• The class VII Marathi-medium social science textbook published by Karnataka’s directorate of textbooks, a subsidiary of the department of state educational research and training (dsert), features a map which shows Pakistan as an island in the Arabian sea, China as part of India and depicts Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh as island nations.

  • According to the preface of intermediate general english by Seema Wilson dass prescribed for school-leaving class XII students of the Uttar Pradesh state examination board, this text is "a book which is hoped to serve as a guide for speaking and writing good and idiomatic English (but) could not be made completely descriptive".

  • Yuvabharati – a coursebook in English published by the Maharashtra state board of secondary and higher secondary education for class XII students introduces the subject of environment thus: "When we use the word environment, what do we mean? First of all, we mean the physical surroundings of living things. For example, some animals live in water, others live in forests or in sand. Secondly, we mean the chemicals in those surroundings, the salt in sea water, for example ..."

In the quintessential republic of rackets renowned globally for the mind-boggling multiplicity and sheer scale of its swindles, it is arguably post-independence India’s longest-running and most under-publicised scam — textbooks publishing. Given that the total number of school and university students in the 29 states and four Union territories which constitute the Union of India aggregates a staggering 150 million at any point of time, and assuming that each student purchases or is granted five textbooks valued at a modest average price of Rs.15 annually, the estimated national expenditure on textbooks is a massive Rs. 1,125 crore per year.

Inevitably this pot of gold at the end of the false rainbow which promises quality education for all, has attracted the attention of printers, publishers and buccaneers across the country who discern easy pickings in the perpetually expanding textbooks publishing business. With over 90 percent of primary and secondary schools and higher education institutions controlled by officials and educrats of the Union and state governments who have perfected corruption and kickbacks into a fine art, bagging textbook writing, printing and publishing contracts for the captive government schools and college markets is a cinch for the growing number of small-time, fly-by-night authors, printers and publishers who have contributed heavily to dumbing down Indian education to rock-bottom depths. And tragically, neither the nation’s politicians, bureaucrats, educationists nor intellectuals who typically enroll their children in quality-conscious private schools, seem to care a jot that contemporary India’s flourishing textbooks racket damages the career prospects, indeed the very lives of the most vulnerable segment of society — children of the poor.

The dimensions of post-independence India’s open, continuous and unchecked textbooks publishing rackets have recently come to light following the miraculous defeat of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government in the general election held last March. During the five years (1999-2004) when the NDA ruled in Delhi, Union minister of human resource development Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi blatantly commissioned revisionist history textbooks projecting Hindu myths and legends as historical truths, and recklessly appointed under-qualified academics to apex level positions in research and academic institutions. Following the unexpected defeat of the NDA, one of the first acts of the incumbent Union HRD minister Arjun Singh was to sack Dr. J.S. Rajput director of the Delhi-based NCERT (National Council of Education Research & Training), which not only designs the syllabus and curriculum of the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) — the largest pan-India school leaving examinations board (no. of affiliated schools: 6,370) — but is also the country’s largest school textbooks publisher with an annual sales turnover of Rs.88 crore.

A recent (November 2004) expert committee review of textbooks for children in classes I-X published by NCERT during Rajput’s tenure revealed that most of them are poor in content and often factually incorrect. The review conducted by experts drawn from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi University and NCERT’s in-house academics, has drawn a verdict that 238 textbooks are unsuitable for distribution and should be immediately withdrawn. But NCERT has stocks of these books valued at Rs.51 crore.

"The first step is to benchmark all SCERTs with NCERT and state boards with CISCE or CBSE. Moreover the SCERTs and NCERT should transform into research and guideline organisations and exit the printing business altogether as in the case with CISCE. The state boards should merely send a list of approved textbooks to affiliated schools, leaving their managements to prescribe books of their choice from the approved list. This would free the SCERTs to concentrate upon curriculum development and contemporisation of school sylla-buses."

- Dr. S. Settar, visiting professor, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore

Similarly an expert committee reviewing textbooks published by the Directorate of Textbooks, a subsidiary of the Department of State Educational Research & Training (DSERT), Karnataka which publishes textbooks valued at Rs. 65 crore annually for primary school children in the state, has detected that of the 360 titles published, more than 15 have an unacceptable number of errors and has recommended their withdrawal. Every year DSERT distributes free textbooks to over 7.1 million children enrolled in classes I-VII in government schools across the state.

Against this backdrop, to vitalise the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (Education For All) mandate of the 93rd Amendment to the Constitution unanimously approved by Parliament in 2001 which makes it mandatory for the state to provide elementary education to all children between ages six-14, the recently elected Congress-led United Progressive Alliance coalition government decreed an additional 2 percent levy on all Central government taxes to raise additional funds for education. The levy or cess is expected to raise Rs.4,000-5,000 crore per year for funding elementary education.

However Dr. S. Settar an alumnus of Karnataka and Cambridge universities, former director of the Indian Council for Historical Research and currently visiting professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, warns that part of the money should be allocated towards upgradation of school textbooks. "There are several important factors to be considered to ensure quality basic education for all. In my opinion the first priority should be to improve the quality of textbooks, especially those prescribed by state examination boards. Currently in most states, textbooks are of abysmal quality and should be withdrawn immediately. For example in Karnataka history textbooks have been saffronised while the other texts including maths, science and social studies are replete with factual errors and untruths. Unless textbooks conform to high standards of language, content, presentation etc, any effort to provide quality education for all is doomed," says Settar.

In this connection it is pertinent to note that the brunt of criticism is directed at textbooks written, produced and distributed under the aegis of the 29 state education boards. Under the Constitution of India, education is a ‘concurrent’ subject i.e one on which the Central and state governments have dual jurisdiction. Prior to 1956 when state boundaries in India were redrawn on linguistic lines, school education across the country was governed by a handful of examination boards headed by the Cambridge Internat-ional Examinations (CIE) and half-a-dozen indigenous matriculation boards which benchmarked themselves against CIE.

But after state boundaries were redrawn on linguistic lines and NCERT and CBSE were constituted in 1961 and 1962 respectively, state level politicians professing love of their vernacular languages were quick to discern the advantages of enforcing regional languages as the medium of instruction and awarding textbook printing contracts to kith, kin and cronies (with generous kickback provisions) for captive consumption by millions of children of the poor in the free schools affiliated with state boards. Since then the number of state examination boards has swollen to 28 with an estimated 90 million children receiving relatively sub-standard education.

Consequently post-independence India has morphed into a nation characterised by a three-tier education system. Children of the rich and famous attend five-star English-medium schools affiliated to the upscale CISCE, CBSE and IB (International Baccalaureate) examination boards which offer globally benchmarked syllabuses and curriculums. Next in the pecking order are English medium government-aided schools affiliated to state examination boards to which the children of the country’s 40 million-plus middle-class families are sent. And at the bottom rung are the run down, shabby and poorly managed municipal and government schools which force questionable quality education in under-developed vernacular languages down the unprotesting throats of the children of the poorest of the poor.

Some textbook howlers

H.M. High School Physics prescribed for class X, Uttar Pradesh: "Steam engine is an external combustion engine and was invented by Newcommen in the year 1705." (It was invented in 1712).

Science (Part 1) prescribed for class X, Maharashtra: "Coal Gas: It is obtained by distillation of coal. It is mainly used as a fuel and also as an illuminating device." (Coal gas is a fuel, not a device).

Intermediate English Poetry prescribed for class XII, Maharashtra: "In his short stories, like The Home Coming and The Kabuliwallah he shows a great insight in the understanding of human life." (Grammatically incorrect)

English Short Stories prescribed for class XII, Uttar Pradesh: "Short story is a distinctive piece of literary art. The plot and characters both impress the readers in their very short form of the creation." (Grammatically incorrect)

Model essay in General English prescribed for class XII, Uttar Pradesh: "To re-construct the country, we need good engineers, doctors, teachers, lawyers, workers, administrators etc. So to become perfect citizens, students should study hard sincerely. They should not waste their time in politics." (Flawed reasoning)

Biology textbook for class XI (NCERT): Heterozygotas misspelling of ‘Homozygotes’; Karl Von Linne misspelling of ‘Carolus Linnaeus’.

Physics textbook class XI (NCERT): Anology misspelling of ‘Analogy’.

Increasingly educationists across the country are beginning to appreciate that India’s flourishing textbooks racket is rooted in this iniquitous three-tier school education system. As early as 1964 the Kothari Commission Report strongly condemned this separate, unequal school system. "… education itself is tending to increase social segregation and to perpetuate and widen class distinctions. At the primary stage, the free schools to which the masses send their children are maintained by government and local authorities and are generally of poor quality. Some of the private schools are, on the whole, definitely better, but since many of them also charge high fees they are availed of only by the middle and higher classes. At the secondary stage, a large proportion of the good schools are private but many of them also charge high fees which are normally beyond the means of any but the top ten percent of people, though some of the middle class parents make great sacrifices to send their children to them..." commented the report of the commission.

Quite clearly India’s nationwide, unchecked textbooks racket would not be possible without the three-tier first, second and third class school system. It is highly unlikely that India’s influential middle class which benchmarks itself with advanced western nations would tolerate the shabby, poorly produced textbooks churned out by the SCERTs (State Councils of Education Research & Training) under the patronage of state examination boards.

This is why the common school system recommended by the Kothari Commission and a growing number of NGOs is being resisted by SCERTs and state boards. Particularly since the SCERTs which were originally promoted to conduct education research, set guidelines for syllabuses and provide teacher training, have gradually morphed into mere textbook publishing institutions. Of course the argument advanced for resisting CSS and English medium instruction is preservation of local languages and culture.

For instance the Uttar Pradesh (UP) government publishes only Hindi medium textbooks for children in state board affiliated schools. "The purpose of education is to build understanding in the student, and research has proved that this is cultivated best by learning in one’s mother tongue. Moreover, since most of our population lives below the poverty line in rural areas, it makes sense to have books in Hindi and Urdu. It is a fallacy that English books are superior; it has come to our notice that these books are often written by incompetent and unqualified teachers while the state government takes utmost care in selecting the best writers to author texts in Hindi and Urdu. In most cases for private publishers catering to the mushrooming number of elite private schools, the aim is just profit," says Bhagawati Singh, textbook officer of the UP government’s department of basic education.

This rationale for the perpetuation of state level examination boards is supported by D. Jagannath Rao, director, directorate of textbooks in DSERT, the sole textbooks publishing authority for government schools in Karnataka. "It is important to have a local education board in every state to ensure that the region’s history, culture and geography are taught to students. This is important to preserve local language, traditions and culture," says Rao. DSERT Karnataka publishes over 55 million textbooks in ten languages valued at Rs.65 crore annually for primary school children.

However the pathetic quality of textbooks commissioned, authored and sold or granted to captive children in state board affiliated schools across the country tends to indicate that their proponents are more interested in preserving their discretionary powers of patronage than in propagating the distinctive traditions and culture of their states. Very few state board or SCERT officials are inclined to admit or comment upon the root causes of the poor quality of SCERT commissioned textbooks. Apart from vague promises to improve them at some unspecified time in the future, there is a vast conspiracy of silence on this vital issue. The reason: a pervasive fear that introduction of a common school system/ syllabus will endanger the kickbacks and commissions estimated at Rs.225 crore per year to an assortment of politicians, bureaucrats and déclassé academics involved in India’s great textbooks racket.

Comments an eminent educationist associated with a prominent Bangalore-based think tank who outlines the mechanics of India’s continuing textbooks printing racket which has bedeviled the lives of hundreds of millions of midnight’s children: "Politicians in all states have perfected the textbooks publishing and printing racket. First they encourage the establishment of strong Tamil, Kannada, Marathi, Hindi, Manipuri etc language lobbies which insist upon the local language as the medium of instruction. This creates great opportunities of auctioning contracts for printing millions of textbooks of indifferent quality which are sold or gifted to first generation learners whose parents are too poor and illiterate to complain. This racket which totally ignores the rights and future of millions of children has been going on uninterrupted for decades. And since the middle classes don’t send their children to vernacular-medium government schools, nobody’s complaining. It’s a national disgrace."

Yet it’s a measure of the callous disregard that middle-class society has for children at the base of the pyramid education system that even independent monitors of the system turn a blind eye to the patently shabby, poorly laid out, badly written textbooks prescribed for the children of the poor and disadvantaged who attend equally shabby government schools.

Flawed textbook production process

Most of the structural and procedural flaws which have facilitated post-independence India’s open, uninterrupted and continuous textbooks racket which has blighted the lives and upward mobility of hundreds of millions of children condemned to remain at the base of the nation’s social pyramid, are reflected in the textbooks publishing, production and distribution system of the Karnataka state government.

In Karnataka (pop. 56 million) the Department of State Educational Research & Training (DSERT — estd. 1975) is the sole publisher of textbooks for 8 million students in 60,000 schools affiliated to the Karnataka State Secondary Education and Examination Board (KSEEB). The directorate of textbooks, established under DSERT in 1983 publishes more than 55 million books in ten languages every year at a cost of around Rs.65 crore. DSERT is under the direct control of the ministry of education.

Ex facie the process of selecting and commissioning writers, evaluating manuscripts and publishing school textbooks seems foolproof. Initially the directorate forms a 15-member textbooks committee to write a new textbook in every subject. Each textbook committee is headed by a chairman nominated by the ministry of education (i.e education minister) in consultation with the chairman of DSERT, usually a generalist IAS officer. Likewise all other members of the 15-member committee are also nominated by the state education department, chairman and director of DSERT. The only safeguard is that all 15 members of the textbooks committee must be either serving or retired teachers with ‘good’ teaching records. No tests or interviews are conducted to check the capability of members of the approximately 300 committees which write textbooks for each subject according to the syllabus set by KSEEB.

Seven members of each committee are allocated the task of writing the assigned subject textbook while five members do the proofreading and evaluation of the manuscript. After the evaluation three hitherto uninvolved members of each committee including the chairman, read and approve the final manuscript. Following completion of the writing, proofing and approval process the final manuscript is forwarded to the directorate of textbooks. The next step of the publishing process is for the directorate to invite tenders for printing the textbooks.

According to D. Jagannath Rao director, directorate of textbooks, DSERT, Karnataka, the entire process of bidding is transparent and there is no possibility of leakage as tenders are opened in the presence of the chairman and senior officials from DSERT and the education ministry. But in Bangalore it is an open secret that bids are leaked to favoured printers to enable them to bag printing contracts. Inevitably such favoured low cost printers don’t bother about quality and blatant errors which creep in during the data entry or layout stages. "An independent, apolitical body of respected academics should be constituted to evaluate and clear DSERT textbooks at the pre-printing stage. Right now there’s no such final approval body. That’s the fatal flaw in the textbooks publishing process," says Dr. A.S. Seetharamu, professor of education at the Institute of Social and Economic Change, Bangalore.

Other flaws are inherent in the process as well. For one all the members of the textbook committees are nominated by politicians and/ or government officials which leaves considerable room for nepotism. This structural flaw can be remedied if the final approval committee of proven academics proposed by Dr. Seetharamu also choose the textbook committee members. Secondly members of the textbook committees (some of whom actually write the prescribed text) don’t receive any remuneration except reimbursement of travel and daily expenses. Consequently high quality academics tend to be reluctant to serve on the committees. Given the vital importance of textbooks for child learners, textbook committee members should be well remunerated to attract the best academic talent.

The Delhi SCERT has attempted to make learning simple, localised and enjoyable. Education is a state subject and while textbooks remained a monopoly of NCERT, local information and content was often not incorporated. If quality of life has to improve then the quality of education based on local needs and perceptions has to find its rightful place. This has another benefit, which in my view is badly needed — it can motivate the state and local governments to make education one of their top priorities," says Suman, coordinator of National Coalition for Education (NCE) — a national initiative for Education for All. Despite its tolerance of mediocrity, dangerously, NCE boasts a membership of 160 members of Parliament, organisations such as All India Primary Teachers Association (AIPTA), All India Federation of Teaching Organisations (AIFTO), Christian Higher Education Teachers Organisation and numerous education NGOs.

Surprisingly Delhi-based advocate and education activist, Ashok Agarwal also supports and endorses the over-simplified, uninspiring textbooks published by DSERT. "These books are attractive not only for students, even parents and other family members enjoy reading them. Isn’t this a welcome step? Elementary education needs information and knowledge from the micro-level, and this requirement can be fulfilled only by providing localised content in school textbooks. In this context DSERT is doing a good job. I see no other than a bold, positive initiative reason to it (sic)," he says.

Unfortunately pervasive fear of government prevents even educationists who are well aware of the dismal quality of textbooks commissioned by SCERTs and prescribed by the state examination boards, from speaking up about the de facto apartheid which is an obvious feature of school education in India. "I don’t have any complaints about the quality of textbooks prescribed by the SSC board. The SCERT Centre, Pune organises periodic seminars inviting principals, educators and NCERT officials to discuss the quality of textbooks prescribed by Maharashtra’s SSC board. The board and authorities have the best interests of the education system at heart. Talking for our school, we shifted to the ICSE board some years back for a number of other reasons, not because the SSC curriculum was in any way substandard," says M.P. Sharma a postgraduate of education and educati-onal administration of Bombay University and principal of the highly rated CISCE-affiliated G.D. Somani School, Mumbai.

Yet if provided the cloak of anonymity, educationists and teachers are scathing in their criticism of textbooks commissioned by SCERTs and haphazardly prescribed by state examination boards. "The English language texts published by DSERT, Karnataka for high school students are written in archaic English. Concepts are not explained properly given the inadequate language skills of arbitrarily selected authors, with the result they tend to confuse students rather than enlighten them. Chapters are too long and verbose because of poor editing. And the Kannada language textbooks which are never evaluated by academics of any standing or reputation, are worse," says a social studies teacher of an aided English medium school affiliated to the Karnataka State Secondary Education and Examination Board.

Unfortunately within academia and society generally there seems to be little awareness or concern that the education apartheid which characterises the school (and college) system in contemporary India extracts a heavy price from and restricts the upward mobility of the children of the poor and disadvantaged at the base of the social pyramid. However recruitment consultants and coaching class heads are unanimous that state board students are disadvantaged by the low quality education they receive in state board affiliated schools lumbered with sub-standard coursebooks and passé curriculums.

Gita Prabhu, director of AIMS Education, Chennai which offers intensive coaching for students preparing for national level entrance examinations such as the IIT-JEE, CAT, and others, is of the opinion that school leavers from state board affiliated schools are severely hampered in the matter of accessing the country’s best institutions of higher education. "State board syllabuses only develop the memorisation skills of students to the virtual exclusion of problem-solving and knowledge application. Hence they seldom fare well in the IIT, engineering and MBA entrance examinations. Only a few exceptionally hardworking and gifted students from state board schools manage to get through the all-India entrance exams. On the other hand students of ICSE and CBSE-affiliated schools are trained to analyse and apply knowledge. This gives them a clear advantage over students studying in state board-affiliated schools," says Prabhu.

Likewise HRD and personnel managers as well as headhunters in the national capital and across the country opine that they assess an individual’s early education while hiring new employees. They admit they are biased in favour of English-medium educated candidates with good communication skills and grooming. This bias favours school-leavers of CISCE and CBSE affiliated institutions, as their foundations of English language and life skills tend to be strong. Comments Priya Gupta, a Delhi-based placement consultant with Sampark Search: "In my experience, for creative jobs a candidate’s school background is considered important. Though previous work experience, skills and graduate and higher qualifications are generally deciding factors for middle and higher positions, at the entry level the quality of school education is an important factor as it is a pointer to the attitudes and values of a candidate."

Quite clearly the three-tier school education system which carves out a massive free-fire zone for greedy state level politicians, educrats, printers and under-qualified authors at the expense of hundreds of millions of poor and vulnerable children has to be abolished or drastically reformed to bring state examination boards on a par with the CISCE and CBSE all-India boards.

According to Dr. S. Settar visiting professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore (quoted earlier) there has to be a comprehensive revision and upgradation — if outright abolition is politically impossible — of SCERTs and state level examination boards. "The issue of cleaning up the system and sharply upgrading textbooks prescribed by the state examination boards requires urgent and immediate attention. The first step is to benchmark all SCERTs with NCERT and state boards with CISCE or CBSE. Moreover the SCERTs and NCERT should transform into research and guideline organisations and exit the printing business altogether as in the case with CISCE. The state boards should merely send a list of approved textbooks to affiliated schools, leaving their managements to prescribe books of their choice from the approved list. This would free the SCERTs to concentrate upon curriculum development and contemporisation of school sylla-buses. If this formula is implemented simultaneously in all states, I am sure we can achieve the goal of a common school system in the next three-five years," says Settar.

But given the vested interest of powerful politicians, educrats, printers, publishers etc in the status quo and the low priority given to education of the poor by post-independence India’s myopic intelligentsia and establishment, it is doubtful whether the root and branch reform of the public (i.e government) school system will be essayed. Meanwhile little children will continue to be condemned to hew wood and draw water for shining India’s expanding middle class.