Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Notes from an Outlaw!

Imagine waking up one morning to find that you have just been declared an outlaw by virtue of misinterpretation of an archaic law by some bureaucrat of the Government! Now that I have experienced this, I felt compelled to share my extra-ordinary experience. In my case, it was the vocational training institution that we have been operating in Madhya Pradesh that was made an outlaw.

It all began with a write-up in a not-so-widely-read newspaper in Jabalpur (a city in Eastern Madhya Pradesh) about the Madhya Pradesh Government's decision to clamp down on "farji" ("fraud" in English) institutions that are operating in Madhya Pradesh. A chill ran down my spine when I saw the name of our institution in the list of these so-called "farji" institutes. The only consolation was the presence of larger institutions such as Aptech and NIIT also in the list. I dismissed this as a gimmick by the newspaper to garner some advertisement revenues from the educational institutions that do not favor this newspaper in their marketing budgets.  I also noticed an error in the way our name was mentioned and convinced my team - "This is not us!"

A day or two later, we realized that it was really "US"! We received a show-cause notice from the Higher Education Department of Government of Madhya Pradesh asking us as to  why our institution should not be shut down since it contravenes the section 7 (2) of The MP Universities Act 1973. This section specifies that no other state or national University has a right to offer any courses within the jurisdiction of the local or regional university and if they wish to do so they need to procure a no-objection certificate from the Commissioner of Higher Education of Government of Madhya Pradesh. Simply put, any other University headquartered outside Madhya Pradesh cannot offer any courses in Madhya Pradesh without the express permission of the Government of Madhya Pradesh.

We retorted explaining that we are not a college and we do not offer any programmes of other Universities. More importantly, we are not higher education providers; instead we are a vocational skill development institution preparing school dropouts for employability or self-employment. So, technically, we should not be covered in the ambit of this clause and must be allowed to pursue our activities. 

In order to clarify issues, I had the opportunity to meet a few bureaucrats over the last few days. These meetings have given me a whole new perspective of the complete absence of "mind" or "matter" amongst a few bureaucrats of the Government of Madhya Pradesh.

The bureaucrat who had issued the notice refused to divulge any precedence or explanation for the notice. On insistence he curtly replied, "I am not here to answer your questions. You are supposed to answer my questions and you better do that!" These were his introductory lines when I walked in to his crumbling room.

When it comes to a question of survival or passion, you tend to ignore negativity and are prepared to tolerate a certain amount of humiliation. So, ignoring his opening remarks, I informed him that we are registered with IGNOU which is a mandated University of the Government of India and has jurisdiction across the entire country. He answered - "It does not matter! Even if God wants to teach something in MP, he cannot do so without our permission!"I did not expect such a response from one of the senior bureaucrats of the Higher Education department.  Here is a person charged with one of the most important duties of the Government – that of ensuring quality higher education across the state of MP – making inane statements that only ruins education further rather than improvising it.

We were also told to either submit our no-objection certificate before 4 PM or submit an affidavit from the court mentioning that we have shut down our institution. While I was not sure if he was serious about filing an FIR with the police for non-compliance, we were still under tremendous stress. All our struggle to set up an institution suddenly coming to a naught and a deadline given to close 'everything' that we believed will provide a new future for the school dropouts of MP. So much for choosing to make a difference in MP! So much for wishing to help in the development of MP!

While we were trying to find a solution to this issue, I came across the case of another large private institute that had recently shut down 24 of its branches in MP. In a similar case, they had been asked to shut down by the Government of MP after a short confrontation at the High Court of MP. Keen to know the details of the case, I fetched out the same through a dubious advocate. Their case history was similar to ours – starting with a notice from the Government to shut down their institution. The institution had filed a writ petition in the Jabalpur High Court to restrain the Government from taking any punitive action since the institute was well within the law to offer these courses in MP. The High Court gave a fortnight's time to the Government of MP to file a response. The Government's response confirmed my assumptions that there is more than one dim-wit in the corridors of bureaucracy.

The Government in its response has stated that any Private company cannot be an institution. It also reiterates that, in India, education is done as a "charity" and not as a "company" or "business". Well, if that is the case, let the Government provide education free of cost to every individual in the country. Let the IIMs not charge a six figure fee from the students. Let the Government ban all the private Engineering and Management Colleges which not only charge a hefty fee for their regular students but also charge a higher fees for "management quota" seats. Let the Government stop the sale of engineering, medical and ITI seats in Government colleges by the corrupt Principals and management of these institutions. Let the Government abolish the quota raj and make higher education available to one and all. If such a situation emerges, then education will truly be a charity and not a business.

Another statement of the Government raised a much more fundamental issue of employability of the students. The Government insists that students who undergo training from private institutions gain nothing during such training conveniently ignoring the knowledge and value addition part. The response categorically states that the certificates and diplomas issued by the private institutions have no meaning since they are neither accepted by Government organizations nor by private organizations. The Government further states that since it does not lead to any meaningful employment, these institutions should be banned!

There are two facets of this response. One – the Government seems to have done very little or no research before categorically stating that students of these institutions do not get any employment in the private sector. Wouldn't it have made more sense for the bureaucrats to do a detailed study of students passing out of these institutions before making such a strong statement?  

The other facet is that of employability. Does every student who has undergone a higher education programme gain meaningful employment?  If everybody who goes through a higher education programme needs to be gainfully employed, how do you justify the scores of students who pass out of all the government and private degree colleges across the country are still unemployed? Should we then ban all these institutions too in an effort to clamp down on spurious institutions?

In today's competitive job market, a degree does not guarantee a job. Hence students need additional skills that can help them compete in the job market. Institutions such as ours work towards bridging the skill gap between what the companies look for and what the education system provides. Before issuing a blanket ban on these institutions, the government must make sure that these skill sets are included in the curriculum of higher education institutions.

While this will address the issue of  students capable of pursuing higher education, what happens to students who drop out of schools at the high or higher secondary level?  These students cannot look for any education in the conventional higher education system since they do not meet the eligibility criteria. The Government does not have an alternative vocational training system that takes care of this category of students. If institutions such as ours are banned, it will only lead to higher unemployment among this population.

Most importantly, in this globalised world, we need newer skill sets across all sectors. If the Government is not quick enough to train students on these newer skill sets and if private sector participation is not allowed in such areas, development will take a beating. Even now, there is a huge dearth of talent in the state of MP across all sectors. If the Government decides to implement a blanket ban, this dearth will only worsen and lead to unbridled opportunism.

I strongly subscribe to the view that the Government must act as a regulator and guide for all such private institutions in the interest of students. Just a no-objection certificate issued by the Government has no meaning. Instead, the Government should provide guidelines for such private vocational institutes and only those institutes that meet these guidelines should be permitted to operate in the state. The Government should also bear in mind that these are not full-fledged colleges and hence standards applicable to colleges will not be applicable here.  The Government must exercise a certain amount of leniency in framing guidelines for these private skill development institutions.

I have personally felt that MP is a fantastic state with rich natural resources and a great potential to become one of the best states in the country. For me, MP is more like a child that needs to be disciplined while being guided if it wishes to excel as one of the best among its peers. Education is the very foundation of any state's excellence and if the Government is lackadaisical or arrogant towards this sector, excellence may never see the light of day.

While the Honorable CM of MP, Mr. Shivraj Singh Chouhan dreams of making MP as the "No. 1" state in the country, I will not be surprised if the 'babus' in his Government drive it to the other extreme. If such an attitude towards education exists in the corridors of power, trust me, 'even God can't save this state!'

Epilogue: While I write this, we are still an "illegal" institution as deemed by the Government of Madhya Pradesh. Nevertheless, we are determined to establish ourselves as a legal entity and continue our mission of making a change in the lives of school dropouts in MP. While our travails and tribulations will continue for some more time, you are welcome to come back here for more updates.