THE 16th all India conference of the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) got off to a vibrant start in Shimla – the erstwhile capital of India. The inaugural session was presided over by VP Sanu, president, SFI.
Rakesh Singha, founder president of SFI in Himachal and an MLA from Theog and the chairperson of the reception committee of the conference, welcomed the delegates. He said the warmth of the people of Shimla and the energy emanating in the conference should be able to resist the harsh temperatures prevailing during the winter season. He said he owes his development into a political leader to the SFI which shaped not just his world outlook but also tempered him to work for the common people. Speaking about the challenges being faced in contemporary times, he said these are unprecedented. Intolerance and mobocracy are being not just supported but purported by the ruling regime and, just on the faith of an individual, one is targeted. The RSS units are spreading venom and gang rapes are getting legitimised. He said the BJP which considers the constitution as just a piece of paper, intends to replace it with Manusmriti.
The inaugural session of the conference had two main speakers. The first to speak was P Sainath, eminent journalist. He said journalists are generally considered to be just pen pushers who hardly have a role in the revolutionary movement, but few know that Bhagat Singh too had worked for four newspapers.
Fights and struggles of students should be the battlefield of ideas. But the present BJP regime has turned the battlefield into a war zone. Most regressive ideas are foisted by none else than the prime minister himself. He said it is not just that what they are propagating is utterly ridiculous, but what is more ridiculous is that they believe them to be true. Whoever questions their obscurantism and are mainly rationalists, are being deliberately targeted.
While terming the present regime as a combination of socio-religious fascists and obtuse market fundamentalists, he said that the imposition of ideas of inequality in the country is at its zenith. With a written discriminating legislation, more than 70 per cent of the population in rural Haryana were excluded from contesting local body elections. Very few will point out that a majority of them are dalits and women. Instead of punishing the state for its failure to provide education, the poor and socially downtrodden were excluded from political participation.
The existing inequalities have been further compounded by new inequalities, he said. The number of dollar billionaires has increased from eight in the year 2000 to 121 in 2017 in India. Their wealth is 22 per cent of the GDP. One single individual and that is no guess – Ambani accounts for 10 per cent of the total wealth. This could be done by just small changes in big policies by the government.
Speaking on the privatisation of universities, he said that the private universities are increasing in number. In the drive, the big players are the largest beneficiaries. Those who are controlling media are also amongst the beneficiaries to open such educational institutions.
While speaking on the agrarian crisis, he said 3 lakh and 10 thousand farmers have committed suicide. 15 million farmers have dropped out of farming whereas the same number of agricultural workers has increased.
In the ensuing rally of kisans on November 29-30 at Delhi, he called upon the students to be an active participant in it. He said the distance between the middle classes and the poorest of the poor has widened and this gap has to be filled with at least a dialogue between them. This dialogue is being developed with new ideas.
Ram Kumar, from TISS Bombay, was the other main speaker at the inaugural session. Congratulating the SFI for being a beacon in the struggle against the assault on reason and education, he said what is being witnessed today is a fusion of neoliberalism and bigotry of Hindutva. The very idea of public good is being challenged. With communalism there is re-fashioning of higher education. Rejection of rational thought is at the core of such fusion.
Drawing an interesting corollary, he drew the attention to the past interventions in the world, especially US and UK in the field of education and said that what is happening in India has already happened in the first world.
Narrating the history of the US education system from 1860s during the civil war till late 1970, he gave a trajectory of mass spread of education in US where higher education was virtually free. Similarly, he said that in UK post second world war, there was a massive doze of state stimulus in higher education and a large number of universities were opened. There were zero tuition fees.
But things changed with Margaret Thatcher in UK and Ronald Reagan in US. Reagan, while being the governor of California reduced the education budget by 50 per cent and ended free tuitions. Similarly, Thatcher reduced the education budget by 22 per cent and stopped free milk supply to the students.
He said the Indian governments since 1990s followed the footsteps and mounted attacks on higher education. Ram Kumar spoke about the changes in the higher education since 1986 brought in by the new education policy that was followed as a result of the 1994 WTO agreement. Education was considered as a non-merit trade good. The Ambani-Birla report mounted further assaults on education from the year 2000.
The Ambani-Birla report recommended for privatisation of higher education and its full cost recovery. It focussed on credit market for education. This meant the process of education loans. The severest blow to higher education was made at the behest of Kapil Sibal, the then minister for human resource development. This meant phased strategy of cutting funds every year.
The same policies were religiously followed by the BJP. Both the ministers in MHRD followed in tandem though Smriti Irani was considered as a loud and Prakash Javdekar as silent propounders of these policies. The structure of higher education is systematically dismantled and destroyed.
While narrating the present situation, he said it is precarious and the biggest threat is the debt trap faced through the education loans. The NPAs on education loans has increased from 5.7 per cent in 2014 to 8 per cent by March 2018. He said the aim of the government is to not to be subversive rather be subjugated to neo liberalism. They want obedient followers and are scared of students and their protests. He said the SFI has a glorious history and onerous task to not just oppose but to build alternatives to the present regime.
There were two more sessions in the late evening. The first one was a session with the former presidents and general secretaries of SFI which was addressed by Nilotpal Basu, KN Balagopal and S Sivadasan.
The delegate session began immediately after that and the report was placed by Vikram, general secretary of SFI. The conference will continue for three more days and will culminate in a public meeting on November 2.