excerpt from: Imagining India – Ideas For The New Century by Nandan Nilekani

BY THE TIME I meet the economist Dr. Jeffery Sachs in Delhi, he has been in India for a few weeks, and is somewhat sunburned, his cheeks a bright apple-red. I find him inimitably cheerful and enthusiastic about his trip – he has been touring villages across Uttar Pradesh, studying the progress of the government’s new school education initiative. But when I ask him about his impression from visiting the village schools, his answer is cautious. ‘There is a lot of change,’ he says, ‘but I wonder if there is enough of it. India has a lot of ground to cover on education, and very little time.’

I am familiar with this tone of wary optimism – I have caught it often in the remarks of NGO workers and the bureaucrats working with India’s schools. Despite some signs of progress, our dilemmas in school education are very real; they are the small prints that accompany India’s rise as a knowledge economy. We have some pretty shocking statistics when it comes to education: India produces the second largest number of engineers in the world every year, as well as the largest number of school dropouts. Even as India is building a name for itself in intellectual capital, a third of its population remains illiterate. Across cities, some of the best-equipped schools – with swimming pools and air-conditioned tennis courts – and the worst, lacking even a blackboard, exist across the street from one another. It is our schools that now delineate our class lines most prominently – even as middle-class parents compete to get their kids into the privately run Delhi Public School in R K Puram, parents in the R K Puram slums can do little more than place their children in the single-room slum school, or in the crumbling, dismal government school round the corner and hope for the best.

If this is our Achilles heel, it is significant enough to make the whole of us fragile. Few things are as wide-ranging in their impact on economy as education. The collapse of our schools is a deep crack in India’s foundation, and it impacts everything from our health achievement and fertility rates to our economic mobility and political choices. The evidence of our education failures is brought home to us every day – in the children selling magazines on city intersections, students dropping out from failing schools and accompanying their fathers to work, and companies facing shortages in educated workers in a billion-peopled country.

The crisis of our education system is not a new problem. Schooling in India has been a struggle, both before and since independence. But what has now changed is the growing awareness about education and a demand for it that cuts across income groups. ‘The poor used to talk about education in a very vague sense ten years ago,’ one literacy worker told me. ‘They saw it as something that was “good” to do. Being educated was like being pious – it added to your character. But now there is a real sense of what people lose in incomes and opportunities from not attending school.’ And this shift is driving some remarkable changes in our education policy.

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