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- Elementary education is in a shambles in this country

The much lauded book, An Uncertain Glory, by Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen carries an easily missed subtitle, India and Its Contradictions. Somewhat in the spirit of a game of chess, where the Queen is the true source of power and the King has titular significance at best, An Uncertain Glory is a nebulous title (chosen from a minor Shakespeare play) that relegates to its subtitle the responsibility of summarizing the fundamental objective of the book for the lay public.

It is not as though the sharp contradictions that characterize the social, economic and other spheres of the country were totally unknown. However, the Drèze-Sen exercise lends well-researched credence to the experiences many Indians lament over, as they travel to work in overcrowded suburban trains or relieve themselves in unrelieved gloom at public facilities. Moreover, it is Chapter 5 of the book, The Centrality of Education, that truly excels in identifying education as the key to the liberation of our society from the clutches of a contradiction — an enormous contradiction, in fact — that precludes the majority of the 120-crore-plus Indians from reading a single printed word in the book.

The chapter in question presents in detail the shambles in which India has landed vis-à-vis elementary education. To quote, “About 20 per cent of Indian children between the ages of 6 and 14 years were not attending school even in 2005-06, and about 10 per cent of children of that age group had never been enrolled in any school at all. The neglect is particularly strong for Indian girls, nearly half of whom were out of school in large parts of the same year.” Against this background, a cruel joke stares us in the face when we boast about our nuclear capabilities or launch a Mars-bound spacecraft.

There are no less than nine reasons that Drèze and Sen offer to underline the importance of basic education. First, the ability to read, write and count wins for a person the freedom “to communicate with others”. Second, it improves economic opportunities. Third, it adds to political consciousness in a democratic society. Fourth, schooling opens up the mind to public health issues. Fifth and sixth, education broadens perceptions regarding human as well as legal rights. Seventh, education is directly linked to women’s empowerment. Eighth, it narrows down inequalities related to class and caste. And finally, ninth, the act of studying is itself an enormous source of pleasure.

The authors refer to the Meiji restoration of Japan in 1868 as a case in point. The fundamental Code of Education (1872) ensured that there would be “no community with an illiterate family, nor a family with an illiterate person.” Around 43 per cent of the budget of towns and villages was allocated to education during 1906-1911. Japan, by 1910, was “almost fully literate” and “by 1913, though still very much poorer than Britain or America... was publishing more books than Britain and more than twice as many as the United States.”

The phenomenal economic success of a war-ravaged Japan, though helped by foreign financial inflows, was doubtlessly supported by the quality of its educated labour force. The modern theory of economic growth too — in particular, the variants proposed by Hirofumi Uzawa in 1965 and pushed further by Robert Lucas and Paul Romer in the late 1980s — has accorded special status to skilled labour or what economic jargon commonly refers to as human capital. There are two ways, at least, in which human capital boosts the potential for economic development.

First, an educated worker is more efficient, compared to his uneducated counterpart, in the production of commodities. Second, education, especially higher education, opens up avenues for research on production technologies. Both affect the growth prospects of an economy, though the first is probably more intimately linked to the idea of universal education than the second.

Universal education is a concept that should target elementary and secondary school education and, if possible, high school as well. Referring back to Japan, China and the other Asian giants, or even the US, the majority of the labour force is educated but not highly so. A relatively minor section of the population is exposed to post-graduate university education. However, the universal nature of the sort of education that identifies the majority of the population lends an unmistakable shine to productive activities. Further, as Lucas observes, an educated population improves the quality of life in general. It is easier, for example, for educated neighbours to set examples of environmentally friendly behaviour for the benefit of one another, than it is for an educated minority for an unlettered majority. This is an important factor that needs to be borne in mind by the Indian states that are crying themselves hoarse in their efforts to attract financial capital to initiate rapid industrial growth.

Financial capital can help purchase machines or physical capital, or even perhaps build up infrastructure. However, the performance of the manufacturing sector will fall short of expectations unless human capital grows hand in hand with physical capital. In fact, the reasons underlying the state of Gujarat’s outstanding success on the growth front (10 per cent a year, which has been consistently higher than India’s growth rate and comparable to that of China) cannot lie in the ability of the state in successfully inviting financial capital alone. It must have either produced its indigenous variety of a skilled work force or succeeded in attracting, along with financial capital, trained labour from elsewhere too.

It would appear that post-Independence India laid more stress on higher, than on primary or secondary, education. From its very inception, therefore, the Indian education policy had a bias built into it. While our IITs, IIMs, ISIs, IIScs and TIFRs have succeeded in receiving well-deserved international recognition, we failed miserably in producing primary school teachers for children living in villages or urban slums. The result has been a gaping divide between the haves and the have-nots. Imported cars belonging to a handful of the increasingly affluent middle-class intelligentsia are clogging up our inadequate roadways even as 90 per cent of the labour force (which includes child labour as well) languishes in the so-called unorganized sector in malign neglect. Of course, the government is trying belatedly to make amends by subsidizing the left-outs in our quest for growth, but it is inflating its budget deficit in the process and inviting pompous sermons from world bodies.

One wonders how we managed to end up in this dismal state. After all, education is an elementary production process for which the primary input is an individual without knowledge and the output is the same individual armed with knowledge. The power of the process lies in the fact that a doubling of the number exposed to the same body of knowledge, say the alphabets, exactly doubles the number of literate children. As opposed to this, a doubling of workers farming a plot of land usually less than doubles the farm output. The law applies to primary education as well as higher education, except that the latter involves greater expenditure on the tools of education. On the other hand, as Drèze and Sen point out, the spread of basic education improves the quality of inputs into higher education. India, however, followed a lopsided education policy by laying stress on higher education before the country was prepared with the minimal infrastructure — namely, mass-scale literacy.

Karl Marx had discovered the genesis of profits in the extraction of surplus value from workers by alienating them from their means of production. The result, during Marx’s time, was a severe inequality of income distribution. Independent India, despite its socialist rhetoric, ended up somewhat dramatically in a similar situation, by alienating workers from the most essential part of their means of production — otherwise known as basic education.