NEW DELHI // A spate of recent controversies regarding the contents of school textbooks is prompting concern that they are misleading, not written or updated well enough and out of step with modern sensibilities.
Last week, a sixth-grade textbook was found to be advising students that eating meat "causes you to easily cheat, tell lies, forget promises, be dishonest, steal and commit sex crimes."
Four days ago, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu complained that a ninth-grade textbook made "objectionable" references to one of the state's communities, the Nadars of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, referring to them as a lower caste.
This past summer, several parliamentarians protested the inclusion of a 1949 cartoon in a civics textbook, which showed the then-prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru whipping BR Ambedkar, a lower-caste Dalit who was in charge of drafting the Indian constitution.
The tone-deaf, often retrograde discussion of subjects in these textbooks is, experts say, a result of a messy textbook industry and a lack of expert authorship.
According to at least one financial firm and an Indian publisher, textbooks are the most neglected but also the most profitable part of the publishing industry.
Last year, an analyst's report from Networth Capital, a Mumbai-based financial advisory firm, estimated that the Indian market for textbooks is expected to be worth $1.2 billion (Dh10b) by 2015, and the market for supplementary educational books worth another $510 million.
"The publications segment is one of the most promising sectors since [the] government has notified a mandatory syllabus change every five years," the report said.
"Yet," said S Anand, a New Delhi-based publisher of books on caste and minority issues, "there's still very little serious thinking going on about what goes into making a textbook."
Schools governed by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) are typically free to assign textbooks that are written either by a government-run body or by private firms that write to fit the CBSE syllabus. It is crafted by teachers and education officials within CBSE, while government textbooks are written and reviewed by subject experts. But the thousands of textbooks printed by private firms are assessed only to see if they hit the key points of the syllabus.
The government-run textbook body, the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), quite distinct from the CBSE, is tasked with providing cheap textbooks that are cleared by subject-specific committees.
"These committees are usually just 'five wise men,' although I think they're getting wiser," Mr. Anand said. "There is now more modernity of thought in NCERT textbooks than when I was in school [in the 1980s]. But they're still full of flaws. Some of the people on these committees have never taught in a classroom. You have to depend on the random person here and there to do some good."
he situation becomes even more fragmented with schools that exercise their option of following a syllabus set down by their state, rather than the central government's CBSE.
"There's no proper thought or cohesion," Mr Anand said. "Even spelling mistakes - nobody seems concerned that the word 'apartheid' is spelt incorrectly in thousands of copies."
"For these publishers, it's mostly about making a killing," he said. "So they don't want to pay well-known authors to do a good job. They'll cut corners by getting some pseudo-experts. There's no gender sensitivity, no caste sensitivity. They resort to stereotypes."
Private publishers dominate between 60 and 70 per cent of the textbook market in this manner, according to figures from government agencies.
"Mostly, schools tend to go to private publishers, because there's the opportunity to make money on the side," said K Satyanarayan, a Chennai-based publisher who tracks and blogs about education policy. "They'll get a substantial discount from the supplier and then sell the books at cost to the children."
Although errors often creep into science textbooks, Mr Anand noted, the bulk of the problems lie in social-science texts.
"Then it starts to vary from state to state," Mr Satyanarayan said. "In Tamil Nadu recently, the state government decided that schools could only use the textbooks it wrote and published. Now a high court has ruled that the state government cannot force schools to use its texts. It can only set down a syllabus."
The chaos of such a marketplace, he pointed out, created "an incentive to do sloppy writing and research. There's a pressure to go to print, because you have to sell your books by a certain time. If you're too late, you have to wait for the next academic year."