India’s contemporary society is such that it scarcely pays attention to someone’s multi-decadal achievements, to one who is a doyen in many fields – unless he or she belongs to the ranks of popular politicians, cine actors, fiction writers, directors of cinema or industrialists.
It is even stranger that nonagenarians are recognized not just for their age, but also their lifelong contributions to chosen field of excellence that spans many decades. Late Professor S.V.Chitti Babu, a leading intellectual educationist of the country, was one such person.
He was an educational reformer, who served for more than six decades in various capacities. A lifelong policy wonk, he worked for improving the quality of education in schools, colleges and universities in India and Tamil Nadu.
Chitti Babu was an able administrator in several higher educational institutions and can be credited for introducing many reforms in Tamil Nadu. According to him, educational and training institutes needed to identify and inculcate students’ talents and improve their capacities to handle societal situations with skill, rather than mere socialization. For a lifelong, he strove for `providing equality of opportunities to all its citizens’ in the field of education.
The veteran’s achievements in the field of school reforms and the positions he adopted in the annals of India’s educational history, is a case study to learn and imbibe about meeting systemic transitions and challenges that are resolved over many decades.
The eminent educationist passed away on March 29, 2020, at Chennai, celebrating his hundredth birthday on November 7, 2019. He had diabetes for close to six decades, but that never came in the way of his active engagement in public life, taking on a different role every time to bring policy changes in the education sector.
Prof Chitti Babu stood tall in the field of education. For decades, many in the state turned to him to resolve the myriad issues and challenges faced in this crucial sector. His pragmatic views and suggestions were welcomed by one and all, as they provided succor to everyone who sought help. The nonagenarian headed many committees and commissions, coopting himself in the role of even a simple member in committees related to the education sector, both in Tamil Nadu and the national level.
Chitti Babu had published widely, writing more than a 100 scholarly articles and lectures on the issues confronting the education sector, which are still relevant for his splendid articulation, context and content.
The centenarian was born on November 7, 1920. He received his B.A. (Hons) in History from the Pachaiyappa College, Chennai. He concluded his M.A. degree in History from the University of Madras. In 1942, he joined as Assistant Professor of History at the Pachaiyappa College.
Babu became Professor in 1947, teaching in many colleges, including the prestigious Madras President College. He was the first Principal of the Government Training College, Vellore, a Fulbright Scholar who trained in the USA and went on to become member of the State Planning Commission.
As Vice-Chancellor at the Madurai Kamaraj University from 1975 to 1978, he was the first in the country to spearhead and introduce Distance Learning in Tamil Nadu for higher education, apart from introducing semester and internal assessment systems.
Chitti Babu served two terms as Vice-Chancellor of the Annamalai University from 1950-86, leaving his imprimatur there with many far-reaching reforms, including the introduction of Distance Education. He was honoured with the D.Litt. degree (Honoris Causa) for his yeoman services.
He was also the first Vice-Chairman of Tamil Nadu State Council of Higher Education established in 1992, also serving as Member in the Executive Committee of Association of Commonwealth Universities.
Chitti Babu travelled to several countries for keeping abreast with educational issues, enlarging his learning and broadening his horizon. In 1994, he founded the Tamil Nadu History Congress and was its President for a decade.
He was the first Director of School Education and Higher Education Departments of the Government of Tamil Nadu. While serving there, he was told that without teachers’ training, he could not grow beyond a point; hence at the age of 32 in 1951-52, Chitti Babu took leave from work for a year and joined the Collegiate Teachers’ Certificate course at Teacher Training College, Saidapet in Chennai, which is also one of the oldest teacher training institutes in Asia.
In 1991, he headed a committee constituted by the Government of Tamil Nadu to study the status of unrecognised English medium nursery schools run by private individuals. His brief was to recommend regulations for controlling and monitoring such schools. In 1993, the state government had notified various regulatory measures for control and monitoring proposed by him.
It was during this period that mushrooming of private English-medium nursery schools proliferated across Tamil Nadu. Indeed, the failure to safeguard the interest of parents and children prompted the government to step in and regulate.
After the tragic demise of 96 children in a school fire at Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, in 2004, Prof Chitti Babu headed a Commission constituted by the state government to study and prescribe the fee structure of such schools. It was also mandated to introduce minimum infrastructure facilities, including the land area for each school depending upon its location, and the salary structure of teachers of private matriculation schools and private matriculation Higher Secondary schools. Again, another market failure warranted a second government intervention.
The Commission’s recommendations created a huge controversy in Tamil Nadu. Some private schools even went to court against the state government’s orders to close about 746 schools for non-fulfillment of requirements fixed by the Commission, a decision that would have affected a few lakh students. The committee headed by Prof Chittibabu did not recommend fee fixation of unaided private schools following a Supreme Court judgment.
In 2009, the Tamil Nadu government had enacted a law to fix the fee structure of unaided private schools, though not as rigidly as has been followed by some other state governments in India. Nonetheless, the state license raj continues.
Prof Chitti Babu always believed that functional autonomy to educational institutions is paramount to improve and maintain the quality and allocation of resources productively. He was member of the National Commission on Teachers-II, 1983-85.
He wrote to former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, calling upon him to bring in concrete reforms in the higher education sector through a memorandum, which was part of a report entitled “Towards New Educational Management”, submitted to the University Grants Commission (UGC) on January 24, 1990.
In 2009, Chitti Babu published a book titled “Higher Education in India: Issues and Imperatives” which is a collection of his scholarly lectures, including convocation addresses at various institutions. The book stresses on shifting the focus fundamentally to build universities and higher educational institutions with foresight coupled with a deep commitment to leadership. He made a strong case for inculcating and imbibing a sense of togetherness for students, parents and the society. He also wrote books in Tamil including the well-known Sinthanai Sikarankal or Wings of Thinking.
For decades, Chitti Babu urged authorities to ensure that children study in primary schools only in their mother tongue, which would help them to learn and nurture their cognitive growth. He wrote a chapter on Child Education for Joy and Learning in a book published in 1997, which traced and emphasised philosophically the vital role of early childhood education. Sadly, he could not see the implementation of Early Childhood Care and Education, which was part of the National Policy on Education, 1986, and is now part of the Draft National New Education Policy, 2019. While the centenarian is gone, his ideas will continue to inspire generations of students all over the country.
IndianLiberals.in is an online library of all Indian liberal writings, lectures and other materials in English and other Indian regional languages. The material that has been collected so far contains liberal commentary dating from the early 19th century till the present. The portal helps preserve an often unknown but very rich Indian liberal tradition and explain the relevance of the writings in today’s context.
Read more: Cho Ramaswamy: India’s classical satirist and liberal, 1934-2016
The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.