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Best path to prosperity is to take ownership

Prabhudev Konana

We need to ask some tough questions for answers to create freedom from poverty. Leaving the responsibility to the government alone will be the biggest mistake.

Recently the American business news television channel, CNBC, telecast a 30-minute show titled “India Rising: The New Empire.” It was a well-balanced programme highlighting the promise and perils. In response to a question on the greatest danger that can derail economic growth, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram suggested the relentless inflation in oil and commodity prices. Adi Godrej, billionaire businessman, in reply lamented access to talent as the greatest ch allenge for India’s growth and said “if every Indian can be educated, the sky is the limit.”

I am glad Mr. Godrej raised education to be the most important issue. Education is about freedom — removing the shackles to poverty and making children dream big. Yet we are far from realising that profound freedom even after 61 years of Independence. In contrast, South Korea, a country that was decimated during the 1950s, reached near 100 per cent primary education enrolment in less than two decades. India is at the inflection point of prosperity and there is no better time to re-emphasise education, a fundamental right bestowed by the Indian Constitution on all children.

We repeatedly hear that India’s strength — particularly over China — is its young population and growing young labour pool. According to the International Labour Organisation, by 2020 India will have a labour pool of 116 million between the ages of 20 and 24. This population is now between 8 and 12 years old. There are currently 370 million Indians under the age of 15 who will be joining the workforce soon and an equal number will be added to the population in the next several decades.

The question we fail to ask is what fraction of this population will have the right skills and literacy to meet the demands of 2020 and beyond. We need large numbers with the right skill set. Nasscom, McKinsey Consulting, and many IT business leaders suggest that less than 25 per cent of the talent has skills to meet global needs. This is a severe departure from earlier claims that India’s strength was the large number of English-speaking graduates.

Until the 1990s, there were more students seeking professional degrees than available seats. However, things are changing. If we keep admission standards constant across years, there are more seats than available students. The number of students from traditional feeder schools to professional schools is probably growing marginally. If India needs to increase supply, it must focus on smaller towns and villages where a significant fraction of the future workforce resides. Unfortunately, primary education is seriously underserved in these areas. India needs to invest heavily in educating this segment of the population to meet future demands.

However, those who work closely in rural primary schools and urban government schools lament the deteriorating conditions. Exceptions and rare successes are hyped up. Band-aid is treated as progress. Programmes and initiatives are glorified as success. Money allocated is treated as results. While some progress has been made, the ground realities in government primary schools are far from an acceptable standard.

The Central and State governments have instituted numerous programmes to improve primary education, including mid-day meal schemes and greater accountability. Obviously time needs to be given for the changes to take effect. During this time, an entire generation will be lost. There are a number of issues to worry about. Do children have reading and writing competence consistent with their grade level? Are there qualified teachers? Are opportunities available for interested students to pursue further studies? Do parents recognise the importance of education?

There are lots of surprises many of us are oblivious to. Good initiatives often end up creating new challenges while band-aid is applied to real problems. A significant number of government primary schools in Karnataka, for example, are severely understaffed. There are one or two teachers in many primary schools to teach five different grades. Rather than hiring more teachers, the government trains teachers on how to teach multiple grades at the same time! This band-aid should raise concerns on the pedagogical goals. Children are given one or two notebooks to write into but often treat this as a limited resource to be preserved carefully. So they avoid writing much!

Teachers are overburdened with time-consuming governmental processes and burdensome accountability. Take for instance the mid-day meal scheme instituted in Karnataka. The best classroom is often removed from teaching purposes to storing grains. Severely understaffed schools are now expected to account for the distribution of food, which squarely falls on teachers.

There are other problems on the horizon as States mandate local language policies on all children, like the policy being considered in Karnataka. For the creation of jobs, the State government is aggressively courting national and multi-national IT and biotechnology firms who typically hire the best from around the nation or even the world. These jobs require greater levels of English skills. However, looming educational policies contradict the industrial policies and ground realities. Clearly the chaos and confusion will have an impact on momentum and even force firms to move to safer havens to avoid government mandates.

We need change beyond the usual rhetoric. But who must take ownership of making this happen? Can we entrust the nation’s future to the government alone? Can the government even have the resources to make sustained changes? Will government employees entrusted by the public deliver the results? Experience so far suggests the answer is a resounding ‘no.’ Any changes will be incremental and a long drawn-out process. So what can be done?

Need for national movement

On India’s 61st year of independence, we need to ask some tough questions and search our souls for the answers to create freedom from poverty. Leaving the responsibility to the government alone will be the biggest mistake. The power lies in us to bring change. Elite India, including Mr. Godrej, must take ownership to bring change.

There is an urgent need for greater cooperation and involvement of businesses, communities, local governments, and individuals to focus on primary education. There are thousands of NGOs deeply committed to improving opportunities and impart valuable skills. What they need are resources and expertise. Individuals and NGOs can take smaller ownership of the larger problem to divide and conquer. Individuals and businesses can contribute money, time, expertise, or some combination of these to bring this change. Not everyone has time to go to a government school, but one can partner with NGOs who are in the field. One can help pay for a temporary teacher to make an immediate impact. Governmental bureaucracy often takes a year to hire a new teacher while an entire class sits idle.

The founders of Infosys, Wipro, Satyam, and others, and numerous multinational corporations are heavily involved in educating children and actively working with government schools. But we need greater involvement from even more entities, given the massive task at hand. Ownership to entice, engage, and enlighten teachers, students, and parents may create excellence far more than one can envision.

The time is opportune for leaders to invigorate passion to take ownership. The sitting MLA of Puducherry, “Bussy” Anand, exemplified this responsibility when he reportedly continued to remove garbage from clogged drains and spray mosquito repellent even after he was elected to the Assembly. He was indeed more powerful than the local government that watches clogged drains and potholes for mosquitoes to breed.

Taking ownership is not charity or donation, but an investment for the future. This is not being idealistic. The same Indian society turned up in millions to protest, burned imported cloth, and gave up valuable belongings to fight the British occupation. People took bullets in their chest.

The change is happening. There is optimism in the midst of pessimism. At the heart of this change is an uncorrupted younger generation that is challenging the poverty status quo and established societal norms of untouchability and discrimination. I have interacted or followed numerous organisations — many of them founded by students — in the U.S. including the Association for India Development (aidindia.org), Asha ( www.ashanet.org), Lend-a-Hand ( www.lend-a-hand-india.org), Vibha (wiki.vibha.org), and Pratham ( www.pratham.org) and their deep commitment to bring change in India. Likewise, there are numerous organisations in India spearheading this effort. It is time to get involved in greater numbers.

Inspired by these, several of us in Austin started a U.S. tax-exempt organisation called Pragathi ( www.pragathinet.org) to contribute to the larger effort in a small way. Pragathi is working with a number of NGOs in Karnataka, including Rotary Clubs, Sikshana ( www.sikshana.org), and Odanadi ( www.odanadi.org) to provide resources and assist in hiring temporary teachers and training. The Chief Operating Officer of Sikshana, Prasanna Raghavendra, folded his thriving business in Austin, and moved permanently to India to work with schools. Sikshana does a remarkable job in training school teachers, involving the community with their children’s education, motivating children to do better, and improving the learning environment. They have replicated their model in hundreds of government primary schools.

There is scepticism about resource misuse. But we cannot use this excuse to not participate at all. There are dedicated people and passionate teachers to help make universal educational a reality.

India can be proud it has some of the wealthiest people on earth and possibly the most expensive home. But India can be even more proud if every child has freedom from poverty. Let the billionaires and concerned citizens take ownership and spearhead a revolution. I am sure the sky will be the limit. This is an invisible culture that will shape a nation.

(The author is a Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Texas at Austin and can be contacted at pkonana@mail.utexas.edu)

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