Saturday, January 20, 2007


Looking for the lost keys under the street lamp: Why central universities in backward/tribal district clusters make sense?

(An edited version of this article appears in Indian Express on 20th January 2007.)

In an old Sufi story about the wise-fool Mullah Nasrudin, the Mullah is seen searching for a key under a street lamp. Helpful passersby join in the search but to no avail. They ask the Mullah if he is sure that he lost the key there. The Mullah replies that he lost it yards away under a tree but since its dark there he thought of looking under the street lamp.

For close to 60 years to help schedule castes and schedule tribes who are severely underrepresented among Indians with higher education degrees, India has had reservations for them in various institutions across the country, usually in places far away from where the target population lives. So far, like Mullah Nasruddin, outside of northeast, India has not strategically established central institutions in places where the target population actually lives.

India seems to have missed learning from the American experience with respect to higher education of African Americans, Hispanics and native Americans. Together with affirmative action in universities across USA, the higher education institutions that significantly impacted these populations were HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), colleges and universities in towns and cities with very high (or majority) Hispanic population, and colleges in the native American reservations. For example, following are some quoted facts about African Americans (AA) and HBCUs[1] in the USA: more than 80% of African American doctors and dentists were trained by the two traditionally black colleges of medicine and dentistry, Meharry and Howard; 75% of AA Ph.Ds, 75% of AA officers, 80% of AA federal judges in the US military and 50% of AA faculty in traditionally white research universities had their undergraduate degree in HBCUs. In other words even though all institutions in the US provide affirmative action, the impact of the HBCUs on the higher education of African Americans is huge.

While outside of the northeast many lists of backward districts – many of which are tribal dominated – have been made and in recent years special programs targeting these backward districts have been formulated, none of these programs have had adequate impact. In this regards let us take the example of the ill-famed KBK districts of Orissa. They show up in most lists of backward districts and have a very high tribal population percentage, which is as follows: Malkangiri 58.36% ST (+19.96% SC), Rayagada 56.04% ST (+14.28% SC), Nabarangpur 55.27% ST (+15.09% SC), Koraput 50.67% ST (+13.41% SC), Nuapada 35.95% ST (+13.09% SC), Kalahandi 28.88% ST (+17.01% SC), Sonepur 22.11% ST (+9.5% SC), and Balangir 22.06% ST (+15.39% SC). Two adjacent districts also have high tribal population. They are Kandhamala 51.51% ST (+18.21% SC) and Gajapati 47.88% ST (+8.77% SC). Eight of these districts make the list of 69 most backward districts of India compiled by Bibek Devroy and Laveesh Bhandari.

After it was realized that short term band-aid solutions did not quite do much to address the backwardness of this region, since 1995, several special programs, both central and state, have focused on the KBK districts. This includes the LTAP, RLTAP, BRGP programs. However none of them have had an operational higher education component. This has restricted the effectiveness of these programs. More often than not teachers, doctors and other professionals posted to the KBK districts treat it as a punishment and do not show up. As a result many plans remain as plans as no matter how many schools or hospitals are declared open, what use are they if they do not have teachers and doctors.

The problem of not having enough home grown doctors, teachers and other professions can not be solved just by having quotas for STs in various central institutions in far flung places like Delhi. This is because, having reservations in Delhi University and hoping that the KBK tribals will go there, get education and come back to KBK, is not effective.

Obviously, what are needed are more higher education opportunities in backward and tribal district clusters like KBK.

This is also supported by data that shows the success of central funding of higher education institutions in the North East and Delhi. According to the NSSO [7] figures the attendance among 15-19 year olds and among 20-24 year olds (in an educational institution) in these states are as follows: Arunachal Pradesh (61,1%, 22.6%), Assam(53.2%, 12.8%), Manipur (79.8%, 44.3%), Meghalaya (52.6%, 14.3%), Mizoram (68.7%, 20.8%), Nagaland (79.9%, 32.7%), Sikkim (68.7%, 20.9%), Tripura (59.6%, 11.9%), and Delhi (70%, 19.3%). In contrast the same for Orissa is 29.0% and 6.1%, the lowest among all the states of India. For the tribals in Orissa this number is 17.1% and 4.1% respectively.

With these data points in hand the government of Orissa and the people of Orissa (through letters) have been trying to convince the PM, the HRD ministry and the planning commission for the need of a multi-campus central university for the KBK region and how such a university will meet KBK’s need of teachers, doctors and other professionals who are born, raised and educated in KBK and have a stake in KBK. This request also fits in with one of the UPA government’s goal in its CMP about “providing for full equality of opportunity, particularly in education and employment for scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, OBCs and religious minorities.”

In general, following the establishment of central universities in each of the northeastern states, which is scheduled to be done very soon, the HRD ministry and planning commission in collaboration with the ministry of tribal affairs should establish multi-campus central universities in the backward and tribal district clusters of India. The map in page 51 of the book “District-Level Deprivation in the New Millennium” gives a handful of such clusters including KBK and the cluster consisting of Chatra, Garhwa, Gumla, Kodarma, Palamu, and West Singhbum districts of Jharkhand and Mayurbhanj and Sundergarh districts of Orissa.

These central universities should have disciplines beyond traditional liberal arts, so as to cater to the immediate needs of the region. This includes disciplines such as education, medicine, nursing, sports sciences, agriculture and engineering. They should have linkages with the primary and secondary education initiatives in these districts and have associated colleges with vocational programs. They should have significant reservations, perhaps for a certain time period, for target classes (STs) and locals. It is important that several such colleges distributed across towns in a particular district cluster are grouped together, a la Delhi University, as a central university. The central university tag, by virtue of its brand name will attract faculty from all over India giving it a higher chance of success. But most importantly, the locations of the universities – and there is a need of multiple such universities – should be based on impartial criteria such as the district clusters in the above mentioned book.

Postscript: Based on the announcements of the three new IITs in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan, the last two being the two confirmed bottom states with respect to per capita spending by the HRD ministry in its fully funded institutions, it seems the planning commission and the HRD ministry is finally paying attention to create a more equitable distribution of centrally funded institutions. We hope Orissa, the other state at the bottom, is not being punished for our writings. Furthermore we hope that Orissa and the other states at the bottom that are not getting the new IITs, will figure in the upcoming announcements with respect to the new IIMs, SPAs, etc.


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