NEW DELHI – Three years ago, as I walked through the densely populated slums of Mumbai toward my new teaching job at a low-income school, India’s extreme educational inequities were starkly on display. Muddy water flowed alongside ramshackle homes, and the stench of garbage was overpowering. When I reached the dilapidated school building, students were trickling in for the day in their tattered uniforms. My dim, musty classroom was cluttered with old cupboards and creaking benches, leaving little room for the students themselves.
Despite this being an English-language school, it quickly became apparent that few teachers – and even fewer students – could speak much English at all. Indeed, most of my fourth-grade students were unable to recognize alphabets or perform simple addition.
The appalling state of India’s education system – in which 31% of students do not make it past primary school, and a mere 9% complete secondary school – seriously undermines the country’s hopes of becoming a global superpower. Yet little progress has been made in equipping young people to drive India’s future growth.
Nearly 40% of India’s citizens, almost 500 million people, are aged 13-35 – the world’s largest youth population. According to the International Labor Organization, the Indian workforce is set to grow by more than eight million annually over the coming decade, largely owing to young people entering the labor market. By some estimates, almost 25% of the global workforce will be Indian by 2025. But, in order to harness this demographic dividend, they must be given the skills and opportunities to become productive citizens.
Despite the fractured nature of India’s coalition politics and the country’s arcane regulatory framework, successive governments have launched and expanded myriad programs to improve educational opportunities for children. The landmark Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan scheme, for example, operates a multi-billion-dollar annual budget for establishing new schools where they are needed, and provides students with free textbooks, uniforms, and a midday meal. Yet the results are dismal. In Mumbai, for example, enrollment rates surpass 95%, but only a small fraction of students graduate.
In a 2001 paper, the economists Geeta Gandhi Kingdon and Jeemol Unni found that India’s education-wage relationship is convex, meaning that economic returns from secondary education are higher than they are from primary education. But, without a strong foundation at the primary level, secondary-school students find it difficult to succeed, graduate, and reap the benefits.
As with most serious issues in India, the problem is not a lack of high-minded laws, but rather the failure to implement them effectively. Despite higher government spending on educational infrastructure, inadequate coordination and poor transport mean that a significant share of promised resources fails to reach schools in time for the start of the academic year (or, in some cases, at all).
The surge in enrollment caused by the midday-meal scheme has not been accompanied by an increase in the number of trained teachers, resulting in unmanageably large class sizes and low-quality instruction. And, although the government has raised teachers’ salaries to attract fresh talent, offering up to $6,000 annually, teachers still lack adequate support and remain unmotivated and largely unaccountable.
Moreover, school curricula, often hijacked by state governments to promote their ideological agendas, are largely inadequate for building skills. Nevertheless, they culminate in school-leaving exams that effectively decide the course of a child’s life. Even among the privileged, these scores are crucial to university and job applications. But, in making competitive excellence the ultimate barometer of success, India’s education system fails to nurture intellectual curiosity and creativity.
The neglect of mass education is rooted in India’s colonial history. British efforts to reform the education system – including Thomas Macaulay’s initiative to make English the language of instruction – and create a native administration benefited almost exclusively the upper middle classes, whose members already had access to basic education.
In the 1950’s, India’s first prime minister, the Cambridge-educated Jawaharlal Nehru, established several institutions of higher education, notably the Indian Institutes of Technology, to educate more scientists and engineers to compete during the Cold War. But this, too, principally benefited the middle classes. The difficult business of providing quality education to the impoverished masses was largely ignored – one of the greatest injustices that India has experienced in modern times.
As a result, India’s flourishing private sector and dazzling economic growth mean very little to most of its citizens. Economic gains accrue disproportionately to a privileged minority, while the majority lacks the basic tools – often even literacy – to benefit from the country’s progress.
Many economists cite China and South Korea as models of Asian developmental success. But their embrace of the free market was accompanied by expanded access to education and health care, making their growth more equitable. (The political conditions that facilitated these endeavors – whether China’s one-party system or Park Chung-hee’s two-decade-long de-facto dictatorship in South Korea – are another matter.)
Universal access to high-quality education allows all citizens to benefit from economic prosperity. Without it, lopsided growth is bound to exacerbate the huge cleavages in Indian society. Equitable progress is the only sustainable long-term solution to India’s entrenched problems – whether corruption, poverty, caste wars, or religious conflict.
For every Indian child deprived of access to education, or who receives low-quality instruction according to an ineffective curriculum, the country’s development is hindered. Failing to educate our children means wasting their talent and potential – to the detriment of all.