Top 12 Challenges Facing India in the Decades Ahead – 07 – Education and Opportunity

If you remember our last post on poverty, you will note that we said that when India is compared to the 16 countries outside of sub-saharan Africa that are poorer than it, it doesn’t do well in any social indicator, with social indicators for Education being one of those indicators. In particular, it’s literacy rate among Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Cambodia, Haiti, Krygyzstan, Laos, Moldova, Nepal, Pakistan, Papua, New Guinea, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and Yemen ranks 9th for Males and 11th for Females (at 82.1% and 65.5%)! Not good. In comparison, the literacy rates in China (at 97.5% and 92.7%), Brazil (at 90.1% and 90.7%), and Russia (at 99.7% and 99.5%) are much higher in comparison, as are the literacy rates of most of its Asian neighbours.

But it’s educational challenges are not just limited to its literacy rate. The challenges also stem to the perception of the importance of education, especially at an early age, as a whole. In their newly published book, An Uncertain Glory, Dreze and Sen do a great job of outlining some of the significant challenges facing India in terms of education and literacy, challenges which start with the first five year plan created by the newly independent India back in 1951.

The first five year plan in 1951, even though sympathetic to the need for University education which it strongly supported, argued against regular schooling at the elementary level, favouring instead a so-called ‘basic education’ system, built on the hugely romantic and rather eccentric idea that children should lean through self-financing handcraft. It went on to say that ‘the tendency to open new primary schools should not be encouraged and, as far as possible, resources should be concentrated on basic education and the improvement and remodelling of existing primary schools on basic lines’. Other than an outright banning of education for the lower castes and Dalit, SI does not think one would find a better prescription for a return to the middle ages. (And what makes this especially sad is that India, in the 4th Century AD, more than 600 years before the first European University was founded in Bologna, had one of the first big Universities at Nalanda. This University, run by a Buddhist foundation and supported by Hindu kings, drew students from all over Asia, and, at its peak in the seventh century had over 10,000 students in its dormitories.)

But it’s not just the outlook on education that’s the problem, it’s the delivery. In a nation-wide school survey conducted by the PROBE (Public Report On Basic Education) team in 2006, only two thirds of the students were present on the day of the survey (according to the school registrars) and even fewer according to the field investigators’ direct observations. In addition, there was considerable absenteeism of teachers as well, in addition to widespread late arrival and early departure problems. Given that 12% of schools had only 1 appointed teacher at the time of the survey, any teacher absenteeism at all is a huge problem. Furthermore, on the day of the survey, 21% of the schools were operating as single teacher schools and, to make matters worse, half of the schools had no teaching activity at all at the time of the investigators’ unannounced visit! (Why? Due to the relatively high salaries accorded to appointed teachers, there is a reluctance to make appointments. In addition, appointed teachers typically have the equivalent of tenure and there is little oversight.)

Officially, there are supposed to be about 200 school days per year. But with a teacher absenteeism rate that was found to be about 20%, a pupil absenteeism rate of about 33%, the chance of both a pupil and a teacher being present on the same day is about 50%. Then there is the chronic problem of a lack of teaching activity and the fact that a given student only gets taught about half the time the student and teacher are both present on a teaching day. The net result is that the average student gets about 50 teaching days per year, or one fourth of what the student would get in a well-functioning school system!

For a considerable portion of the population, the words of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore (1913, Literature), spoken in an interview with Izvestia in 1930, still ring true. In my view the imposing tower of misery which today rests on the heart of India has its sole foundation in the absence of education. Because, as Dreze and Sen point out in their work, in a society, particularly in the modern world, where so much depends on the written medium, being illiterate is like being imprisoned, and school education opens a door through with people can escape incarceration.

This lack of education is a big contributor to the Unemployment problem in India. (After all, how can you even apply for any meaningful work in our modern economy if you can’t even read and write?) While the official unemployment rate is 9.9% (as per a press release from the Labour Bureau of the Government of India), the problem is much, much worse than that. (How can it not be when over two thirds of your population has to survive on less than $2 US dollars a day?) Consider the recent example of SBI, the nation’s biggest bank, who in April of last year decided they wanted to recruit 1,500 employees and received over 1,700,000 applications?

While the Indian economy did create approximately 60 Million jobs between 2000 and 2005, during the forefront of the outsourcing craze, it did not create more than 2.8 Million between 2005 and 2010 (as per the Institute of Applied Manpower [IAM]). And while the loss of jobs in the agricultural sector was absorbed in the construction sector, the IAM estimates that 5 Million construction jobs were lost between 2005 and 2010. In addition, 93% of the Indian workforce is interim or informal and receive no health insurance, retirement pension, or basic benefits. As a result, the real unemployment statistic is estimated by experts (Source: WorldCrunch) to be around 20% and doesn’t include the interim or informal workers, especially in rural areas or employed in season sectors, who are underemployed.

And the problem is likely to get even worse. The population in India is still increasing, and in order to maintain the current levels of employment, India needs to add about one million jobs a month, but only managed to add about 50,000 a month between 2005 and 2010, one twentieth of the required number! An educated population could at least try to seek work elsewhere, or, like the services sector, compete to bring more work in. An uneducated population, on the other hand … well, ask South Sudan, Afghanistan, or Niger how an utter lack of literacy is working out for them! (Or even Belize, Bangladesh, or Syria — with slightly higher literacy rates, but still quite low with respect to the developed world.)