18th JANUARY 2019

A) Collegium controversy

An Unusual Change Of Decision Brings The Judicial Appointments System Under Scrutiny

The controversial collegium system of judicial appointments is under public scrutiny once again. This time, the potential for embarrassment to the superior judiciary is much higher. Former Chief Justices of India, a sitting Supreme Court judge, and the Bar Council of India have taken exception to the collegium’s unusual action of revisiting decisions made at an earlier meeting, and recommending the elevation to the apex court of Justice Dinesh Maheshwari and Justice Sanjiv Khanna, instead of two judges whose names had been considered earlier. Theallegation is not merely one concerning the seniority or the lack of it of the two appointees; rather, it is the much graver charge of arbitrarily revoking a decision made on December 12 last year. The official reasons are in the public domain in the form of a resolution on January 10. Itclaims that even though some decisions were made on December 12, “the required consultations could not be undertaken and completed” in view of the winter vacation. When the collegium met again on January 5/6, its composition had changed following the retirement of Justice Madan B. Lokur. It was then decided that it would be “appropriate” to have a fresh look at the matter, as well as the “additional material”. The only rationale for the names of Rajasthan High Court Chief Justice Pradeep Nandrajog and Delhi High Court Chief Justice Rajendra Menon being left out is the claim that new material had surfaced. However, it is not clear what the material is and how it affected their suitability.

Former Chief Justice of India R.M. Lodha is right in underscoring the institutional nature of decisions by the collegium. Can the retirement of one judge be a ground to withdraw a considered decision, even if some consultations were incomplete? There is little surprise in the disquiet in legal circles. Another curious element in the latest appointments is that Justice Maheshwari, who had been superseded as recently as last November, when a judge junior to him was appointed a Supreme Court judge, has been found to be “more suitable and deserving in all respects” than any of the other chief justices and judges. There is no objection to the elevation of Justice Khanna except his relative lack of seniority. There is little substance in this criticism, as it is now widely accepted that seniority cannot be the sole criterion for elevation to the Supreme Court. However, the fact that there are three other judges senior to him in the Delhi High Court itself — two of them serving elsewhere as chief justices — is bound to cause some misgivings. The credibility of the collegium system has once again been called into question. The recent practice of making public all resolutions of the collegium has brought in some transparency. Yet, the impression that it works in mysterious ways refuses to go away. This controversy ill-serves the judiciary as an institution.

B) Learning little

The Reading And Arithmetic Abilities In Rural Schools Are Shockingly Dismal

The latest assessment of how children are faring in schools in rural areas indicates there has been no dramatic improvement in learning outcomes. The picture that emerges from the Annual Status of Education Report, Rural (2018) is one of a moribund system of early schooling in many States, with no remarkable progress from the base year of 2008. Except for a small section at the top of the class, the majority of students have obviously been let down. The survey for 2018 had a reach of 5.4 lakh students in 596 rural districts. It should put administrators on alert that while 53.1% of students in Class 5 in rural government schools could in 2008 read a text meant for Class 2, the corresponding figure for 2018 stood at 44.2%; for comparison, private schools scored 67.9% and 65.1% for the same test in those years. Arithmetic ability showed a similar trend of under-performance, although there has been a slight uptick since 2016: an improvement of about 1.5 percentage points in government schools and 1.8 percentage points in private institutions, among Class 5 students. Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Kerala and Haryana did better on the arithmetic question with over 50% students clearing it, compared to Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and even Karnataka, which scored below 20%. A significant percentage of students were not even able to recognise letters appropriate for their class, highlighting a severe barrier to learning.

Now that the ASER measure is available for 10 years, the Centre should institute a review mechanism involving all States for both government and private institutions, covering elementary education and middle school. A public consultation on activity-based learning outcomes,deficits in early childhood education, and innovations in better performing States can help. At present, children start learning in a variety of environments: from poorly equipped anganwadi centres to private nurseries. The enactment of the Right to Education Act was followed by a welcome rise in enrolment, which now touches 96% as per ASER data. Empowering as it is, the law needs a supportive framework to cater to learners from different backgrounds who often cannot rely on parental support or coaching. There is concern that curricular expectations on literacyand numeracy have become too ambitious, requiring reform. It is worth looking atinnovation in schools and incentivising good outcomes; one study in Andhra Pradeshindicated that bonus pay offered to teachers led to better student scores in an independently administered test in mathematics and language. The solutions may lie in multiple approaches. What is beyond doubt is that governments are not doing their duty by India’s children.