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National Knowledge Commission of India:

An initiative Sri Lanka should emulate

GREAT INITIATIVE: The Prime Minister of India Dr. Manmohan Singh, when setting up the National Knowledge Commission as a high level advisory body to him, said, “The time has come to create a second wave of institution building, and of excellence in the fields of education, research and capacity building so that we are better prepared for the 21st Century”.

India set up its National Knowledge Commission (NKC) in June 2005 and its first report to the government titled, “National Knowledge Commission: Report to the Nation 2006” was submitted in January 2007.

In the foreword to this report, NKC’s Chairman, Sam Pitroda, former founding Chairman of the Telecommunication Commission of India and a former Advisor to the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, says that “..... we feel a sense of excitement at the potential that India has to emerge as one of the leading knowledge societies in the world.

The Commission was set up by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to prepare a blueprint to tap into the enormous reservoir of our knowledge base so that our people can confidently face challenges of the 21st Century. We are conscious that this is a daunting task, which requires not only resources and time but also a vision and a long Term view.”

What is knowledge?

Knowledge is defined (Oxford English Dictionary) variously as (i) facts, information, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject, (ii) what is known in a particular field or in total; facts and information or (iii) awareness or familiarity gained by experience of a fact or situation. Philosophical debates in general start with Plato’s formulation of knowledge as “justified true belief”.

There is however no single agreed definition of knowledge presently, nor any prospect of one, and there remain numerous competing theories.

Knowledge acquisition involves complex cognitive processes: perception, learning, communication, association, and reasoning. The term knowledge is also used to mean the confident understanding of a subject, with ability to use it for a specific purpose.

The terms of reference

Very clearly, the Indian Prime Minister has identified the need to be proactive in using and creating knowledge for India to face the challenges of the future.

At the heart of the NKC’s mandate therefore are five key areas related to knowledge: Access to Knowledge, Knowledge Concepts, Creation of Knowledge, Knowledge Applications, and Delivery of Services. The Terms of Reference of the NKC tell us its scope.

* Build excellence in the educational system to meet the knowledge challenges of the 21st Century and increase India’s competitive advantage in fields of knowledge.

* Promote creation of knowledge in Science and Technology laboratories

* Improve the management of institutions engaged in Intellectual Property Rights.

* Promote knowledge applications in Agriculture and Industry.

* Promote the use of knowledge capabilities in making government an effective, transparent and accountable service provider to the citizen and promote widespread sharing of knowledge to maximise public benefit.

The NKC has designated time frame of three years: from October 2, 2005 to October 2, 2008. In its first report to the nation, the NKC says that the ability of a nation to use and create knowledge capital determines its capacity to empower and enable its citizens by increasing human capabilities.

It goes on to add that India today needs a knowledge-oriented paradigm of development to give the country a competitive advantage in all fields of knowledge. The NKC also has a mandate to guide policy and direct reforms.

Aim

NKC’s overarching aim is to transform India into a vibrant knowledge-based society. Undoubtedly, the NKC recognises that this entails a radical improvement in existing systems of knowledge as well as the creation of avenues for generating new forms of knowledge.

It recognises that increased participation and a more equitable access to knowledge across all sections of society are also of vital importance in achieving this goal.

How it operates

Interestingly, the NKC will not submit voluminous reports to the Government. Instead, they will submit a letter to the Prime Minister incorporating key recommendations, first steps, and financial implications etc., supported by the relevant explanatory documents.

To compile and make recommendations, the NKC adopts a novel approach - an interactive consultation-based work methodology.

Setp by Step consultative process

Firstly, the Commission identifies focus areas. Incidentally, one such area that has been identified is the Libraries, which resonates with us too. This identification comes after a wide consultation, both within and outside the government.

The next step is the identification of diverse stakeholders and understanding and highlighting major issues in the area. Thereafter, working groups of specialists and practitioners are constituted.

Working groups

These typically consist of between five to ten experts; the group meets periodically over a period of three to four months in order to prepare a report.

Reports of the working groups are one of the inputs used by the NKC during its discussions to frame recommendations to the Prime Minister. In addition, the NKC holds seminars and workshops periodically along with informal consultations with concerned entities and stakeholders to get as broad-based a point of view as possible.

The purpose of seminars and workshops is to ensure that diverse opinions are brought together and a process as inclusive and participatory as possible is instituted.

At this stage, relevant government ministries and the Planning Commission of India are actively involved to ensure that later implementation is smooth and without any impediment.

More often than not, external consultative processes without the involvement and agreement of the line ministries end up in voluminous reports compiled through painstaking processes that are however not used at all resulting in a absolute waste of time and resources.

Recommendations

The NKC, after several rounds of deliberations, sends a letter (not a report) to the Prime Minister containing key recommendations, first steps, financial implications etc., supported by relevant explanatory documents. Once the Prime Minister receives the recommendations etc., widespread dissemination to state governments, civil society and other stakeholders takes place.

The most important step of this entire process is implementation and since it is done under the aegis of the Indian PM’s office, there is the highest level co-ordination and follow up with various implementing agencies.

NKC’s work programme

NKC’s present recommendations cover vital areas such as libraries, translation, language, knowledge network, right to education, vocational education, higher education, national science and social science foundation and E-governance.

Its works in process include focus areas covering Literacy, Health Information network, portals (environment, health etc), open and distance education, school education, legal education, medical education, management education, technical education, innovation and entrepreneurship, Intellectual property rights, science and technology, agriculture, and traditional knowledge.

Potential Future Areas cover Strategies for New Technologies (such as Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Security Applications, Cryptology), Environment, Public Health, Gender (including education - specific constraints to education of girls), Legal Access Issues including availability of laws and judgements in the public domain, Basic Access to clean water, food etc., Teacher Training, Learning Methods, Government Process Re-engineering, grass roots/rural/social innovation and grass roots business.

Recommendations on English Langauge Teaching

NKC’s recommendations pertaining to English language teaching are very relevant to us as well. Therefore, those will be reproduced here. NKC has recommended that teaching of English as a language should be introduced along with the first language of the child starting from Class I (in our case, Grade I) in school.

Teaching methodology is also to be changed. NKC has suggested that English should also be used to teach some non-langauge, content subjects, starting from Class III in school. In our case, a subject like social studies may be very useful and fruitful.

Pedagogy of language learning as well as teaching should be suitably contextualized, to lend meaning to real situations and daily lives, as per NKC’s recommendations.

A National Testing Service (NTS) for certification of langauge competence is proposed by the NKC.

Since a large pool of English language teachers is required, graduates with high proficiency in English and good communication skills would be inducted without formal teacher training qualifications.

India’s nearly four million teachers, regardless of their subject expertise, are to be trained to improve their proficiency in English through a variety of programmes, such as vacation training.

A host of other recommendations has been made by the NKC in regard to development and access to good resource material such as textbooks, audio-visual material etc.

What should we do?

Since Sri Lanka boasts of a high literacy rate in the region, we too must look at the next phase of knowledge enhancement.

While India has to grapple with improving basic literacy, we have the distinct advantage, thanks to our remarkable social welfare policies, to leapfrog to a much higher pedestal in the realm of knowledge. However, the road map to such heights must be carefully but speedily crafted.

The work done by the NKC of India could easily be adapted to suit our needs. We do not have to re-invent the wheel in conceptualising and setting up our own National Knowledge Commission.

Some of the Terms of Reference of the Indian NKC could be taken as they are. Nevertheless, there would have to be consideration of our own needs when drafting the Terms of Reference.

The Way forward

The President can appoint a few eminent persons with a clear Terms of Reference to the proposed National Knowledge Commission of Sri Lanka (NKCSL). These eminent persons will come from fields such as Education. Engineering, Medicine, Economics, Languages, IT, Mathematics, Science and Technology, Social Sciences and Humanities, Public Service, Business Management, Rural Development, Culture and Aesthetics.

There may be some more areas, but we must keep the number of commissioners manageable lest it becomes unwieldy. An important consideration should be that these commissioners so appointed must be the best in their fields as well as having a broad horizon about Sri Lanka’s future.

A draft Terms of Reference prepared by a core group can be given to the Commission with the proviso that the NKCSL could deliberate and inform the President of any amendments they think are appropriate Thereafter, the mandate could be made final.

A lean Secretariat

An interesting feature in the Indian NKC is that all members provide their services without any emoluments. The Secretariat is headed by an Executive Director seconded from the Government of India and a few support staff among whom are a few top-of-the -ladder recently qualified graduates with a penchant for research and analytical work.

They are taken on the prevailing market rates. We too must have a lean set up with a few exceptionally brilliant young but hard working graduates to support the Commission.

The same methodology adopted by the Indian NKC could be used in the consultative process. A few of our Commission members and staff could visit the Indian NKC and interact with them to obtain a thorough understanding of its working.

A few Advantages

It is imperative that we get on with this as early as possible, as otherwise, we will lag behind other countries in the region. We have a few advantages that must be fully leveraged.

Firstly, we do not have to worry about our basic literacy whereas for most other countries in the region it’s nightmare. What we need to do is to improve the quality of our teaching in the school system and ensure that more children pass the first hurdle, the G.C.E. ‘O’ Level.

The poor pass rate of 49 per cent at this first public examination is a sad reflection of the quality of our secondary schools. This is where National Education Commission, National Institute of Education and the Ministry of Education along with Provincial Ministries in charge of Education must work harmoniously with one objective in mind, to enhance the pass rates at ‘O’ Level.

Secondly, we have more than adequate rural level learning-teaching infrastructure that must be put to maximum use. They must become knowledge centres for our rural children and their parents. Schools and their infrastructure must be fully exploited; once the schools close for children, the adult knowledge centre must operate. Mechanics are not difficult to be worked out.

Next 74 per cent of our households have electricity and at least a radio is available in a rural home. The TV and the Radio must be used extensively to provide the population with appropriate knowledge.

English language can be taught to the entire schoolgoing population and those who have dropped out using innovative programmes, both audio-visual and community based instruction. Another distinct advantage is the availability of the Nenasalas and the Computer Resource Centres in the Schools.

Through these a high quantum of knowledge in a wide array of subjects can be given to the students and adults. This is still an under-utilised resource and the local NGOs and CBOs must mobilise people to make use of these for their knowledge and information requirements.

As the Indian NKC has identified, libraries will play a crucial role in the knowledge revolution we are so eager to launch. Throughout the country, we have a large number of libraries run by schools, local authorities, other institutions such as NGOs and CBOs and private individuals.

The National Library Services Board must be fully empowered to enhance the quality of these reservoirs of knowledge through which the entire country could benefit. Innovative strategies must be adopted to make these places attractive. Creative thinking can be utilise to enhance the number of books in these libraries and made available to rural children.

A final Word

The proposed National Knowledge Commission is the advisory body to the President and therefore must be provided with the most conducive environment to work. If we do not provide it with adequate resources, Sri Lanka at the end of the day will stand to lose.

What we invest in the quest for knowledge is certainly worth billions of ruppes in time to come. Also, the KNCSL must use already functioning entities, eminent persons, brilliant minds both here and abroad, resource bases, similar global institutions, think tanks etc, to compile the recommendations to the First Citizen.

The methodology adopted by the Indian NKC is well worth following; their process of consultation is inclusive, they remain lean and small, they do not send voluminous reports to their Prime Minister, and above all, they think it is their supreme duty to make India the most competitive country in the world.

Those in various Indian Think Tanks also look forward to the recommendations of the NKC and contribute to the discourse with passion and fervour. Similarly, the proposed NKCSL must engage our intelligentsia, the professionals and their various associations, traditional knowledge sources and rural wisdom.

In the Report to the Nation 2006, the National Knowledge Commission of India quotes one of India’s greatest sons, Rabindranath Tagore.

The words of the Great Poet;

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

Where knowledge is free;

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;

Where words come out from the depth of truth;

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;

Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action.

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

 

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