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‘Natural progression’ — how ex-ISRO chairman K. Kasturirangan became Modi govt’s top educationist

Described as ‘apolitical’ and ‘focused on academics’, Kasturirangan is the mind behind the National Education Policy 2020. He is now heading panel for new curriculum framework.

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New Delhi: He has overseen multiple space missions, but the “mother of all complexities” that K. Kasturirangan has dealt with in his public life, he said, was when the Modi government tasked him with formulating a new National Education Policy (NEP) for India.

Faced with the gargantuan task of creating a roadmap for educational reforms across the country, he drew deeply from his former stints as chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), a Rajya Sabha MP, and a member of the erstwhile Planning Commission.

These three experiences, he told ThePrint, “enriched his overall knowledge” and helped him to effectively understand the “challenges of formulating an education policy with its demand to ensure the right type of inputs for national development”.

After three years of deliberations with various stakeholders, including teachers, industry bodies, scientists, and representatives from villages to district levels, the policy was finally made public in July 2020.

The NEP 2020 aims to revolutionise the education system in many ways, bringing in changes like the Four Year Undergraduate Program (FYUP) in colleges and universities, paying a lot more attention to skill-based learning in schools and colleges, and blurring the lines between vocational and textbook-based education.

Government officials who worked with the Ministry of Human Resource Development (now known as the Education Ministry) when the panel started work in 2017, say that Katurirangan was chosen because of his academic standing and association with various knowledge commissions.

All the officials ThePrint has spoken to concurred that Kasturirangan’s work with the panel “exceeded expectations”.

The 82-year-old former space scientist and Padma Vibhushan awardee is now the main educationist for the Narendra Modi government. He is currently heading the panel working on the new National Curriculum Framework (NCF), which will essentially decide what goes into school syllabi across the country.

Also read: ‘Need well-rounded professionals’ — why IITs, IIMs & IIITs are giving humanities a new thrust

‘Non-political, focused on academics’

The central government gave Kasturirangan the reins of a nine-member committee tasked with drafting a new education policy in 2017. Prior to this, another committee had been formed in 2015 under former cabinet secretary T.S.R. Subramanian, but its recommendations had not panned out.

“He was the right fit to head an education panel. We also wanted someone who is neutral, non-controversial, non-political, and focused on academics,” said an official on condition of anonymity.

Kasturirangan did not disappoint on any of those fronts, officials say.

“A largely non-controversial education policy is what he delivered. Barring some criticism on the usage of mother-tongue for education, the policy was mostly appreciated by all quarters,” said another ministry official who has worked with him.

At the Education Ministry, officials say they don’t need to pore over thick documents when in doubt about policy any longer. According to them, Kasturirangan is an “encyclopaedia” of education and they go back to him every time a question arises about any clause in the policy.

“The kind of knowledge he has on education-related matters is immense — whether its school education, higher education, or technical education. We consult him on a regular basis even for the implementation of the policy,” said a third senior ministry official.

As someone who has been “apolitical”, he has had a good working relationship with multiple prime ministers, from I.K. Gujral to Manmohan Singh to Narendra Modi.

After being associated with ISRO for nearly 35 years — and heading it from 1994 to 2003 — Kasturirangan served as a Rajya Sabha MP from 2003-2009 and concurrently the director of the National Institute of Advanced Studies.

Under the former United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, he was a member of the Planning Commission from 2009-2014. He also headed the Karnataka Knowledge Commission in 2008.

He has been associated with various institutes like the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) Roorkee and Madras and the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bengaluru as a member of the board of governors. In 2012, notably, he was appointed as the chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).

Yet, Kasturirangan told ThePrint that the toughest mandate of all was devising the NEP: “I won’t be exaggerating if I say that working towards formulating an educational policy for this country turned out to be the mother of all complexities that I experienced in my public life,” he said.

From space scientist to top educationist 

For those who have known Kasturirangan for a long time, his journey from steering India’s space programme to becoming the government’s top educationist is not surprising.

Former ISRO scientist Mukund Rao said that apart from Kasturirangan’s scientific temper and knowledge, it was his ability to communicate with anyone — from a philosopher, to a child, to a politician or a fellow scientist — that made his journey to education seem like a “natural progression”.

Rao finished his PhD under Kasturirangan and has considered him as a friend, philosopher, and guide for the past 35 years.

“I have seen him handle a lot of success, but he has also handled failures and has been able to overcome obstacles in that course.”

One harrowing incident that stands out for Rao is when a fire was detected just before a satellite launch.

“Although there have been many instances where [Kasturirangan] has displayed his leadership qualities, one particular incident I remember was at the time of the GSLV satellite launch. Everything was ready, the launch vehicle was ready to launch. Just a few milliseconds before that, there was a fire detected and the launch had to be called off,” he said.

Kasturirangan handled this crisis smoothly. “He did not panic or worry. He kept his calm and, along with the team, tried to find a solution to the problem. And in a couple of days, the team was ready for the launch again and it was then successful,” Rao added.

With ISRO, Kasturirangan is associated with numerous milestones, and is one of the few scientific minds still active in public life who has had the opportunity to work with Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, considered the father of the Indian space programme.

During his association with ISRO, he oversaw the activities related to the development of new generation spacecraft, the Indian National Satellite (INSAT-2), Indian Remote Sensing Satellites (IRS-1A & 1B), as well as scientific satellites.

He was also the project director for India’s first two experimental earth observation satellites, BHASKARA-I & II and subsequently was responsible for overall direction of the first operational Indian Remote Sensing Satellite, IRS-1A.

Another former ISRO scientist Sridhara Murthi, who worked as the scientific secretary at the time Kasturirangan was chairman, said that the latter is a “multifaceted personality” who played a key role in initiating the Chandrayaan lunar exploration programme and was also instrumental in facilitating talks with the scientific community and political leadership.

According to reports, it was a speech by Kasturirangan in 1999 that inspired the political establishment to throw its weight behind an Indian lunar programme. The first Chandrayaan mission went to the moon in 2008.

“As a leader he has been extraordinary,” Murthi said. “His insights from technology on one side to his ability in dealing with people from different fields and levels is remarkable.”

(Edited by Asavari Singh)

Also read: UP to get Harvard experts, MP goes for mother tongue — how states are implementing NEP


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