The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- India needs an expanding base of generalized knowledge

India found itself in an ambiguous position when it became independent. As it shook off the yoke of being a colony, it took on the burden of being an underdeveloped country. Our development planners no doubt acted with the best of intentions in the early years of independence, for the country had indeed been mired in poverty and economic stagnation. But the sense of being backward and underdeveloped infected the climate of opinion, and made Indians feel depressed at home and embarrassed abroad.

The climate is now changing. There is no longer the gloom that comes from the sense of being backward and destined to remain backward. Growth rates are increasing, poverty is declining and literacy is picking up. While all of this is true, there is still widespread poverty, illiteracy and inequality of income. But no matter what the balance of changes in material conditions may be, the turnaround in social perceptions is unmistakable. The gloom created by the sense of being among the backward countries of the world is being lifted.

The world order is changing rapidly. China has already made its presence felt in it, and many believe that India too is beginning to do the same. China has, on the whole, presented a more uniform and a more self-confident image of itself. Its success in this regard has been due, at least partly, to the ability of its leadership to conceal the many disasters the country has experienced. The Indian intelligentsia has never spoken in a single voice in any matter of public importance. While the long-term advantage of this is undeniable, it has often had a demoralizing effect in the short run.

China's high morale and self-confidence is not without a basis in economic, political and social reality. It has shown a capacity for sustaining high rates of economic growth and it has secured a place among the great military powers of the world. For a country with its area and population, it is fairly homogeneous socially; above all, Chinese society is not kept on the boil by the kind of bitter conflicts that are generated by an excess of religious zeal.

Does India have any comparative advantage, any real basis in its society and culture to sustain the more positive image that the world is beginning to have of it' India does have a wealth of material resources, but its real advantage may lie elsewhere, in resources that are less tangible than coal, iron, oil or even cultivable land. The size and composition of India's population, whose runaway expansion had in the early years of independence become a nightmare, are beginning to be seen in a different light. With the regulation of its growth that now appears within sight, India's population will have in the decades to come an age composition that will be highly favourable to all-round growth since a very large share of it ' much larger than China's ' will be in the economically active group.

Industrialization, and its most influential intellectual offspring, the materialist interpretation of history, defined resources in a way that placed disproportionate emphasis on material at the expense of cultural and particularly intellectual capital. Appreciation of India's unutilized potential for development has come at a time when the concept of capital is itself being revised and extended. Today, intellectual capital is coming to be recognized as a crucial, not to say decisive, asset for national well-being.

India's potential for being a front-runner in the competition for economic advantage came to be recognized with its success worldwide in the field of information technology. Today many of the leading economic powers of the world, including China, want to learn from India about developments in that field. In the great wave of enthusiasm for information technology, it is easy to lose sight of the real basis of knowledge on which India's future progress and prosperity must depend.

India had developed a rich and impressive intellectual tradition before it entered the modern age. The two great limitations of that tradition were its overwhelming emphasis on formal disciplines such as mathematics, grammar and logic, and the socially exclusive, not to say closed, character of its intelligentsia. When the Indian intelligentsia became exposed to Western science and scholarship in the 19th century, their own intellectual life had lost much of its vigour and vitality. The historical encounter between two great intellectual traditions, one highly dynamic and the other largely stagnant is never a painless process. But there can be no doubt that in the end that encounter rejuvenated India's intellectual capital and prepared it to face the demands of the modern world.

The two great assets that Indians owe to their own intellectual tradition are facility with numbers and facility with words. A long line of Indian mathematicians from Aryabhatta to Bhaskaracharya were in their time the greatest in the world; and it is no accident that Panini, the greatest grammarian of pre-modern times, was an Indian. Many Indians, including persons without formal education, are at home in more than one language. Our competence in English gives us a great comparative advantage over most countries in the world, including Japan, China and Russia. Today, it is imperative for us to extend this advantage, instead of agonizing over our enslavement to a 'foreign' language.

India's success in information technology or in any specific field where ideas count cannot be sustained without a broad and expanding base of generalized knowledge. The social arrangements through which knowledge was cultivated and transmitted in the past were ill suited to the demands of modern science and scholarship, which cannot advance without open and secular institutions. The new colleges and universities that began to come up in India in the 19th century provided an institutional setting for the pursuit of learning of a kind that had never existed before. It is impossible to exaggerate the social as well as the intellectual significance of such institutions as Presidency College, Calcutta, Elphinstone College, Bombay, and St Stephen's College, Delhi.

At the time of independence, there were good undergraduate colleges providing a sound education in the arts and sciences, but they were few in number and confined mainly to the metropolitan centres. Since independence, the number of such colleges has increased vastly but the quality of undergraduate education has declined. The good ones among the older colleges have been overtaken by apathy and disorder, and no new ones of their standard seem to be coming up.

An alternative vision of education beyond school is now looming on the horizon. Here the idea is to establish more compact, more integrated and more specialized institutions that will bypass the existing institutions of undergraduate and postgraduate teaching. These new institutions will directly enrol good students from good private schools for which there is no lack of funds and train them over a span of five years or so into professionals in medicine, law, engineering, management, and information technology. This institutional alternative will gain ground unless the decline in the undergraduate colleges is arrested and reversed.

If we fail to build up a broad base of high-quality undergraduate education in the arts and sciences, our competitive advantage in intellectual capital will be lost ' slowly and imperceptibly at first, but irreversibly in the end.

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