Book Review: Manisha Priyam, Contested Politics of Educational Reform in India

Published date01 December 2018
AuthorRadhika Menon
Date01 December 2018
Subject MatterBook Reviews
314 Book Reviews
Dalit movements everywhere have contributed significantly to nation-building during the national
movement and to democratic politics in post-Independence India. However, there is considerable
divergence in their trajectory, strength and ability to fight oppression and their participation in
democratic politics in various regions. The three volumes under review point to this divergence and
make a valuable contribution to understanding the trajectory of regional histories of the Dalit movement
in the subcontinent.
Sudha Pai
Former Professor, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University;
Former National Fellow, Indian Council of Social Science Research, New Delhi
Manisha Priyam, Contested Politics of Educational Reform in India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
2015. 320 pages. `895.
DOI: 10.1177/2321023018797777
The skewed expansion of modern education in India, the high levels of regional disparities, inequitable
social opportunities and issues of questionable quality have posed considerable challenges to Indian
democracy. Since Independence, there have been several attempts at reforms, offering policy prescriptions
and practices to various levels of education. However from the 1990s, educational reform has implied an
entire sectoral shift triggered by the federal government's adoption of the new economic policy. These
structural adjustments included substantial reduction the government's role and federal expenditure with
serious repercussions on the social sector budget. To spare the shock of the shifts, the educational sector
received external aid to augment domestic funds in primary education. The reforms have subsequently
included reprioritization towards the base of education, adopting the terminologies of human resource
development, reducing fiscal expenditure and emphasizing cost efficiency criteria during educational
Several commentators and researchers of education have written about different aspects of the agenda,
processes and implications of the reforms. However literature based on empirical findings are scant,
making Manisha Priyam’s book, focussing on primary schooling, a needed addition to the literature. And
that is not the only way in which the monograph is unique.
Focussing on the period 1994–2012, when the author led and conducted most of the field work,
it presents an almost real-time documentation of the processes of primary school reform, based on the
field as it was changing. Yet the book overcomes the risks of non-generalizable descriptions by locating
them within the larger developments in the period and opting for a methodology that enables mid-level
generalization. The chapters link easily and provide the context and location for the everyday life of
primary school management and education of the poor.
Priyam probes if politics had a role in better implementation of the reforms. She moves away from the
technical outlook of the formal political-economic approach which has posed ‘politics as an impediment’
in implementation (p. 6). Instead, she focusses on questions about the agenda, range of actors, their
agency and the institutional arrangements of reforms. The gaze is both on the micro politics of schools and
communities—the local level opportunities, actors and contestations, as well as on the provincial politics.
Priyam argues that the differences in the educational outcomes of the states are because of the differences
in political initiatives and alignment of opportunities at the local level. This is empirically explained
through a comparative institutional perspective on Bihar and Andhra Pradesh, which started out at a similar

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