Nagrik Dialogue

Higher Education for a Sustainable Society

By Prof PB Sharma

“As we move deeper into the scientific explorations and mind boggling technology innovations now on, the education in Indian universities should take on board sustainability and sustainable development goals as the guiding principles for accelerating innovations and rolling out startups powered by the inspired minds of young India to make New India a prosperous and happy abode of humanity alongside achieving the goal of inclusive development powered by mass entrepreneurship and sustained focus on creating a green and sustainable future. The author has  advocated a strong case for redesigning our education system tuned to sustainability.”  

1.  Education in Ancient India’s Gurukuls and Universities:

Education, especially higher education all along has been considered to be a formidable means of empowerment to serve the society and the global community with utmost devotion and with an unconditional commitment to integrity and service above self. The purpose of education was not only to get enlightened and earn glory but to engage relentlessly in the service of man and mother nature. This purpose of education prevailed in India from the ancient  times of Vedic Gurukuls and maintained its continuity till around 1960s irrespective of the kingship or the governance. For, education in ancient India was neither a subject of governance nor was dependent on the patronage of any, including the rulers and was aimed at preparing an equitable society that could sustain for millenniums maintaining the beauties of nature and celebrating life in harmony with nature. It had its fullest of autonomy and enjoyed the freedom infinite to delve into the realms of unknown, mysteries of creation and preparing the educated as the responsible citizens of the world who adorned the global society as a world family, prescribed in the Vedas as ‘Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam’

People of my age and the generations before us have also witnessed such an education imparted at all levels from schools to colleges and universities by teachers of conscience who spared no effort whatsoever to make education a valid means of man making, developing capabilities, character and conscience among their students and instilled in them inspiration from within to remain self-regulated with ‘Aatmasanyam’ till the last breath of life. Unclenching devotion to achieve perfection in work activity through ‘Yoga Karmeshu Kosalam’ and selfless service to the society with an unbiased mind keeping the welfare and wellbeing of a common man as the supreme object of service remained the hall mark of the educated in such a society. The people in the society were also greatly contended   with what they had, the level of anxieties was low and the career aspirations were not so dominating on the goals of life as today. This created a just society that lived a life full of happiness and bliss. India remained a happy abode of the vast humanity for millenniums and could also impact great many civilizations around the globe with its education system that attracted scholars from different parts of the world to India for education and enlightenment. For then the education in Indian Gurukuls and the ancient Indian universities was a great inspiration to integrate universal values of truthfulness, personal integrity, purity of thoughts and action and the integral education that covered the performing and practicing arts that made them celebrate the harmony with nature and the noble citizens of a global world.

A caring society working and ensuring equity and wellbeing of the masses was in fact   the hall mark of the Indian society for thousands of years that was built on the foundations of its education. The villages in rural India were self-dependent ‘Aatmanirbhar’ where everyone had something to do as per his vocation and interest areas and enough to meet the needs of living a life of bliss and happiness. Naturally, for such a society, “Sarve Bhabhantu Sukhina, Sarve Santu Niramaya, Sarve Bhadrani Pashyanti, na kaschid Dukh bha Bhavet” was the guiding principle of a caring and affectionate humanity.  People were enterprising and everyone was engaged in work activity with utmost respect for the work performed, be it farming, business or service. Here again, there was no work, as such, that was high or low. In fact, work was truly a worship and an offering of one’s service to God Almighty. Professional integrity and purity of actions in performance of work activity and giving the best of all the time to the work activity made truly the work as a real worship and enabled Indian workmen and performing artists to achieve perfection and attain the highest altars of glory. We find expression of this perfection in the purity of the rust less Iron Pillar in Delhi Kutub Complex that was uprooted from an ancient Vishnu Temple at Vidisha and transplanted in Kutub complex in 11th Century by invaders, in the Rock Temple of Lord Shiva at Ellora which is still a challenge to the world Artists and construction agencies  to create a marvel like that by carving a rock temple from the top, Shikhar to the plinth with such magnificent details !

People in such a society despite having economic disparity, were enjoying a healthy and equitable participation in the workplace without exploitation of labour of the kind that was witnessed in the modern era of industrialization. Relationship with each other, in such a society was based on Aatmiyata, affinity, having a broader understanding of the ‘Oneness of Aatman’, that was the foundation of India’s spiritual civilization from the early Vedic times that celebrated the ‘Oneness of Diversity’ and ‘Diversity of Oneness’ as the foundation of a just and equitable society.

2. The Departure from a Equitable and Sustainable Society post World War-II

But the moot question is what has gone wrong to make education largely career oriented as today and a valid means to serve the interest of the corporates and the industries to increase production and also the ever-increasing demands for consumption. I have a view that much of this has happened post World War-II when a major devastation of economies of the developed nations took place. This included Japan, countries of Europe, UK and even US. India was already under severe economic pressures due to British rule and its policy to destroy the cottage industry of India and  shift the manufacturing from India to UK so that the Industries in UK. This led to shipment of minerals and natural resources from India to UK and make India dependent on the imports from abroad. Once the mass entrepreneurship base of India’s small and medium industries was destroyed and the system of Aatmanirbhar Villages was disturbed, the Indian society became dependent on the mercy of their British masters. The fabric of equity and sustainability was destroyed by the British masters and the education system they introduced as modern education  also created a desire to serve the masters rather than to be a valid means of creating enlightenment and capabilities to work for a just and a sustainable society, The villages were badly effected and so were the town and cities. The education system left little or no inspiration to create mass entrepreneurship that once created a blissful society practicing a perfect harmony with nature in ancient times.

3. The Post World War Economic Growth Promoted Mass Production:

The post-world war economies relied on accelerating mass production and export oriented economic growth that created great corporates and MNCs. Here in India too the cottage industry and home-grown Industrial base of very many natural resources-based industries gave way to the rise of heavy industries and corporates that promoted mass production and increased consumerism and ever escalating consumption that further created demands for increased production. Much of initial development even in the post India’s independence was in collaboration with advanced nations such as UK, US, Germany, and USSR with a sustained focus on establishment of heavy industries and industries for mass production. A new India reconstruction post-independence thus began with a big role for the MNCs and corporates marginalizing the cottage industries and small and medium scale enterprises. The mass production led industrial development in India created increased demand for labour both skilled as well as unskilled and also created huge migration of labour from villages to industrial hubs in large cities and metros. The great economic disparity that Indian economic growth created during 75 years of Indian independence is a matter of grave concern. 42.5% wealth of India is still in the hands of  top 1% of population while the bottom 50% account for mere 2.8% of India’s wealth in 2020 as per a paper by Maitreesh Ghatak of London School of Economics(June 2021). It is interesting to note that the corresponding figures for 1991 were 16.5% for top 1% and 8.8% for the bottom 50% of the population. Thus, the globalization and liberalization that made Indian economy to grow leaps and bounds also resulted into greater economic disparity due to growth centric development devoid of equity and inclusiveness. The damage it did for environment and air and water pollution created further tears and distress.

The education system including the university education post globalized economy in India  was also greatly impacted by its increasing dependence on employment in heavy industries, corporates and MNCs. The avenues for enterprising minds were restricted as the environment for many decades was not so supportive to startups as it is now. But the dependence of education on corporates and their philosophy of increasing automation and mass production continues to dominate the mindset of both the educators and the students who look towards education as a valid gateway to great career goals. Career aspirations of working in MNCs and great corporates still continue to dominate the education goals and outcomes in universities in India. This need a major shift in our approach to education for the New India.

4. The rise of IT Industry and Advantage India it created:

The rise of IT industries and love for computer science and engineering in Institutions of Higher Learning including colleges of engineering and universities in India has undoubtedly created Advantage India in respect of Indian talent rising to great fame in world’s leading IT companies world wise. India’s IT industry was also greatly benefitted by India’s talent in computer science and engineering and IT disciplines that enabled a continuous supply of trained manpower enabling Indian IT industries to cater for ever increasing demands for IT services in advanced countries. Thanks to globalization and liberalization of Indian Economy in the early 1990s that provided avenues for rapid growth of IT industry in India. The career aspirations to join IT industries and through them migrate abroad for a lucrative job became a phenomenon that continued till recently. Thanks to Covid-19 and the positive policies and programs of Government of India and its missions such as Digital India, Make In India and Startup India that today the youth of India graduating from colleges and universities are having great opportunities of innovation led startups in India creating an upsurge for mass entrepreneurship led by enterprising minds of young India.

This is absolutely necessary now that the ever-increasing pressure of automation and use of intelligent robots in mass production as in Industry 4.0 is causing a major fear of job losses in formal high tech manufacturing and in service industry that is powered increasingly by machine learning. Large data analytics, intelligent market research and marketing led by increasing use of AI, artificial intelligence.

5. The Hope for the Future lies in Integrating Sustainability as the major thrust in Higher Education:

The future of education, especially higher education is bright and highly exciting. Firstly, a New India is in the making that will be prosperous, Aatmnirbhar and tuned to high sustainability and green practices making tomorrow’s India achieving compliance to the sustainable development goals of equitable and inclusive sustainable development. But this would require a major shift from a massive consumption and ever-increasing consumption-based society to a society that shall understand the value and worth of sustainable consumption like the concept of Aparigriha, that is possess as much as needed and consume as much as necessary. It would then make us go back to our roots, in fact to the basics aligning the meaning and purpose of education with the meaning and purpose of life. A major shift in the way the curriculum is designed and imparted would be required. Education for sustainability and for living a life full of divine bliss, peace and harmony would find its place in the agenda of education policies and programs at all levels. For there is no alternative.

The Author is the Past President of Association of Indian Universities,
Founder VC of DTU and RGPV and currently Vice Chancellor of Amity University Gurugram.

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