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A Note from Former PM PV Narasimha Rao, India's First HRD Minister

File photo of former prime minister PV Narasimha Rao.

File photo of former prime minister PV Narasimha Rao.

Rao was given the responsibility in the Rajiv Gandhi cabinet, and he retained the portfolio after becoming the Prime Minister in June 1991.

Suhas Munshi
  • News18.com New Delhi
  • Last Updated: July 30, 2020, 5:29 PM IST
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A long-pending demand of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), to change the name of the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) to Ministry of Education, was approved by the union cabinet on Wednesday when it accepted the recommendations made in the New Education Policy.

After a meeting conducted by RSS affiliate Bharatiya Shikshan Mandal in September 2018 in New Delhi, Ram Bahadur Rai, former journalist and the present president of Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, who was present at the meeting, had reportedly told the Economic Times that former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had changed the name of the education ministry to HRD ministry in September 1985 under the advice of some “people who may have misled him...Treating education or humans as resource is against Indian values that look at education more holistically."

Scholar Vinay Sitapati has in his biography of PV Narasimha Rao, 'Half Lion', mentioned an interesting anecdote about how the Congress leader, an intellectual and multilinguist, who was part of the-then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's union cabinet, bagged the portfolio of India's first HRD minister. For the first time the role of education minister had been expanded to supervise the working of many other departments, other than education, such as youth affairs, women and children, arts and culture, sports, etc.

This portfolio went on to assume great importance in successive governments and was held by three Prime Ministers, including Narasimha Rao. Rao, who brought in his experience of serving as the education minister in Andhra Pradesh, retained the portfolio after becoming the Prime Minister in June 1991. Atal Bihari Vajpayee also kept the HRD ministry with himself after becoming Prime Minister in June 1996, as also did VP Singh after taking the PM's chair in November 1990.

The anecdote about Rao getting the portfolio, as written by Sitapati, begins with Rajiv Gandhi telling Rao in September 1985 that he would be given charge of the education ministry which would be renamed 'Human Resource Development Ministry'. After hearing this, Rao asked his secretary to get him all the pending files for clearance.

"When the files returned the next morning in a steel box, Ramu [Rao's secretary] noticed a handwritten note that Rao must have inadvertently placed among them. With 'Human Resource Development' as the heading, it contained an excerpt from an author Rao enjoyed, Antoine de Saint-Exupery: 'A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within it the image of a cathedral'. Below this, Rao had written: 'Women and Child Development. Health. Youth Affairs/Sports. Culture. Labour?'"

The anecdote describes further how Rao slipped in this note when he went to meet Rajiv Gandhi and asked him to include all these departments in the HRD ministry. "Critically, Rao did not insist on adding 'Labour' into the mix. An aide says, '[This is because] the focus of that ministry [was] on protecting the interests of existing workers rather than creating opportunities for new ones.'"

Over the years, one by one, all these departments — culture, youth affairs, sports, women and child development, health — were carved out into separate ministries, leaving the HRD ministry to take care of only education, which is what it was before 1985.

Sitapati quotes education researcher Akshay Mangala saying that at the time of Rao taking over as the HRD minister, "'40 per cent of primary schools had no blackboards, two-thirds of all classes (grades 1-5) were taking place in one or two classrooms and almost one-third of primary schools had only one teacher.' Rao's policy response ensured that every school would have at least two classrooms, two teachers and instruction materials. Narasimha Rao's time as education minister also saw the creation of Navodaya school system. A brainchild of Rajiv Gandhi, the aim was to provide centrally run residential schools in every district so that children could access quality education."

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