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Colloquium Report : Rethinking Geography Education and Research in India

New Delhi, 21 August 2014: A two-day colloquium was held during March 29-30, 2014 at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The colloquium was organized by the Centre for the Study of Regional Development, School of Social Sciences and was funded by the UGC-CAS Programme. Over 60 practicing geographers and young researchers from all over India attended the colloquium and participated in the deliberations, which was spread over eight technical sessions. The colloquium organized special sessions on school education and a dedicated session listening to various stakeholders such as the students having studied in different colleges and universities of India as well as those from outside the formal teaching and research fraternity, especially in the private sector and non-governmental organizations. G’nY as one such stakeholder was represented by its editor-in-chief. Representatives from NCERT, CBSE, Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan and private schools were also presented and actively participated in the deliberations of the colloquium. The keynote address was delivered by M.H.Qureshi, an eminent geographer and author having long teaching and research experience besides having served as advisor to the NCERT text books and CBSE.

Sachidanand Sinha, professor at JNU in his introductory remark followed by the keynote address delivered by M.H Qureshi reflected upon the following issues:

1. Geography teaching and research in India has been facing innumerable internal and external challenges. Internal challenges pertains to feeble response and preparedness to incorporate appropriate changes in the teaching curriculum at the school, college and university levels in the light of the changing nature of the discipline globally and its relevance in addressing the contemporary issues both at the global and local levels. It is too well known that the school and university curricula of geography have at best incorporated superficial changes in the last few decades. It is thus outmoded and perhaps unattractive to the discerning and creative young minds in schools and colleges.

2. The content of geographical research has found little place in the contemporary intellectual discourse in environmental and social sciences. Perched as it has been on the frontiers of environmental (physical/natural) and social sciences, notwithstanding sporadic sparks of brilliance of geographical studies, is generally seen as a subject that contributes little towards generation of specialized knowledge and skill. It is worthy only of satisfying the needs of persons appearing for competitive examinations.

3. The historical schisms between the systematic and regional approaches and between the physical and human geographies have resurfaced in geography curricula, research and among the practitioners in the various geography departments. The time tested disciplinary vision of bringing about a synthesis of diverse phenomena in their causal interrelationships and outcomes around specific problem(s) with reference to the temporal and spatial framework seems to have been delegated to the trash cans.

4. The pedagogical orientation of the discipline has been another area of concern. There is
little research available in India on this issue and the large community of practicing geographers has found little inclination to inform them with developments across the world. The net outcome is that the disciplinary content and pedagogy remains unexciting, dull and unchallenging. The knowledge outcomes in terms of net value-and-skill addition get questioned on the count that it is not in the best interest of the policies of any section.

5. The external challenges are equally grave that raises serious questions about the survival of the discipline. Geography has found only a marginal place in the new universities that are being established both in the public and private sectors. It needs to be noted that geography is not the only discipline to suffer neglect in the emerging structure of higher education. It is epistemological that growth of knowledge is underscored by the process of differentiation, integration and reconfiguration.

6. Riding the wave of epochal change and development in the field of technology, particularly the information technology, reconfiguration of global finance and capital and neo-liberal state policies have allowed unrestricted penetration of TNCs in global extraction industry. This has opened a new profile to the processes of primitive accumulation of multiple kinds. Land and resource grabs have become even more sinister than those recorded during the hey-days of imperialism. Sustainability and survival of communities living in large parts of the world today is underlined by geographies of exploitation, deprivation and inequality. Despite the fact that majority of the world population faces multitudes of deprivations, the subject that can provide answer remains at best sidelined.

7. The organizers called upon the participants to raise questions on why geography remained at the margin in analysis of processes that create and recreate such geographies of deprivation. What institutional and informal hindrances the discipline
faces? What kind of changes in curricula and pedagogy would result in making the discipline more meaningful? Should discipline of geography respond to market or to the people? Thinking through the questions, one may see immense prospect of engaging geography with a definitive theoretical orientation in contemporary academic and institutional framework and processes of change.

H.R. Ramachandran, former professor of geography at the Delhi School of Economics argued that geography in India has always aped the long discarded traditions of geography in the west leading to its weak status. This is true especially in the context of school and university level curricula which is devoid of theoretical, methodological and philosophical bases. The need of the hour is to rise above the dichotomy of physical and human geography and try to position geography to understand reality whichever standpoint one takes. K.R.Dikshit, former professor of geography, University of Pune and editor of the Transactions of the Institute of Indian Geography who has been at the fountainhead of national debate on geography education and research for over 15 years argued for the inclusion of more thematic courses relevant in the contemporary context. He lamented at the trends in geographic research which is often organized based on small areas, without an attempt at integrating the findings with the larger picture. One should move from a small area to venture into the larger universe. Commenting on the issue of ideological commitments and perspectives in geography, more significantly notices in western human geography Dikshit felt that as the discipline of geography was essentially empirical there is no need for an ideological basis and one should come out from such positions and base their research more on field work. While Dikshit proposed for a more empirical view of geography that focuses on expanding horizons, Balbir Singh Butola, professor at JNU argued that ideology is everywhere and the whole thinking process has been conditioned by the society. He felt that the data generated by the Government has profound ideological bases and constructions. There was an urgent need to critique various sources of data as they tend to mask the reality. He further argued that space should be taken up as an analytical category and not seen as a mere spectator. but also which influences the lives of the people. Bikramaditya Chaudhury questioned the institutional bases of knowledge creation within Indian universities. The production of knowledge has been a part of the hegemonic tradition and therefore the information reaching the people are regulated. He brought in Foucault’s concept of power to drive his point. The problem lies with the system and hence instead of questioning the individual, the system has to be really questioned in the production of knowledge. He further argued that the subject has been characterized by thematic orthodoxy, methodological redundancy, interpretative inconsistencies and administrative hegemony. Under thematic orthodoxy, the local academic culture and the set patterns of themes are the real issues. Who decides the theme and what is the theme is a pertinent question. In the methodological issues, the continuous battle between quantitative and qualitative stands pitched on the field. GIS just gives a smokescreen to the whole situation masking the grounded realities sometime. The interpretations have been so consistent that the rigour is somewhere lost in the long run.

Sarfaraz Alam from Benaras Hindu University (presented in absentia by Dhiren Borisa of JNU) opined that there is a need to reorient the undergraduate programmes. Instead of fundamental courses, there should be theme based courses and they should be sequentially arranged. The extrinsic factors like the job potentialities of the field must be taken into serious consideration. He proposed that there should be courses which would raise the critical thinking of the students.
Speaking on the status of the nature of curricula, teaching and research in physical geography S Sreekesh (JNU), V. Raman and Bashabi Gupta (DU) lamented at the declining standards in the field. Raman felt that studies and research in physical geography, which constituted the foundations of geographical knowledge, should not be wished away in our zeal to diversify and incorporate new themes in geography curricula. Sreekesh citing examples from some recent researches pointed out absence of conceptual and methodological rigour. He argued for an urgent need towards a comprehensive debate within the sub-field of geography and suggested that geography journals gave adequate space to physical geography research.

The status of teaching and research in regional geography formed the subject matter of presentation by Harjit Singh, professor at JNU. He felt that while the field appears to have lost its shine in view of little theoretical and empirical research in the area both globally as well as in India, the field has acquired greater significance in the context of globalization and that the traditions in regional geography needs to be resurrected and made relevant to the contemporary global and national contexts. Sucharita Sen (JNU) focused on the spectre of global market economy and consequent transformations in the global space economy. She felt that the curriculum of economic geography in India is outdated and evoked little analytical insights unless appropriately redesigned.

Debendra K Nayak (NEHU), Ravi S. Singh (BHU), Sohel Firdaus (Sikkim Central University), Suryakant (PU) and Sachidanand Sinha(JNU) emphasized the need for reaffirming the traditional vision of geography as a synthetic science. They argued that in order to achieve the objectives of a synthetic science it was necessary to expand the horizons of geographic research in the domain of analysis and critical social theory. In critical social theory the centrality of spatiality of being has been has been well established and Indian geography has to take note of it. It was further argued that the plurality of Indian socio-cultural, political, environmental and economic spaces presents fertile grounds for exploration and exposition of spatiality of existence and its underlying factors and processes.

The status of skills in demand in the job market and creation of relevant knowledge and skill formed the subject matter of her presentation by Sulagna Chattopadhyay (editor, G&Y). She presented a comprehensive perspective on the nature of emerging knowledge in the related fields and how geographers today have to face stiff competition from professionals from a wide range of disciplines and technologies. She suggested that while geographers were better interpreters of spatial patterns and processes they are being outsmarted by professionals in the field of information technology. Geography curricula therefore needed be become market sensitive.

Lack of employment opportunities, paucity of good texts and research facilities formed the central areas of concern in the presentations made by over a dozen post graduate and research students from various universities. The highlight of their presentations, which was semi-biographical, lent understanding of a wide range of experiences among the budding geographers.

Centrality of field survey methods was deliberated upon in the presentations of Qureshi, Mahabir S Jaglan (KU), and Bhagirathy. Through anecdotal accounts Qureshi and Jaglan were in a position to present a critical account of some of the emerging survey techniques such as participatory research, focused group discussion, rapid rural appraisal and many others adopted rather freely and uncritically by the NGO research sector. They cautioned that substance is more important than form and therefore geographers in their surveys techniques should be objective, transparent and responsive as the absence of these will produce only trash and psudo-research.

The session on school geography was participated by a large number of school teachers both from the public and private sectors. It was pointed out that there was a huge gap of supply of geography teachers in schools all across the country and that specialized geographic themes are currently being transacted by so called teachers of social sciences, a large number of whom are non-geography graduates. This makes geography look difficult and unattractive. It was also pointed out that the school geography was not progressive in terms of organization of its curricula as a consequence there was little value addition in terms of knowledge- only the volume of information expanded from one stage to another without any substantial analytical skills development among the curious students. Tannu Mallik from the NCERT took note of the seminal points and assured the colloquium to take the matter up for consideration at the NCERT.

The two-day colloquium concluded with adoption of a Delhi Charter, which included the concerns mentioned above to be taken up at the next meeting proposed to be held at Pune University by this year-end.

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