Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Wealth : August 27, 2000
Squandering human wealth
The author is an American-born sociologist who lives in India.
A rich country with poor people, was the traditional way of characterising India referring to its vast natural resources, mountains, forests, mineral wealth, flourishing paddy fields, a land where even the dust is golden in the ancient metaphor. But the information age renders such a characterisation fallacious: a country's wealth lies in its people, particularly in the development of their mental capacities. Human resources is the keyword today. Human Resource Development, the department that includes education, has become one of the most important and controversial in the government.
Unfortunately, in terms of human resource development, India remains doubly poor. Though there is now much concern about environmental degradation, there is less awareness of the more massive squandering of human wealth that has resulted from a distorted development and an inadequate, top-down, bureaucratic and rote-oriented educational system. A tiny minority of Indians are brilliant performers, articulate, well educated, aware; a larger minority, maybe 20 to 25 per cent, has achieved sufficient education to allow them to cope minimally with the modern world. But the majority of the country's people have been left with no education or with the standardised, rote-based learning of a few years of inadequate schooling. When there are no schools, or schools with inadequate facilities and indifferent teachers, making little pretense to cover a syllabus that seems to bore them as much as the students, speaking in a style of language not very comprehensible or meaningful to those they teach, the right to education means little. The scathing language with which 19th century social radicals like Jotiba Phule characterised the way in which elite control and concerns left ignorant Sudras and ignorant Ati-Sudras helpless to deal with the bureaucratic, judicial and economic institutions that affected their lives continues to have unhappy relevance today.
This socially-based, systematic ignorance has meant the squandering of the human wealth of the children of most farmers, agricultural labourers, herders, fish workers, migrant labourers, the majority especially of Adivasis and Dalits but many also of other formerly low castes. India's human wealth also is squandered through emigration. In the 19th century nationalist economists castigated the drain of wealth, the extraction of capital through unequal trade and sheer looting to England and other European countries. Today it is the brain drain that preoccupies people. While the low-caste majority seems caught in a web of ignorance and inadequate education that condemns them to a life of manual labour, too many of the brilliantly educated high caste seem caught in the fishing-nets of western enterprise, pulled overseas to find their livelihood in America and Europe. The smartest seem to be migrating, scientists, technicians, engineers, computer programmers, economists, writers. Born and brought up and at least partially educated in India, they have gone abroad to make their fortunes, win their awards, file their patents, write their books, found their companies.
The brain drain does not happen simply because other countries offer more money. Living there is certainly easier; the air is healthier (especially after the last decades of environmental awareness), streets are cleaner, houses are bigger and better furnished, schools are better. But governmental regulations are also rather easier to deal with (and government employees are certainly more polite) and, most important, work itself is often much more rewarding. To take my own field, in the academic world, which Indian university really offers facilities for research and rewards in teaching? When the entire education bureaucracy makes college teachers simply into coaches training their students to pass examinations set by others, the scope for innovation and for keeping up with the most recent advances in any field is limited. Lack of financial resources to maintain the most modern libraries and laboratories is definitely a factor, but India is not really a poor country, the greatest failing is institutional.
Indians who go abroad are not unpatriotic, and many would indeed return to their native land if they had the incentives for creative work and development that they find elsewhere. Some are already returning, with ideas and energy; for that matter a poor country that is on the path to something new, a society on the move, can be a pole of attraction. Already something of this is beginning to happen in India but with painful slowness; more needs to be done, particularly in creating an effective social institutional framework and remodelling those that already exist.
There is one final area in which India's human wealth is shamefully squandered. Human beings are after all minds within bodies, and in some ways it is the physical side of human development that seems most neglected.
India's truly shameful performance in international sports reflects a failure to take seriously physical education as a necessary aspect of education from the ground level upwards. Today children go to school happily in their uniforms, hefting their book bags, and sit seriously studying for their exams or memorising their speeches for school contests. But look at play and all that can be seen are little boys standing in lanes swinging their cricket bats rather anaemically. Even the traditional sports like wrestling, kabaddi, khokho and others have fallen into neglect.
In countries like the U.S., high school and college sports produces school heroes, community and city team competition awakens local patriotism, and now even girls teams are getting into the act. The former socialist countries took the development of the new socialist man (and woman) seriously enough to emphasise athletics as a part of human development. But in India students seem to get their pictures in the newspapers only for high scores in examination, and sports competitions apparently exist only at the national level, with test matches, or for a few young adults, between companies; India seems to have no really important government policy on sports for the young or for the masses of people. Here as elsewhere the secular socialist republic seems to have fallen into a no-man's-land between the individual competitiveness that has produced sports heroes in the West and the socialist discipline that has consistently turned out world winners in the East.
The land of golden dust is in danger of leaving the majority of its children in the dust as it enters the new millennium. Ending this squandering of its human wealth, both mental and physical, is one of the most urgent tasks for today.
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