Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Literacy, and Learnings

Rupa Purshottam (currently with the Future Group, previously with Goldman Sachs) and Sir Martin Sorrell have made BRIC, with a high degree of stress on the I and the C, trendy. India is supposed to have a huge demographic advantage, to fully leverage its new-century-phase of high economic growth. And thanks to the one-child norm, the competitor China is aging super-fast, giving a naturally old Europe, Russia and Japan a close run. Only the US is getting along, possibly by shifting to high-end economic activities and attracting the best brains globally. As the film Babel showed, the more mundane tasks can always be taken care of by cheap Latino (usually illegal) imports.

I have always suspected our demographic advantage. Firstly, India is growing in services, which can never uplift the downtrodden agriculturists into manufacturing-created types prosperity. Secondly, the so called youth advantage is being totally wasted if they are only busy doing nothing. Ever wondered why the two states with so many young - UP & Bihar - have so many applicants to the low-paying inefficient Government jobs (compteeshan as it is called).

Right from my own days (which is less than a decade old), I have had comprehensive doubts about our education system. I was lucky enough to have had premier education in a top school, but most of my learnings - social interaction skills, sports, swimming - has really happened after passing out. I went to a good college where I paid a annual fee which is equal to the cover-charge of most pubs these days. More importantly, in college, I got my training on the grihastha stage of life (managing a household), and an idea on what sort of people I want to have as friends.

After that, my mother was economically sound (and personally kind) enough to send me for my MBA, where I possibly started developing my current fantasies for writing (you know whom to blame now). I also learnt to present & communicate (just imagine how bad it might have been), and stood in an election ( to compensate in a miniscule manner for the lasting regret of never getting involved in college politics).

India currently languishes in the global literacy charts, and mind you a literate can simply sign his name. Wonder what will happen if we start studying education patterns. My problem is with the kind of education system we have. I recently interacted with some students trying to build their career, and I realised two things: a) my alma mater has totally lost focus in the sort of applicants they get, b) there is a plethora of engineers in the country, who get into careers on reasons even more unsound than my fantasies.

Amartya Sen is a humane economist, because he stresses a lot on Socio-Economic indicators. At a fundamental level, I agree, that one needs an education, simply to live. As I often hypothesise, Gavaskar managed his retirement much better than Kapil Dev possibly because his education gave him a better perspective on the larger picture. Also, any surprises that the two wonderful cricketing performers, who have managed their and their peers' interest the best, Srinath and Kumble, are both engineers.

However, an education system unrooted in real-life (at elementary levels), and with no academia-industry interaction (at advanced levels), has no hope in hell in turning out 21st century products. India is facing a severe talent crunch, with Mr. Manmohan Singh to take note, spiraling executive pays as companies want to retain good performers. We have an army of graduates and post-graduates ill-equipped for most jobs, and an army of illiterates with no hope of getting any. When it comes to professional interactions, I prefer people who have worked more, rather than studied more.

The esteemed Court has asked all public schools in Delhi, built upon subsidised land, to compulsorily take 15% poor students (including wards of their staffs). A very noble objective on paper, but in reality, with our inherent class and racial prejudices, it lays open a very impressionable mind subject to lasting peer-abuse, only because of his karmic economic background. Can you imagine the pressure when each kid in the class is expected to celebrate his birthday at McDonald's? Or just check up with all the reserved-quotas guy who have landed up in IITs, and whose tribe Arjun Singh wants to increase.

Shashi Tharoor really believes in the Indian affirmative action (reservations), and as he has seen more of the world and life than me, I am ready to grant it to him. Yet, I am not sure the economically-disadvantaged kids deserve to be ostracised so. I might be totally off-the-mark, and I really hope so. But somehow, with all due respect, whenever the judiciary gets in to the executive space, they do come up with strange solutions, like banning street food, or child labour, pushing a thriving functional populace in to uncertainty.

To my mind, schools running afternoon/evening classes, for a relatively similar strata of society, is a much smarter idea. On the face of it, it sounds another prejudiced opinion from a well-off, but I actually think it might create a more competent educated class. After all, Vinod Kambli (from powercentre Bombay) could never realise his talent. Harbhajan, Sehwag, Dhoni, from their relatively unglamorous places, seem to be doing much better.

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