmer to earn a degree in agriculture. It is a pity that this frame, which had been formally adopted by the University, has not been operationalised even though it was highly appreciated by all concerned as a major step forward in linking education with practice.

(v) The Choice for Vocational at ‘+2’:

As discussed earlier, according to the National Educational Policy 1984, the students have to make a choice between academic and vocational streams when they enter the ‘+2’ stage after completing their secondary school (Class 10). The so called vocational stream prepares the student for what can be said to be the shop floor jobs. The higher technical courses like engineering, electronic, medicine etc begin after ‘+2’. The entry into higher technical courses is based on performance at ‘+2’ and/or in open entrance tests. Thus, the higher technical education is not a part of ‘vocational’ stream but a part of the ‘academic’ stream. In this situation the choice for vocational stream at the end of class 10 is really a choice for shop floor vocational positions that are inferior to higher technical positions.

The scheme in the present socio-economic milieu is flawed at its very core. Academic qualification is an essential condition, and virtually a passport, for entry in the modern sector. Any boy or his guardian who has nursed the dream for a coveted position there in, would not like to burn his boat after reaching class 10, however miserable may be his performance, by opting for a vocational course that condemns him for a shop floor position. It may also be noted that shop floor vocational positions have a terribly lower social status irrespective of the economic position. The intention of the GOI to divert a large number of young people into vocational stream and relieve the academic stream of unnecessary burden failed largely on this socio-psychological ground.

In view of the fact that the vocational courses have a lower social valuation, the first condition for attracting young people to this stream would be to assure them that their entry into this academic stream will not be handicapped on account of their choice of vocational stream at +2 stages. They will have a choice to move on to the academic stream without any further preparation such as a bridge course. It was thus clear that a system is necessary in which the vocational course is considered a superior stream and does not bar the student’s entry to the academic stream; a large number of students could be expected to opt for the same.

A vocational-cum-academic course for the +2 stage with a slightly higher status compared to a purely academic stream, was introduced in NEHU in early 80’s. The course was widely welcome. This experience may be suitably used for guidance on the crucial issue of vocational stream at the end of High School.

(vi) Vocational Training and After:

A comprehensive review of the state of vocational training institutions in the NER must be undertaken especially for assessing the vital gaps (i) with reference to the current status of NER economy, and (ii) which is more important, with reference to the Vision of the People about the same, say, at the end of the current decade.

An important issue, which the vocational training institutions ,by and large, have not attended, is successful ‘launching’ of students in vocations, for which they are trained. Some of the trainees do get some jobs. But that cannot be the main objective of vocational training in the present stage of NER economy. The young people with requisite technical capabilities should be able to spread out and establish themselves as young entrepreneurs. It is this group of ‘pioneers’ who can be expected to develop into leaders and mature decision-makers even in major ventures in the midst of boundless opportunities, which the Region presents as a challenge. In the absence of local leadership, this role is being assumed by outsiders, especially by the communities like the Marwaris, who have the benefit of inherited tradition of entrepreneurship. They also have the advantage of support structures, both social and financial-institutional. Unless this aberration in the entrepreneurial development is corrected, the real leadership in development of the NER will gravitate into the hands of outsiders, whatever may be its outer cover for the sake of form to satisfy the vanity of the locals. The loss will be irreparable.

Nurturing Entrepreneurship:

The people of the North East in general and the tribal people in particular have been a part of the serene, simple, virtually money-less, non-competitive socio-economic system. Entrepreneurship in the modern context requires a totally different set of values and also the capability to handle or deal with crafty people, complex modern institutions and the bewildering Market. The basic question about self-sustained development of the Region under the entrepreneurial leadership of the sons of the soil is “how to bridge this inherent ‘entrepreneurial gap’ relatable to the socio-economic system of the NER?” It is this limitation that forces the technically trained youth into lowly jobs. The pity is that some of those who venture into entrepreneurship are either forced to retreat after their very first rendezvous with rule-ridden bank and crafty mangers of the Market or make some cover arrangements with outsiders who then rule the roost.

The only way to meet this challenge is that the charter of the training institutions should be comprehensive. The establishment of the trainee-students as an entrepreneur should be an integral part of their training programme and a shared responsibility of the state and the institute. For example, one year can be added to the normal training schedule of all vocational training institutions. The students successfully completing their normal vocational training may be given a broad idea about the possible small ventures that they can independently or in a group of two or three can start. They may be attached as apprentices with reputed accredited establishments in the area of their interest.

The Tasks Ahead-II : College & University

There is a qualitative change in almost all respect as a student moves from school to a college/university. There are countless facets which will need to be deliberated on a continuing basis. The first pre-requisite for informed deliberation is the sharing of experience of different universities. I seek indulgence of the readers to share some of my experiences while in NEHU (1981-86).

(i) University Calendar & Climate in the Hill Areas:

One of the major changes that was introduced in NEHU in the 80’s, relates to harmonization of the academic calendar of the University with climatic parameters. NEHU, like all other Universities of the Region, had been following the national calendar beginning with July. The new calendar adopted by NEHU begins on 16th February and ends on 20th December with a two-week break in June. This change enabled the University to raise the number of teaching days in a year to about 240, which earlier hovered around the figure of a mere hundred. A recent decision of the University Grants Commission to have a common calendar for all the Universities in India needs to be seriously debated in the light of the experience of NEHU and other similarly placed Universities in different climatic zones.

(ii) Two / Three Year Degree Courses in Colleges:

We have already discussed in detail the introduction of ‘two year degree and three year honours’ pattern in lieu of the national pattern of three year degree course keeping in view the special situation of the NER. The NEHU pattern in effect meant that the 2 year post graduate course of the University was expanded to 3 years out of which one year teaching was assigned to colleges. It was envisaged that this system will gradually upgrade the academic standard of degree colleges in selected subjects. It was also expected that it would have a healthy, peer group influence on other subjects in those colleges. It appears that NEHU could not stand against the bulldozing uniformity of three year degree course forced by the Centre. The net result is that degree colleges have got more crowded than earlier, which is the opposite of intended objective of the National Educational Policy.

(iii) Broadening the Vision:

Entry in college/university ironically marks the beginning of a phase in education with narrow and still narrower specialization in various disciplines. At the end of this process, one may reach a stage where he my ‘know every thing about nothing.’ This reality of university education is contrary to its avowed objective and even the common sense perception associated with and the literal meaning of the term university. Such specialization tends to alienate the educated from the real life situation. The arrogance of prestigious degrees coupled with narrow perspective tends to become dysfunctional, especially in a political economy wedded to egalitarian goals. This is a major issue especially in the realm of higher education for consideration of the Academic Community in the NER in due course. Some of the experiences in NEHU are as given below.

(a) Foundation Course:

A foundation course for all students in the first year of the degree course was introduced with the basic objective to give the young people a bird’s eye view of all aspects of human life at the entry point to the university system. The course covered the entire spectrum of human knowledge and socio-economic-political aspect of human life. It started with full gamut of natural and biological sciences at the one end, through history, geography, aspects of social situation and economic development, Indian Constitution, secularism, etc., with art and its appreciation at the other end.

This was one of the most fulfilling exercises taken by up the entire academic community of the University. The examination paper of this course was designed in the format of objective questions. Small readable books were prepared for each subject.It appears that the course was discontinued in the wake of some Supreme Court Order asking the Universities to provide for compulsory study of environment at the college level. In my view, the course could have continued notwithstanding the SC order, whose spirit could have been suitably accommodated in the foundation course itself.

(b) Extra Departmental / School Courses at Post Graduate Level:

In pursuance of the objective of broadening the vision of university students, the academic council of NEHU decided that ‘let the students passing out from the University with a post graduate degree have an intelligent man’s perception about some other branches of learning as well besides his own subject of specialisation.’ Every post graduate student was (?) required to take one course in any subject of his choice outside the Department but within the School and another course in any subject of his choice outside the School.

(iv) Rendezvous with Real Life:

A major problem of our University system is that the glow of learning is confined within the boundary walls of great seats of learning and is not able to pierce through them to ‘lighten the darkness of ignorance around.’ Moreover, in this situation both the students and teachers tend to remain cut off from the real life situation. This leads to avoidable frustration which the student has to face in the complex world after his graduation about which he has no idea. The problem is confounded by the fact that even the course material in different subjects may have nothing to tell about the life around. This isolation makes the entire teaching-learning in every subject a mathematical exercise of dealing with some abstract symbols and ‘If… then...’ exercises in logic. I will mention two notable measures by NEHU to deal with this problem.

(a) Non-Conventional Courses:

As stated earlier, NEHU continued with the two year degree course. There is a provision of three co-equal optional subjects at the degree level, besides compulsories like Foundation Courses, English, etc. With a view to give some understanding of the life outside, including back home in the village, the students in all disciplines— arts, science, humanities — were given freedom to take two conventional subjects from the list of optional subjects and take one subject from a long list of non-conventional courses relating to the real life. These subjects included agriculture, horticulture, pisciculture, poultry, bee-keeping, silk-worm rearing, marketing, electronics etc. The idea was to allow the student to pick up some elements of a selected activity from the real life situation around. Let him become aware about its potential and earn familiarity with some aspects of handling the same.

There was no restriction on the choice of subjects in selection. An arts student: could take electronics and a mathematics boy could choose piggery or some other aspect of agriculture. This training, as a part of his college education, could enable him at the end of his college education, to think and make a choice between different alternatives. Instead of being engaged in endless search of petty jobs, the student, equipped with some understanding of a relevant economic activity, could explore the possibility of using the same for launching an independent venture.

(b) Law as an Optional in Degree Course:

Reference may also be made here about the implications of the adoption of five year degree course in law and discontinuance of the ordinary LL.B. courses by the Universities. This change has been effected at the instance of the Bar Council of India. Their objective was to bring legal education at par with other professional courses like those in engineering and medicine. The ordinary courses in law enabled a large body of people to study the subject even though they may not be interested in entering legal profession. In view of this special situation in the NER, the NEHU decided not to accept the five-year course in law and continued with the traditional system. The University also decided to introduce law as one of the three optional subjects in the pass course.

(c) A Semester in the Field for Learning from Life & Nature:

With a view to exploit this ‘academic potential’ of the Region by academics of the Region for academic excellence in the Region a provision was made in the statutes of NEHU to facilitate this work. Any teacher of NEHU, after teaching for three semesters, could take one semester off on full pay plus special allowance for working in the area. He could pursue his study in any branch of knowledge including any aspect of people’s life. The information so gathered could be a part of a project or regular research leading to award of a degree.

(iv) Academic Exchange:

The effect of physical isolation on the academic excellence has been neutralized to some extent by IT revolution. Nevertheless there can be no substitute for personal face-to-face interaction and direct experience of personal participation in a different academic milieu. While academic exchange is a blessing for both the parties, it was realised in NEHU that, for a variety of reasons, the stake of NEHU was higher in this programme. Accordingly the University formulated a scheme of exchange of faculty with other prestigious institutions in the country, for one year at a time extendable up to two years, in which the financial cost of exchange on both the sides was to be borne by NEHU.

In my view, academic exchange in the NER can yield good dividends in a comparatively shorter span of time. But academic exchange to be effective has to be multidimensional. For example, there is a good case for a suitable exchange programme between Universities and Colleges within NER. The academic interaction in well organized seminars and symposia, extended interaction during vacations will enrich the experience on both sides.

The greatest asset of the NER is its scenic extravaganza. Academicians from all over the country, or even other parts of the world, can come together for extended periods for exchange of ideas and experience. A Seminar Complex was established in NEHU with facilities for a hundred scholars in residence at a time participating in academic deliberations. In fact, an institution of the pattern of East-West Center in Honolulu, or Institute of Advanced Studies in Shimla, can provide a big boost to the academic activity and work for achieving excellence in the NER.

(vi) NEHU Publications:

A good publication can be said to be the overt expression of the vibrant spirit of the academic community. Its significance in the NER, with its distinctive cultural ethos and unique geo-climatic and physical endowments, becomes manifold. The NER has a fabulously rich treasure of official documents, exhaustive notes of sensitive officers, missionaries, old texts on the life of the peoples of the Region and their struggles and last, but not the least, the great treasure of oral history of countless communities. It is a pity that some publishers are minting money by just reproducing the old text with a new cover. These very texts are even used by the students of NER with little realization that the narration may be a century old.

NEHU took up an ambitious programme of publications with the establishment of NEHU Publications. A strategy to take advantage of some of the distinctive features of the NER situation noted above was prepared. It was noted that (i) for a variety of reasons NER, especially its hill areas have been out of reach of the global, nay, even national academic community. Therefore there was a great demand for authoritative information/publications about the NER, (ii) even though NER accounts for only about 15% of the total tribal population in the country; it has the image of being the pulsating center of tribal world in India. Unfortunately there is great dearth of reliable literature on tribal affairs in the country. But there is an insatiable demand for the same in the global as well as the national market, and (iii) the name of NEHU is associated both with NER and the tribal people. Therefore a Publication of NEHU can have the advantage of instant credibility in respect of any thing to do with tribal affairs and the NER.

A venture programme capitalizing on this goodwill was, therefore, launched to republish old books on NER and also Tribal Affairs with suitable annotations and a comprehensive Foreword by noted scholars, especially from the North East. Similarly, editing of valuable documents lying in the archives of the north-eastern States was also planned as a priority programme. The collaboration with other Universities in the Region was also solicited. These modest ventures of a beginner were expected to become in due course the firm foundation of a really world-grade University Publication being established in the NER. The NER should take full advantage its unique position discussed above and work for establishing a world grade Publication in the NER to serve higher education.

A Grand Panorama from ‘n to u’ : The Vivacious Cultural Mosaic of NER Throbbing with Joy of Life:

We have considered in some detail some of the important selective aspects of education from ‘n to u’; it is now time that we have a holistic view of the situation to ensure that parts do make for a meaningful whole.

(a)‘n to u’ : Organic Invisible Threads :

The partitioning of education, an organic attribute of mankind, into rigid formal divisions, both horizontal, from ‘n to u’, and vertical, in various disciplines with virtually nothing in common as a part of formal design, has led to what can be termed as ‘capsule’ effect. Each ‘capsule’ comprising a small fragment of education is handled in isolation. It may sometimes be totally alienated from the living reality around; it may be an inert object. The phenomenon has special implications for sparsely populated areas with small habitations and poor communications. There are no informal linkages in these areas, which in general areas help in mitigating the ‘capsule’ effect of vivisected education.

The organic linkage from ‘n to u’, in my view, holds the key to the quality of education and, by implication, to the quality of life itself for the vast majority of people of the NER. It is especially so now when the people are facing an unprecedented challenge in their history under the shadow of liberalization and globalisation.

Specter of Dual Morality

But the danger implicit in precursors is not imaginary. Money is making inroads through what can be termed as a ‘dualistic moral code’ that is getting currency in the Region. A strict code of honesty, honour and fraternity is inviolable in all affairs within the community. But its violation is not a taboo while dealing with the outside world that is virtually a synonym of sharp practices. Such a dualism in morality, by its very nature, cannot last long. The money-centered values must invade the community system, sooner than later. It is a matter of deep concern that universal vices such as ‘smuggling’, ‘trafficking’, drug-addiction, corruption in various forms have been taking their toll in the NER for quite some time. What is worse, there is no significant effort to counter the same. Even the citadels of moral values including the education system have remained largely unconcerned notwithstanding the high regard which the community continues to bestow on them. Some attempts have no doubt been made, but they are for the sake of form and by way of ‘tokenism’. Such insipid measures cannot contain the avalanche, let alone countering the same. The results are before us. The blight of trade in human flesh, unknown in the hoary tribal tradition, has started infecting the society. Individualism is taking a heavy toll by promoting inequality, unbelievably stark in otherwise egalitarian societies. Poverty that was unknown in the traditional system has not only made its hideous appearance but is unabashedly used for getting a few crumbs by way of aid and funds for so called development.

The erosion of social sensitivity, the greatest asset of the NER tradition, must be taken as the biggest challenge by the educational system. A situation has been reached where tokenism will not do. We are in the midst of an avalanche of ‘new values’; in which money is unabashedly accepted as a measure of everything; in which everything including the man and his values are commodities in the market; in which even raising such issues, as is being attempted here, is a taboo: in which allusion to values of life are dubbed as romanticism, anti-development, archaic, back to langoti (loincloth)-age and such like.

This challenge, therefore, must be faced boldly, not as an apology. Rejection of the entire anti-people paradigm of development and inculcation and reinforcement of egalitarian values has to be an integral part of the Mission-Education from ‘n to u’ and beyond. It must aim at making Education a “real ‘festival of joy’ in self-realisation for the entire mankind”.

The NER presents not only an ideal setting but also the most opportune moment in its history when the new challenge is in the nascent phase, and the ordinary people are becoming conscious of the ‘gathering storm’. “We can face all challenges, but can you tell us how to face the challenge of money-power?” is the question that is writ large in the blank eyes of the imperious elders, conscious about their Great tradition in contrast with the impending crisis, while staring at the crimson horizon of the rising sun. Thus, there is resilience, enough and more, in the community including even the vacillating educated youth to counter this avalanche contrived and sanctified in the name of history.

The Mission Education

The leadership for this historic task must be assumed by the Universities, which are located at the apex of the educational system, in association with all partners from ‘n to u’ on terms of equality. A formal frame for linking the system from ‘n to u’ will be necessary. But this cannot be a legitimate responsibility of the conventional administration concerned with education in States. Any such attempt by government departments will tend to become mechanical and get devoid of the moving spirit behind the move. A ‘Mission Education’ under the leadership of the Academic Community in the NER may be launched covering the entire ‘education fraternity’ of the Region including the student community, which is responsive, responsible and uniquely organized in the mould of their traditional system.

A Befitting Start in Cultural Events including Arts & Sports:

The history of England was made in the play-fields Harrow. Let the Council deliberate on the proposals and plans about organic links in the educational system discussed above. But a befitting start may be made, here and now, in the open fields and boundless stages, which nature has so lavishly endowed the NER with. Cultural activities in the region are spontaneous, as they should be. They are natural expression of creativity of a people still embedded in nature. And they are in myriads. There are two major reasons for immediate apposite launch in this arena. Firstly, the market forces are making a concerted bid to capture the ‘leisure time’ of man. The leisure time activities not only make for the quality of life but are also the real source of creativity in countless facets of human life. The objective of the Market is clear – strip the man of all his really creative faculties and forge a ‘robot in human form’ that may be exclusively devoted to and at the command of ‘The Market’. Secondly, the simple people are unappreciative of the great value of their fathomless cultural treasure because it is a part of their natural self. Therefore, they tend to be overwhelmed by exotic grand spectacles, puerile and meaningless. Their superiority is conceded, a priori, in a milieu that is contrived by the Market. This process, unless challenged here and now, will lead to supersession of the ‘unspectacular natural’ by the ‘valueless spectacular’, contrived, controlled and propelled by the Market. The loss may be irreversible. The atomized individual will be utterly hapless before the Diabolic Market-State Combine.

The challenge can be met by the people, and people alone working in unison. They can be assisted in realizing the potential of their inner verve through modulation of ‘Grand Cultural Events’ of the NER. This will also serve as an effective check against insidious intrusions that are being currently made through the so called leisure-time activities. The following are some of the possible action points in this regard.

(i) Harnessing the Potential: NER Olympics

Our country, especially the tribal areas and the NER, has a tremendous untapped potential in sports and field events. A systematic identification of talent at the earliest in elementary schools and its nurture, training and development can put the NER on the World Olympic Scene in about a decade. For example, the ‘school-complex’ can become the hub of the sports and athletic activities for the group of villages.

(ii) NER Cultural & Art Events:

The approach discussed in the case of Olympics above, can be adopted in relation to all forms of cultural activities. The talent in each case must be identified at the earliest in the elementary school, nurtured and trained in especially designated institutions at the block, district, state and regional level under competent expert guidance.

Scintillating Constellation of Universities in Unison:

The NER is well-endowed with institutions of higher learning with some gaps no doubts. Most of the institutions are centrally supported which ensures that finance can not be a real constraint, especially in the new Vision phase aimed at bridging the credibility gap. The University system in a truly self-governing system in our country that allows virtually full autonomy in matters academic and even administration, within a frame that the community itself can reasonably forge. Nevertheless firmness with humility with the added grace of high esteem enjoyed by the academic community should enable it to move in unison without any serious problems. The NER has the potential of becoming a Region of Excellence in Education, given the rich cultural heritage that is a living and experienced reality of the people so far.

In contrast with this great potential, the reality of University education cannot be said to be ‘equal to the great opportunity and a greater task’. Some isolated efforts have been made no doubt by the institutions in the Region to share their experiences and also share the tasks for optimum results. But a systematic and continued effort is not on the cards even today. Let us face the reality. The Universities in the Region are mostly working in isolation. Moreover, the isolation of the Region and communication gap with other centers of learning in the country is an added handicap that makes the situation still worse. The meager strength of the teaching community in many disciplines that are replicated in various institutions as a matter of course makes many of them academically non-viable.

Towards a Council of Universities

In my view, there is an urgent need for forging an organic link amongst all the constituents of in the entire University system in the NER. West Indies provides an outstanding example that may have some lessons for us. All the countries comprising the ‘West Indies’ have their own universities. But all of them together have agreed to have one identity. We may not think of an extreme step like that right now. But all Universities in the Region, for example, can formally resolve to have a ‘Federal Academic Council of NER Universities and Equivalent Institutions’ (in brief Council of Universities). Each University/ Institution may decide to develop itself as a Centre of Excellence in selected disciplines.