Mauritius-born Armoogum Parsuramen has been a career educationist. Even as a minister in his country, his focus, among other things, remained education. Later on, he carried his expertise to the World Bank with which he was an education policy advisor, and then to UNESCO, which he joined in 1998. Now posted as UNESCO representative to India, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka and director of UNESCO’s Delhi office, Parsuramen spoke with Deccan Herald’s Utpal Borpujari on the UN body’s activities in the region. Excerpts from an interview:
What are the major areas of work that you are looking at as head of UNESCO in the region? What are the areas of concern when you look at India?
Broadly, UNESCO’s mission is to contribute to the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education, science, culture and communication and information. This biennium, some of the key areas, specific to India that my office will focus on are access to schooling and learning opportunities; teacher training, including the use of ICTs to introduce new ways of teaching and learning; popularisation of science; leveraging scientific knowledge for the benefit of the environment and the management of natural resources. I would like to make a special mention of the recently passed Right to Education Act as one of the key concerns of UNESCO on education which requires partnership with the government of India at a significant level.
How is UNESCO using ICT in education?
UNESCO and other international organisations have designed and implemented programmes to integrate ICT into education to bridge the digital divide, enhance teaching and learning practices and ultimately to transform education in the 21st century. We are currently working with some Indian states in promoting the use of and the development of open-source software for teacher training and teaching purposes. We have seen a very good practice in Kerala, which is the initiator of the largest simultaneous deployment of open source software-based ICT education, and where ICT is thus becoming deeply embedded in the education system. Gujarat has also approached UNESCO to partner in their initiative to equip schools with open-source software. We are planning to share this kind of successful experience with the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Bhutan and support these countries in developing or strengthening their ICT policies in education. We are also collaborating with INTEL on the finalisation of a friendly tool kit for the development of ICT in education policies.
How would UNESCO like to associate itself with the recently-passed Right to Education Act?
For UNESCO, the Act is India’s official recognition and declaration of education as a fundamental human right. Giving millions of children in India the right to quality education is only the first step, but an essential one. The notification of this Act comes at a time when about eight million Indian children still remain out of school in spite of a significant increase in school enrollment over the past decade as per the UNESCO Global Monitoring Report 2010. UNESCO New Delhi’s activities in partnership with UN in this regard will include contributing to the processes of Teacher development in collaboration with the Ministry of Human Resource Development and state governments. UNESCO also intends to implement an advocacy campaign with parliamentarians, legislators and the larger civil society. We would also collaborate with like minded organisations to bring in the experiences from other member countries as well from within India to build state capacities to respond to the challenges put forth by the right to free and compulsory education for all children.
How do you see the link between culture and development evolving in India?
We are mainly working towards mainstreaming cultural concerns into the general development agenda, looking for example at the conservation and sustainable use of historic urban areas, the livelihood aspects of traditional crafts people, or the promotion of traditional knowledge engrained in old buildings for disaster management, mainly earthquake safety. In India this has translated into a programme called the Indian Heritage Cities Network, which is a platform for sharing experience and knowledge and building the capacity of urban local bodies in dealing with their historic monuments and housing stock. Another example is the training of guides in World Heritage Areas, to give the local population a site of identity and an income related to the protected area in which they live. In addition, the Cultural Atlas of India is a project in collaboration with National Informatics Centre to develop a web-based inventory of cultural resources enabling anyone to access and contribute data and pictures using the standard format developed by a group of experts in the area of performing arts, festivals, rituals, crafts, heritage places and museums.
Is UNESCO planning any new approach to create more sensitivity among Indians regarding their heritage?
This is precisely what UNESCO is doing and this is why we are expanding our interaction with government departments beyond Ministry of Culture or ASI who are our classical counterparts. Heritage does not constitute an independent sphere but is very much part of our daily life. So its protection requires sensitiveness and collaboration of various government departments and the public in general. We are currently in active consultation with the Ministry of Urban Development to mainstream the notion and practice of heritage-sensitive urban development. Unplanned growth of tourism is detrimental to the conservation and integral beauty of heritage sites. To address this concern, UNESCO New Delhi initiated a series of pilot projects under the name of Indian Heritage Passport programme to promote the concept of a regional level heritage tourism planning. Disaster Management of heritage sites are another major area of concerns, and UNESCO is working in close consultation with the National Disaster Management Authority which is in the process of developing a guideline for protection of built cultural heritage against disaster.