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The dilemma of popular democracy and technical knowledge: the HSTP story


Decentralization in Madhya Pradesh and elsewhere has faced severe criticism because of the arbitrary actions of those who have come to power through it. It is common to see sarpanches, Zila Parishad chiefs and various other members of locally constituted government bodies act on partisan and even capricious grounds. The role of expertise and specialized knowledge is often not understood by the local government. This poses a definite threat to the legitimacy of democracy and decentralization among the people and also for the very functioning of a stable, effective local self-government. There is a sore need for an institutional apparatus that ensures reasoned, well-considered and non-partisan decisions.


An example of the difficulties through which a nascent democracy must pass through is a recent resolution by the Hoshangabad District Planning Committee (DPC)that an innovative and much acclaimed package of science education being run by the government in that district be shut down. The Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme (HSTP) has been designed by Eklavya and other N.G.O.s with the collaboration of some of the best scientific minds of the country. It has drawn from the expertise of premier institutions like the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Indian Institute of Science, University of Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Indian Institute of Immunology, etc. The pedagogic strategy of the HSTP is inspired by the very latest principles of education, supported by Noam Chomsky, among other stellar figures. The HSTP is being run by the state in all the schools of Hoshangabad and Harda districts as well as in pockets of 13 other districts. It covers classes 6th to 8th and seeks to teach science as the learning of a process of enquiry and analysis, rather than the mere rote of meaningless knowledge.


The HSTP teaches the basic principles of science through activity-based learning. Children perform activities drawing up the local environment and learn by handling scientific equipment and local materials with their own hands. They perform these activities in groups and much of the learning is through the excitement of discovery. The role of the teacher is that of a facilitator who guides children in the right direction. A striking element of classes where HSTP is being run is the friendly interaction between teachers and students. The result of this process is the creation of a sustainable attitude of continual self-learning and growth. Children learn to actually understand science and not just quote memorized but meaningless scientific principles.


The arguments presented against the HSTP in the DPC are specious, at best. It is argued that the HSTP is different from the curricula being taught all over the country and children of Hoshangabad should be taught only what everyone else is being taught. The difficulties being faced by children in national competitive exams are attributed to a "weak base" because of the HSTP. The fact that HSTP has not been expanded to the rest of the state or country is cited as proof of its being "dissatisfactory". Therefore, the HSTP should be replaced by the government with the usual kind of science teaching as is done in the other districts of the country.


Not one of these arguments is a reasonable one. Over 90 percent of the HSTP curriculum is the same as that being taught to children of the same age-group elsewhere. The differences largely lie in just one concept area - the teaching of the atomic structure of matter. The problems of national competitive exams are due to a variety of reasons, particularly the overall poor standard of teaching in mofussil towns and villages. In spite of this, a review of the selection to medical and engineering colleges, it was found that the district of Hoshangabad stood among the best non-metropolitan districts of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. And the proposal to close down the HSTP because it is "different" is a classic example of the one-eyed being persecuted in the land of the blind.


The resolution against HSTP was not preceded by any committee of enquiry by the DPC. No technical or specialized understanding was sought of the issues involved. This is a common feature to be seen in the process of decentralization where the empowerment of expanding circles of people has resulted in their having to grapple with issues that they are not equipped to handle. Certainly this cannot be an argument against decentralization or democracy. Popular empowerment is always a better thing than rule by specialized elite. But a successful democracy requires a gradual maturing of the people, too.


In the HSTP case as well as in all democratic functioning it is necessary to remind ourselves of the ways by which a responsible government should operate. Whether it be the local panchayat or the central government, it must invite dispassionate expert advice and sample a broad cross-section of opinion. There must be a close adherence to the norms of reason and empirical evidence. These, indeed, are the principles on which the HSTP is based upon. Only through such principles can reasonable decisions be taken which do good to the people and uphold the rule of law.