Anurag Behar, chief executive officer of the Azim Premji Foundation, and founding vice-chancellor of Azim Premji University, speaks with Moneycontrol about his new book A Matter of the Heart: Education in India (Westland Books, 2023). This insightful volume brings together a selection of columns on education that he has written over a decade a half. These writings are based on the time that he has spent travelling in remote parts of India as part of his mandate to understand how a better future can be built for children outside metropolitan India. He also shares his thoughts on equity and access, edtech, and India’s National Education Policy 2020. Edited excerpts:
A Matter of the Heart: Education in India is a compilation of your columns written over more than 15 years. When you revisited them for this book, what did you notice about the evolution in your thought process?
I noticed that my faith in people, their spirit, and their goodness has become firmer and firmer over time. It has become clearer by the day that we have a long, long way to become the society that we have promised to ourselves in our Constitution. And the conviction has only grown that the path of improvement is messy, slow, and unpredictable.
What is the target audience that you have in mind for this book? What action do you want them to take?
Education is important for everyone in the country, so I wish that everyone would read this book for the simple reason that these are stories of people and matters that do not often get told in education. But even beyond the matter of education, these pieces reaffirm that average people can do really good things. And that is how the world changes for the better.
In the book, you mention that you have been travelling in the field for roughly 25 weeks every year. What have been some of your key observations around how gender and caste-impact access to, and the quality of, education in India?
Enrolment in schools has grown steadily; it is over 97 per cent in Classes I to VIII. This cuts across all social and demographic categories. However, we are far away from equitable education. The inequities can be seen across gender, caste, region, class, and more, and they show up in outcomes as well as access. The inequities are greater in the higher classes. These educational inequities exacerbate the situation for these groups. We have made progress on this matter also over the past 75 years, but nowhere near enough.
In the preface, you write, 'We must not live with the injustice and inequity around us.' What projects are you currently leading at Azim Premji Foundation to address injustice and inequity in education?
Our entire work in education is focussed on improving equity and quality. In order to make this possible, we work on the capacity building of teachers and school leaders, on curriculum and textbooks, on improving assessment and policy, and more. These efforts have to be systemic, else the effects are superficial or transient. That is why we have deep presence on the ground — at the real grassroots — in some of the most disadvantaged regions of the country. We also run universities in Bengaluru and Bhopal. They are focused on developing young people to work for social change, including in the field of education.
What are your thoughts on edtech? Is it bridging or deepening socio-economic divides?
In my opinion, edtech has very limited use. And its usefulness is dangerously over hyped for children. I believe that such hype distracts from the application of technology where it may be really useful. Even more than deepening divides, the way edtech is sold and thought of is an obstacle to good education.
Since you were part of the team that drew up the latest National Education Policy for India, what gaps do you see between intention and implementation? How can these be fixed?
The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 has a ten-year implementation road map, of which unfortunately the first 18 months were during the COVID-19 pandemic. We can now see an impetus to the implementation. A lot of the implementation is with the states and my guess is that we will see varying trajectories. We will have to wait and see.