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E-Mail this feature to a friend 'Our education has not been child centered'

R A Mashelkar

    Indian science and technology have contributed its mite to the building of post-Independent India. Never before in the history of mankind, did a country with democratic dispensation had to feed so many poor and teach so many illiterates and also simultaneously compete with the most advanced nations for a place under the sun. Our achievements of the green revolution have led us to the self-sufficiency of food. Our white revolution has helped us reach the status of the highest milk producer in the world.

But we must also not lose sight of the several formidable challenges that remain. Broadly, they include: exploding population, widespread poverty, illiteracy, ruptures and cleavages based on region, religion, language and gender which threaten our social fabric, urban congestion, wounded ecosystems and a critical power and energy situation. In this respect, five fundamentals need to be set right: Child centered education; Woman centered family; Human centered development; Knowledge centered society and; Innovation centered India. All five of them flow into each other and all of them have to be taken together.

It is predicted that by 2015, over half of the Indian population will be less than 20 years old. Youth represents national strength, vitality and vigour. If properly moulded, the youth can become the champion of our culture, custodian of our national pride and a trustee of the freedom of the country. But, the process of such moulding requires the right education at an early age. Are our education systems geared to meet this challenge today?

The way science is taught in our schools will determine as to whether or not we will have a society which is capable of developing and absorbing technology creatively as well as giving a scientific foundation to our cultural, political and economic fabric. Young minds are not turning to science, to an extent that some science departments are getting closed down. Our education has not been child centered; it is centered around text books, rigid unimaginative curricula, ill-designed class room teaching and an outdated examination system.

We have to remould the school science education to the mode of learning by discovery and learning by doing in contrast to the prevailing method. The child has to become an active participant in the process of learning science. Rather than memorising the products of science, the child needs to understand and appreciate the process of science. The curricula must relate closely to the science and technology experiences of everyday life.

The Internet has already made it possible to take education to the home of the learners, with self-learning programmes with the creative use of multimedia. Education can be potentially brought to the home, including to those, who have been unreached so far. The impact of creating a content in local languages will be phenomenal in increasing the spread.

Sharp gender inequalities with unequal pay for equal work, discrimination in the labour market and so on are grim realities. Harsh statistics stare us in the face. Over 70 per cent of the Indian women are illiterate. Over 90 per cent of family planning operations are tubectomies. Over 60 per cent of primary school drop-outs are girls. The emergence of information technology will play a great role with education reaching the home with the access of women to higher education becoming easier.

The same flexibilities are available for working too. The emerging IT connectivity offers women the freedom to work from home and at hours that suit them. Home and office have ceased to be contrary pulls. However, to fully benefit from the IT revolution, we need fundamental changes in the archaic employment rules with a far more liberal view of the work place, work function and working hours. Advances in life sciences have placed in the hands of women opportunities that were unheard of earlier.

We must promote pro-woman technologies that exist in their creative participation in agriculture linked activities, micro-propagation, plant tissue culture, health care systems etc. Developing and enhancing a woman's entrepreneurial skills and giving her economic freedom will alone restore her rightful place in the family and society.

In the new human centered development, the balance of the five Es -- ecology, environment, economics, equity and ethics -- will have to be achieved. Mere economic development without regard to equity and ethics will take us nowhere; just as economic development disregarding ecology and environment will be fatal. It is time that in India we look at our approach of top-down planning, which has met with mixed success.

Participation of local institutions through new technology will need emphasis. Promoting a job-led economic growth strategy based on pro-nature, pro-poor, and pro-woman orientation to development of technology and its dissemination will need a new impetus. Mass production and production by masses will have to co-exist in India. The first will lead to global competitiveness and the second of jobs, where they are wanted.

Only those nations will survive in the new millennium, who build knowledge-centered societies; others will vanish into oblivion. The Indian society was indeed a leading knowledge centered society in the distant past, but we lost our way in the intervening period. In the coming years, it is important that every Indian becomes a knowledge worker, be it a farmer, a rural woman, a mediaman, an artisan and so on. Here a knowledge worker is simply one who knows why he is doing what he is doing. A farmer can be a knowledge worker, provided he understands the soil that he is sowing his needs in, the why of the micro nutrient and pesticide addition that he makes.

Experiments for creating such knowledge workers are already on the anvil. For instance, the Swaminathan Research Foundation is creating new knowledge with its goal of the empowerment of rural women, men and children with information relating to ecologically sound agriculture, economic access and utilisation. The farmers are trained to build soil health cards. We need to multiply these to cover the entire Indian populace. It seems difficult to achieve unless we turn to IT again. Continuous knowledge renewal becomes more important than ever before. The process of continuous learning, especially through the tolls of modern information technology will, therefore, be absolutely essential.

Knowledge without innovation is of no value. It is through the process of innovation alone that knowledge is converted into wealth and social good, and this process takes place from firm to farm. Our programmes in strategic areas, green revolution, white revolution are indicative of our successes. Incremental innovations take place in industries which continuously innovates to create products which displace their own products with the fear that otherwise their competitors will do it for them.

Innovation is generated and sustained through the efforts of its people. We need to take to an environment, in which innovation flourishes. Otherwise the innovators will either play safe and not innovate, or they will leave to become a part of other innovative societies, which encourage innovation, as India has seen to its dismay. We must vow to reverse this process as we enter the new millennium.

CSIR Director General R A Mashelkar delivered this presidential address at the 87th Indian Science Congress in Pune last month.

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