Saturday, March 24, 2012

India 2020: Education, Education, Education

The Economist says it succinctly - India is losing its magic. Trapped by a petty political class who has no imagination or integrity, the country's progress is stuttering, and may come to an abrupt halt or even reverse, as in the form of a full-blown economic crisis, in the next few years. There is no leadership at sight: A leader that never arrived, as I wrote about in an earlier post. The big problem indeed is that at this time in its history, India simply can't sleep: Declining peacefully into geriatrics is not an option for a country where millions of young people are just looking to move from their villages to the cities and aspiring for a better life than their parents. End of hope will mean as a deep and bloody social upheaval, and even the break-up of the country. We are staring at the face of a disaster.

At the risk of oversimplifying the problem, I feel that today's problems stem from the same causation which has helped to keep India democratic. I am indeed alluding to Devesh Kapur's  thesis that Indian elite, being the intelligentsia and not locked to land, found it easier to migrate after the Independence, which saw a serious erosion of their power. They did not stay and resist democracy, as Pakistan's land-based elite indeed did. However, seen another way, this was the flight of knowledge and ability, which meant the Indian Higher Education system, post-independence, needed to replace this professional class quickly and effectively. However, India created a two-speed higher education system after Independence: An elite technical education infrastructure for the best and the brightest, whose graduates followed their predecessors and migrated abroad, while the general education system was left to rot, critically dependent on political whims and fancies, and open to direct political interference by various state governments and powerful politicians. If India is facing a severe lack of leadership at every level, its failure to educate and produce a new professional class and replace the elites who fled is where the blame will primarily land.

In a way, one can see this as a deliberate process - dis-enabling of the masses by the small number of people who grabbed hold of the power, various political dynasties in Delhi and other state capitals, and attained a cosy arrangement of various kinds with the small land-based elite, the industrial and minerals mafia at various industrial centres, and created an underclass of politicians solely trained on the mechanics of power. What we witness today is a break-up of this arrangement, where these various elements, after a few decades of serving the ruling classes, have now become powerful enough to claim their pound of flesh: The Indian politics, for last two decades, therefore, have been dominated by the recalibration of these relationships, and has now reached a decisive breaking point.

While it looks bleak from outside - a view The Economist article may seem to represent - it is possibly the view of the self-exiled Indian elite: A view from inside India may not be as pessimistic simply because the churn in India, creation of new opportunities for people moving one step up in life (a better life than their parents) may not have stopped. And, short of a great economic crisis, this happy story may continue to unfold, creating little joys and individual successes - though India as a whole, drifting without leadership, may miss its great global opportunity and become an also-ran country like Indonesia (and not an era-defining one like China). The problem, however, is that a great economic crisis is very much a possibility at this time, as Indian economy, in its current top-heavy form, is quite dependent on its stock market and the stability of its currency. Losing hope on India's prospects may lead to a flight of capital, which may in turn decimate the currency, and with it, the cost advantage of India's various global outsourcing firms, stalling the great middle class dream they have helped to create.

My argument is that the only way for India, and its ruling class, to escape the trap it has laid for itself is now to commit to the creation of an opportunity society. Though it may seem Utopian, there are examples in history where the ruling classes stepped back from the cliff edge with foresight and courage: India is at one such cliff edge moment. With the consensus of power-sharers breaking down, it may be possible that someone will now throw open the gate. The Congress Party, the main dynastic platform of Indian ruling class, have tried and failed to overcome its dependence on regional power-brokers and turn its focus on the villages to electoral success. However, it is not the content of the strategy - the focus on the rural poor - but how it was put in the context - at the expense of urban middle class aspirations - that may account for this failure. The public policy is not just about allocating resources, but to create a continuous stream of interventions so that the resource allocation at one end translate into prosperity for all, and by generating advancement, pay for itself in the long run. The narrow policy interventions, as in the belief in trickle-down effect in earlier generations and the trade-off between urban and rural job and opportunity creation as evidenced in recent policy, are both destined to have only limited policy impact. And, in a country like India, where the professional class is limited and its approach to polity is dominated by apathy and indifference, policies aimed at alleviating rural poverty without necessarily creating the infrastructure for job or opportunity creation, namely education and enterprise support, is destined to fail with a bang.

So, here is a slogan for the leaders in next Indian election due in 2014: education, Education, Education. Indeed, this may look like a direct copy from Tony Blair, but nonetheless, that's what the country needs and wants to hear. It is not just the middle class, but also the rural poor, who may have been given work and food, but was told to shy away from aspirations, who would want to hear the message. India's moving forward must come at the back of an education revolution, whose time has now decidedly come.

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