K Kasturirangan is a perplexed man. He is a man of science, who published more than 240 scientific papers in his career in the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and each of them was appreciated for its precision and factuality. Yet two of his retirement reports as a policy expert have stirred up a hornet's nest, especially in south India, making his name too well known, evoking opposition, protests and anger.
In the ISRO he had taken the Indian satellite programme to great heights from the first experimental satellites Aryabhata and Bhaskara to the complex ones measuring weather, beaming television programmes and connecting 100s of millions of telephone and data connections. In the 16 years after he retired as ISRO chairman, Kasturirangan has been in the thick of public policy-making, first as a member of the Rajya Sabha and then as a member of the erstwhile Planning Commission, as well as being the chancellor of the Jawaharlal Nehru University and now the Central University of Rajasthan.
Paradoxically the two controversial reports - the first one on how to preserve the Western Ghats and the latest one in the form of the Draft National Education Policy 2019 - were themselves commissioned by the centre, after earlier reports on the same subjects had become very contentious within the corridors of the central government.
The original task force on the Western Ghats was headed by Environmental Sciences professor Madhav Gadgil, who had virtually said the entire ecosystem across five states - from Kerala to Maharashtra -- needs to be restored to its pristine primaeval glory, causing apprehension about the large-scale displacement of habitations as well as agricultural and small business activities. Soon, the environment ministry took note of the tensions the report gave rise to in Kerala and other states, and it quickly appointed a committee headed by Kasturirangan, who lives in Bangalore like Gadgil, to take a relook at the entire issue.
Kasturirangan had handled environmental issues as a member of the Planning Commission and had assisted the government while in the ISRO to do satellite imagery of the country's forest areas. Kasturirangan Report was far milder than the stringent provisions of the Gadgil Report, yet the ministry has not been able to fully notify the recommendations due to protests from Kerala, Karnataka, Goa, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra.
Earlier there was upheaval in the educational sector when TSR Subrahmanyam, the former cabinet secretary, known on television for his trenchant views, submitted his report in 2016 on the new education policy containing 95 recommendations which aimed at a complete overhaul of the education system from primary to post-graduate level.
Subrahmanyam was vitriolic in attacking the country's 70-year-old education system under Congres, Janata and BJP governments, and there was strong rebuttal from both Congress and BJP. Smriti Irani, the then Union Minister of Human Resource Development, decided not to release the report and even said it was only a guidance report and not a draft policy. Such was the rage that Irani's successor Prakash Javadekar appointed Kasturirangan, along with nine experts including K J Alphons (who quit the committee in 2017 after becoming a central minister), to give a more realistic and forward-looking draft education policy suitable to 21st-century India.
Interestingly, the report was prepared during the tenure of Javadekar but formally submitted on the day Ramesh Pokhriyal took charge of the HRD ministry soon after the formation of the second Narendra Modi government.
Pokhriyal signed the file, without even fully being briefed on the report, for it to be put in the public domain for comments. The reaction was not far in coming, especially in southern states. The whole chapter on the three-language formula came under attack for its attempt to push Hindi down the throats of small children in non-Hindi speaking areas. The DMK raised the protest and the ruling AIADMK joined it. Interestingly, the committee itself said the three-language formula which aims at teaching the mother tongue or local language, another Indian language and English, was not being implemented in Hindi-speaking states. Even though there were four south Indian members in the 10-member committee, the draft report was seen as promoting Hindi and Sanskrit which have been espoused by the BJP and RSS leadership strongly - at the expense of regional languages in south India and Bengal, which have a distinct identity. Kasturirangan was accused of giving voice to the Hindi lobby.
The BJP in its anxiety to assuage the feelings used two south Indians to issue statements. One was the new Union minister for external affairs S. Jaishankar, who said the draft report was not a final policy and asked people not to get agitated. Another was R Subramanyam, a secretary in the HRD ministry. But there were objections that Jaishankar had studied Hindi, as his father had settled in Delhi and he was not aware of the situation in the south. The new education minister Pokhriyal prefers to use Hindi in his communication, like other senior BJP leaders from north India. The controversy may hamper serious consideration of the many excellent recommendations in the 450-page report prepared by Kasturirangan and his colleagues to revamp the country's education system.